Saturday, May 16, 2020

Evening Note for Saturday, May 16

Thought for the Evening: Imitating Genius

Genius, etymologically speaking, is the spirit presiding over your birth; it is particularly known in inspiration, which, again etymologically speaking, is spirit flowing in. Of course, we usually take it in a more metaphorical and naturalistic sense, along the lines of Kant, "Genius is the talent (natural endowment) which gives the rule to art" or "Genius is the innate mental aptitude (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art", or Gerard, "GENIUS is properly the faculty of invention; by means of which a man is qualified, for making new discoveries in science, or for producing original works of art." It follows from the definition of genius, whether taken etymologically or metaphorically, that genius eludes all rule and method. But it does not follow from this that there could not be rules or methods that imitate genius. Quite the reverse. It follows directly that rule and method are by their nature ways in which we chase after genius, by which we build a mechanism that works a little like inspiration. There are several ways in which, lacking genius, you might make up the lack by working up an imitation of genius.

(1) Hypercombinatorial. Genius going beyond rule, it accesses unexpected possibilities. So one of the ways in which one could do an imitation of genius by brute force is by initiating an explosion of possibilities. As a chess computer can brute-force its way to victory on the chessboard by considering massive quantities of possible moves, and thus by running through many possibilities imitate the chess master who simply looks at the board and sees immediately many of the best possibilities, so we can run through massive numbers of combinations of ideas and eventually hit something that would be absolutely brilliant if we had thought of it at once.

This method is actually quite important for intellectual inquiry. Academics can occasionally be creative geniuses, although perhaps much less often than some of them think, but academia is certainly not creative. Academia is a hypercombinatorial machine. Essentially academic life works under two major pressures that affect inquiry: you are supposed to come up with something new, and this new thing is supposed to be relevant to what other people are working on. These two almost-conflicting rules, to come up with something new but to make sure that it is not too new, are together a recipe for ringing through combinations. Suppose people are working on vagueness (that was the faddish philosophical topic when I was in graduate school). Then, inevitably, the academic gears whir into motion and you get graduate students and professors running through the combinations to find something that will get published:

Vagueness and Divine Knowledge
Vagueness and the Ontological Argument
Vagueness and the Problem of Other Minds
Vagueness and Dialetheism
Vagueness and Deontological Dilemmas
Vagueness and Bayesian Epistemology
Vagueness and Feminist Standpoint Theory

And so on and so on and so on. Sometimes the field will get too crowded and you'll need to make the topics more narrow, based on previous runs through combinations,

Epistemic Accounts of Vagueness and Epistemic Injustice in Racial Contexts

There's a joke in philosophy that you can make everything more philosophical by adding the word 'epistemic' to it, and that conveys the same idea. It could be anything -- there are always lots of ideas on the table at any given time. And sometimes there's an outside disruption that shifts the possibilities that you run through; I've no doubt that we will see a few COVID-19-inspired combinations in the near future. It's this aspect of academia that sometimes makes academics sound like a parody of themselves; you are going to get absurd and strained combinations as well as promising and fruitful ones.

But there is a constraint on all of this; the explosion of possibilities is then filtered according to some standard or standards. This derives from the 'not too new'. In practice this means that you have to convince other academics that your new thing is sufficiently like what they do, or relevant enough to what they do, that you are in their vicinity. The exact requirements will vary from discipline to discipline; some will be very stringent, and some less so, depending on what they see themselves as doing. (Disciplines also differ on exactly where they apply the filter.) There needs to be some sort of constraint or you just have combinations, not anything definite. But academia as a whole accomplishes, sometimes, something like genius, because at any given time it is rolling through a vast number of possible combinations of ideas. And you could do it on a smaller scale, as well. We see this, in fact; someone of only moderate ability who obsessively spends years on something, sheer hard work in trying things out, sometimes comes up with brilliance.

(2) Hyperanalogical. There's another way that possibly might be said to imitate genius, based not on running through combinations of ideas but on repeatedly trying analogies and taking them to the breaking point. This is like the combinatorial approach, except it involves a side-step; you are running through combinations, but through combinations of apparently similar things. Finding out the point that an analogy breaks down is often an important discovery; finding out that the analogy does not break down at all is often an even more important one. Doing this with a lot of analogies is bound to get you something. And once you get that something, you can often move on to analogize from it.

