Saturday, August 19, 2017

Speed in Rather Longer than a Span

A Ballad of Abbreviations
by G. K. Chesterton

The American's a hustler, for he says so,
And surely the American must know.
He will prove to you with figures why it pays so
Beginning with his boyhood long ago.
When the slow-maturing anecdote is ripest,
He'll dictate it like a Board of Trade Report,
And because he has no time to call a typist,
He calls her a Stenographer for short.

He is never known to loiter or malinger,
He rushes, for he knows he has "a date" ;
He is always on the spot and full of ginger,
Which is why he is invariably late.
When he guesses that it's getting even later,
His vocabulary's vehement and swift,
And he yells for what he calls the Elevator,
A slang abbreviation for a lift.

Then nothing can be nattier or nicer
For those who like a light and rapid style.
Than to trifle with a work of Mr Dreiser
As it comes along in waggons by the mile.
He has taught us what a swift selective art meant
By description of his dinners and all that,
And his dwelling, which he says is an Apartment,
Because he cannot stop to say a flat.

We may whisper of his wild precipitation,
That it's speed in rather longer than a span,
But there really is a definite occasion
When he does not use the longest word he can.
When he substitutes, I freely make admission,
One shorter and much easier to spell;
If you ask him what he thinks of Prohibition,
He may tell you quite succinctly it is Hell.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Babylonian Mathematics

Daniel Mansfield and N. J. Wildberger discuss Babylonian mathematics:

Like Some Grave Mighty Thought Threading a Dream

Shelley, Leigh Hunt, and Keats once held a sonnet-writing competition in which the goal was to write a sonnet about the Nile in fifteen minutes. Hunt's was the only one published in their lifetimes. All three, interestingly, are explicitly allegorical; very difficult to do well in short space, and I think Hunt is the only one who quite pulled it off. I would give first prize to Hunt, second to Keats, and third to Shelley; Hunt is easily the least talented of the three in general, but in poetry it is the poem and not the reputation or ability that gives the laurels.

To the Nile
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Month after month the gathered rains descend
Drenching yon secret Aethiopian dells,
And from the desert’s ice-girt pinnacles
Where Frost and Heat in strange embraces blend
On Atlas, fields of moist snow half depend.
Girt there with blasts and meteors Tempest dwells
By Nile’s aereal urn, with rapid spells
Urging those waters to their mighty end.
O’er Egypt’s land of Memory floods are level
And they are thine, O Nile--and well thou knowest
That soul-sustaining airs and blasts of evil
And fruits and poisons spring where’er thou flowest.
Beware, O Man--for knowledge must to thee,
Like the great flood to Egypt, ever be.

A Thought of the Nile
by Leigh Hunt

It flows through old hushed Egypt and its sands,
Like some grave mighty thought threading a dream,
And times and things, as in that vision, seem
Keeping along it their eternal stands,—
Caves, pillars, pyramids, the shepherd bands
That roamed through the young world, the glory extreme
Of high Sesostris, and that southern beam,
The laughing queen that caught the world's great hands.
Then comes a mightier silence, stern and strong,
As of a world left empty of its throng,
And the void weighs on us; and then we wake,
And hear the fruitful stream lapsing along
Twixt villages, and think how we shall take
Our own calm journey on for human sake.

To the Nile
by John Keats

Son of the old moon-mountains African!
Stream of the Pyramid and Crocodile!
We call thee fruitful, and, that very while,
A desert fills our seeing's inward span;
Nurse of swart nations since the world began,
Art thou so fruitful? or dost thou beguile
Such men to honour thee, who, worn with toil,
Rest them a space 'twist Cairo and Decan?
O may dark fancies err!—they surely do;
'Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste
Of all beyond itself. Thou dost bedew
Green rushes like our rivers, and dost taste
The pleasant sun-rise; green isles hast thou too,
And to the sea as happily dost haste.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Maria Assumpta

Rubens's Assumption of the Virgin:

Baroque Rubens Assumption-of-Virgin-3

Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary

Surely the Lord raises up the lowly,
giving goodness to those who seek His ways,
for He has mercy upon all nations
from generation to generation.
From Mary the Sun of justice has dawned:
He has showered His Mother with graces,
filling us with spiritual praises,
on this her feast of exaltation.

