Saturday, August 04, 2012

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin


Opening Passage:

"My uncle always was respected;
But his grave illness, I confess,
Is more than could have been expected:
A stroke of genius, nothing less.
He offers all a grand example;
But, God, such boredom who would sample?--
Daylong, nightlong, thus to be bid
To sit beside and invalid!
Low cunning must assist devotion
To one who is but half-alive:
You smooth his pillow and contrive
Amusement while you mix his potion;
You sigh, and think with furrowed brow--
'Why can't the devil take you now?'"

Summary: Eugene Onegin, a spoiled city boy, inherits an estate from his uncle; he is at this point about twenty-five or so and the wild sociality and dissipation in which he has spent his life has begun to pall into cynicism. In the country he becomes friends with an eighteen-year-old poet, Vladimir Lensky. Lensky is affianced to a girl named Olga Larina, and takes Onegin to have dinner and meet her. There Onegin is introduced to Tatyana Larina, who begins to fall in love with him. She eventually writes a love letter to him and he lectures her on the impossibility of their having a relationship. Lensky manages to lure Onegin to a country ball under false pretenses; the irritated Onegin flirts and dances with Olga. Lensky, outraged, demands a duel. Onegin kills him and leaves the country. Tatyana, who manages to get in and look at Onegin's library and the marginalia in his books, comes to the conclusion that he is little more than a Byronic imitator. The book ends with Eugene and Tatyana meeting later in life; Tatyana is a princess, married to an old prince, and Eugene realizes the value of what he took for granted.

As I have said before, the problem has to be solved in order to have good narrative verse is to reconcile the apparent inconsistency between the movement of narrative and the stillness of verse. Prose at least admits of being more narrative-friendly than verse because in prose the form of the language can take a secondary place to merely informing. Attention does not have to linger on details of how things are said; it can keep the story flowing by moving on to the next bit of information. This is not the case with verse; with verse, every bit of language demands a bit of attention. In longer narrative verse there is a great danger of the narrative stalling. Pushkin's solution to this problem involves three elements:

(1) iambic tetrameter verse with a rhyme scheme that can carry a conversational sound
(2) an extremely simple story
(3) regular digressions

The first of these allows for a relatively quick verse. There is a great danger of this corrupting the verse into little more than a verse imitation of prose, but Deutsch, the translator in this case, manages to avoid this, so Pushkin certainly does.The second and third are somewhat more complicated issues. The story is a very simple one, but it would be a mistake to think that this means it moves swiftly. It is really rather remarkable; the book is rather less than two hundred pages long, written in verse stanzas, and in my edition rather heavily illustrated, but it still manages to move with that inimitable Russian glaciality. It would be interesting to compare Eugene Onegin on this point with Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, with which it otherwise has many similarities: more things happen in the first two dozen stanzas of Byron's poem than happens in the whole of Pushkin's poem. However, it keeps going, and part of this is that with a very simple story it's easier to avoid being bogged down in anything. Digressions are a somewhat paradoxical element; they constantly occur and technically slow the story itself down. But each digression actually contributes something, thus moving the story forward somehow, and the many digressions break it up in such a way that it does not seem monotonous -- and in verse, as with time, diversity makes things seem to go quicker. While the story moves slowly, then, it does not stop.

I can't speak for its accuracy, but the Deutsch translation in the Heritage Press edition I was reading was poetically quite good -- very few infelicities, and when I compared it to other translations found online, Deutsch's translation was fairly consistently better as poetry, or at least as narrative poetry. However, I have come to the conclusion that trying to replicate the Onegin stanza in English is an extraordinarily bad idea. The rhyme scheme for an Onegin stanza is AbAbCCddEffEgg, where the capital letters are feminine rhymes (respected, expected) and the lower-case letters are masculine rhymes (brow, now). The problem is that this means that there are three pairs of feminine rhymes in for every fourteen lines, and this is far too many for English. In English verse, feminine rhymes are only used for two kinds of tasks: variety and comedy. You will use feminine rhymes sparingly to give variety to a series of masculine rhymes. Or you will use them to give a humorous cast to the poem. To use them in this quantity in a long poem in English makes the poem sound like a mix between an endless series of limericks and Dr. Seuss, and no amount of ingenious vocabulary choice and felicitous expression is going to get around that. Onegin stanzas in English would be quite good for light comic verse. They simply cannot carry the weight of a serious poem of this length.