I think it's fair to say that in general this is a much harder method than the first. Speaking as someone who has a natural talent for analogical reasoning, I find myself in constantly baffling (and frustrating) situations in which people naturally reach for analogies to understand things, but in which it is also very difficult to get most people to understand any particular analogy and why it breaks down or does not. And because analogical inferences are based on apparent similarities, many of which are merely apparent, there are traps for everyone everywhere, anyway. I have seen professional philosophers make absolute fools of themselves over parity arguments (which involve analogical inferences with respect to structures of arguments, and simple versions of which are one of the most fundamental things you need for accurate analysis of arguments). I have seen professional theologians completely bungle how analogies work in (say) Trinitarian theology. Perhaps you wouldn't expect consistent practice with analogical reasoning in academia, though; perhaps the hyperanalogical machines are things like science fiction publishing or such. Or perhaps it just doesn't scale as well as the hypercombinatorial approach; perhaps it needs to be done by smaller groups of people working on smaller problems, and perhaps it runs through a lot more chaff to get to the wheat.

(3) Hyperdialogical. Perhaps there is a third, although with this approach we are getting to the point where, when effective, imitation of genius perhaps sometimes blurs into and blends with real acts of genius. Instead of running through possible combinations of ideas or repeatedly finding possible analogies and pressing them until they break, you could instead look at the problem from multiple points of view simultaneously. (This is related to the notion of romantic irony, which Romantics like Schlegel in fact connected to ingenium.) Well, doing that is strictly speaking probably a major act of ingenium already, so what we're really talking about it is building in stages something like that. Instead of 'simultaneously', unfold it slowly. And the way we normally do that is by conversation, dialogue. So in addressing problems, one way to go about it is to have a discussion -- an argument, broadly speaking -- between perspectives that make different assumptions. You can do this in your own head, but of course, it can also play out between people. I suspect that the hyperdialogical machines are found in collaborative work of various kinds. But of course, the reason these are all 'hyper' is that it has to go well beyond normal; merely having a conversation is not an act of genius. It's the intensity and extent of discussion on a particular topic that matters here. Methods (1) and (2) work by expanding the possibilities and then filtering them according to some goal; but the hyperdialogical approach in a sense works in the reverse direction -- you start with a topic, which gives you the goal, and then you expand possibilities by arguing it out between different perspectives, always constrained by that goal.

There are probably more, of course. I've put this all in terms of 'imitating genius'; but arguably you could reframe it as 'exercising genius'. People often have the idea that there is a group of people out there who are 'the geniuses' by nature. This is obviously absurd if taken to be more than a figure of speech. Everyone has their native genius, a faculty of ingenium, sharp wits; and even in those who seem exemplars of ingenuity, it is sporadic in the best of times. There is in fact about genius something of the lucky; not that works of genius are sheer matters of luck but that every work of genius in part makes use of luck. I've talked about that in the context of art. To make use of luck, though, you have to be ready for it; 'lucky people' are in general not people who have better luck but people who have better preparation for lucky moments. There is a practice to it. And I think many people do starve their native genius. It needs exercise, like any other ability, if it is to make use of the right opportunities. I think Novalis says somewhere that the acuity of genius is the acute use of acuity, and I think that gets something very right: genius is the ingenious use of your ingenuity; it is the brilliant use of whatever brilliance you have; it is the inventive use of your aptitude for invention. People use their ingenuity in narrow and repetitive ways all the time; genius comes when your use of your ingenuity is itself ingenious. That requires a lot of deliberate practice in thinking about possibilities, making comparisons, and shifting points of view.

Various Links of Interest

* Adam Schwartz, What He Saw in America: G.K. Chesterton’s View of the United States

* J. E. H. Smith, The Yakut Verbal Voice System

* Paul Shakeshaft, The Via Media of George Herbert

* David Carrier, When Philosophy and Art Intersect, discusses the philosophical drawings of Maria Bussman.

* Steele Brand, The Diseases that Kill Republics: Insights from Ancient Rome's Epidemics

* I have had no extra time for podcasts or the like, but if I had, The History of the Vikings sounds like it is interesting.

* Jim Baggott, How science fails, at, on Imre Lakatos.

* Emma Green, Nuns vs. the Coronavirus, discusses the difficulties of the Little Sisters of the Poor as they struggle in their mission to assist the elderly and vulnerable in the midst of an epidemic.

* Sabine Hossenfelder, Predictions are overrated

* Thomas Poole, Leviathan in Lockdown

* Richard Whately: Defending Logic, at "Irish Philosophy"

* Steven Greydanus looks at the depictions of the sacrament of confession in movies.

