Saturday, August 24, 2019

Louis Hémon, Maria Chapdelaine


Opening Passage:

Ite, missa est.

The door opened, and the men of the congregation began to come out of the church at Peribonka. A moment earlier it had seemed quite deserted, this church set by the roadside ont he high bank of the Peribonka, whose icy snow-covered surface was like a winding strip of plain. The snow lay deep upon the road and fields, for the April sun was powerless to send warmth through the gray clouds, and the heavy spring rains were yet to come.... (p. 27)

Summary: The Chapdelaines are a farm family in the wilderness of Quebec, in regions where farms still must be carved out of forests that are old and strong enough to resist the axe, where the soil is excellent but well-defended against the plough and the winters cold and brutally hard. Maria is the eldest daughter, a beautiful young woman of marriageable age, and as beautiful young farmer's daughters of marriageable age do, she attracts suitors. François Paradis is a trapper, woodsman, lumberjack, as needed; he is a handsome man of pioneering spirit. He and Maria fall in love, but when the over-daring youth vanishes in the harsh wilderness in winter -- a danger that could come up on even the most experienced woodsman -- and, what is more, having set out from his logging camp to visit her for New Year's Eve, she is desolate. Lorenzo Surprenant is a factory worker who has gone to America to earn his fortune, but wishes a wife from his native Quebec. He comes with stories of the wonderful things of city life, the possibility of a life of relative ease far away from the harsh winter. It is a common tale: Maria doesn't love him, quite, but what draws her to him is the image, however hazily imagined, of the life she could have with him. Eutrope Gagnon is a farmer, a neighbor of the Chapdelaines. He himself knows that he has little to offer her beyond a hard life and all of his effort to make it worthwhile. But there is something else that speaks, if not exactly for him, yet less against him than Surprenant: the fact that Quebec is her home, and the country of her people.

It is not an accident that the key event moving the story is the loss of all hope of paradise (Paradis); Paradis represents the Quebec of legend, the Quebec of the French pioneers, the indomitable, dashing, daring Quebec, and that Quebec is lost in the past. Surprenant more than any other suitor catches her imagination with dreams of the future, things not before imaginable (his name means 'Surprising'), but very noticeably it is an American future. (The Quebec that Hémon knew was one in the middle of L'Exode, the massive drain of young people desperately seeking jobs elsewhere.) Gagnon offers her simply the continuation of the Quebec that Maria already knows, a fall from a heroic paradise, but still home. The option of Gagnon is itself something that Quebec would only have a while longer; part of the endurance of the book, I think, has been that it later came to fit with a nostalgia for a farming past that also had begun to vanish. Modern Quebec is very much a Surprenant Quebec, although with the added convenience that no one actually has to cross the border.

But the book itself is not particularly nostalgic, even for the Quebec of Paradis; happiness is difficult, perhaps in the strictest sense impossible, but it is possible to have a good life even in the face of such difficulty. The world is desolate, and will wear you down, and will eventually take you away, but life is not awful for all that. There is faith, and there is hard work, and there is home and community, and with these things a homestead can be carved out of the territory, however ruthless the winter and however difficult the task. There is content to be had, though one will still regret what never was and dream of what one will never see, and though sorrowful memories may be the bulk of your lot. In a sense, Maria's choice is a vote for what it is to be Quebecois at all, and her answer is clear: to be Quebecois is to hold fast, regardless of how the world may change and the trials it may throw one's way.

Favorite Passage:

Four hundred miles away, at the far head-waters of the rivers, those Indians who have held aloof from missionaries and traders are squatting round a fire of dry cypress before their lodges, and the world they see around them, as in the earliest days, is filled with dark mysterious powers: the giant Wendigo pursuing the trespassing hunter; strange potions, carrying death or healing, which wise old men know how to distil from roots and leaves; incantations and every magic art. And here on the fringe of another world, but a day's journey from the railway, in this wooden house filled with acrid smoke, another all-conquering spell, charming and bewildering the eyes of three young men, is being woven into the shifting cloud by a sweet and guileless maid with downcast eyes. (p. 73)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Louis Hémon, Maria Chapdelaine, Blake, tr. Dundurn Press (Toronto: 2007).