In Russian I have no doubt that things are quite different. From what little I've heard of Russian, I suspect that feminine rhyme stands out less. Also, I very much doubt that the Russian language has been built up in its use of feminine rhymes the way English has, simply as a matter of history. There was a great episode of Cheers in which one of the characters, despondent over an unfaithful lover, says that she used to take great comfort in translating Russian poetry, but that now even Karashnikov's "Another Christmas of Agony" doesn't lighten her mood: "Mischa the dog lies dead in the bog. The children cry over the carcass. The mist chokes my heart, covers the mourners. At least this year we eat." Part of the joke is that this really is a tiny bit like what Russian comic verse, indeed, Russian comic anything, usually sounds like to English speakers. I am not sure that 'light comic verse in Russian' is an oxymoron, but there is no possible way humor plays the same role in Russian language conventions that it does in English language conventions, nor is Russian literary humor, which tends dark and black, the same as English literary humor, which tends light and silly. As he was wrestling with this verse novel (which took him eight years to write) Pushkin said that he was choked with gall; the author of the introduction to my edition tries to take issue with this, but Pushkin is quite right. There is plenty of humor in the book, but it is very bitter and biting, vodka in strong coffee, not sugar in light tea. But with all the feminine rhymes it sounds like it's supposed to be lightly funny and silly that Lensky gets into a jealous snit and ruins everyone's life by getting himself killed. This is just not right.

So I would strongly recommend anyone translating this work in the future to avoid the temptation of a true Onegin stanza. This does raise the problem of what would work better. My first estimation would be that you could get something that would not be too far off, but would have an English sound that would fit the story better, if you changed the feminine rhymes into imperfect rhymes. Half-rhyme or slant-rhyme can get you much farther in English; it draws less attention to itself; and it doesn't have the extensive association with silly play that feminine rhyme does. Perhaps you could still allow feminine rhyme, but on a much smaller scale.

Favorite Passage: This is stanza xi from Chapter Five. I've given two other versions, to compare. The second is Johnston's, and the third is Roger Clarke's prose version.

She dreams. And wonders are appearing
Before her now, without a doubt:
She walks across a snowy clearing.
There's gloom and darkness all about;
Amid the snowdrifts, seething, roaring,
A torrent gray with foam is pouring;
Darkly it rushes on amain,
A thing the winter could not chain;
By a slim icicle united,
Two slender boughs are flung across
The waters, where they boil and toss;
And by this shaking bridge affrighted,
The helpless girl can do no more
Than halt bwildered on the shore.

She dreamt of portents. In her dreaming
she walked across a snowy plain
through gloom and mist; and there came streaming
a furious, boiling, heaving main
across the drift-encumbered acres,
a raging torrent, capped with breakers,
a flood on which no frosty band
had been imposed by winter's hand;
two poles that ice had glued like plaster
were placed across the gulf to make
a flimsy bridge whose every quake
spelt hazard, ruin and disaster;
she stopped at the loud torrent's bound,
perplexed... and rooted to the ground.

As she slept, Tatyána had an eerie dream. She dreamt that she was walking over an expanse of snow, encircled by a dreary fog. In front, among the snowdrifts, there swirled a seething torrent, whose dark and foam-flecked waters had not been clamped in winter's chains. Two sticks held together with ice had been laid across the stream to form an unsteady and perilous footbridge. Confronted by this thundering chasm Tatyána stopped short in utter perplexity.

Recommendation: The characterization is quite good and the story, while simple, is told well. Recommended, although you probably should read it at a more leisurely pace than was required for me to finish it in a week.

Links and Notes

* Peter Kalkavage discusses Plato's Timaeus at "The Imaginative Conservative"

* Problems with plagiarism of research in Europe.

* Kim Rhode has become the first American to win gold medals in five straight Olympic games. She won two golds in double trap shooting before that event was eliminated, and has won three golds in skeet shooting since (during the time she was getting golds in double trap, she also took a silver in skeet).

* An interesting post discussing Philipse's criticisms of Heidegger at "waggish"

* People have been talking about this paper purporting to show that the 'women and children first' rule was never prevalent in shipwrecks, and that it was really 'every man for himself'. It's an interesting argument, but, unfortunately, like a lot of social science research it doesn't actually show what it claims. The basic idea is that women had a much less likely chance of survival in a shipwreck. However, we already know that there were factors other than passenger and crew behavior that affected women's survival rates. Clothing is a big one; it's been known for quite some time that in many fast-descent shipwrecks many women drowned because they couldn't dress and get to the lifeboats in time. Women's clothing in the nineteenth century and even into the early twentieth century was more difficult to put on and was heavier to wear than men's clothes. Lifeboat rules are not going to help anyone who can't even get to the boats quickly enough for them to matter. This is one of the factors affecting crew survival, for instance; crew, being better drilled, more familiar with the ship, and more likely to be already prepared, tend to be much more capable of reaching lifeboats in the first place -- even if they wait until the last possible minute, they are much more likely to be actually there to take advantage of the last possible minute than some of the passengers. I would in fact be surprised if 'women and children first' rather than 'first come, first serve' were the general rule, but odds of survival are not the right measure for this type of question, because there are too many factors affecting odds of survival that can't be isolated from passenger and crew behavior.

* A good discussion of the famous Euler-Diderot anecdote.