* Donovan Cleckley, In Defense of Sex as a Category of Significance

Currently Reading
Because the shift to online teaching while trying not to disadvantage students unnecessarily has made my life much, much busier over the past couple of weeks, my reading is in an unusual state of disarray. But a few things I have been reading in chaotic bits and pieces:

Wace, The History of the Norman People
John Wright, Titans of Chaos
John Poinsot, Treatise on Signs

Friday, May 15, 2020

Dashed Off IX

Ganesh (2108): Kant's thinning of the notion of Cosmopolitan Right has an anti-colonialist intent. 'Hospitality' is not a virtue-notion but a (quasi-)legal notion: Wirtbarkeit, innkeeping. The traditional understanding of the later is that the traveler cannot be refused, but the resident is a different matter. Innkeepers are fiduciaries of their guests and serve as a kind of (semi-)public official, because those on a journey have to rely on the good faith of innkeepers.

Emergency powers create emergencies.

Utilitarianism treats everything as if it were a drug.

the depersonification of the gods

rights of the Church as expressing its royal mission
(1) right to an independent material patrimony suitable to its needs and protecting it from subordination to secular powers
(2) right to proclaim the Gospel
(3) right to provide for those who are poor and in need
(4) right to public ornament and patronage of arts and sciences for common good and the glory of God
(5) right to institutions of private charity and devotion
(6) right to evangelism, catechesis, and provision of Christian education
(7) right to self-governance
(8) right to give first allegiance to Christ the King

The notion of culture depends on a context of traditionary being.

criticism : episode :: critique : plot

The Church has an obligation to insist that it, insofar as Christ is in it, be treated as an end and not merely as a means.

Cush on Lonergan:
researchexperiencebe attentive
interpretationunderstandingbe intelligent
historyjudgmentbe reasonable
dialecticdecisionbe responsible
foundationsdecisionbe responsible
doctrinesjudgmentbe reasonable
systematicsunderstandingbe intelligent
communicationsexperiencebe attentive

"the end of humanity in respect of sexuality is to preserve the species without debasing the person" Kant

the amplitude of giving as something we must learn

While all conventions are in some sense contingent, they vary considerably in meaningfulness, plausibility, integrity, and utility.

" is impossible to take any particular hold of the English schism, for it is not a religion in itself, so much as a mixture composed of every heresy, excluding Catholicity, the only true religion." Liguori

the display economy of academia

three elements of inculturation:
vigilance, edification, concentration (there is a fourth, exaltation/transfiguration, but it is in divine hands)

There are no purely private obligations; even obligations of conscience do not work that way.

We assert arguments, or else do something arguments that is very like asserting.

structural, thematic, and functional comparisons of arguments

The Pyrrhonian attempts to treat all of his own arguments as hypothetical and all of his opponent's arguments as categorical.

three kinds of name (Mohist Canon A78): da (unrestricted), lei (classifying), si (private)

three general rules of analyzing business and finance
(1) conservation: nothing comes from nothing
(2) entropy: there is always deterioration (wear and tear)
(3) friction: an operating business is always in the process of solving as-yet-unsolved problems
-these can prob. be generalized to all organizations

precedential, analogical, and semiotic constraints on sacramental theology

"It [Rome] had the habit of relics, the higher way of mind and lower business organization to deal with them." Charles Williams

relics vs antiquarian curiosities

Arguments can be used literally, suggestively, or ironically; suggestive uses can be partial, concomitant, or analogical.

artificial classification // nominal definition
real : nominal :: natural : artificial

World Resource Institute "Shift Wheel"
(1) Maximize awareness: be more memorable, constrain display, enhance display
(2) Evolve social norms: inform about the issue, make socially desirable, make socially unacceptable
(3) Minimize disruption: replicate the experience, disguise the change, form habits in new markets
(4) Sell a compelling benefit: meet current key needs, deliver new compelling benefit, enhance affordability

sutras as like the alphabet or multiplication table for a system of thought

higher and lower sacramentals
- integral components of sacraments would be higher, as would the sacramentals that the Church reserves for ordained clergy
- in general dispositive sacramentals would be lower
- 'higher' and 'lower' here are of course relative to major sacraments (highest); perhaps 'proximate' and 'remote' would be better

deflationary account of truth → deflationary account of cognition

Beliefs have fuzzy borders.

"..all specialists tend so to consider humanity as divided into themselves and the mass to be affected." Williams

- an unusual design argument, Crowley's argument for the reality of Aiwass based on The Book of the LAw -- see Confessions ch. 49 and also the introduction to TBotL.
- as with other arguments of this sort, it is an appeal to the results of a kind of scholarship, in this case, Crowley's idea of Qabalah

the intertwining of the en soi and the pour soi

The body as factually given is already instrumental.