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Music on My Mind

Mes Aïeux, "Dégénérations". In Maria Chapdelaine, Maria, like Quebec, has to pick among futures represented by a trapper, a farmer, and a factory worker. The wilderness way of life represented by the trapper was already on its way out in her day, so it really becomes a choice between the latter two. It's brought to mind this song, which I've posted before, and which represents a much later stage of the same kind of transition, in which the traditional farming way of life has also dissipated.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Evening Note for Wednesday, August 21

Thought for the Evening: The Unexamined Life

One of the many famous sayings that Plato attributes to Socrates is "The unexamined life is not worth living". It occurs in the Apology (37e-38):

Perhaps someone might say, “Socrates, can you not go away from us and live quietly, without talking?” Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less. This is as I say, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you.

Socrates says four other things here that are important for understanding what he means:

(1) To let life be unexamined would be disobedience to the god. The god, of course, is Apollo, through the Oracle at Delphi; Socrates has argued that through the cryptic saying the Oracle gave his friend Chaerephon -- that there is none in Greece wiser than Socrates -- his philosophical mission of asking questions to determine what people know has divine sanction. Thus the unexamined life is in some sense opposed to philosophy as such. More than that, though, he has particularly associated philosophy as a mission of the god with a refusal to fear death -- to fear death requires believing yourself wiser than you could really be (29a).

(2) The examination that is opposite to the unexamined life is the greatest good for human beings. Earlier, Socrates had characterized himself as trying to give to each Athenian what he regarded as the greatest benefit: "to persuade each of you to care for himself and his own perfection in goodness and wisdom rather than for any of his belongings, and for the state itself rather than for its interests, and to follow the same method in his care for other things" (36c). Thus the examined life is one in which being as good and as wise as possible takes priority over other things. He also had previously characterized this as approaching each citizen like a father or brother to persuade each to care for virtue (31b) and the best state of the soul (30a). While he here focuses on the benefit to each citizen individually, he also at times describe it as a benefit for the city as a whole.

(3) The examination that is opposite to the unexamined life is an "every day" examination. To talk of the unexamined life and examination can make it sound like, having the unexamined life, you go away to do some examination, and then you come back to live the examined life. But the opposite of the unexamined life is not an episode of examination but a continuation in examination, to achieve the greatest good. The opposite of the unexamined life is not so much the examined life as the ever-examining one, because that it is what is involved in treating what is best and wisest as more important than other things.

(4) That the unexamined life is not worth living is hard to believe. The reason it is hard to believe is that no one can truly understand the superiority of the philosophical life over the unexamined life without examination. Those who refuse to examine their lives cannot see that there are higher pursuits than the ones in which they are daily mired. We see this in the Allegory of the Cave: the one who was freed from the Cave and returns cannot make the others understand what he has discovered because they still only think in terms of shadows. He tries to explain to them things that are more real and more fundamental than shadows, but all of his words are understood in terms of shadows. Thus they become more and more incredulous until, as the story goes, if they could catch him they would kill him. I've previously noted that in the Allegory of the Cave Plato is flipping the Homeric view of the underworld. Homer has Achilles say that it would be better to be the slave of a poor master than to be among the dead; Socrates earlier in the Republic had criticized this as teaching cowardice in the face of death. In the middle of the Allegory, though, he quotes the very passage he criticized: it would be better to be the slave of a poor master than to live as people live in the Cave. What has changed is that Achilles is saying it is better to be us alive than Achilles dead in the underworld; but Socrates has said that we are the people in the underworld, playing shadow games.

The unexamined life, then, is one of superficial chatter, of distraction, of confusing shadow and substance. This summer, I took an online seminar on Heidegger hosted by Brian Kemple, and one thing that struck me very strongly was that Heidegger identifies each of these three features in talking about 'inauthentic existence': idle talk (Gerede), in which discourse (Rede) is in some sense just a thing that happens to one, understanding only occurring by way of "groundless floating" as the words run on their own, so to speak; curiosity (Neugier), which is a seeing not in order to understand but simply in order to see, and thus restlessly moves from new thing to new thing; and ambiguity (Zweideutigkeit) which is the failure to distinguish between what everyone assumes and the way things are. Heidegger takes each of these to reveal a certain aspect of our potential, because each of these is just the inauthentic mode of some fundamental aspect of our existence. This, I think, is quite an important insight. But it's all left very undeveloped -- one might say dangerously undeveloped -- in Being and Time. A fundamental aspect is the serious lack here, as elsewhere in Heidegger, of any adequate respect for the ethical; when we look at what corresponds to these things in Plato, we see that the ethical is taken to be absolutely central.

