Sunday, July 05, 2020

Fortnightly Book, July 5

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, they were well received but little more than that. Holmes may have been born in the novel but he was made in the short story. A new magazine, The Strand, started up in 1891, and Doyle sent in two submissions; the editor, Herbert Greenhough Smith, saw immediately that he had lucked out in getting the interest of such an excellent short-story writer so early in the game, and thus was begun the partnership that gives us Sherlock Holmes as more than an interesting character in a couple of novels. A deal was struck, and Doyle was paid a quite reasonable amount for one Holmes story a month for a year. They were extremely popular. These twelve stories were collected together in 1892 as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a ready-made bestseller. The Strand naturally renewed the offer, and Doyle continued for another year. These were serialized in the magazine as just a continuous series, entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but obviously they needed a different name when they were collected together at the end of 1893, so were given the title, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. This series, with its two collections, in a sense give us the Sherlock Holmes; they have always been the center of the Holmesian canon.

There is one quirk, though. If you count the stories in The Memoirs, you will usually find only eleven stories, despite the fact that twelve were serialized. The reason is "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box". This story has a weird publication history. It was not included in the first British edition, but was included in the first American edition; in later American editions it was suppressed. Then later British editions started including it again; but as it had by that point been included in American editions of His Last Bow, it continued to be left out of the American editions. In the meantime, when the story had been left out of the original British edition, a passage from it was put at the beginning of "The Adventure of the Resident Patient". In any case, as it happens my omnibus edition leaves the adventure out of The Memoirs and puts it with His Last Bow, so that's what I'll be going with.

As these are the classic Holmes stories, a number of them were adapted to radio -- far, far too many for me to listen to them all while also reading the stories, particularly given that my second summer class begins tomorrow (while my first continues). But I might do a few of those as well.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Nguyễn Du, The Song of Kiều


Opening Passage:

It's an old story: good luck and good looks
don't always mix.
Tragedy is circular and infinite.
The plain never believe it,
but good-looking people meet with hard times too.

It's true.
Our ending is inevitable:
long years betray the beautiful.

This manuscript is ancient, priceless,
bamboo-rolled, perfumed with musty spices.
Sit comfortably by this good light, that you may learn
the hard-won lesson that these characters contain. (p. 5)

Summary: Vương Thúy Kiều is a beautiful and brilliant and honest young maiden with an extraordinary talent for poetry. One day she is visiting her ancestor's graves for the Tomb-Sweeping Festival and comes across an untended grave, that of Đạm Tiên, another beautiful and brilliant woman, and she has a premonition that this will be her fate as well. She burns some incense and says a prayer on the spot, and uses her hairpin to carve a poem on the nearby tree. A strange whirlwind shakes the tree, bringing a strange perfume, and they suddenly notice footprints in the nearby moss.

Kiều says: 'See the fierce power of a poem.
Learn how words can leap across the years.
She is my sister, though I am alive and she is dead.' (p. 9)

In thanks for the sign, she carves another poem in the tree bark, and at that moment a young man and a white horse comes by, Trọng Kim. Kim and Kiều fall in love at first sight. That night, however, Kiều has a dream in which she is visited by Đạm Tiên, who says that they are both part of "the Company of Sadness / of all those who are doomed / to live and die with a broken heart" (p. 11).

Love between Kiều and Kim continues to develop, and it eventually proceeds to promises of eternal love and marriage. Before this can happen, though, Kim's uncle dies, and he has to leave for several months to attend to matters related to that. While he is gone, Kiều's parents run into severe financial difficulties, and the only thing that will keep her father and brother out of punishment is if Kiều marries a wealthy man, Mã, and becomes his concubine. This is a serious matter, the most serious kind of matter in a culture that takes filial piety as a central virtue. With great grief, she agrees to marry Mã.

Mã, however, is a man of the worst sort, and he immediately turns around and sells her into prostitution; indeed, that is part of how Mã is so rich, he is a finder for a brothel run by Madame Tú. Kiều attempts at first to resist and then to commit suicide, but she is no match for Madame Tú, who has long experience in forcing girls into compliance, and she eventually gives in and becomes a prostitute, a very high-dollar one because of her beauty. She lives in misery for some time until a young man from a wealthy family, named Thúc, falls in love with her and marries her as his concubine. They live well enough for a short time -- "moon and flower", as the Vietnamese phrase goes -- but Thúc has a first wife whom he has been avoiding this entire time, Hoạn, a woman from a very powerful family. She resents very much the idea of Thúc having a second wife, and even more the fact that he hides her from it, and she is one of those people who is perfect on the outside, the better to stab you in the back unexpectedly. She works out an elaborate plan to have Kiều kidnapped then enslaved -- to Hoạn herself. Needless to say, this makes life in Thúc's household very awkward, particularly as Thúc cannot do anything about it, given the sheer importance of his wife's family, and Hoạn, always putting her barbs and provocations in the form of smiles and jokes, gives him no room to maneuver.

Kiều is saved from this by the power of poetry, which is a recurring theme in the work. She writes a poem so extraordinarily heart-rending that Hoạn herself melts enough to give Kiều the option of becoming a Buddhist nun and tending a shrine on the estate. This gives Kiều some small space, but only for a time; Hoạn surprises Thúc going out to talk to Kiều, and Kiều realizes that it is not, in fact, going to get better. But being an attendant at the shrine gives her an opportunity to run away that she had not had before, and she takes it, stealing some of the implements of the shrine to make her way. She comes to a Buddhist temple, where she gives the stolen implements and is taken care of by the nun, Giác Duyên. However, when Giác Duyên discovers that the implements were stolen, she notes to Kiều that this is eventually going to catch up to her if she stays at the temple. To hide her better, Giác Duyên sets her up with a local family that give lavishly to the temple, the Bạc family.

Unfortunately, we have been here before; the Bạc family is so wealthy because Madame Bạc runs a brothel, and thus Kiều is forced into prostitution again. So it goes until she meets the well-favored rebel lord, Từ Hải, a tall, handsome, broad-shoulder, larger-than-life, and utterly unconquerable man. They hit it off immediately, and Từ Hải gets Madame Bạc to agree to a price for her -- not that Madame Bạc has any negotiation leverage with him. They have an intense marriage, and Từ Hải goes off and conquers much of the south. Kiều is a rebel queen. It is in many ways very satisfying; Kiều is able to reward those who have helped her, and punish those who showed her no mercy. (Lady Hoạn, despite her villainy, she spares because of that brief mercy that had been given due to the poem.)

A new governor comes to power in the south of the Empire, however, Hồ Tôn Hiến (Hu Zongxian), and he is a cunning man. Realizing that Từ Hải is just too good at military matters for direct handling, he pinpoints exactly what Từ Hải's weakness is: Kiều, on whom he dotes, and whose advice he takes seriously. The governor thus sends Từ Hải a message, framing it in a way that he hopes will get Kiều's favor, offering Từ Hải amnesty and confirmation of his authority if he will meet and given a nominal allegiance to the Emperor. The message succeeds. Kiều advises the rebel lord to take the offer and Từ Hải goes to the meeting and is murdered in an ambush (although, being the man he is, he dies fighting and on his feet, unbowing even past death). Hồ Tôn Hiến marries her off to a local official.

Qiao, the historical character on whom Kiều is based, betrayed the pirate Xu Hai to Hu Zongxian in hope of reward; when Hu Zongxian reneged on his side of the deal, she committed suicide by throwing herself into a river, remorseful for having betrayed a decent man for a reward she could not even get. Kiều has been more noble and innocent than her historical exemplar, but she too is overcome with remorse at having been the one weakness of Từ Hải, and when she comes to the Tiền Đường (Qiantang) River, to the very spot where Đạm Tiên had met her own death, Kiều throws herself into the river to die.

But the Tale of Kiều does not end here. This is part of the power of poetry: it cannot make the world go right, but it has a power that goes beyond even death. Qiao's story ended with her suicide. Kiều's does not. Giác Duyên, the Buddhist nun, fishes out Kiều from the river and revives her. Kiều has died, but it was in her case a symbolic death, not a literal one. As she has passed through the waters of death, Đạm Tiên is able to erase her name from the register of the Company of Sadness in reward for her goodness through such terrible things. The past cannot be undone. Fifteen years have passed since that fateful day of ancestral rites; and the hardships Kiều has faced necessarily leave their mark. But Kiều, who in a sense has already died her death from a broken heart, is now freed. And while things can never be quite the same again, there is one person whose story also matters here: Kim.