* A discussion of cliodynamics at Nature

* An interesting post on the complications of maintaining Naval Station Guantánamo Bay (the naval station is distinct from the detention camp) at "Gunpowder and Lead"

* Medieval business ethics

* You may have heard about the furor that arose when Vante CFO Adam Smith scolded a Chick-fil-A worker as his form of protest and then put it up on YouTube; both he and the company were deluged with irate responses from people with whom it touched a nerve and he was fired. He's since apologized, both in public and (more importantly) personally to the worker in question, and as this hasn't had quite the public airplay as the original furor, I thought I'd give a link to it. It's a bit sad that he lost his job over it, although as a CFO he should have had a better understanding of how franchises work. The rules for protesting a franchising company are pretty simple:

(1) Except for (usually) corporate training stores, the local store has no connection with the corporation except that they pay fees and royalties for building on the brand recognition of the franchising coporation, in return for which they have to conform to certain conditions, which vary considerably, depending on the franchise. It's also a pretty heavy commitment; local owners can't usually back out very easily, and can never do so cheaply. Therefore, the only complaints directed at the local store should be about things that were specifically done by the local store. Complaints about the corporation should be directed at corporate headquarters.

(2) The only real way to protest a franchising corporation is by letting them know, directly or indirectly, that there are a lot of regular customers who are seriously disappointed and are considering withdrawing their patronage. Corporations really do need to know that you are a source of income; that you are not a rare exception; and that this is a big issue. This is also a reason for directing complaints and protests at corporate headquarters: they're the ones who need to know, and simply relying on the nightly news to inform them would require a massive protest, because they need to have some sense of the extent of the disapproval, and news sources will generally be too vague and inconsistent. But companies aren't really going to budge for protests they can't see, or boycotts from people who wouldn't be buying their produce anyway.

(3) And one thing you should never, ever do is harrass or bully ordinary workers. (And if you do, you should take a page from Smith's book and apologize personally.) The primary reason people work at franchise is that they really and truly need the money and cannot afford to be picky. They are also easily replaced, especially these days. If you have a problem with someone's working at a particular franchise, offer them a better-paying job, because that's the only thing that shows any clue about what they actually deal with. The difficulties of working in fast food and quick casual can be exaggerated, but workers in such places already have to put up with an extraordinary amount of nonsense without getting any payment proportionate to what they have to handle. Those who have worked in such places know exactly the sort of thing I mean: even very good places have days that are just awful. And if you've never worked for such a place, you really do need to think about how you act toward such workers.

* As I've said before, I don't vote major party in presidential elections, so that leaves me with a somewhat more complicated set of choices. There are two other parties that currently have ballot access in states that would, in principle, allow them to take the election, and one other party that has wide enough ballot access that it could, in principle, affect the election significantly. And they all have their presidential nominees now. They are (with their electoral vote access):

Libertarian (364 Party Ballot): Gary Johnson

Green (347 Party Ballot; 42 Write-In): Jill Stein

Constitution (202 Party Ballot; 15 Write-In): Virgil Goode, Jr.

Gary Johnson I've actually heard of before; I finished high school in New Mexico and he was just starting to be Governor of New Mexico then. He was pretty popular -- he didn't raise taxes, did a lot of infrastructure building, and still left the state in better fiscal shape than it had been when he began. Very much a fiscal conservative / social progressive type. Jill Stein is a Massachusetts doctor best known for political activism. In fact, she was recently arrested for a sit-in; nothing shows the difference between major party culture and third party culture better than the fact that the arrest is currently front and center on the Jill Stein for President website. Virgil Goode is a former congressman from Virginia. For a while he was a conservative Democrat, then an independent, then a Republican. I don't really know anything about him, but he seems very much the social conservative kind.

So basically between now and the election I'll be looking at these to see if any of them are not too painful to vote for. But at first glance it's a better third party slate than we usually get, so there might be something interesting.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Olympic Sports

Kieran Healey's joke post about Olympic sports has stirred up some interesting comments in the comments thread about what a sport is, really, and what kind of sports make good Olympic sports.

The current Summer Olympics have just over three hundred events spread across twenty-six sport classifications. Both of these numbers vary somewhat from Olympics to Olympics; for instance, golf and rugby were once sports on the list, are currently not contested, but will be back on the list in the next Olympics. The sports classifications are:

Aquatic Sports

Synchronized Swimming
Water Polo

Canoe/Kayak (sprint)
Canoe/Kayak (slalom)



Cycling Sports

Mountain Biking
Road Cycling
Track Cycling

Gymnastic Sports

Artistic Gymnastics
Rhythmic Gymnastics

Equestrian Sports


Team Athletic Sports

Field Hockey
Football (association)
Volleyball (beach)
Volleyball (indoor)

Miscellaneous Sports

Modern Pentathlon
Table Tennis
Wrestling (freestyle)
Wrestling (Greco-Roman)

Some of these are more arbitrary than others, of course. Athletics, for instance, is a mix of sports and currently has forty-seven different events, including running, walking, jumping, and throwing events of various kinds. Yes, there is such a thing as Olympic walking; it has been one of the constant core Athletics events, in fact, and it's actually one of the most gruelling sports. You visibly have to have one foot on the ground at every moment, but it's a race, so you have to move as quickly as possible, and the combination forces you to move your hips like crazy. What makes them gruelling, though, is that they are very long events; the longest event in the Olympics is the men's 50k walk, which requires you to walk as fast as you can for hours, observing correct form for the entire time.