But it is worth reminding ourselves of two things that are easy to miss in Plato but that can certainly be seen in comparing and contrasting the Platonic and the Heideggerean view. First, the unexamined life, the life in the Cave, is not something we ever shed, in this life at least. We are more or less always living the unexamined life. It does not matter how philosophical, how self-examining you are, there is always a chattering side to your discourse, although this may sometimes subside into the background. You are always seeing to see. You are always moving tokens around and drawing on 'what everybody knows'. Everybody is always starting with the shadows in the Cave. But, second, there is another side to this, because the relative worthlessness of the unexamined life is not in the life but in the lack of examination. The unexamined life, left to itself, is potential left to rot; one is not merely not being one's best and wisest self, one is not even treating this as something important. But the things of the unexamined life, the shadows in the Cave, are not detached from a greater reality; they are not pure phantasms or fictions. They are starting points that imply something higher and better. They are the defective version of a potential that can, so to speak, be transformed -- can be constantly being transformed -- into what it is supposed to be: not chatter or idle talk but 'talking every day about virtue', participation in the discourse concerned with wisdom; not curiosity but love of wisdom and virtue; not ambiguity or shadow-games but ascension out of the Cave. What we find in the unexamined life going to waste is in reality the bubbling material for the life of examination, the philosophical life.

Various Links of Interest

* Sabrina Imbler discusses the vast fossil collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

* Cody Delistraty, Fra Angelico's Divine Emotion

* A manuscript by John Locke has recently been discovered. Some background to the discovery here.

* Matias Slavov has a good discussion on exactly how Hume may have influenced Einstein (as Einstein always said he had) in the discovery of the theory of relativity.

* Daniel Everett discusses C. S. Peirce.

* If you like public domain ebooks, Standard Ebooks looks like a good source -- their explicit goal is to guarantee that the books are properly formatted.

* People sometimes ask me how I have the time to read all the books I do. I usually say that I mostly do it by opening them and reading through the words. I should just send them to this Pearls Before Swine comic.

* Jeremy Holmes, What a metaphor really means

Currently Reading

Louis Hémon, Maria Chapdelaine
Isidore of Seville, Etymologies
Peter Damian, Peter Damian: Letters 31-60
C. S. Lewis, Poems

A Poem Draft and Two Poem Re-Drafts

The Last Dragon

My kind was born in ancient day;
the world yet young, with stars we'd play
and joy we knew beyond desire,
of flight, of thought, of burning fire,
and graceful mothers taught to sing
the little ones who took to wing
beneath the careful, watchful eyes
of fathers older than the skies.
Our dreams were scarcely less than real,
with force to rule and truth reveal,
and we learned secrets from the night
that never since have seen the light.
Our words were echoes of that Word
which first the turning chaos heard,
and like their sire they brought to form
the shapeless mass of primal storm:
to make a thing we did but speak,
and lo! whatever we might seek
was made to be. Those days are gone,
as vanished as our native dawn.
And we who were the world's first pride
in caverns deep must crawl to hide
from vermin clad with hide and steel,
ashamed of fears our hearts now feel.
O First of all, O highest Light,
cast down his hubris, slay this knight,
for through his bright but wicked blade
I fear I soon will be but shade
and I who breathe the flaming breath
now face the bitter chill of death.

Days Already Past

My heart is fanned open,
a peacock's tail, as I lie in bed.
Sleep, dearest; dream well!
Listen to my breath, a love melody.
The half-sun of this late afternoon
shines upon the garden,
honey-suckle sweet;
the clouds like vineyard leaves
doubly thick, drifting,
gather sad tales into piled masses
as I rest, the breeze fanning me.
The shadows lengthen on the trees
like painful months,
recurrent and endless.
On my arm rest your head;
let me listen to your sigh,
the melancholy as it falls,
rolling down the pillow.


Star, dark night's companion,
whose face rises, brilliant,
from the sunset-clouds,
whose majestic steps press down
on the firmament so blue,
what do you see below?
The stormwinds of the day are still,
the evening gnats, on light wings,
fill the heaven-silence with their whir.
Brilliant star, smiling with light,
what do you see below?
But already do I see you, silent,
settling on horizon's edge.

you dwell on hero-covered land.
Sing the glory of the dead;
their shades rejoice around you.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Voyages Extraordinaires #36: Mistress Branican

There are two chances of never again seeing the friends we part with when starting on a long voyage; those we leave may not be here on our return, and those who go may never come back. But little heed of these eventualities was taken by the sailors who were preparing for departure on board the Franklin in the morning of the 15th of March, 1875.