Allen's translation was very readable. From what I could tell, occasionally comparing the translation with the original Vietnamese, the translation is sometimes closer and sometimes looser, and certainly much less flowery. As the original is infinitely beyond my limited and fragmentary Vietnamese, I can't really judge the quality of most of the translation, whether it was good or bad in general as translation of the poetry itself. Timothy Allen, the translator, faced a difficult task. Vietnamese is a language that tends easily to poetry; it has a very rich poetic diction, full of allusions that make perfect sense to those who have lived all their lives with them, but certainly not easy to convey in a language whose poetic diction is often very different. But what I can say is that I think he made one very crucial and valuable choice in his translation: he prioritized the narrative. This is a very readable translation; it still captures some of the poetic floweriness at times, but Allen generally prefers the way of translating that won't bog down the reader, and he succeeds. This is a good move; it's absolutely essential not to let narrative poetry get too slow and turgid, and I can recommend Allen's translation quite highly because of it.

Favorite Passage:

Her fingers dance about the strings
and the scent of sandalwood grows more intense.
Is this the butterfly that dreamed it was Zhuangzi,
or is Zhuangzi dreaming of his wings again?
Is this that king who became every cuckoo
to mourn from every mountainside
the loss of his land and his love?
Clear notes drop like pearls into a moonlit bay
and shimmer like the heat from sun-warmed jade.

He listens to the weave and weft of the five tones
and it thrills his heart.

'But is this the same melody you used to play,' he says.
'It sounds so cheerful now, though it was sad before.
Why does it sound so different?'

'Probably I lacked the skill before,' says Kiều.
'These fingers on these strings have caused me so much grief.
But now you've heard my little tune
the way it should be played,
I'll put away my lute. That was my final song.' (pp. 148-149)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Nguyễn Du, The Song of Kiều, tr. Timothy Allen, Penguin (New York: 2019).

The Goddess Comes, She Moves Divinely Fair

His Excellency General Washington
by Phillis Wheatley

Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light,
Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring's fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven's revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber'd charms and recent graces rise.

Muse! Bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven's fair face deforms,
Enwrapp'd in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish'd ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or think as leaves in Autumn's golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior's train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl'd the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know'st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honors—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam'd for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!

One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom's heaven-defended race!
Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia's state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev'ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.

Wheatley sent this poem to Washington in October 1775; he replied with a thank-you letter in February of 1776; it seems to have been put in a pile of correspondence and only rediscovered that February when Washington was going through his papers. He then seems to have sent his thanks and showed the letter to Joseph Reed, with a comment that he had considered having it published, but decided he could not because it would like vanity; Reed seems to have taken this as permission to publish it himself, and it was published in Pennsylvania Magazine in April of 1776, as fitting a poetic preface to the rest of the year as any could be.

Wheatley, I think, had the great misfortune of being re-discovered in exactly that period of criticism least sympathetic to all the poetic arts at which she excelled, and least able to appreciate her excellence in them. One thinks of James Weldon Johnson's comment that she was not a great poet but an important one, which is the sort of damning with faint and condescending praise to which she has been continually subjected. And it is all based on entirely arbitrary notions. There is no universal poet; even Virgil or Dante or Du Fu could not have managed that. Every great poet is great at something. Wheatley's greatest strength is personal portraiture; this is an extremely difficult poetic field, and there have only been a handful of poets who are even as good at it as she is.

One of the nice features of the portraiture here (and one reason why Washington may have liked it), that is, the focus on person as such, is that instead of simply pouring out epithets on Washington, it frames him indirectly. We get Columbia, Columbia's armies, then Washington himself, but even the latter is as representing the former. This is good portraiture work, and not at all easy. All of Wheatley's portraiture is good; she is a poet who sees people.

But she's also more technically colorful than poets like Milton or Pope, and thus (despite being heavily influenced by the latter) is easily distinguished as not merely imitative; we see this in this eulogy on Washington for his victories against the French. What strikes me today is the restrained but excellent use of mixed alliteration and assonance as well as meter and rhyme to tie the poem together:

Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light,
Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring's fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven's revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

And, of course, we have the soundplay with refulgent and her offspring and with revolving and involved, which connect alliteratively with the v in veil, and the pattern scenes, see, scenes, see. None of this can really be done in a strained mechanical way, and that it is not an accident can be seen by continuing through the poem. She uses meter and rhyme as a trellis, and then runs through a vast and ever-changing array poetic devices and techniques; her metric verse is more free than most free verse.

Friday, July 03, 2020

The Misbegotten Subtleties of Malicious Wits

For such peoples, like so many beasts, have fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme of delicacy, or better of pride, in which like wild animals they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure. Thus in the midst of their greatest festivities, though physically thronging together, they live like wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will, scarcely any two being able to agree since each follows his own pleasure or caprice. By reason of all this, providence decrees that, through obstinate factions and desperate civil wars, they shall turn their cities into forests and the forests into dens and lairs of men. In this way, through long centuries of barbarism, rust will consume the misbegotten subtleties of malicious wits that have turned them into beasts made more inhuman by the barbarism of reflection than the first men had been made by the barbarism of sense. For the latter displayed a generous savagery, against which one could defend oneself or take flight or be on one's guard; but the former, with a base savagery, under soft words and embraces, plots against the life and fortune of friends and intimates. Hence peoples who have reached this point of premeditated malice, when they receive this last remedy of providence and are thereby stunned and brutalized, are sensible no longer of comforts, delicacies, pleasures and pomp, but only of the sheer necessities of life.

[Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, Bergin & Fisch, trs., Cornell UP (Ithaca, NY: 1984) pp. 423-424.]

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Some Poem Drafts


Sunlight I remember, laughter-lovely,
sparking on the Ness with beaming smile;
Faith and Hope and Love were standing sentry,
a puppy played its fetch upon the isle.
The people were all walking by the water;
the quiet college went its gentle way,
gathering the Highlands and the Islands
to catch a little more of glory's ray.
The church upon the left was saint-suggesting;
the castle on the right was fair and sure;
Inverness in sunlight is resplendent
and ever in the heart it shall endure.

Achievements of a Man

I made the speech of silence;
I sang to be unheard;
I spoke the word of the Word of God
for my lady was absurd.
I acted fool and was a fool,
but sages I outfoxed;
I ruled myself with an iron rule
but rebelled from being boxed.
To the fight I rose, and rose again,
the race I ran and ran,
and took the earth and an endless sky
within my outstretched span.
And what lies at the end of it?
A silent grave, and drear,
but, standing yet, though I do not,
the things that I hold dear.

Logic, which Is Hestia among Disciplines

Queen Hestia, blessing-filled,
of mighty Chronos daughter,
in the midst of the house
you keep your undying flame.
Home of the blessed gods,
strong support of mortals,
eternal, multiform, beloved,
in the high houses of all
you find an unending above
with highest honor.
Glorious is your portion,
glorious your right;
without you none hold banquet,
no feast in which libation
is poured out to you,
both first and last.
With smiles, blessed one,
kindly accept the sacrifices,
bestow upon us wealth and health.


I put a penny in the wishing well
to wish you well.
An endless day and night it fell
(I know not how)
past the norns and roots of hell
beyond where prophet's words can tell
the fates that rule, or bring back tale,
and down
through the shell
that shields the world it fell
and like a bell
resounded on your head.

A White Horse Song

Luminous divine, who makes the wheel revolve,
knower, font of time, all-pervading,
all-sure, all-knowing,
all elements forth-showing,
beginner, unifier, partless and undivided,
above the triple thread of time:
attaining this indwelling source,
mind attains to freedom.

He from whom the world goes forth
is higher than the world-tree,,
higher than time,
many-appearing and font of all;
knowing the indweller, good-bringer,
powerful and immortal support,
mind attains to freedom.


One of the most iconic public monuments in Portland, Oregon is Elk, which usually sits on top of the Thompson Fountain on SW Main. I have been around that fountain many times. Last night it was spray painted with graffiti and a bonfire was lit under it.

The statue was designed by Roland Hinton Perry, one of the great American sculptors at the end the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It was donated by Portland mayor David Thompson in 1900 -- originally scheduled to be dedicated on July 4 of that year, but due to delays only finished a few months later.