One of the suggestions in the "Crooked Timber" comments was that Olympic sports should be confined to the quasi-martial variety, i.e., those having a clear historical link to martial training. This would preserve all the traditional Olympic athletic sports (athletics, pentathlon, triathlon), the martial arts (wrestling, judo, taekwando, boxing), the stylized weapon sports (archery, fencing, shooting), and at least one, probably all, of the equestrian sports (dressage originated as martial training). There would be gray areas, like rowing and swimming. Team sports, gymnastics, and cycling would tend not to be represented at the Olympic level under this criterion, although parts of gymnastics might be gray areas. Part of the reason for this is that while most of the very old sports are derived from martial training, most of the newer sports were invented in order to be forms of purely athletic exercise. What we think of as gymnastics for instance, was invented in the eighteenth century as a form of school exercise for boys. Education reforms were very popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and one of the reforms was the idea of physical education. Gymnastics is quite literally a stylized version of what school P.E. was a hundred fifty years or so ago. Team sports in general have tended to be created for play, not training; in general they tend not to be good even for general atheletic training, much less military training -- for instance, there's nothing that basketball really trains you for. The basic athletics sports -- foot races, jumping, throwing -- train overall physical ability, while combat and weapon sports train for, or could train for, specific martial skills. Basketball, soccer, and handball are really just odd and complicated mixes of skill that exist in order to be odd and complicated mixes of skill, challenges for whiling away the time.

A little known fact about the Olympics is that it used to have art competitions as well; in fact, the founders of the modern Olympics considered such competitions a very important part of the Olympics. The arts in question had to be Olympics-related, but they even had medals and everything. This gives you some fascinating quirky cases, like Walter Winans, who won two Olympic gold medals (one in shooting, one in sculpture) and is one of two individuals in Olympic history who received Olympic medals for both sports and art (the other being Alfré Hajós, who received the first gold medal in swimming and a silver in mixed architecture). The art competitions were eventually done away with (in 1948) because of the organizational difference between sports and arts: sports have governing bodies, while the arts never did, which made art competitions massively more difficult to organize and host. This is, incidentally, one of the reasons chess keeps coming back as a possible candidate for an Olympic sport despite the widespread view that it is not really a sport: it has a governance organization like a modern sport. Or in other words, even though it is not an athletic event it is institutionally indistinguishable from athletic sports.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Turret and Tree

The Sisters
by Alfred Lord Tennyson

We were two daughters of one race;
She was the fairest in the face.
The wind is blowing in turret and tree.
They were together, and she fell;
Therefore revenge became me well.
O, the earl was fair to see!

She died; she went to burning flame;
She mix’d her ancient blood with shame.
The wind is howling in turret and tree.
Whole weeks and months, and early and late,
To win his love I lay in wait.
O, the earl was fair to see!

I made a feast; I bade him come;
I won his love, I brought him home,
The wind is roaring in turret and tree.
And after supper on a bed,
Upon my lap he laid his head.
O, the earl was fair to see!

I kiss’d his eyelids into rest,
His ruddy cheeks upon my breast.
The wind is raging in turret and tree.
I hated him with the hate of hell,
But I loved his beauty passing well.
O, the earl was fair to see!

I rose up in the silent night;
I made my dagger sharp and bright.
The wind is raving in turret and tree.
As half-asleep his breath he drew,
Three time I stabb’d him thro’ and thro’.
O, the earl was fair to see!

I curl’d and comb’d his comely head,
He looked so grand when he was dead.
The wind is blowing in turret and tree.
I wrapt his body in the sheet,
And laid him at his mother’s feet.
O, the earl was fair to see!

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Gilpin on the Picturesque III: Sketches and Descriptions

"The art of sketching," says William Gilpin in the third of the Three Essays, "is to the picturesque traveller, what the art of writing is to the scholar" (p. 61). If the picturesque is such beauty in nature as is suitable to the picture, then the most natural way to remember and communicate the ideas of the picturesque in real life is by picture. Thus Gilpin regards it as the indispensable instrument of picturesque travel, by which we expand our experience and refine our ideas about the natural world. Gilpin gives some tips on how to use this instrument well by looking at its two major functions: memory and communication.

The first requirement for sketches insofar as they are there to serve as reminders is "to get it in the best point of view" (p. 62). The picturesque is in this sense perspectival: a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right can make a considerable difference as to how picturesque a scene is, by changing how it is framed, shifting symmetries and asymmetries, or even modifying the lighting and color.

The second requirement is to determine how to transfer the scene, which is on the massive scale of nature, to your paper, which requires a much smaller scale. You may need to divide the scene among more than one sketch, for instance. Gilpin recommends establishing reference points in the scene before. Once you've decided how much of the scene you wish to put to paper, pick a couple of the most important elements of the scene and lightly mark on your paper where they will go. This will allow you to build a framework in your sketch that gets the relative situation of different objects right.