Surely the Lord raises up the lowly,
and blessed is His Mother for all ages,
fountain of blessings, holy treasure-ship,
pure Mother of God and leaven of life,
sanctified censer and fragrant rose,
vessel of the forgiving ember,
shining temple of the Holy Spirit,
bridal chamber of the heavenly King.

Surely the Lord raises up the lowly,
so that You, O Mary, may pray for us:
beseech the Lord who has appeared from you
for pardon for sins, peace for our churches,
contemplation for our monasteries,
strength for the aged and wisdom for the young,
good education for all our children,
O fair Mother of the salvific Word.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A Mighty Word There Came

A Word
by G. K. Chesterton

A word came forth in Galilee, a word like to a star;
It climbed and rang and blessed and burnt wherever brave hearts are;
A word of sudden secret hope, of trial and increase
Of wrath and pity fused in fire, and passion kissing peace.
A star that o'er the citied world beckoned, a sword of flame;
A star with myriad thunders tongued: a mighty word there came.

The wedge's dart passed into it, the groan of timber wains,
The ringing of the river nails, the shrieking of the planes;
The hammering on the roofs at morn, the busy workshop roar;
The hiss of shavings drifted deep along the windy floor;
The heat browned toiler's crooning song, the hum of human worth
Mingled of all the noise of crafts, the ringing word went forth.

The splash of nets passed into it, the grind of sand and shell,
The boat-hook's clash, the boas-oars' jar, the cries to buy and sell,
The flapping of the landed shoals, the canvas crackling free,
And through all varied notes and cries, the roaring of the sea,
The noise of little lives and brave, of needy lives and high;
In gathering all the throes of earth, the living word went by.

Earth's giants bowed down to it, in Empire's huge eclipse,
When darkness sat above the thrones, seven thunders on her lips,
The woes of cities entered it, the clang of idols' falls,
The scream of filthy Caesars stabbed high in their brazen halls,
The dim hoarse floods of naked men, the world-realms' snapping girth,
The trumpets of Apocalypse, the darkness of the earth:
The wrath that brake the eternal lamp and hid the eternal hill,

A world's destruction loading, the word went onward still--
The blaze of creeds passed into it, the hiss of horrid fires,
The headlong spear, the scarlet cross, the hair-shirt and the briars,
The cloistered brethren's thunderous chaunt, the errant champion's song,
The shifting of the crowns and thrones, the tangle of the strong.

The shattering fall of crest and crown and shield and cross and cope,
The tearing of the gauds of time, the blight of prince and pope,
The reign of ragged millions leagued to wrench a loaded debt,
Loud with the many-throated roar, the word went forward yet.
The song of wheels passed into it, the roaring and the smoke,
The riddle of the want and wage, the fogs that burn and choke.

The breaking of the girths of gold, the needs that creep and swell,
The strengthening hope, the dazing light, the deafening evangel,
Through kingdoms dead and empires damned, through changes without cease,
With earthquake, chaos, born and fed, rose,--and the word was "Peace."

Hutcheson and the Sense of Beauty

Michael Spicher has a nice article on aesthetic taste at the IEP. It's a very large and complex topic, and I think article does a good job of getting much of it under control for the purposes of an introduction, but I think the handling of Hutcheson ends up being a bit odd, although perhaps the reason is that conciseness is creating a misleading impression of the intended meaning. For instance, he says that Hutcheson does not clearly define the internal sense. However, Hutcheson does, I think, clearly define it:

Those Ideas which are rais’d in the Mind upon the presence of external Objects, and their acting upon our Bodys, are call’d Sensations. We find that the Mind in such Cases is passive, and has not Power directly to prevent the Perception or Idea, or to vary it at its Reception, as long as we continue our Bodys in a state fit to be acted upon by the external Object.

