Saturday, May 23, 2020

Wace, The History of the Norman People


Opening Passage:

One thousand, one hundred and sixty years in time and space had elapsed since God in His grace came down in the Virgin, when a cleric from Caen by the name of Master Wace undertook the story of Rou and his race; he conquered Normandy, like it or not, against the arrogance of France which still threatens them -- may our King Henry recognise and be aware of this. He who has very little income has very little benefit from it. But largesse has now succombed to avarice; it cannot open its hands, they are more frozen than ice. I do not know where largesse is hidden, I can find no sign or trace of it. He who does not know how to flatter has no opportunity or place in court; many people are force dto await their turn. It was not at all like this at the time of Virgil and Horace, nor of Alexander, Caesar, or Statius; then largesse had strength and virtue. (p. 3)

Summary: The Roman de Rou, despite its name, is not primarily concerned with Rou, i.e., Rollo, but, as the introductory passage says, "Rou and his race" and "Rou and the Normans" (p. 4); it is a story of the Dukes of Normandy through the generations, but Wace does not tell a narrowly dynastic story but a tale of the Norman people through the fortunes they share with their Dukes. It falls into three parts. Part I, often known as the Chronique Ascendante, runs backwards through time, starting with King Henry II in Wace's present and moving back to "Rou, the good conqueror, the brave, bold, good warrior" (p. 9). Parts II and III then start with Rollo and move forward to the death of Henry I (and thus the eve of the Anarchy, in which Norman control over England will break down into civil war between Stephen of Blois and Empress Matilda, who was the mother of Henry II, which is recounted at the very beginning). This is a very effective structure; it gives a sort of sense of time travel that would be missing if it had just started at the beginning. It also makes clear an important feature of the story Wace is trying to tell, of preserving the Norman heritage and Norman generosity that has been received by inheritance and political succession going all the way back to Rollo himself. Henry II is the son of Henry I, who is son of William II, also known as the Conqueror, who is son of Robert the Magnificent, who is son of Richard II, also known as the Good, who is the son of Richard I, also known as the Fearless or else as the Old, who is the son of William I, also known as Longsword, who is the son of Rou or Rollo, under whom Vikings or Northmen became Normans holding the finest lands of northern France. Each link in the chain sees extraordinary trouble, and maintains the links only with extraordinary prudence and courage; but maintain them they do.

There are a number of themes throughout the work, but two are particularly recurrent, a negative theme and a positive theme, both of which are found in the very opening of the work. The negative theme is the wickedness of the French, who are liars, perfidious and treacherous, who fear and despise the Normans and covet their lands and achievements, who will do anything for power, seeking always to subjugate the Norman people. This theme is more interesting than one might expect, because of course, the Normans hold their lands as vassals of the French; Normans and Franks hold mutual obligations to each other. The French occasionally break their oaths outright, but more often they maneuver so that there is at least a nominal fig-leaf to cover their treachery.

A good example is the French attempt to keep Richard I, who inherits very young (due, again, to French treachery), in his court, which is really to control him but is, at least to the public put forward as the concern and protection of a good lord for a young man of tender years. This creates a problem for the Normans of how to deal with this given that (1) the King essentially has Richard as a hostage and (2) they can't just break their own oaths outright. It also causes problems for gaining allies in the attempt to do something about the situation. One of the most interesting parts of the story is the ingenuity and loyalty of Bernard of Selnis, who manages to untangle the knot in which the Normans are bound, and one of the most interesting parts of that story is how he manages to create an alliance with Hugh, the Duke of Paris. Duke Hugh is sympathetic to the Normans; he has no quarrel with them, and because the King's treachery has resulted in his not being able to follow through on promises to the Norman, he would like to help. But Duke Hugh also has his obligations to the King, and whatever dishonorable acts the King may have committed toward the Normans, the King has done nothing dishonorable to Duke Hugh and his people. Indeed, this is quite deliberate; precisely in order to prevent him from any sort of alliance with the Normans, the King has been more than scrupulous about fulfilling his obligations to Duke Hugh, and has attempted further to ingratiate him by giving him extensive, and very profitable, lands in Normandy itself. So Bernard has to come up with a way to maneuver the situation so that the King of France will, of his own free choice, betray Duke Hugh, which he does by pressing the weak point in the King's plan: the King has finally regained the very rich lands of Normandy, in a society in which wealthy land is the source of power, but in order to keep them, he has had to hand over most of that power to Duke Hugh. Duke Hugh is honorable, but the treacherous cannot afford to trust. The treacheries of the French are many and various, and the plans by which the Normans have to outmaneuver have to be equally various, and therefore keep a constant interest.