The usual sketching instrument for a quick sketch would in Gilpin's day be a stick of black lead, which would rather easily make a light gray mark. At this level of sketching, your primary interest is to capture characteristic features of the landscape without worrying much about light and shade: "It is enough if you express general shapes; and the relations, which the several intersections of a country bear to each other" (p. 64). Since our primary concern here is memory, we want to get the "leading ideas" quickly; if we wait, the quality of the experience can evaporate, and as we are in the midst of traveling, we will likely forget many of the details that contributed to the picturesque beauty of the scene.

One difficulty with this quick-sketch method is that it flattens any complicated scene by making it difficult to remember relative distance. Thus Gilpin recommends that the picturesque traveler, when faced with a more complicated landscape, put down some notes characterizing, as accurately as possible, the various relations of distance in the sketch. This will allow you, when you have more leisure, to put in the right kind of shading or coloring, or the right kinds of additional lines, to convey the depth of the scene properly.

If our only interest in the sketch is to fix the idea in our memory, we do not have to do much with it. It does not have to be pretty or picturesque itself to do its work, although, of course, that would probably help. Communication of the picturesque scene to others is another matter entirely. A few choice marks on the paper are a good reminder to ourselves, but will hardly recall the scene, or even an approximation to it, to someone who never saw it. We need what Gilpin calls the "adorned sketch" (p. 66), something with composition, light effects, and simple pictorial ornamentation. If something were not at least in principle capable of a sketch of this sort, it would hardly have been suitable for a picturesque sketch in the first place; but it is only when you are trying to communicate the scene, however approximately, to others that you need to get this far.

He recommends that you keep your quick sketches and your adorned sketches distinct. Do not, for instance, try to turn your quick sketch into an adorned sketch. Your quick sketch preserves the idea of the scene for you; this is precisely what you do not want to lose, and if you try to adorn your quick sketch, you may end up muddling your own memory of the scene. Instead, you should start your adorned sketch from scratch, using your quick sketch as a guide.

Once you've started your adorned sketch, the first requirement is to capture the composition of the scene. You already will have done so in your quick sketch, but Gilpin suggests that you consider whether it can be improved in any way -- in other words, do you need to be more selective, or draw out something a little more fully than it was in the original scene? Gilpin has no problem with the sketch artist improving things a bit; as we've already seen, nature does things on a scale that simply will not completely transfer to the small frame of a piece of paper, no matter how detailed you are, and it will often be the case that parts of a scene are picturesque, while parts, even if they are beautiful parts, may not contribute in any unified way to the picturesque quality of the whole. It's interesting in this light to think of what Gilpin would think of the modern-day camera; one imagines he would not be impressed by it, thinking that, first, it gives an illusion of detail that does not, in fact, capture as much as one might think at first, and that, second, it commits you to what was there rather than letting you draw out the best features from a picturesque point of view. Gilpin doesn't think you should allow yourselve complete freedom, but he thinks that with objects you may need to emphasize things, while with scenes you may need to be subtle; and, moreover, he thinks that you can reorganize the foreground however you please along as you keep "the analogy of the country" (p. 68). If there are too many trees, thin them out; if a tree is in the wrong place, move it; do them both as you will, as long as you keep the general character of the scene that it made it worthy of a picturesque sketch in the first place. What you as a picturesque traveler are interested in is not the scene as such, but the picturesque itself; you therefore study nature to find its picturesque qualities and focus on drawing those out rather than being slave to the scene, which we might say is the aesthetic equivalent of being a pedant.

The most important element of the composition is the foreground, and it is here you must most carefully exercise your discrimination. It will, of course, be on the bottom part of your paper, and it will serve as the natural guide for setting the rest of the sketch in right order. In your quick sketch you did not expend much effort on it. It is probably too high or too low, or not set out quite right. But here you will need to be much more careful about it. Nonetheless, while Gilpin thinks you should exert some care in it, he doesn't think you have to do much to fill it out. You may be doing an adorned sketch, but you aren't doing a full-scale painting; just focus on what is important for giving the general structure and character of the picture right. From the foreground you move out into the rest of your picture, correcting, refining, and improving upon your quicky sketch. And you should continue to exert some care:

No beauty of light, colouring, or execution can atone for the want of composition. It is the foundation of all picturesque beauty. No finery of dress can set off a person, whose figure is awkward and uncouth. (p. 70)

Up to this point, you should have a correct outline of the scene in pencil. Now you can begin inking with a pen or, if you have the skill, painting with a brush. Gilpin recommends the pen in general, with India ink; in an ideal sense painting, as in watercolors, is probably the best, but thinks that it requires considerably more skill to do well. You do not need to do the whole thing -- just do what's required to bring out the most important lines of the picture, add notable textures or shadings, and so forth. Again, it's important to keep in mind that an adorned sketch is not intended to be a landscape portrait, but merely a way of communicating the basic ideas of a picturesque scene to someone who hasn't seen the original. Your goal is not to paint but to finish a sketch with the right touches for conveying these ideas.