Families of these sensations linked by resemblance, he goes on to say, are attributed to unified powers of receiving them, which we call 'senses'. The distinction between external and internal senses, Hutcheson takes to be a non-essential issue; it is based on a point that Spicher notes, namely, that they seem in some way linked to senses like sight and hearing, although not reducible to them because they can generate the relevant ideas in matters not involving them.

Thus Hutcheson's definition of a sense is a power that originates an idea to the reception of which the mind is passive, and the distinction between internal and external senses is a matter of convenience based on the relations of senses to each other. The idea of beauty is the kind of idea that designates a sense, and it is distinguishable from senses like sight, hearing, etc.; and this idea of beauty applies to things exhibiting Uniformity amidst Variety. Nothing here seems obscure. Conceivably Spicher could mean that Hutcheson does not give a mechanism for it, but this is not the natural way to read the claim.

Later he says, in discussing Gerard:

Gerard divided up his study into seven principles of the internal sense (or powers of the imagination), not only a sense of beauty like Hutcheson. The seven principles are novelty, sublimity, beauty, imitation, harmony, oddity (humorousness), and virtue.

But Hutcheson himself distinguishes the senses of grandeur (=sublimity) and novelty from the sense of beauty; he has another treatise on the sense of virtue. Harmony is a more borderline case, since Hutcheson sometimes speaks of the 'sense of beauty and harmony' as if it were one thing, and sometimes speaks of the sense of beauty and the sense of harmony as if they were distinguishable. Perhaps the idea is that Hutcheson's study focuses only on beauty (so that, for instance, grandeur and novelty are mentioned only to be set aside as not the topic under discussion)? But this seems a misleading way to put it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fortnightly Book, August 13

The next fortnightly book will be The Tale of Genji, by Murusaki Shikibu. Since it's a long work, it might end up being a three-week 'fortnight'.

We don't actually know the author's name; 'Shikibu' is derived from her father's official title, and 'Murasaki' appears to be a nickname borrowed from one of her characters. We do know that she was a lady-in-waiting of Empress Shoshi. Her education was unusual; women were not usually taught literary arts, but she helped her brother study and turned out to be have more talent than he did. According to a common literary story, she first conceived of the tale of Genji while watching the moon at Ishiyama Temple; we do not know if this is really true, but it is a scene that has often been depicted, as in this painting by Hiroshige III, from the 1880s:

Murasaki Shikibu by Hiroshige

Two other works are attributed to her, her court diary and a collection of poetry, but it is easily The Tale of Genji that has most inspired imaginations since the eleventh century when it was written.

The work is a long fictional prose narrative, probably written in installments, that is unified not by plot but by character. Famously, almost no one is named in it; most of the time people are referred to by their official title. Given that the narrative of the book spans a very long period of time, people's titles change over time, leading to complications in keeping track of the characters. The reason for this peculiarity was Japanese court custom at the time, the same court custom leaving us uncertain what Shikibu's personal name was: to use a person's personal name in a public matter was considered very rude and excessively familiar. Readers have often made up the gap by supplying their own nicknames. The work was also written in a very high literary diction, already archaic in its time; annotated editions have existed at least since the twelfth century.

Hikaru Genji is the son of the Emperor and a low-born concubine; his father, however, removed him from the line of succession, and so he is forced to make his way through the world as an Imperial official. A handsome playboy, he has a long string of affairs which will eventually lead to him being exiled -- and then to being pardoned and raised to a very high rank in the Imperial court. His story ends very abruptly, and scholars argue back and forth whether this abruptness of ending was intentional or not.

I will be reading Royall Tyler's unabridged translation, which seems to have good reviews. The entire work is 1120 pages, not counting the supplementary appendices, although it also is fairly generously supplied with illustrations and footnotes.

Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night


Opening Passage:

The Knight turned towards the Holy Hitler chapel which in the orientation of this church lay in the western arm of the Swastika, and with the customary loud impressive chords on the organ and a long roll on the sacred drums, the Creed began. Hermann was sitting in the Goebbels chapel in the northern arm, whence he could conveniently watch the handsome boy with the long fair silky hair, who had been singing the solos. He had to turn towards the west when the Knight turned. He could no longer see the boy except with a side-long glance, and though gazing at lovely youths in church was not even conventionally condemned, any position during the singing of the Creed except that of attention-eyes-front was sacrilegious. (p. 5)

Summary: Centuries into the Third Reich, the triumph of Nazi ideology seems to be complete. Its enemies are almost all crushed; the subject races have converted to the Hitlerian religion, which proclaims that Hitler, not born of woman, exploded from the head of God the Thunderer. Society has become highly stratified according to a creed of blood: the Fuehrer on top, the Knights who are the quasi-priestly military aristocracy next, then the ordinary German Nazis, then foreign Hitlerians, then, lowest of all, the outcast Christians refusing to recognize Hitler as God, without the right to buy or sell. The whole society has been reduced to a principle found in the Hitlerian Creed:

And I believe in pride, in courage, in violence, in brutality, in bloodshed, in ruthlessness, and all other soldierly and heroic virtues. (p. 6)

And 'reduced' is the right term. The emphasis on brutal heroism led to a movement, under a man named von Wied, to eliminate records of prior civilizations and reduce women to nothing but subservience to men, a movement that also ultimately succeeded. Women are property who cannot refuse a man. It is a great shame to give birth to a girl, and boys are taken from their mothers at a year and a half. The result is that the population of the German Empire is dwindling; too few girls are born, which leads to too few boys being born, and there is no way to counter the trend.

At the beginning of the rise of von Wied's movement, a century and some decades into the Reich, he had alone been opposed by a Knight named von Hess. Realizing that his opposition was futile, von Hess submitted publicly, thus allowing himself to be branded as a coward in a society in which that was one of the most shameful things, and instead turned to preserving the truth about the history that was systematically being eradicated. In a time of endless bookburning, at great risk to his own life, he wrote a book, and this book passed from father to son, in continual danger, until the time of the story, when the last von Hess, whose sons have all died, must decide what to do with it to preserve the one surviving candle-glimmer of the past through the centuries-long night.

One of the things that the book does very well is capturing the heroism of the characters. We tend to think of heroism as a pure and bright thing, untouched by any stain, but in the real world such heroes are rare indeed. The ordinary state of heroism is murky, flawed, as people entangled in error and wrong nonetheless recognize one truly good thing and sacrifice everything to preserve it. The men of the tale struggle to think outside a box that is all Reich and nothing but Reich, in which women are nothing and Hitler is all, and even with the help of the book, it is a difficult struggle, and one at which they are not always completely successful. The original von Hess was a firm believer in the importance of German ascendancy; but, an honest man, he burned his reputation and risked his life for the truth. The von Hess of the tale, far more a freethinker, does the same, as his fathers had done before him. Alfred, an Englishman who comes into contact, is part of a resistance movement that has no hope of any military victory against the all-dominant Germans who control the entire military infrastructure, and he still struggles with some of the ideas to which von Hess exposes him, particularly the recognition that women are part of the key. Heroism is not, in fact, a shiny and polished thing, any more than it is the brutal and savage thing of the Hitlerian Creed; it is a habit of doing some genuine good even at great risk to oneself. And whatever other flaw and fault men may have, it does not erase that habit, if they have it.

Burdekin's dystopia has more hope than most dystopias. By the end of the tale, the German Empire is as strong as ever, the Hitlerian Creed as ascendant. The night of barbarism is not overcome. Centuries of its dominance, at least, still remain. All that has been accomplished is that something of the truth about the past has been preserved for one more generation. But therein lies the hope.

Favorite Passage: The Hitlerian Creed has a line in which it speaks of Hitler as having crushed the four arch-devils, Roehm, Lenin, Stalin, and Karl Barth. The Knight is asked who Karl Barth was:

"Karl Barth is a mystery," said the Knight, sighing. "One we can never clear up. He may have been an ordinary man like Roehm, or a great leader such as Lenin and Stalin undoubtedly were, or he may have been another such great man as von Hess, a man of soul. On the other hand, he may have been a really evil fellow. I never say the Creed without wondering about Karl Barth." (p. 138)

Recommendation: Recommended.

Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night, Feminist Press (New York: 1985).