This is not its first abuse under protest; it was vandalized in 2016 after Trump's election, as well. (If I recall, Occupy Portland used it as a central location for protest a few years before that, but I don't think they ever did anything more than clamber on it and decorate it with flags.) And it survived last night's bonfire as well, but today apparently the city removed it indefinitely for its protection, although it's hard to find definite information about it. As far as I am aware, it is the first time it has not been standing above the Thompson Fountain since 1900, except for a brief restoration of the fountain in the 1990s. There was once a long series of attempts to move it, because as traffic patterns and routes have changed, it came to be in a very awkward place, traffic-wise. But attempts to change it just led to it being designated a Historic Landmark.

Apparently circa 2006.

I sort of regret that I didn't take time to see it the last time I was in Portland; who knows when it will be back up.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

The Sun Rose Up at Midnight

The Stars sang in God’s Garden
by Joseph Mary Plunkett

The stars sang in God’s garden;
The stars are the birds of God;
The night-time is God’s harvest,
Its fruits are the words of God.

God ploughed His fields at morning,
God sowed His seed at noon,
God reaped and gathered in His corn
With the rising of the moon.

The sun rose up at midnight,
The sun rose red as blood,
It showed the Reaper, the dead Christ,
Upon His cross of wood.

For many live that one may die,
And one must die that many live—
The stars are silent in the sky
Lest my poor songs be fugitive.

Joseph Mary Plunkett is perhaps most famous for having been one of the major leaders in the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, although he was sick for much of the actual rebellion. The British executed him on May 4, 1916; he was twenty-eight.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Rudolfo Anaya (1937-2020)

I went to part of high school in New Mexico, and as is common with different states in the US, high school literature courses often include a unit on the state literature. And the New Mexican literary work that I remember reading was Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima. Anaya was born outside Santa Rosa in Guadalupe County (sort of in the middle of the state in the llano, the desert flats) to a ranching family. He got his degree at UNM in Albuquerque. Bless Me, Ultima, his major work and his first novel, barely got into publication; publishers didn't a think a book written in English but with a lot of Spanish would sell. Eventually it was bought by an independent publishing house. It's a very interesting book. There was a movie based on it that came out a few years back; I saw it but don't remember much about it beyond the fact that I thought it was OK, but only OK. The book itself, though, is quite interesting.

In any case, Rudolfo Anaya apparently died on Sunday. Somewhere -- I have no idea where -- I have my old copy of Bless Me, Ultima, and will perhaps have to do it as a fortnightly book later this year.

Pronominal Innovation

Amia Srinivasan has a very interesting discussion of pronouns at the LRB; she provides a nice summary of the (continually failing) attempts to rationalize pronoun use in English, which have been occurring on and off for the last two centuries. I'm not convinced the summary quite captures, however, the problem which has given rise to this, which boils down to the fact that English in practice has involved conflicting rules of thumb, e.g.:

(1) There are four nominal genders: masculine, feminine, common, neuter.
(2) There are three pronominal genders: masculine, feminine, neuter.
(3) Gender follows sex.
(4) Neuter should not be used for persons.
(5) Pronouns should agree in gender and number with their nouns.
(6) 'He' is masculine.
(7) 'They' is plural and agrees with all nominal genders.
(8) 'She' agrees with common nouns that are allegorical representations.
(9) 'Man' is both masculine and common.
(10) Neuter should be used for animals except where sex is particularly important.

The jumble of rules of thumb guarantees asymmetries, and asymmetries guarantee conflicting possible extrapolations to any cases in which we are trying to communicate something new and not trite. The reason for this, of course, is that languages are not constructed out of rules of thumb but out of habits of use, and the rules of thumb are regularities identified after the fact that become used explicitly, due to the importance of regularities in both pedagogy and communication. The matter is complicated further by the fact that we use exemplars, not just rules, to maintain regularity, and Latin served and in a more limited way still serves as an exemplar for grammar in formal registers of English. No rule fix is ever going to solve all the asymmetries with respect to gender, and any attempt to solve the problem by that route tends to be easily recognizable as the artificial jargon of a few rather than a solution that arises naturally and organically in the process of the many using the language.

Of the latter, only two violations of widely respected rules of thumb have gained and maintain dominance with respect to pronouns and common or indefinite gender in the singular: for formal registers, common he, due to the influence of Latin as an exemplar; for informal registers, singular they. Were there a sharp difference between formal register and informal register, they would no doubt merely split the difference. But English has no such sharp difference; we have no English Academy, and despite the phrase "the Queen's English", nobody even in England actually models their formal speaking on formal practices of the court. We have situations that strongly require formality and situations that strongly require informality; this requirement is the only thing that maintains any kind of formal/informal distinction at all. So there has been a centuries-long struggle between common he and singular they in all the cases in between the extremes. Common he has always had the advantage that grammarians are latinate (English grammar, as a field, is in origin an imitation of Latin grammar); singular they has always had the popular advantage. The latter has been steadily winning, for two reasons: Latin has receded as a formal exemplar, thus weakening one of the pillars holding up common he, and the 'gender follows sex' rule of thumb has become increasingly dominant. I have no idea what has led to the latter; sex-based rules of thumb have become steadily less important in other areas of English, including nouns, but with pronouns at some point it began to swamp other rules.

Srinivasan, of course, is talking about this in order to talk about new gender pronouns, things like xe and hir. In talking about this matter, however, she unfortunately conflates two distinct things, grammatical conservatism and cultural conservatism.

The grammatical conservative's argument is that the new pronouns are jargon imposed for reasons external to the language, involving neither an extrapolation from regularities already in the language nor a diffusion from major exemplars. This doesn't rule out all pronominal innovation; grammatical conservatives have long been split over singular they, which is supported by both regular extrapolation and normative diffusion from authors like Jane Austen. And s/he, for instance, is an extrapolation of regularities for writing. Xe and hir and the like, on the other hand, are simply imposed; they require everyone who speaks the language to learn a completely new vocabulary, violate the rule of 'gender follows sex', and not only do not extrapolate the regularities already existing but posit a completely new rule of 'grammatical gender follows gender identity'. They're like the notorious Latinx, which is an obvious jargon-imposition on the Spanish language. Nobody would look at the actual regularities of Spanish and say, "Ah, an obvious thing to do for ambiguous or common cases is to use -x instead of -a and -o." What they might do is what some actual Spanish speakers did do: start using -e rather than -a or -o; -e, while not exactly common, is already used in some common-gender nouns. So that would at least be an extrapolation; it's a Spanish solution to a Spanish problem. Latinx has nothing identifiably Spanish about it at all. The grammatical conservative's point is that xe is not an English solution to an English problem.

Srinivasan does a bit of tapdancing around this, footwork that is obscured by the conflation of grammatical conservatism and cultural conservatism. Noting that one response to prior attempts to rationalize the English pronominal system was that people are free to invent their own languages, she says, "The Enquirer editors were conveniently forgetting that all languages, and all the words in them, are invented." No; you will look in vain for the inventors of the English language. All languages are artificial, in much the same sense that clothing or property are, but we do not invent most of our language. We inherit our native languages and we are usually taught our foreign languages, and we adapt both to actual situations over time. If we do so by extrapolating regularities, we are not inventing the regularities, just extending them. We do invent jargon, but jargon usually dies with us unless one of four things happen:

(1) someone uses it and becomes a major exemplar for the whole language, so it spreads by diffusion and becomes an ordinary part of the language;
(2) everyone in a field agrees to use it for some reason, so it becomes specialized or technically vocabulary;
(3) people use it in deference to the people in a field, so it remains specialized or technical vocabulary but occasionally gets used outside the field;
(4) people use it in deference to the people in a field, but the occasion for use of it becomes so great that it just becomes a normal part of the vocabulary.