In touching up your sketch, expression is a key pont. Gilpin defines expression as "the art of giving each object, that particular touch, whether smooth or rough, which best expresses its form" (p. 72). Even the finest painter cannot really capture all the richness of nature. Some selection of what is most important is necessary even for someone who can make very lifelike paintings; and painters have to use all sorts of tricks of the eye even to get as lifelike as they do, whereas nature does not. In a sketch, it becomes even more important to select out just those features that are most important for contributing to the picturesque beauty of the whole. Excellent expression is really a mark of artistic genius; most people will not be able to achieve the best kinds of expression, at least not consistently. But, again, our primary interest is communication of the picturesque, not fine art. Even slight improvements can go a long way toward making an adorned sketch successful, regardless of your talent.

After the outline you need effects of light and shade, and here Gilpin recommends that even the tyro switch to a brush: a little wash of color with a brush will do much more than you can probably do with a pen. Just a little color to capture the differences in light will do. But we want not to capture just the illumination falling on objects but also the general effect, by drawing out contrasts and variations. You don't need to capture all the light in the scene: just the most important light from the picturesque point of view.

Gilpin suggests that you might consider adding a figure, like a wagon or a person or an animal, but that if you do, you do so sparingly, and only to bring out more clearly something in the sketch -- making it more obvious, for instance, that a set of lines is a road, or breaking an otherwise too monotonous line, or clarifying the distances in your picture. With the figures actually there, though, like trees, it is not necessary to get into details. Unless it is a very striking contributor to the picturesque quality of the scene, it does not matter what it looks like, oak or pine or elm, as long as it looks like a tree, and does not problematize the picture.

Gilpin recommends some light staining of the picture to reduce the glaring contrast between white of paper and black of ink. He also considers the addition of color (in addition to the staining), but recommends very conservative use of it, staring with a very light sense of the color of the horizon (whether it is light blue, rosy pink, etc.). He recommends a layering method: first, tint your entire sketch with the horizon-color you are using, then tint the horizon, and lightly wash the color up into the sky. This will prevent your colors from standing out too harshly, while giving a general sense of the color-difference between sky and scene. And as he puts it in a poem on landscape sketching, the sky gives a general coloring to the whole of a scene; just think of the difference in colors in the whole world between an overcast sky and a sunrise sky. You can then tint the middle ground umber, then go over the soil with a touch of red and vegetation with a touch of green; and then move from there to the foreground, in which you just heighten by a bit of burnt sienna for the soil, perhaps with a touch of blue in the shadows, and a bit of green and burnt sienna for the vegetation. He also gives some tips on clouds. You aren't trying to capture the full colors of the scene, which you cannot in any case do: you are trying to give a hint of how the colors contribute to the harmony and variety of the picturesque whole, and this does not even require getting the colors entirely right, as long as the colors of the sketch are reasonably harmonious among themselves. Harmony of color, not color itself, is the key thing.

You will notice that I keep harping on the point that this is just a sketch. It is an approximation for the purposes of memory and communication, and that is all. As Gilpin says, "General ideas only must be looked for: not the peculiarities of portrait" (p. 87). And this is actually important for Gilpin's notion of picturesque travel. Beautiful painting is something only a master can really attain with consistency. But beautiful sketching is something that can be done even by someone who does not have the time or the resources to put into the development of a full artistic mastery. Sketches are an everyman's sort of art. They do not have to be brilliant. In the case of quick sketches, they just have to be good enough to remind you; and in the case of adorned sketches, they just have to help you communicate the basic picturesque sense of the scene. And, again, as you will recall, one of Gilpin's recommendations for picturesque travel is that it is a rational amusement; it is very important to him that we understand that the kind of sketching required for it is something almost everyone can do. Some will do it much better than others; but everyone can do it well enough for quick sketches, with just a slight bit of practice, and almost everyone can do it well enough for adorned sketches, with just a bit more practice.

Thus sketching. It is notable, though, that Gilpin was most famous not for his sketches but for his descriptions or observations. These were published with sketches, and people did like the sketches, but it was the descriptions that caught imagination. Thus it is important to say something about the other element of communicating picturesque ideas, that found in his several published Observations, which he wrote out descriptions of his own picturesque travels. In the dedication to his Observations on the Scottish Highlands, he calls this picturesque description and notes that it was a relatively new kind of writing. Unfortunately that's about as much as we get from Gilpin on his method of verbal description. But in essence it is perhaps not such a difficult thing. Gilpin's Observations are all travelogues, and were used as travel guides; it's just that their focus is not generally on the history of the places Gilpin went, but on the various features of the scenery. And the vocabulary is that of an art critic, discussing where the picturesque landscapes are, the general way in which they are picturesque, and the way they might be sketched. Nothing beats a taste of Gilpin himself on this point. The following is from his Observations on the River Wye (the consistent use of it's where we would use its is Gilpin's own, as is the double-c for 'echo'):

The Wye takes it's rise near the summit of Plinlimmon; and dividing the counties of Radnor, and Brecknoc, passes through the middle of Herefordshire. From thence becoming a second boundary between Monmouth, and Glocestershire, it falls into the Severn, a little below Chepstow. To this place from Ross, which is a course of near forty miles, it flows in a gentle, uninterrupted stream; and adorns, through it's various reaches, a succession of the most picturesque scenes.