Post-medieval approaches to philosophy seem regularly to founder on taking the important to be the primary and the primary to be the sole, for almost every field. This makes them very useful for exploring things in hypothetical isolation and not so useful for anything else. You can genuinely learn a lot about the cogito from Descartes, transition of imagination from Hume, awareness of tools from Heidegger, or models from Carnap, but in each case things worth considering are explored as if they were the only thing to consider.

The Thomistic position on the unity of the substantial form has the implication that the body in itself has a character relevant to intellect and moral will.

The problem with Harman's attempt to reduce enumerative induction to inference to the best explanation is that enumerative induction is not generally to any explanation at all, but to something in a form so as to be an explanandum, or an explanans for other things entirely.

Ontological arguments // Abstract Objects
---- (1) from idea (Ideological)
---- (2) from possibility (modal)
Cosmological arguments // External World
---- (1) Primacy
---- (2) Maximality
---- (3) Purity
Design arguments // Other Minds
---- (1) Natural
---- ---- (a) Special
---- ---- (b) General
---- (2) Civil
---- ---- (a) Providential
---- ---- (b) Traditional
---- (3) Scriptural
Epistemological arguments // Knowledge
---- (1) Skepticism-breaking
---- (2) Error
---- (3) Illuminationist
Moral and Aesthetic arguments // Values
---- (1) Formal
---- (2) Final
---- (3) Coordinational
Anthropological arguments // Free Will
---- (1) Religious Experience
---- ---- (a) Personal
---- ---- (b) Testimonial
---- (2) Consensus Gentium
---- ---- (a) Summative
---- ---- (b) Natural
Pragmatic arguments

aspects of design (Derham): made with art, contrived with sagacity, ordered with design, ministering to ends
- Derham divides design for the Atmosphere into (a) Nature and Make and (b) consequent use to the world.

While the Kantian criticism that Physico-Theology confuses purpose and use often has bite and is sometimes devastating, it does not change the fact that, for reasons that they suggested, nature is a structure of usefulnesses and thus a functioning system composed of functioning systems. (This is why Kant takes it seriously as a *general* project.)

Derham considers the objection for animals & food that necessity makes the use -- that animals, hungry, just make use of what they can; he responds that the aptness of the food to the naimal is clearly part of the "very Constitution and Nature of Animals", so not chance, and that hte animals don't pick their food by accident or necessity but select it as "a proper Food, agreeable to their Constitution."

Derham on Animal Habitations:
Either (1) they have not only reason but also in a superior form (wisdom, foresight, discretion, art, and care);
or (2) they are passive, acting by instinct.
But surely not (1), therefore (2).
But the rationality of their actions must then be the reason of a superior being imprinted on their natures.

Derham: "signs of chance" -- botch, blunder, unnecessary apparatus

design arguments as arguments a fortiori

stability, beauty, scope, and subtlety as lures of inquiry

Philo on Gn 12:1-3: Land is symbol of body, kindred of sensation, father's house of speech. [De Migratione]

"It is evident that the parent must have knowledge of his offspring, the craftsman of the objects fashioned by him, the steward of the things managed by him. But God is truly the father and craftsman and steward of all things celestial and cosmic." Philo

Consciousness is necessarily a cooperation with the world.

"Materialism is...the attempt to explain what is directly given to us from what is given indirectly." Schopenhauer

Experience consists of many overlaps.

None of Tononi's arguments for the exclusion axiom of Integrated Information Theory seem adequate to the fuzziness of many experiences.

the cooperativeness of consciousness as one of the things meant by 'qualia'

Beliefs are had by way of a persona.

Most of our beliefs that things do not exist seem to be based on synousia rather than evidence. Nonexistence just fits better with other things we believe.

guesses as arising from doxastic synousia

lives of pleasure, triumph, and nobility

Memorizing poetry plays an important role in maintaining the health of a language -- even fragments are a considerable contribution, well constructed songs are even better; and a language whose speakers memorize extensive amounts of poetry is always thriving.

From Trembling Thoughts Relieve His Cheerless Day

Sonnet XXXV
by Alexander Thomson

Suspiciens altam lunam, sic voce precatur. -- Virgil

Fair, silver Queen! whose all pervading eye
Beholds at once whate'er the world contains!
Wilt thou in pity listen from on high,
To him whose lonely heart to thee complains?

Thou seest his soul in anxious torture lie,
Bound by suspense, in more than iron chains;
Thou know'st the cause that prompts his frequent sigh,
And fills with terror's frost his shiv'ring veins.