Srinivasan quotes a Daily Gazette comment from 1920: "‘Surely great big men who can invent such fine words as “radioactinium” and “spectroheliograph” should be able to devise a little useful pronoun.’" But this is, of course, the whole problem: radioactinium and spectroheliograph are not generally useful, they are jargon that specialists agreed to use within particular specialties in order to make it easier to talk about things in those specific fields. Outside those fields, we might use the words if the occasion comes up, but this is in deference to the specialized vocabulary, and it stays specialized. The pronouns aren't being proposed for a specialized problem but for a general problem; but the solution proposed treats the general problem as if it could be solved by trying to impose a specialized jargon. It wouldn't be an issue if the point were just the convenience of, say, an academic field; academic fields are full of jargon, some of it quite barbarous and arbitrary, involving no regard for the common usages of the surrounding language at all, and it works for the purposes of an academic field. But the English language in general use is not an academic field; it is in fact only the arrogance of academics that treats it as if it were, in defiance of all actual reality; and if you want the spread of pronouns into general usage, it's going to have to be either by diffusion from something people like and imitate or by society changing first so that it becomes a handy solution people can use all the time. It is the many who determine general usage by their actual practice; academics and politicians cannot do it by fiat. And, of course, it's going to have to turn out more useful than both common he and (the even bigger challenge) singular they.

The grammatical conservative argument is about politics only in the sense that in this particular case the external reasons that are motivating the attempt to impose the jargon are political. The cultural conservative argument is in fact different from all of this and has nothing to do with grammatical rules, except insofar as this case happens to be about language. There are cultural conservatives who are grammatical conservatives, but neither position entails the other. Precisely the problem for the cultural conservative is that it is imposed punitively, by shaming and increasingly by threat to employment and legal penalties, and done so deliberately to further a specific political position. Having a problem with this does not require any particular position about whether the usual rules of English are particularly great or could not be improved. It certainly wouldn't have any implications one way or another for a popular and freely spreading solution like singular they. Even if the cultural conservative is also a grammatical conservative, there is all the difference in the world between people being forced to give up their native usages for someone else's political goals and freely changing their usages for their own. Indeed, all the difference, in its own micro-scale way, between fascist Orwellianism and democratic folly. Pick any folly you choose, and one can argue that if people are going to be fools, they should at least freely be fools for their own reasons, and not fools because other people are forcing them to be for their own reasons. And as the general point, about coercing people to do things, does not fundamentally change even if you don't think it actually a folly, so nothing prevents someone making the cultural conservative argument without being a grammatical conservative.

Srinivasan's conflation of grammatical and cultural conservatism helps her rhetorically for most of her argument, since it makes the cultural conservatives look more arbitrary than they are and it makes the grammatical conservatives look like they have more of a definite political agenda than they do. But the more she focuses on politics in particular the more it raises questions that need to be considered but are not, and in at least two ways.

(1) She effectively concedes all the major points of the cultural conservative argument, despite the fact that she clearly intends to be arguing that it is unreasonable. On Srinivasan's argument, the point of the new pronouns is indeed political; it is deliberately political; and it is pushing a particular political position. This position is being pushed against the resistance of at least a large mass of the broader population and is being pushed to change society for political reasons. She thinks they are good political reasons, ethical reasons; but outside a few sociopaths who don't care, everybody appeals to ethical reasons to try to justify impositions on others. Bare appeal to its being for an ethical end doesn't establish that it is an ethical means, much less one that is in any way obligatory. Given the premises of Srinivasan's argument, cultural conservatives are right by their own lights to oppose the innovation: if it really is pushing a politics on people, why would you accept that at all unless you already agreed with the politics? Srinivasan could defang the argument by saying that use of preferred pronouns should only be asked as a personal matter of courtesy. But doing this would mean her argument is backward. Personal courtesies become expected courtesies because society changes. Again, the actual history of pronoun innovation here is a history of failure. It very much seems as if this can work only by the slow but organic and popular path of singular they, which is really being rejected here, or by pushing a major revision of language on people, which is not a matter of words changing the world but the reverse.

(2) Srinivasan consistently speaks as if there were only one linguistic culture. There are many. And Srinivasan's argument from that perspective looks very much like an argument that justifies pressuring linguistic cultures to conform to a more enlightened universal language, even if they resist. It's a battle over which politics is to prevail; for instance, the progressive, enlightened Anglophone one, or the First Nations one. Perhaps the cultural conservatives of native linguistic cultures did indeed fear the power of words to change the world; but it is part and parcel of the cultural conservative argument that the real problem was that the world was changing the words.

I've noted before that academia tends to hide its own relation to colonialism, for all that it has become fashionable for academics to attack everything else for colonialism. And the relation is ultimately this, that they are in some sense the same; when you start going back to the primary texts, it becomes quite obvious that this is so. Colonial administrators did not pop up from the ground; they were born from European universities. Colonial administration as we usually think of it just is university habit applied to ruling foreign nations; the same principles that were part of university reforms in education were extended to reforms in government, and entire populations were put under tutelage as students of the European nations who took themselves to be improving the world by educating it. And since it was for such a very ethical reason, of course, the idea was that they had to be; sometimes by force, sometimes just by continual pressure, they had to be made to learn, so that their injustices would stop. And pressure against the language was one of the ways it unfolded. After all, who can be counted as educated if they don't got no ability to speak good? And what are enlightened languages, suitable for civilized life, on this view? It's not that of peasants and farmers; it's whatever language happens to be spoken in the universities.

University habits as a political regime for ruling foreign nations ran into problems as an explicit view because the resistance of an entire foreign nation is quite formidable, no matter what their disadvantages, and the military and economic cost of continuing such a regime eventually became unmanageable given other demands on both army and purse. The similar technocratic rule is a recurring temptation for domestic politics, but it's never been quite able to find a solution to the regular populist revolt against it. But academic life is sheltered, with its structures and processes changing slowly and often only superficially, and it gets protection from a general perception of serving a useful function, so the worst consequences are very occasional and very limited anti-intellectual and anti-academic backlashes. Thus the university habits are still there. Put any of us academics under the microscope, and you'll find us all tempted to slip into thinking as if the rubes must be civilized -- who counts as rubes and why, and what counts as civilizing them, shifts around a lot, but if you spend your life lecturing and grading, it takes a genuine effort never to treat the general population as students who need your training and junior scholars who need your mentoring, rather than (what they much more certainly are) the people who pay your bills on the understanding that doing so will ultimately make their lives less difficult. But even more broadly, I think, it tempts to one particular form of the overmoralization I've been going on about recently, and in particular a tendency to insist that your views are the direct and necessary requirements of ethics and reasonableness, and that therefore anyone who resists them can't really be resisting your own proposals as unreasonable impositions to which you have no right. They are just afraid of your good work of making the world better; they find your suggestions disturbing because they are complicit with the world's wrongs -- their unreasonable resistance is a further proof your rightness, and of their need to be enlightened, made civilized.

People who are in no way colonialist may nonetheless have the university habits of which colonialism was a monstrous growth, the academic garden envisioned at the size of a world. And almost all of us academics do; it's part of how you present yourself as a serious scholar rather than -- well, rather than as one of the rubes. Thus it's not surprising that people who absolutely repudiate colonialism will nonetheless sometimes turn out to give arguments that are structurally very similar to justifications of colonial interference. It's not even necessarily a bad thing to do so, since nothing in the abstract prevents practical arguments that are utterly monstrous at imperial size from being perfectly fine at miniature scale. That's a matter of proportion and evidence. But no one who genuinely rejects colonialism can simply dismiss the cultural conservative argument; nor does the cultural conservative argument actually depend on whether the culture in question is right. It's not a justification of colonialism that native cultures were flawed; of course they were, since all cultures are. It's not even a justification that some of them had practices that were ethically horrendous; it's not the end but the means that are in question. The cultural conservative has a point, and one that cannot be easily dismissed. The cultural conservatives are sometimes absolutely, definitely right. This needs to be faced squarely, and conflating the grammatical conservative and cultural conservative arguments makes it impossible to do so.