The beauty of these scenes arises chiefly from two circumstances—-the lofty banks of the river, and it's mazy course; both which are accurately observed by the poet, when he describes the Wye, as ecchoing through it's winding bounds. It could not well eccho, unless it's banks were both lofty and winding.

From these two circumstances the views it exhibits, are of the most beautiful kind of perspective; free from the formality of lines.

Every view on a river, thus circumstanced, is composed of four grand parts; the area, which is the river itself; the two side-screens, which are the opposite banks, and mark the perspective; and the front-screen, which points out the winding of the river. (p. 17)

And that's basically Gilpin on the picturesque. However, I think I might do one more post in this series to give some indication of the influence of Gilpin's account; probably focusing on Jane Austen's use of it.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Red Rain

The Epistle to Yemen is also our main source of knowledge for a more extensive messianic movement that formed around a Moroccan Jew named Moshe el-Darri, who arrived in Andalusia in the late 1130s or early '40s with the tidings that he was the Messiah's herald. El-Darri, too, performed "miracles," such as predicting that on a certain day the heavens would rain blood--and indeed, Maimonides wrote, a "red and grimy" rain fell that day. (Red dust rain, originating in fine particles of airborne soil from the Sahara Desert, is a known meteorological phenomenon in southern Spain.) Many of el-Darri's followers obeyed his instructions to sell all their property and borrow money that would not have to be repaid because the Messiah was arriving on Passover, leaving them homeless and penniless when the holiday came and went. El-Darri himself fled to Palestine and died there.
[Hillel Halkin, Yehuda Halevi, Schocken (New York: 2010) p. 97]

The phenomenon is also called rain dust; while it is not always red -- that depends on the color of the soil -- it's quite common. In West Texas, for instance, if you cross a dusty summer with sudden rain storms you'll find it raining mud on occasion. However, it is massively more common in Iberia, for precisely the reason given here: dust from a great big desert across the way gets blown over and rained down. Not all red rain is from dust, however; some is thought to be caused by certain kinds of algae, and it's algae, for instance, that form the phenomenon of watermelon snow (pink to red, with a fruity scent, but probably not good for your body) that some places in the world know.

Three Poem Drafts


I know, think, feel
the cold, hard life
of black stone;
the bright sun cheers
but heart's tears flow
in salt streams.


Cold stars at night shine down with love;
soft hearts in pain dream deeply here,
each seeking sure hope in night's cool sleep.
Each finds release, living love makes whole
torn souls with deep, full draughts of life.
Dark veils of night true peace may hide,
give hope through dream, pour down bright truth,
bring joy to each heart that seeks God's grace.


Make of me a pendant
and let me lie
upon the gentle zephyr
of breath and sigh
that in and out you take;
there let me die
of joy in that fair place --
though I am shy
I dare demand this grace
and mercy high.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Judah Halevi

I was out walking today and happened to be near Half Price Books, where I picked up Hillel Halkin's biography, Yehuda Halevi. I haven't had a chance to read any of it, but it looks like it will be quite good. If so, I'll put up some comments at some point.

Halevi is an interesting character, both a poet and a philosopher; he's most famous for his poetry, but he is also known for his philosophical work, Kitab al-Khazari. You can get a sense of Halevi's approach from the Jewish Encyclopedia's summary:

The work is divided into five essays ("ma'amarim"), and takes the form of a dialogue between the pagan king of the Chazars and a Jew who had been invited to instruct him in the tenets of the Jewish religion. After a short account of the incidents preceding the conversion of the king, and of the conversations of the latter with a philosopher, a Christian, and a Moslem concerning their respective beliefs, the Jew appears on the stage, and by his first statement startles the king; for, instead of giving him proofs of the existence of God, he asserts and explains the miracles performed by Him in favor of the Israelites. The king expresses his astonishment at this exordium, which seems to him incoherent; but the Jew replies that the existence of God, the creation of the world, etc., being taught by religion, do not need any speculative demonstrations. Further, he propounds the principle upon which his religious system is founded; namely, that revealed religion is far superior to natural religion. For the aim of ethical training, which is the object of religion, is not to create in man good intentions, but to cause him to perform good deeds. This aim can not be attained by philosophy, which is undecided as to the nature of good, but can be secured by religious training, which teaches what is good. As science is the sum of all the particles of truth found by successive generations, so religious training is based upon a set of traditions; in other words, history is an important factor in the development of human culture and science.

Halevi is in many ways the al-Ghazali of Judaism; in other words, he gives a philosophical critique of what he sees as excessive pretensions among the philosophers. And, like al-Ghazali, he raises some interesting issues with arguments worth taking seriously.