On that day the Franklin, Captain John Branican, was about to quit the port of San Diego, in California, on a voyage across the Northern Pacific.

A fine vessel of nine hundred tons was this Franklin — a barquentine fully canvased with gaff sails, jibs and stay-sails, and with topmast and top-gallant-mast on the fore.

1875 ends up being a hard year for the Captain John Branican and his wife Dolly Branican; while John is at sea, a tragic accident leads to the death of their son, Wat, and Dolly is thrown into such a state of shock at the lost that she loses her reason. She eventually recovers, several years later, but discovers when she comes out of her madness that John never came home -- the Franklin simply vanished without a trace. During her illness, however, Dolly had inherited a significant sum of money from an uncle, and so she puts it toward finding John, sending out a ship, the Dolly Hope, in order to find out what happened to the ship. The discovery of a lone survivor, who lets Dolly know that John was still alive when he last saw him, will send Mrs. Branican in an expedition across the dangerous country of Australia in order to rescue him before it is too late.

Mistress Branican (its title in both French and English), also occasionally known in English as the The Mystery of the Franklin, is pretty clearly a framework for Verne to engage in his taste for geographical fiction, in this case the geography of Australia. The framework story is interesting enough, but Verne doesn't do much with it beyond using it to get the characters moving on their Australian expedition. There is, however, an odd subplot about a man named Josh Merritt and his Chinese manservant who are engaged in a quixotic quest through extraordinary dangers to find a particular unique hat. This seems to be a case where this story grew up independently and Verne integrated it into a different story, not entirely successfully. A somewhat different version of Merritt's obsessive search for the hat, taking place in a different geographical context, seems to have been independently published in several newspapers. (Alternatively, it is possible that Verne himself was not satisfied with the handling in the novel and decided to rework it as an independent tale. I don't know enough about the background to say.)

Bernardus Claraevallensis

Today is the feast of St. Bernard of Claivaux, Doctor of the Church. From a letter to Thomas of Beverley:

Let none, therefore, doubt that he is loved who already loves. The love of God freely follows our love which it preceded. For how can He grow weary of returning their love to those whom He loved even while they yet loved Him not? He loved them, I say; yes, He loved. For as a pledge of His love thou hast the Spirit; thou hast also Jesus, the faithful witness, and Him crucified. Oh! double proof, and that most sure, of God's love towards us. Christ dies, and deserved to be loved by us. The Spirit works, and makes Him to be loved. The One shows the reason why He is love: the Other how He is to be loved. The One commends His own great love to us; the Other makes it ours. In the One we see the Object of love; from the Other we draw the power to love. With the One, therefore, is the cause; with the Other the gift of charity.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Joyful Meadows and Sad Skies

Contour theory is a particular account of what it means for music to be expressive. The idea, usually associated with the earlier work of Peter Kivy and with the work of Stephen Davies, is that music (or at least some basic kind of music) is expressive not because it symbolically represents emotion, but because it in some way presents it, that music can have a structure that we recognize as having the same 'contour' as our own physical expressions of emotion. For instance, music can have a tempo much like our heartbeat, or our gait, when we are excited; it can have a directionality that's like the direction our body takes when it slumps or rises; and so forth. Roger Scruton argues in The Aesthetics of Music that contour theory cannot account for the importance of musical expression, and also that it seems to confuse means and end. I think there's something to both criticisms; they are a good reason to think that contour theory, simply on its own, does not adequately characterize the full richness of what we experience music as expressing. But this is very far from saying that there is nothing to the theory; even if we must add something to sort out important or interesting expressions from unimportant or uninteresting ones, and even if we take the contour or shape of the music only to be something that disposes sound to be expressive, rather than the expression itself, there still does seem to be a way in which contour plays a role. I mean, listen to Prokofiev's Op. 67 (narrated here by Basil Rathbone) and tell me that the music in "Peter and the Wolf" is not expressive by resemblance at all; obviously there is some purely conventional element to it, but we can recognize the appropriateness of Prokofiev's choices for it. And when we look at pure music, as opposed to music like this in which we are aided in our interpretation by words, we still find the same kinds of appropriateness. In any case, for the purposes of this post, we don't need to consider contour to be the only or even the primary account of expressiveness, as long as we can recognize it as a major means of expression.