Of course, it is entirely possible that Srinivasan sees the matter as she presents it at the end, as purely a matter of courtesy and kindness and working with people to make a better world. It's possible that she would vehemently oppose any attempt to penalize people for not using preferred pronouns, or perhaps allow no greater penalty than just treating it as a rudeness not to be condoned but nonetheless to be tolerated. If that's the view put forward, then the cultural conservative argument is entirely bypassed. But I take it that the reason the cultural conservative argument comes into play so much in this context is that there are more than a few people who are not convinced that this is really what is being put forward.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Under Much Better Auspices

Today is the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, Apostles. From one of St. Leo I's sermons on this very feast (Sermon 82):

The whole world, dearly-beloved, does indeed take part in all holy anniversaries, and loyalty to the one Faith demands that whatever is recorded as done for all men's salvation should be everywhere celebrated with common rejoicings. But, besides that reverence which today's festival has gained from all the world, it is to be honoured with special and peculiar exultation in our city, that there may be a predominance of gladness on the day of their martyrdom in the place where the chief of the Apostles met their glorious end. For these are the men, through whom the light of Christ's gospel shone on you, O Rome, and through whom you, who was the teacher of error, was made the disciple of Truth. These are your holy Fathers and true shepherds, who gave you claims to be numbered among the heavenly kingdoms, and built you under much better and happier auspices than they, by whose zeal the first foundations of your walls were laid: and of whom the one that gave you your name defiled you with his brother's blood. These are they who promoted you to such glory, that being made a holy nation, a chosen people, a priestly and royal state, and the head of the world through the blessed Peter's holy See you attained a wider sway by the worship of God than by earthly government. For although you were increased by many victories, and extended your rule on land and sea, yet what your toils in war subdued is less than what the peace of Christ has conquered.

Romulus and Remus are "they, by whose zeal the first foundations of your walls were laid: and of whom the one that gave you your name defiled you with his brother's blood", so St. Leo's point is that Peter and Paul are a greater Romulus and Remus.

Sunday, June 28, 2020


Today is the feast of St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Bishop and Martyr, although, of course, in the actual liturgy Sunday takes precedence. St. Polycarp had sent St. Pothinus to be the first bishop of Lyon. In the persecution under Marcus Aurelius, St. Pothinus was killed; Irenaeus, who seems to have come with Pothinus because he was definitely born in Smyrna, became his successor. The period after that persecution was quite peaceful in comparison, so Irenaeus set himself to address a major problem, the proliferation of semi-Christian and pseudo-Christian Gnostic cults. His major work, Adversus Haereses, is one of our most significant sources of knowledge about Gnosticism as actually practiced; until the Nag Hammadi discoveries in 1945 it was almost our only source or knowledge at all, almost everything else being obscure references and allusions. An occasional anti-Catholic charge -- you still find it -- had been that Irenaeus had falsified the positions and practices of the Gnostics, but even in light of such new discoveries it is very difficult to point to anything that Irenaeus got definitely wrong, particularly since, unlike some of his critics, Irenaeus is obviously very aware of how diverse the Gnostics actually were. And for the most part, Irenaeus is still our major source for having any understanding of how the Gnostics themselves interpreted their texts.

Irenaeus seems to have died shortly around the beginning of the third century; he's generally presumed to have been a martyr, although we don't have any evidence for his having been so beyond the fact that this is generally presumed. He was buried under what became known as the Church of St. Irenaeus in Lyon, and there his body remained until Huguenots destroyed the church, his tomb, and his body in the sixteenth century. He was very influential on the next generations, but it's only by accident we have his works at all. He wrote in Greek, but we have no complete Greek copy of any of his works. We have Adversus Haereses in an early Latin translation and a lot of Syrian and Armenian fragments and we have The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching in an Armenian translation that was discovered in the twentieth century. Beyond occasional fragments of other works, that's all that's survived, despite the fact that we know he wrote several other works.

From Adversus Haereses III, 19:

But again, those who assert that He was simply a mere man, begotten by Joseph, remaining in the bondage of the old disobedience, are in a state of death having been not as yet joined to the Word of God the Father, nor receiving liberty through the Son, as He does Himself declare: "If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed." But, being ignorant of Him who from the Virgin is Emmanuel, they are deprived of His gift, which is eternal life; and not receiving the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life. To whom the Word says, mentioning His own gift of grace: "I said, You are all the sons of the Highest, and gods; but you shall die like men." He speaks undoubtedly these words to those who have not received the gift of adoption, but who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God, defraud human nature of promotion into God, and prove themselves ungrateful to the Word of God, who became flesh for them. For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Superrepresentationality of the People

I've seen, in the past several months, a number of proposals that essentially would destroy American federalism if implemented. There seems to be an increasing boldness in insisting that everyone needs to have the same laws under one and only one government. This is, of course, a step toward totalitarianism, in the sense of removing one of the major structural impediments to it; precisely one of the consistent advantages of federalism is that it makes it very difficult to engage in total capture of the forces of the state. If the federal government gets too pushy, there is some leverage in the states; if the states get too pushy, there is some leverage in the federal government. And in practice I think even people making such proposals in fact regularly take advantage of this when they can. But in politics people are often in the grip of an abstract theory, and this leads to being attracted to speculations about what would happen under ideal circumstances rather than about what will actually deal with the real problems that must be faced in government. And under ideal circumstances, of course, many things that are wholly dangerous can seem quite nice; totalitarianism itself can seem initially attractive if you attribute to it the qualities it would have if it were implemented by virtuous angels with extraordinary skill. It is foolish; but it is perhaps unsurprising that people are occasionally dazzled by the brightness of their own abstract schemes.

However, here I would not like to rehearse the ordinary arguments for federalism -- that it is the organic structure of the United States, that it is part of the tradition carried forward from the Founders, that it is a bulwark against fascism, that it creates the sort of perpetual political laboratory required for genuine progress in the long run, etc. -- and suggest one that I have not seen people give but which I think is in fact even more important than the others. And this argument might be summarized in the following way: No single method of representation is adequate to representing people; to do so with perfect adequacy would indeed take an unimaginable variety of methods of representation, too many perhaps for us to handle in practice; but in practice, being as adequate as we can will still always require multiple methods of representation. Call this feature 'superrepresentationality', exceeding any given scheme for representing them, and we can express this argument even more succinctly by saying, In any society in which the state is good enough at representing people, the People will be recognized as superrepresentational. This is not a sufficient condition, of course, but it is a necessary one.

When we have people, they only become a People in politics by political representation in one form or another. A People represented only one way -- say, by a national popular vote -- is a flat and one-dimensional People, and participating in it can only be valuable for the good of the people contributing to it in a flat and one-dimensional way. Multiple methods of representation, however, add new dimensions to what it is to be a People, and thus become more useful for contributing to the good of the people participating in that People. How much more useful, of course, will depend on how well the interests of the people are actually represented. But representing the interests of the people well will require representing the people in multiple ways.

In the American scheme, of course, we have a primary kind of representation and a secondary kind; the secondary kind would be things like city councils or county sheriffs, which serve a genuine representational function, but are also entirely subordinate to some other kind of representation. Primary kinds of representation in the United States are state legislatures and governors and at the federal level, Congress, and the President. Because of this, 'We the People' are not governed wholly from D.C., but have distinguishable modes by which our interests show up in representation: as individuals forming the People of a state, as individuals forming the People of the United States, as Peoples of the states forming the People of the United States. These are not reducible to each other; our interests as Peoples of states, for instance, don't show up at all if you only considering us as individuals. Simply considered as individuals, people are largely interchangeable; as Peoples of states, they are very obviously not, and woe to Montanans if they are governed according to what benefits Californians.

Of course, nothing about this tells us how this superrepresentationality is best structured. The American system, of course, has undergone several changes, and will no doubt undergo more for as long as it lasts. Perhaps we have not yet found the most workable form of federalism, and perhaps there are ways of having superrepresentationality compared to which federalism is quite crude and primitive. But any government that does not incorporate it is inevitably a government inadequate for governing real people in the real world, and federalism is the way we currently know how to do.

Seal of All the Fathers

Today is the feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria, Doctor of the Church. From his commentary on John:

If our mind should be dead like Lazarus, then our material flesh and nobler soul must approach Christ with a confession, like Martha and Mary, and ask for his help. He will stand by us and command the hardness that lies upon our memory to be removed, and he will cry out with the loud voice of the trumpet of the gospel: "Come out of the distractions of the world!" He will loose the cords of our sin so that we can move vigorously toward virtue.

[Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Volume 1, IVP Academic (Downers Grove, IL: 2013), p. 95.]

Friday, June 26, 2020

Dashed Off XIV

category of habitus as concerned with instrumental medium

John of St. Thomas gives wall coverings as an example of habitus.

Extrinsic denomination is always with respect to something external that stands as if a form to the thing so denominated, so that the denominated thing is spoken of as if modified by it.

Nonprofit organizations tend toward imitating their funding sources.