Oh, tell him then, and end this cruel fear,
Why the dear Youth to whom his heart is join'd,
With Friendship's voice delays to soothe his ear;
Oh tell him this and ease his frantic mind:
From trembling thoughts relieve his cheerless day,
And save his restless night from dreams of wild dismay.

Edinburgh Feb 1789

Thursday, May 14, 2020


Today is the feast of St. Matthias, Apostle. The story about him in Acts 1 is interesting in a number of ways. It occurs between the Ascension and Pentecost; Jesus has given his disciples their mission but they have not yet received the full measure of the Holy Spirit. Because of this, it often gets skipped over. But we learn a number of things from it. The disciples are meeting regularly in fairly large groups. The eleven Apostles left are explicitly mentioned, as are Mary the Mother of Jesus, the women, and the brothers of the Lord. (The women are mentioned not as if they were just a generic bunch of women but as if they were a well-defined even if perhaps not formally defined group. This fits with a number of things said in the Gospel of Luke, e.g., Luke 8:1-3, Luke 23:54-56; cp. Mark 15:40-41.) But the gathering that chooses Matthias has about 120 disciples all told (which number may have only included the men, since Peter only addresses the men).

Peter is quite clearly the leader here; he tells them that Scripture says that Judas needs to be replaced and they do it (the word he uses is dei, i.e., 'It is required'). In fact, while it is never said, the whole thing is structured as if Peter had called the meeting specifically in order to do what they end up doing. Peter's reason is based on Scripture; he quotes Psalm 69 and Psalm 109. The latter is straightforward in its application ("May another take his place of leadership"), although the word for 'place of leadership' is 'supervision', episkopen. The other one reads a bit oddly in English: "May his place be deserted; let there be no one dwelling in it." It seems a little odd to quote that no one should dwell in his place in an argument that you should fill his place. But read in context, the verses both come from very similar passages: they are from the psalms that tend to embarrass people today, the ones in which the enemies of the psalmist are cursed. The verses in Acts 1:18-19, about what happened to Judas, are often read as parenthetical, but the thought of Peter's argument follows directly from them, not from Acts 1:17. The line of thought is: The Scripture had to be fulfilled which spoke of Judas (v. 16); Judas was one of their ministry (diakonias) (v. 17); with the payment for his injustice (adikias), he bought a field and died (v. 18); everybody in Jerusalem heard about it so called it the Field of Blood (v. 19); because Scripture says, "May his place be deserted...." and "May another take his place...." Thus Peter is reading the cursing passages of the Psalm as being about Judas. What it says about him in Psalm 69 is fulfilled by his death; so what it says about him in Psalm 109 must be fulfilled as well. I find it interesting that they don't replace him until he is dead; the word for 'dwell' here (katoikon) suggests permanent settlement, so the curse on Judas is that his apostleship is not permanent.

In any case, what Peter says is necessary to do is to make "one of these", i.e., the Apostles, from the men who accompanied the Lord Jesus the whole time from his Baptism to his Ascension and a witness of the Resurrection. This in fact ends up being the entire backstory we know about Matthias: he was with Jesus the whole time from the Baptism to the Ascension. We know nothing else about who he was. The men there pick two -- Joseph Barsabbas, also called Justus, and Matthias.

But two is not one of these. So what they do then is pray to God, knower of the hearts of all, that He will point out which one of the these two that He has chosen to take the place for this service (diakonias) and apostleship (aposteles) from which Judas traveled (the word could also mean 'die') "to his own place". Then they cast lots. Casting lots was, of course, common. It is also possible, given the comment about Judas going to his own place, that they had Leviticus 16:8 in the background. In the atonement offering, the high priest makes an atonement before the Lord with the sacrifice of a bull and two goats. The goats are split, one for the Lord and one "for azazel" (in the Hebrew; we don't know for sure what the word meant) or "sent away" (in the Septuagint), by lot, and the one "for azazel" is then sent into the wilderness. More likely, lots were the standard way in which Temple duties were assigned. Regardless, when the lots were cast, Matthias became one of the Apostles.