The Swell of Summer's Ocean

There Be None of Beauty's Daughters
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

There be none of Beauty's daughters
With a magic like Thee;
And like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me:
When, as if its sound were causing
The charm├ęd ocean's pausing,
The waves lie still and gleaming,
And the lull'd winds seem dreaming:
And the midnight moon is weaving
Her bright chain o'er the deep,
Whose breast is gently heaving
As an infant's asleep:
So the spirit bows before thee
To listen and adore thee;
With a full but soft emotion,
Like the swell of Summer's ocean.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book a Week, July 29

When I was working through my options for another book-a-week candidate, my eye happened to fall on a slim volume, which turned out to be another verse novel. Unlike The Devious Way, however, this one is a famous one: Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin was a poet for a Romantic age: he died at the very young age of 37 from wounds received in the course of a duel, which was apparently his twenty-ninth duel. There are disputes, however, over how much his poetry should itself be considered Romantic. He is considered one of the great authors of Russia, and is sometimes called the Russian Byron, although almost everyone agrees that his versification is more technically consistent than anything Byron himself gives us.

Eugene Onegin, like many other major Russian works, is apparently about a 'superfluous man', i.e., it follows the life and psychological complications of a man who does not fit into his society, a Byronic hero tinctured with Russian fatalism. It was written in iambic tetrameter -- good for a verse novel, since it moves more quickly than iambic pentameter -- with twelve-line stanzas bearing a curious rhyme scheme: AbAbCCddEffEgg, where the lower-case letters are feminine rhymes and the upper-case letters are masculine rhymes.

The particular version I have is a Heritage Press (New York) version. It is really one of the best-looking books I've seen: unusually good paper (what is known as toned laid-paper: it has texture, like a very thin version of what fancy cards are often made of); bold, crisp lettering in a version of Bodoni font; and a specially patterned cover, repeating an image of Moscow's Cathedral of Peter and Paul over and over again, a feat that is easy to do today but at the time would have been extraordinarily difficult. It also has very striking lithograph illustrations by no less than Fritz Eichenberg, one of the finest engravers and illustrators of the twentieth century, who, as with many talented German Jews of his day, left Germany at the rise of Adolf Hitler and came to the United States. Although he was never Catholic, he became a good friend of Dorothy Day, and was involved in a number of charitable projects. In short, it is in the finest tradition of the old Heritage Press: books as works of art in themselves, available to ordinary readers at affordable prices. (The Heritage Club was created by George Macy to be the common man's version of his Limited Editions Club.) This is the way books were meant to be made; you just don't generally find books this extraordinarily nice for the twenty dollars or so that Heritage Press books usually end up being priced at in used bookstores.

Eugene Onegin is in Russian, of course, so it is in translation. The particular translation is that of Babette Deutsch, an accomplished poet in her own right. One of the interesting features of her translation is that she maintains the same rhyme scheme as the original -- very difficult to do with any accuracy. So there's a good chance that it's as much Deutsch as Pushkin. Nonetheless, some light comparing with other versions available online suggests that it is at least reasonably accurate as to general gist. It has an introduction by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, her husband and a famous scholar of Russian literature.


There's been discussion about this recent article by Andrew Hacker, Is Algebra Necessary?, in which he argues that we should do away with the standard algebra curriculum and replace it with things like "citizen mathematics." It is, of course, pure nonsense; the problem is not that we teach algebra but that (1) we do not teach it soon enough and (2) we teach it by formula and drill in endless problem sets, and while practice of this sort is necessary, when unalleviated it is a good way to bore people to death. We probably could also add that (3) we do not teach it very coherently, since if you pick up a typical algebra book, you'll find it goes from one thing to another without much connection between topics (part, although not all, of the reason for this is that its intimate connection with geometry often goes completely untaught, and so students don't grasp, as Hacker himself doesn't grasp, that these are not arbitrary symbol-strings to be manipulated but descriptions of shapes, curves, relations, proportions, topological transformations, and so forth). But this is a matter of flawed approach. And we could easily do it; elementary school students in fact do problems that are simple algebra problems already. ("What do you have to add to two if you want to get four?" "What times itself gets you nine?") Likewise, any "citizen statistics" course will by its very nature be backdoor algebra, despite Hacker's insistence that it is not.

I was somewhat amused by Hacker's comment that "it's not easy to see why potential poets and philosophers face a lofty mathematics bar." In reality I think this merely shows that Hacker doesn't really have much of a grasp on what philosophers do, since philosophers in general usually need more mathematics than they actually get. Certainly in this day and age it doesn't hurt to be able to follow at least the very basics of abstract algebra, which is a higher order of abstraction than the elementary algebra you'd likely get in high school.

What actually irks me about the article is that it makes the standard anti-liberal-arts move, in which 'course that makes people better as citizens' is read as 'course that makes people more useful', when the distinctive characteristic of a citizen is not useful but free. What we need is to teach mathematics as a liberal art -- i.e., as the making of intellectual instruments that can be applied to many different tasks -- and drilling should be like drills in sports, practice for challenging problems rather than the main content of the course. Cantor famously said that the essence of mathematics is freedom; and algebra is precisely the gateway to the parts of mathematics where this becomes breathtakingly clear. People need to know that world is there. The problem really is that algebra is not taught with any sense of this intrinsic direction toward freedom at the heart of algebra, its ability to carry the mind past the limitations of mere narrow-viewed calculation.