A (specific, concrete) philosophical position can be characeterized not merely by its arguments but also by the problem-history it posits.

undesignable structures

The imagination bubbles.

Humility resides in our priorities and in the way we act on those priorities.

In the long run, a people without filial piety will preserve nothing.

To reason from the past/present to the future requires identifying a tendency of the past/present to the future (or else an impediment to such).

external form in the sense of vestment vs external form in the sense of exemplar
-- could molds be an overlap here? they are both exemplars and 'worn' by the molded?
pure exemplar | mold | clothing | covering
- perhaps between pure exemplar and mold another separate category for models? The difficulty is that it seems there have to be models on both sides of molds. Perhaps we need to distinguish two ways these can be related: extrinsicness of external form and extrinsicness of that by virtue of which is formed. Pure exemplars are most extrinsic but concern the least extrinsic aspects of that which is formed (the very nature).

Models imply pure exemplars.

containers and clocks as external forms

Faithful execution of laws is only possible according to moral standards of practical reason, taht is, natural law.

The faithful execution clause of the Constitution primarily gives the President authority to order the executive branch qua executive; it is a vast power, limited only by the need to apply and conform to law.

orders of grace
(1) hieratic
(2) iatric
(3) bematic
(4) gamic
(5) eucharistic

Anti-proselytism is the spiritual equivalent of anti-natalism.

The bodily resurrection establish that the body has a destiny of sanctity, that it is such that it needs to be prepared for glory.

"From reason are necessary things, according to reason are probable, above reason are marvelous, contrary to reason incredible." Hugh of St. Victor
"It was a greater good that there be good from good and from evil than from good alone."

spiritual medicine : unction :: spiritual food : eucharist

Aritifial intelligence, in the Turing Test sense, is just extreme characterization in the building of a story.

the psitherism of the years,
the wind like zithers through my tears

on some undisonant shore
where Ocean redounds with roar

other minds // other spaces // other times

the Church's moral right of integrity with respect to its doctrine

Humans evolved under incredible pressure to do philosophy, for reasons of prioritizing matters for enhancing survival, for reasons of social coherence and communication, and for reasons of the nature of human cognitive capabilities. To be sure, philosophical system is a distinct thing. But philosophizing is as natural to us, and as integral to our survival, as breathing and reproducing.

Damascene links icons to the medicinal character of the Church: we come into the pschon iatrion, and there the bloom of the painting draws the sight and delights like a meadow, introducing us gradually to the glory of God.

The ongoing implies the having-gone and the going-to-be.

rewilding (Perino, et al.)
(1) food chain complexity
(2) natural disturbances
(3) range and distribution

the three primary modes of lay theology: evangelistic, lectoral, catechetical

Every political revolution eventually fails; the question is whether it does so before or after revolutionaries get their fill.

purely hypothetical positions -- things that can be said but cannot be an actual position (e.g., the Gorgian 'Nothing exists', arguably solipsism, etc.)
-- these are analogous to conceptual art

"The notion of dignity is closely related to the idea of active striving." Nussbaum

accounts of petitionary prayer
(1) symbolic: representation of mind for moral, social, or practical reasons
(2) harmonizing: (e.g., Plotinus)
(3) participatory: (e.g., Pascal, Aquinas)
(4) persuasive

"The Church is an inn standing on the Bridge, to provide food and comfort of the travelers and pilgrims who pass by way of the doctrine of My truth, lest they should faint through weakness." Catherine of Siena

the consequentialist structure of vigilantism

use vs. mention of a fictional character

"Great indeed was the dignity of man's foundation, because it was made such that no good would suffice it except the highest." Hugh of St. Victor

S5 as a modal logic is most suitable for abstract objects.

The possibility of contingent concrete individuals depends on conditions, where those do not obtain, they are not possible. Thus ◇→□◇ fails for contingent concrete individuals.

"the critique of knowledge is part of metaphysics." Maritain

The common is found in and through individuals.

pro-philosophical and anti-philosophical ambiences

philosophical fragments in popular discourse

philosophy within common experience vs philosophy within constructed context (literary, legal, etc.) vs philosophy within a traditional context (religious, political, etc.)
-- there is, of course, some overlap among these.

To wonder is to begin a journey that ends only in the Beatific Vision.

It is a sign of stupidity to treat every clarification of what a thing is as if it were a reduction.

Prior probabilities do not exist independently of some understanding of the system.

The common experience is that color is in things but only insofar as it is *brought out* by the light.

"There is no weariness in the intelligible world." Plotinus
"Without the impulse to the One, no being would come to exist, nor, when already existing, would it persist."

mass, charge, etc., as kinds of causation

One of the difficulties of originalism is that the origin of law has many steps, and in interpretation the prior debate, the drafting, the promulgation, and the immediate reception all have relevance, even when they point in divergent directions.

Love is the source of all created being.

forms of logistic: carry, gather, ship
carry: pack, train
gather: forage, requisition, pillage
ship: depot line

Apology, like forgiveness, presupposes authority to do it.

Christian tourism : pilgrimage :: religious song : hymn

one: law of nature formulation :: holy : end in itself :: catholic : kingdom of ends
-- Kant, of course, denies anything that could correspond to apostolicity (nothing historical or traditional even in a broad sense).

Revolutions needs conspiracies; the status quo does not.

Empirical assertions already imply normative constraints in decision-making.

The content of an assertion may or may not be normative, but to assert it is itself a normative act, albeit a weak one (guidance rather than obligation).

"Every economic decision has consequences of a moral character and involves the demands of justice." Robert Sarah

The recognition of phenomena as phenomena requires that reason extend beyond the phenomena.

A form of life cannot be wholly explained in terms of subjective factors.

The need for the divine is found in human existence itself.

The Catholic Church has in some sense more truths at its core than other religions, but its primray superiority is not quantitative but qualitative, for truths it shares with other religions shine with new light and fullness in the united and mutually supporting form they have in the faith. It is also superior relationally, in the way it draws believers to God.

Nobody can cease to have jurisdiction by occult means uncertifiable by any definitive authority.

There is a dangerous tendency in certain forms of traditionalism to try to eliminate all tackiness. But the tacky is what people fall back on when the better is too expensive, or too hard to find, or beyond their abilities; it is the safety net that sustains when resources of one kind or another are thin.

Seeking truth without cultivating prudence is a common source of error.

"Each thing is many, whenever it is diffused and dispersed in extension through being unable to incline toward itself." Plotinus

In some ways it is easier to repent of that of which we are culpable than of that in which we are complicit.

"All investigation has to be thought of as being either of what something is, or of how it is qualified, or why it exists, or if it exists." Plotinus

Judicial judgment always involves turning to some standard.

citizen as voter : legislative :: citizen as juror : judicial :: citizen as ? : executive
- posse comitatis would be one part

hunter-gathering vs farming means of evangelization

Health care is a diverse group of very different things, not one thing.

Most anxiety in politics is hypochondriacal; and one of the fundamental problems in politics is discerning when it is not.

To be rational is to be a creature both of law and of gift.

exemplar: substance, quality
proper model: quantity, relation
mensurator: quanod, bui, positio
vestment: habitus

Reason by its nature legislates.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Battle of the Little Bighorn (Re-Post)

This is re-posted from 2018, with revisions.

On June 25-26, 1876, one of the most interesting battles on American soil took place: Little Bighorn. The actual character of the battle, which was spurred by the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, is a bit complicated. It took place as part of a war between the Union and a loose confederation of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, the Black Hills War; the campaign itself was partly due to rising tensions created by the Sioux and Cheyenne pushing into Crow territory. Crow were traditional enemies of the Sioux and Cheyenne, and the Crow, whose power had been dwindling for some time, allied with the United States in order not to lose Crow Country. Six of the soldiers in Custer's army were Crow scouts, and the area near where the Little Bighorn River runs is right in the middle of the Crow Reservation.

Custer's loss at Little Bighorn has been attributed to many different factors, but one idea, once common, we can reasonably eliminate: that it was because of some great folly or incompetence on Custer's part. George Armstrong Custer was a competent general, if somewhat self-aggrandizing, and an extraordinarily good cavalry commander; he understood the type of warfare in which he was involved, and he knew how to work with his Crow allies. The Sioux and Cheyenne defeated an experienced cavalry under a man who was one of the Union's very best cavalry commanders. As a clash between two rising empires, it could have gone either way. That it went so lopsidedly against Custer is, I think, due to the fact that he was outmatched, not because he was stupid, but because on his own he could not be a match for the best minds and warriors of the Sioux-Cheyenne alliance at its peak. One notes that the common theme of those trying to argue for Custer's folly is that he should have easily been able to beat primitive Indians. But we have only to look at men like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse to recognize that these are the kind of men of whom great empires are made.