And that's the last we hear about him. According to the most popular tradition, after preaching in Jerusalem a while he went down into "Ethiopia" (by which is likely not meant Ethiopia but Colchis in the Caucasus, in modern-day Georgia; Herodotus claimed that the Colchians were descended from the Ethiopians). Of his death, the traditions are all over the place; he was martyred by crucifixion in Sebastopolis (in modern-day Turkey) or by stoning and beheading in Jerusalem or by stoning in Colchis, or he simply died of old age in Jerusalem.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Power Itself Is What Must Humble Itself

...We must admit the existence of a law of nature and reason that precedes civil coexistence, and that must be respected by all civil dispositions, and that against such law no civil power can do nor attempt to do anything. If this is fully admitted, sincerely in all its consequences; if the legislative branch submits itself to natural and rational law, which -- like it or not -- overpowers it; then and only then will the legislative branch cease to be despotic irrespective of any form taken by the will of the most, the many, the few, or the one -- as these are nothing but the forms of power, and not power itself. Power itself is what must humble itself before eternal law. Civil power and civil society themselves must recognize that they have no authority whatsoever against the rights that nature assigns to man and consequently all the associations of men independently from their civil association.

[Antonio Rosmini, The Constitution Under Social Justice, Mingardi, tr., Lexington Books (2007) p. 28.]

Monday, May 11, 2020

Upon His Black Mare Riding, Girt with His Sword of Fame

Abd-El-Kader At Toulon
Or, The Caged Hawk
by William Makepeace Thackeray

No more, thou lithe and long-winged hawk, of desert-life for thee;
No more across the sultry sands shalt thou go swooping free:
Blunt idle talons, idle beak, with spurning of thy chain,
Shatter against thy cage the wing thou ne'er may'st spread again.

Long, sitting by their watchfires, shall the Kabyles tell the tale
Of thy dash from Ben Halifa on the fat Metidja vale;
How thou swept'st the desert over, bearing down the wild El Riff,
From eastern Beni Salah to western Ouad Shelif;

How thy white burnous welit streaming, like the storm-rack o'er the sea,
When thou rodest in the vanward of the Moorish chivalry;
How thy razzia was a whirlwind, thy onset a simoom,
How thy sword-sweep was the lightning, dealing death from out the gloom!

Nor less quick to slay in battle than in peace to spare and save,
Of brave men wisest councillor, of wise councillors most brave;
How the eye that flashed destruction could beam gentleness and love,
How lion in thee mated lamb, how eagle mated dove!

Availed not or steel or shot 'gainst that charmed life secure,
Till cunning France, in last resource, tossed up the golden lure;
And the carrion buzzards round him stooped, faithless, to the cast,
And the wild hawk of the desert is caught and caged at last.

Weep, maidens of Zerifah, above the laden loom!
Scar, chieftains of Al Elmah, your cheeks in grief and gloom!
Sons of the Beni Snazam, throw down the useless lance,
And stoop your necks and bare your backs to yoke and scourge of France!

Twas not in fight they bore him down; he never cried aman;
He never sank his sword before the PRINCE OF FRANGHISTAN;
But with traitors all around him, his star upon the wane,
He heard the voice of ALLAH, and he would not strive in vain.

They gave him what he asked them; from king to king he spake,
As one that plighted word and seal not knoweth how to break;
'Let me pass from out my deserts, be't mine own choice where to go,
I brook no fettered life to live, a captive and a show.'

And they promised, and he trusted them, and proud and calm he came,
Upon his black mare riding, girt with his sword of fame.
Good steed, good sword, he rendered both unto the Frankish throng;
He knew them false and fickle—but a Prince's word is strong.

How have they kept their promise? Turned they the vessel's prow
Unto Acre, Alexandria, as they have sworn e'en now?
Not so: from Oran northwards the white sails gleam and glance,
And the wild hawk of the desert is borne away to France!

Where Toulon's white-walled lazaret looks southward o'er the wave,
Sits he that trusted in the word a son of Louis gave.
O noble faith of noble heart! And was the warning vain,
The text writ by the BOURBON in the blurred black book of Spain?

They have need of thee to gaze on, they have need of thee to grace
The triumph of the Prince, to gild the pinchbeck of their race.
Words are but wind, conditions must be construed by GUIZOT;
Dash out thy heart, thou desert hawk, ere thou art made a show!

Abdelkader was an Algerian Sufi who became a freedom fighter during the French conquest of Algeria in 1830. He had extraordinary success for several years until the French army began practicing scorched earth tactics to take advantage of his supply weaknesses. The sophistication of his military tactics and the humanity with he treated prisoners made him an international name. He surrendered in December of 1847 on one condition, that he would be allowed to leave Algeria and go to Alexandria or Acre. The French agreed, he signed the treaty of surrender, and the French immediately broke their promise, arresting him and imprisoning him at Fort Lamalgue in Toulon. This led to an international outcry, of which protests like Thackeray's are but a small example. After the Revolution of 1848, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte realized that there was some propaganda value here in showing that the Second Republic was superior to the Orleans Monarchy that had preceded it, so he released Abdelkader and gave him pension on the condition that he never return to Algeria. He would later become famous again after he and those Algerians who went into exile to follow him saved several hundred Christians from rioters in Damascus in 1860.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Fortnightly Book, May 10

The history of the Normans is a long one and hard to set down in the vernacular. If one asks who said this, who wrote this history in the vernacular, I say and I will say that I am Wace from the Isle of Jersey, which is in the sea towards the west and belongs to the territory of Normandy.