One of the interesting things about contour theory is that if it's true, it is plausible to extend it beyond music to other things. I think Davies uses the example of the weeping willow being 'sad'. It's not purely a matter of arbitrary convention; the willow has the same demeanor, one might say, as someone who is sad. Of course, the willow is not itself expressing any emotion, but we can say it is in some sense expressive of it, or suitable to express it, or some such thing. (We want to be able to say in general that something can be expressive of an emotion without anyone expressing that actual emotion, because of acting and the like.)

Marta Benenti and Cristina Meini had a paper a little while back in Philosophia ("The Recognition of Emotions in Music and Landscapes: Extending Contour Theory") in which they extend contour theory specifically to landscape painting. (They differ from some standard contour theories, so they distinguish their view from those, but it can be considered a contour theory in a broad sense.) They note that contour theory doesn't require that we ourselves perceive the similarity itself, as long as we perceive a particular manifestation or characteristic that is similar; we don't have to perceive the similarity of smiles to perceive smiles as smiles, and neither do we have to put our finger on exactly what makes the music and the emotional behavior have the same shape. We just perceive the shape and react to it in the same way in both cases. We could in a sense just as easily say that the emotional behavior expresses the same thing as a bunch of music; indeed, people do occasionally talk as if music sometimes sheds light on the emotional behavior rather than vice versa. But this will also be true of depicted landscapes. They give the example of Caspar Friedrich's Der Nachmittag:

Caspar David Friedrich - Tageszeitenzyklus, Der Nachmittag (1821-22)

You can see this landscape as calm, perhaps even somber (Benenti and Meini suggest sad and melancholy, these are perhaps a little strong for the quiet expressiveness we find here, but you could suggest, perhaps, that there is a something of a tendency toward these things): there's a lot of gray and dark earth colors, not much indication of energetic action. If you, seeing this painting, were then asked what kind of painting would express joyful excitement, you could give a clear and coherent answer: brighter colors, more suggestion of motion, perhaps something about the painting's lines drawing you up and forward, and so forth.

It's clear that the expressiveness can't be quite the same, because painting doesn't allow for the actual movement that music does, the acceleration and deceleration, the vibrational characeristics (church organs don't just play, a good church organ in some sense plays you, by sending its sound through you), and so forth. But Benenti and Meini note that facial expressions and the like can be expressive even when static. But even setting that aside, paintings and drawings can, of course, be suggestive of motion.

If we take this to be true of depicted landscapes, though, it is surely true of the landscapes themselves. The depiction can add or mute features, of course, but many of the perceptible features that make the painting expressive will be shared by the actual scene itself (and the scene, of course, can be in actual motion that is only suggested by the painting). And this fits our experience. The world is expressive to us. The sky may be lowering, the flowers may be joyous, the mountains may be dignified, having that very shape.

Davies, if I recall correctly, actually suggests that saying that a willow is sad is not metaphorical but literal, although in a kind of secondary way; I think this perhaps draws the line between literal and figurative in the wrong place. But I do think it shows that emotive metaphors, like saying that a meadow is joyful or a sky is sad, can be argued to be non-arbitrary and to be describing something that is genuinely in the thing itself. And, of course, these emotive metaphors are the basis for others again, which are building directly on them, like the metaphor of a smiling meadow. Regarding the world around us as expressive is a part of our rational interaction with it.

There is a tendency to think that we get dryads by taking nondryadical trees and dryadizing them, personifying them. But the evidence really suggests that it works the other way. It would generally be closer to the truth to say that we start with the dryad and then reduce her to a bare tree. But for all that, the tree has a sort of recognizable expressiveness and will always seem a little like a dryad.

None Are from the Rule Released

Keep a Pluggin' Away
by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I’ve a humble little motto
That is homely, though it's true,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.
It’s a thing when I’ve an object
That I always try to do,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.
When you’ve rising storms to quell,
When opposing waters swell,
It will never fail to tell,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.

If the hills are high before
And the paths are hard to climb,
Keep a pluggin’ away.
And remember that success
Comes to him who bides his time,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.
From the greatest to the least,
None are from the rule released.
Be thou toiler, poet, priest,
Keep a pluggin’ away.

Delve away beneath the surface,
There is treasure farther down,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.
Let the rain come down in torrents,
Let the threat’ning heavens frown,
Keep a pluggin’ away.
When the clouds have rolled away,
There will come a brighter day
All your labor to repay,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.

There’ll be lots of sneers to swallow,
There’ll be lots of pain to bear,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.
If you’ve got your eye on heaven,
Some bright day you’ll wake up there,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.
Perseverance still is king;
Time its sure reward will bring;
Work and wait unwearying,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.