On June 5, 1876, there was a big Sun Dance held at Rosebud Creek. There Sitting Bull, widely regarded as a very holy man, is said to have had a vision of Union soldiers falling from the sky and a voice saying, "I give you these because they have no ears." This, as well as a good measure of diplomatic skill, allowed Sitting Bull, from a branch of the Sioux that was fairly insignificant at the time (the Hunkpapa) to pull together a tighter alliance of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho than had been possible before. When Custer's scouts spotted the Sioux encampment from fourteen miles away, he was dealing with an Indian army that was far more cohesive and focused than he or anyone else had ever known, and one that was far larger than anyone could have expected. Some of Custer's scouts warned him that something strange was going on -- but they did not fully understand what was going on, themselves, and it is difficult to convey a new thing. Custer's primary concern was to prevent the large group from scattering; his plan was to swoop in quickly, take a large number of hostages, and use it to force concessions from the enemy with minimal bloodshed and minimal need for further battles. In most cases it would have been a very good plan, and similar plans had been highly effective before. But Sitting Bull had started something new. He did it not by issuing commands -- Sioux chieftains generally worked by being chief mediators and negotiators rather than by trying to impose their will -- but by giving a new clarity of goal.

I was at Little Bighorn National Battlefield last Monday, so I have a few pictures. The Little Bighorn River, in Crow Country:

We know that the soldiers had difficult digging trenches because of how dry the soil was, so it would not have been this green in 1876.

The first engagements of the 7th Cavalry were between A, G, M Companies under Major Reno and the Sioux; the idea was to do a lightning strike and then rejoin the rest of the companies under General Custer. Almost as soon as the battle began, however, it was clear that this would not work: the Sioux were not giving way, and Reno was not facing a small detachment but a major force. The Sioux were being organized by Chief Gall, a Hunkpapa associate of Sitting Bull, and an accomplished tactician. Gall had recognized almost immediately that Custer had to be engaging in a two-prong attack, and at every step of the way would anticipate how best to organize Sioux and Cheyenne fire.

Reno managed to get his troops to what is now known as Reno Hill, where they met up with Captain Benteen and Companies D, H, and K.

Benteen's men in the early morning of June 26 tried hastily to dig trenches to give cover to riflemen. With limited tools, they had to use whatever they had at hand, including mess plates and knives.

Indian marksmen fired at them from the ridges to their east:

As the time went on, the situation looked increasingly worse for Reno and Benteen. They were out of water in dry country, all the more frustrating because the river was right there, just out of reach because of Indian fire. In a desperate gamble, Benteen got volunteers on a probably-suicide mission to go to the river and bring back as much water as possible while others attempted to draw enemy fire; by a bare scrape of luck, they succeeded. Four of the riflemen and fifteen of the water carriers would later receive the Medal of Honor.

Captain Weir and Company D eventually managed to extricate themselves enough to rejoin Custer -- but too late. The details of what happened at Custer's Last Stand are obscure and confused, and have to be pieced together from conflicting reports, but repeated waves of Sioux and Cheyenne broke Companies L, I, and C, and some think that Crazy Horse led a flanking attack that resulted in Custer being irreparably surrounded. What is certain is that with Gall having locked down Reno and Benteen for so long, the Sioux and Cheyenne were able to go after Custer with full fury. Custer and others with him died on what has come to be known as Last Stand Hill:

A marker indicates more or less where he fell:

People were hastily buried days later; sometimes they were only identified much later. Custer was eventually reinterred at West Point, but the large number of dead led the War Department to turn the battlefield into Custer National Cemetery, which continued to operate until 1978. Authority over the battlefield was transferred from the War Department to the Department of the Interior in the 1930s.

Increasing interest in the Sioux-Cheyenne side of the tale has led to more care being taken in marking and recording aspects of their fight. There is now a nicely done Indian memorial as well:

It's easier to track the places where Union soldiers fell than Sioux and Cheyenne soldiers, in part because the latter had the chance to remove their bodies rather than having to bury them hastily, but a few have been able to be identified, such as Closed Hand:

One of the few survivors of the Last Stand from the Union side was Curly (or Curley), a Crow Indian Scout, who reported the defeat of the 7th Cavalry. He went on to have a long life, and when he died in 1923 of pneumonia, he was buried at Custer National Cemetery:

The Sioux and Cheyenne had had an extraordinary victory, but in a sense their own success defeated them. Having won so resoundingly, they had no definite next move; warriors began drifting back home and the alliance lost its cohesion. Meanwhile, the shock of the defeat led the United States to send thousands of more soldiers.

The mighty Crazy Horse surrendered in 1877 at Red Cloud Reservation. He was treated well for a while, since he was something of a legend even among Union soldiers, but rumors constantly sprang up about his setting out to war again, and he was eventually arrested. In transport, he was stabbed in the back with a bayonet, supposedly for attempting to escape; there have always been questions about his death. Sitting Bull and his men soon had to flee to Canada, where lack of bison made it difficult to feed themselves. He eventually had a falling-out with Gall, who surrendered to the United States and was transported to the Standing Rock Reservation. Sitting Bull himself surrendered in 1881, and also transferred to Standing Rock, but as he was seen as a special threat, he and his band were kept separately from the other Hunkpapa for quite some time. To make ends meet, he got involved in Wild Westing, traveling around in Wild West shows, making a rather considerable amount of money, although he gave most of it away to those in need. He and Gall became involved in the Ghost Dance Movement and were shot in bungled confrontations. So passed giants among men.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Hans Christian Heg

Last night in Madison, Wisconsin, 'protesters' tore a statue of Hans Christian Heg off its pedestal and (apparently) didn't just do that but threw it in the lake. It has since been recovered, but Heg is a Norwegian American hero, and the Norwegian side of my family hales from the same area of Norway as he, so I thought I'd say something about it, make his name better known, as my token to his memory, so recently desecrated.

Heg was born in Lierbyen in Buskerud, Norway. His parents emigrated to the United States when he was about ten or eleven and settled in Muskego Settlement. At the age of twenty, he got caught up in the California Gold Rush, spending a couple of years prospecting gold before returning to Wisconsin to marry. He joined the Free Soil Party, which was a party devoted to preventing the expansion of slavery into the new territories, and the Republican party when it formed as the national anti-slavery party. He joined a Republican anti-slavery group, the Wide Awakes, who mostly marched in parades and the like, but in Wisconsin did quite a bit more; they forcibly ran slave catchers, who were trying to bring runaway slaves back to the South, out of the area. After Sherman Booth broke a slave out of jail and became a federal fugitive, Heg was the one who hid and sheltered him.

He was also a major in the 4th Wisconsin militia, and when the Civil War began, he was promoted and appointed colonel of the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, which was the regiment for Scandinavian immigrants, mostly from Norway. He and his regiment fought at the extremely bloody Battle of Perryville, which the Confederates won, although at sufficient cost that the Union was able to maintain its hold on Kentucky. His regiment had no fatalities despite the intensity of the fighting, but there were quite a few wounded, including Heg himself. He fought again at the Battle of Stones River, neer Murfreesboro, Tennessee, also an extremely bloody battle, with one of the highest casualty counts of the war. Because of his participation in that Union victory, Heg was put in charge of his own brigade, and fought at the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia. It was a disastrous battle for the Union, and one in which they suffered a very large number of casualties. It was here that Colonel Heg met his end due to a fatal gunshot wound (in the stomach, I believe; it took him nearly a day to die).

The statue in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol that was vandalized was one of the most famous works of the noted sculptor, Paul Fjelde, who was known for his freedom- and progress-themed works. It's probably his second most famous statue, after the bust of Lincoln that was donated to Norway and became the central symbol of anti-Nazi protests in Oslo.