Of Wace we know very little; we don't even know how the W in his name was pronounced, because he lived on the cusp of a shift between pronouncing it as W and pronouncing it as V. What we do know is almost entirely what Wace tells us. He was born on Jersey (he is in fact the earliest known author from that Norman isle); he studied in Caen; he would have had to be born somewhere around the beginning of the twelfth century. He wrote a number of verse works, of which the most famous and important is the national epic of the Normans, the Roman de Rou, written in Old Norman:

Jo di e dirai ke jo sui
Wace de l’isle de Gersui

The Roman, written in the reign of Henry II, covers the history of the Norman people from the taking of northern France by the Viking Rollo (the Rou of the title) in the early tenth century to Henry I's ending of a civil war between Norman houses at the Battle of Tinchebrai in 1106, and particularly considers that history in light of the rivalry of the Normans with the perfidious French.

Cronological tree William I - text

The Roman has three parts and is in many ways an oddity. The very different parts are not all written in the same kind of verse, and the work was never finished; Wace repeatedly complains about how difficult and long the work is and how little money he is given for doing it, and his last comment is a sour mention that he can't continue because the king had given the same task to Maistre Beneeit and that it isn't his fault. We don't know why that happened; perhaps the king had expected a more timely delivery, or perhaps he just got tired of Wace's complaining.

I'll be reading the Roman in Glyn Burgess's translation, entitled The History of the Norman People. I've done a few other national epics and thought it would be good to do for my Norman ancestors what I have done for my Danish and Norwegian ancestors. So here we are, something in memory of ancestor Rollo and ever-so-many-greats-grandmother Poppa of Bayeux, as well as all those in my family tree who conquered northern France, like you do if you're a Viking, and conquered England and Malta and Tunisia and Sicily and Cyprus and the Holy Land, like you do if you're a Norman.

Apostle of Andalusia

Today is the feast of St. Juan de Ávila, Doctor of the Church. From one of his letters:

After some great sorrow, God usually grants us happiness, as to Abraham He gave “Isaac, the desired,” which name signifies“ laughter.” After a while, the Almighty plunged the patriarch into grief again, by commanding him to kill the son He had' bestowed for his consolation: so does God often deprive His children of their happiness, bidding them sacrifice it and live in sadness. The Apostles felt perfectly safe and confident as they embarked with Christ in their boat; yet they were terrified when the storm arose which seemed likely to drown them, while He, on Whose protection they depended, slept, and appeared to have forgotten them. But our Lord had not forgotten them: it was His command which raised the tempest, and He was as watchful to deliver them as to place them in danger. Why then should you be troubled by the trials your Saviour sends you? Why should you dislike the medicine which has come from the hands of your tender Father? Do you think He is austere enough to grieve you, and too weak to deliver you from the afflictions sent by Him? Does He lack mercy, that He will not pardon you, and grant you greater graces than ever? Have a strong faith in God's goodness, although to your weak understanding, He seems severe. For your soul, confidence in His mercy is as far superior to distrust, as the certainty of faith surpasses the ignorance of human reason.

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles; The Valley of Fear


Opening Passages: From Hound:

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. “To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,” was engraved upon it, with the date “1884.” It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry—dignified, solid, and reassuring.

“Well, Watson, what do you make of it?”

From Valley:

“I am inclined to think—” said I.

“I should do so,” Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.

I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I'll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. “Really, Holmes,” said I severely, “you are a little trying at times.”

Summary: Dartmoor is a legend-heavy area of Britain, filled with ghost stories, including packs of spectral hell-hounds and horsemen without heads and nighttime visits by the devil; it is scattered throughout with Neolithic and Bronze Age remains, like stone circles and remains of ancient settlements; and it is a fairly rainy area of the country, with peaty soil that tends to absorb water like a sponge and then hold it, creating bogs and mires and tufts of apparently firm moss that are floating on deep laters of watery mud. Doyle will use all three to excellent effect in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the most successfully atmospheric of the Holmes novels. In the aftermath of a baronet's death from fright on the moors, Dr. Montgomery comes to Holmes and Watson for advice on what to do about the baronet's heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, who is coming from his farm in Canada. When they meet Baskerville, they find that strange events are already starting to accumulate around him, with a warning note, the theft of a boot, and a stranger tailing him. Holmes starts investigating the matter, but as Baskerville intends to go to take possession of Baskerville Hall, Holmes sends Watson to go along with him for his protection, saying that he himself cannot go due to other cases that need to be resolved.