Hans C Heg

Echoes of Truth, But Faintly Heard

The Platonic Triunity
by Aubrey De Vere

Say, whence that light which in the antient days--
Like earliest rays of the up-rising sun
That gleam upon some hoary-headed Alp
'Mid his benighted brothers eminent--
Settled on Plato's brow; and glorified
Older Pythagoras in the Memphian school?
To them the mystic Truth, was shadowed forth
Of triune Godhead--self-existing Goodness--
Eternal Mind--the universal Soul--
Mating with man and nature; like the sound
Of choral voices linked in harmony
Breathing upon the air melodious song!
Yes, though they knew not all, echoes of truth,
But faintly heard, came to them from afar:
Not from the northern Rhodopean, whence
The shout of heathen sacrifices sprang;
But from the sacred East--the cedarn slope
Of Lebanon, and Pisgah's hallowed height.
They were but men, humanly taught, and therefore
Erred in their teaching; for they could not give
Being to cold Abstractions, thought and will
To Attributes, to Definitions power.
From these we need no help. The Scriptures prove
(Rightly assigning their due force to words)
Facts vital to our faith and hopes; conveyed
With our baptismal dowry; and confirmed
By sacramental pledge in life and death.
They speak, and ask us to believe, a fact;
Nor labour to expound a mystery.
They teach (and who shall doubt the evidence?)
That Christ said, “Before Abraham was, I am!’”
“My Father and I are One!” and John declares,
“There are Three Witnesses in heaven—and These,
The Father, and the Word, and Holy Spirit,
These Three are One!”

Monday, June 22, 2020

The King's Good Servant, and God's First

Today is the feast of St. Thomas More, Martyr. From his Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation:

When we feel ourselves too bold, let us remember our own feebleness, and when we feel ourselves too faint, let us remember Christ's strength. In our fear, let us remember Christ's painful agony, that he himself would for our comfort suffer before his passion, to the intent that no fear should make us despair. And let us ever call for his help, such as he himself may please to send us. And then need we never doubt but that he shall either keep us from the painful death, or else strengthen us in it so that he shall joyously bring us to heaven by it. And then doth he much more for us than if he kept us from it. For God did more for poor Lazarus, in helping him patiently to die for hunger at the rich man's door, than if he had brought to him at the door all the rich glutton's dinner. So, though he be gracious to a man whom he delivereth out of painful trouble, yet doth he much more for a man if, through right painful death, he deliver him from this wretched world into eternal bliss. Whosoever shrinketh away from it by forsaking his faith, and falleth in the peril of everlasting fire, he shall be very sure to repent ere it be long after.

Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project
Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Thomas More

Obligation Creep and Rhetorical Effect

I was somewhat amused by this paragraph in Copp's and Dworkin's attempt to argue that we would have a moral obligation to take a vaccine for COVID-19 if it is discovered:

We start with the principle that a person is obligated to refrain from causing harm (or significant risk of harm) to others, and obligated to prevent harm to others, when the costs to the person are relatively small and the benefits great, unless the relevant others give their consent. In saying a person is obligated, we mean that unless the person has a reasonable excuse, or there are additional reasons that outweigh the obligation, the person is blameworthy for his conduct.

Ah, yes, "significant", "relatively", "relevant", "reasonable excuse", "additional reasons that outweigh" -- with this many levels of qualification, each of which involves some degree of judgment call, you are no longer dealing with any kind of obligation at all. This is particularly true given that they will immediately go on and note that this principle, already enervated by qualifications, will certainly need further qualifications and exceptions. I've talked before about obligation creep, as well as the overmoralization of arguments, and this is a good example of both. This many qualifications is a guarantee that you are really dealing with "more reasonable than not" rather than with "obligatory"; but, of course, if you admit that it is a matter of personal judgment, even if one that will usually go one way in reasonable people, you can't use that to try to push people into it. It's the rhetorical goal that's imposing the pressure to manufacture an obligation that the argument's very structure eliminates. And there are certainly more factors involved than purely moral ones; trust in doctors, in medical research, in medical supply chains, and the difficulty of informed about the safety and effectiveness of every vaccine, to name just four that come up when dealing with the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccination decisions obviously have a moral component, which may sometimes be significant, but mostly they are just practical safety decisions, like deciding whether it is worthwhile to buy extra insurance or to learn CPR. Philosophers, focusing on the moral components of the decision, tend to treat them as if they were the only important elements at all; and, of course, overmoralizing an argument also has its rhetorical use in trying to push people to do something.

Vaccination arguments are also encouraged along both of these paths by the tendency to exaggerate the agency of those who are not vaccinating. The worst offenders are the "they are literally killing people" arguments, but there are milder cases of the same disease. Copp and Dworkin say:

We think there are five different harms or risks of harm. First, non-vaccinators create a risk that they will transmit the disease to others if they get it. Second they actually do harm to these others if they get the disease and transmit it. Third, they are weakening the community’s protective herd immunity, even if only to a small degree, which increases the risk to everyone that the disease will spread in the population. Fourth, if herd immunity has been established by others, who have gone to the trouble of getting vaccinated, the non-vaccinators are free-loading. Finally, fifth, if the non-vaccinators have children and refuse to vaccinate them, then they are creating a risk to their children.

Non-vaccinators aren't creating a risk; the risk is the default, not something created by them. Instead, they are not reducing the risk. While it's true that they do harm if they get or transmit the disease, neither getting nor transmitting the disease is usually intentional; getting it is usually an accident and transmission most likely when you don't know you have it, or when you don't know that your safeguards from transmitting it have failed. Thus, despite the way Copp and Dworkin have stated it, this falls not under the "causing harm" but the more complicated "preventing harm to others" part of the principle. Non-vaccinators are not 'weakening herd immunity'; again, lack of herd immunity is the default, and therefore they are failing to contribute to building it up. We are almost all failing to contribute to some kind of herd immunity, because most of us have not had the hundreds of shots that would be required to vaccinate against all the major diseases that have vaccines. Whether someone is free-loading cannot be determined prior to determining that they already have the obligation, so it should not even be a consideration at this stage of the argument. And, again, the risk to the children is the default; non-vaccinators are not reducing it rather than creating it.

All of these (except the free-loading one, which, as I noted, is not even determinable at this stage of the argument) are things that can be morally serious. They are morally serious as a matter of negligence, not as a matter of direct causal action. Yet over and over again, non-vaccinators are treated as if they were directly causing things that they are not causing. Failing to take basic fire prevention steps is a very serious matter, but it is not arson, and someone who kept trying to treat it as arson would quite clearly be trying to pull a fast one for rhetorical effect. The reason is obvious: moral principles apply relatively straightforwardly to direct causation, but their application to non-preventions and failures of risk-reduction can get very tortuous and complicated. This overstating of agency, too, seems to be a reason for obligation creep and overmoralization of arguments. It attempts to cut the knot. But cutting the knot is not untying it, and trying to force through a conclusion causes problems down the line.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Fortnightly Book, June 21

Reader, may these plain but honest words I write
brighten the long hours of your own dark night.

Nguyễn Du (1765-1820) was the ambassador from the Vietnamese court of the Emperor Gia Long to the much mightier empire of China. On a diplomatic mission, he seems to have picked up a somewhat trashy Chinese historical novel, Jīn Yún Qiào. That work seems almost universally to be regarded as mediocre at best, although popular in its day, but something about it seems to have struck Nguyễn Du at a deeper level, and he began writing a poem in Vietnamese based on the plot, which takes a standard girl-meets-boy romance story and completely upends it. His final result, like Shakespeare building on Italian novels, was an extraordinary achievement. The Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh, A New Cry from a Broken Heart, is the Vietnamese national epic; it is usually not known by its title, though, but simply descriptively, Truyện Kiều, The Story of Kiều.

I will be reading the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Timothy Allen. It's fairly colloquial in its approach, but seems at first glance to provide a good balance between capturing some of the original poetry and retaining the flow of the narrative. We'll see how it goes.

It is the reign of the Jiajing Emperor in the midst of the Ming Dynasty. The realm in some ways runs smoothly, but is bedeviled by the corruption of officials and, in the southeastern provinces in which much of the story takes place, the predations of pirates and criminals. The family of the beautiful Vương Thúy Kiều faces complete economic disaster and may be jailed, so Kiều gives up her potential marriage with Kim Trọng, whom she loves, and instead marries Mã in exchange for his help for her family. Unfortunately Mã is a criminal, and Kiều will have to survive terrible things. The good do not always fare well in this world. But there is a power in the human heart to endure.