The splitting of Holmes and Watson works extraordinarily well. Watson, thrown on his own devices, manages to uncover and partly solve certain puzzles, and leads us through the essential elements of the mystery, which are tied up with an escaped convict in the neighborhood and local legends of a terrible black hound. Carefully detailing everything for Holmes, he talks to Barrymore the butler and his wife, the neighboring Stapletons, and others, and gives us time to appreciate the spookiness of the environs before we get down to the full solution of the mystery with the reunion of Holmes and Watson, and with the help of Inspector Lestrade the two help head off a bad end for Sir Henry.

The Valley of Fear has a very different atmosphere; despite largely taking place at Birlstone House, a moated manor house, it is much more modern in its feel. Inspector MacDonald comes to Holmes with a puzzling case, but finds that Holmes already knows something about it because in his pursuit of Moriarty he has received information related to it. John Douglas of Birlstone House had been shot in his house with a sawed-off shotgun, his head practically blown to pieces. A number of additional puzzling pieces of evidence have been discovered by the locals before drawing in Scotland Yard and the famous consulting detective. At Birlstone House, Holmes will rapidly uncover the different elements of the case, including Douglas's fear of some kind of secret society from which he had been hiding, but the key to the mystery will be a missing dumbbell. Behind the whole thing will be a Freemason-like society of murderers in Pennsylvania and, of course, Moriarty's criminal network in the British Empire.

Each of the Holmes stories is essentially a melding of two stories, a Holmes framework and another story from another genre that takes us into a strange place far removed from the rationality and modernity of London -- Utah, India, Dartmoor, Pennsylvania (in all cases it is a literary version of the locale rather than a real one). Of the four, the Hound melding is easily the most successful in terms of structure; the two tales flow smoothly into each other and the Gothic genre conventions of the Dartmoor detour work very well with the detective fiction tropes of the frame. It also helps that Watson and Holmes actually go to Dartmoor and resolve parts of the case there. Of the four, I think the Valley melding is the least successful. The Pennsylvania detour is very interesting in its own right, a sort of crime-thriller gangster-tale prior to the rise of gangster tales, but it practically stands as its own story, as does the Birlstone House frame. The melding is not a complete failure; the Pennsylvania episodes explain some features of the Birlstone mystery, and there are plenty of thematic links -- criminal networks and secret identities being particularly notable ones -- but narratively one gets the sense that Doyle wanted to write a short story about Pennsylvania murder societies and, being continually pestered for more Holmes tales that he didn't particularly like for their own sake, thought that this was a way he could give the public Holmes while writing a kind of story he thought more interesting. That said, I very much enjoyed the Pennsylvania episode, which is some of Doyle's best writing, and the book I think deserves better than it usually gets in the shadow of the highly (and deservedly) popular Hound.

Favorite Passages: From Hound:

He wanted to know the object of my inquiries, but I managed to satisfy his curiosity without telling him too much, for there is no reason why we should take anyone into our confidence. Tomorrow morning I shall find my way to Coombe Tracey, and if I can see this Mrs. Laura Lyons, of equivocal reputation, a long step will have been made towards clearing one incident in this chain of mysteries. I am certainly developing the wisdom of the serpent, for when Mortimer pressed his questions to an inconvenient extent I asked him casually to what type Frankland’s skull belonged, and so heard nothing but craniology for the rest of our drive. I have not lived for years with Sherlock Holmes for nothing.

From Valley:

Holmes laughed. “Watson insists that I am the dramatist in real life,” said he. “Some touch of the artist wells up within me, and calls insistently for a well-staged performance. Surely our profession, Mr. Mac, would be a drab and sordid one if we did not sometimes set the scene so as to glorify our results. The blunt accusation, the brutal tap upon the shoulder—what can one make of such a denouement? But the quick inference, the subtle trap, the clever forecast of coming events, the triumphant vindication of bold theories—are these not the pride and the justification of our life's work? At the present moment you thrill with the glamour of the situation and the anticipation of the hunt. Where would be that thrill if I had been as definite as a timetable? I only ask a little patience, Mr. Mac, and all will be clear to you.”

Recommendation: Hound is Highly Recommended and Valley is Recommended. Really, though, they are both must-reads for anyone who likes detective fiction.