The primary positive theme of the work is largesse. It is an essential element of Wace's story to tie Norman greatness to their generosity. This reaches a high point in the period that includes the saintly Richard the Good, the noble Robert, and William II, "the most generous of all the Normans" (p. 7). The great evils in the world of the Roman are covetousness and miserly greed; severity toward robbers and thieves is repeatedly given as the mark of a good Duke or King, and all the troubles of the Normans arise from the greed of their enemies. The Normans, however, despite being extremely shrewd handlers of wealth, are never concerned with money itself; they have a tradition of generous largesse, and money for them is not an end but a means for supporting good and great deeds. But as the opening passage notes, Wace's tale is a warning that the Normans are losing their way. A people whose greatness and invincibility was built on their generosity, whose name resounds because of their patronage of literature and the Church, who could reach their greatest achievements because of their shrewdness in making other people prosperous, have begun to be stingy and tight-fisted, unwilling to support the very things that clothe them with glory and that carry their name through the generations. They were made great by their largesse; if they are to remain great, it must be by largesse.

It would perhaps be a more noble sermon if it weren't for the fact that Wace cannot help himself, but repeatedly has to make clear that one of the kinds of largesse he means is largesse toward himself. Wace tells a good story, but he is not a storyteller to hide himself in the tale; he is constantly complaining about the fact that, a relatively poor man, he has to do this very difficult and important task of writing the history of the Normans and nobody is giving him a proper reward for it. He gives credit to King Henry for being the only one to reward him, but it's very hard to shake the feeling in some cases that Wace's praise on this point is halfhearted and more in the hope that it will stimulate the King to greater generosity than it is in gratitude for what the King has already done. Very possibly this is the reason why the King eventually gives the task to someone else, so that Wace is forced to bring the Roman to a close, grumbling to the end about how it's not his fault. It does, however, make the work stand out. This is not merely a glorification of the Norman Dukes; the complaining lends a very personal and humorous quality to it. The humorousness is unintentional; but it is real nonetheless.

The story does bog down a little bit in the reigns of Robert and William -- a lot of battles and similar hurricanes of names that one presumes Wace felt he could not skip. But that it is not merely bogging down for the reader can be seen in that Wace takes some time off from telling it to complain about how long the story is and how much more he has to go through. But this is also part of the charm of the work. Wace is not merely a storyteller; he is, complainer though he is, our companion through the whole thing.

Favorite Passage: There are many interesting side-lights throughout the story; this one, amidst all the preparations for William's conquest, was one that particularly jumped out at me. It also captures something of the tone of Wace, since he always seems more than a little disappointed with the world, himself, and everything.

Alan Fergent, who had a large company of Bretons, joined in the crossing; from Le Pallet came FitzBertrand, and the lord of Dinan came,a nd also Ralph of Gael and many Bretons from many castles, as well as those from the region of Brocéliande, about which Bretons often tell stories, a very long, broad forest which is highly praised in Brittany. To one side, the fountain of Barenton emerges beside the stone slab. Hunters used to go to Barenton during great heat and scoop out the water with their horns and moisten the top of the stone; in that way they used to get rain. Thus in days gone by it would rain, in the forest and all around, but I do not know for what reason. People used to see fairies there, if the accounts of the Bretons are true, and many other marvels. There used to be hawks' nests there and huge quantity of stags, but peasants have destroyed everything. I went there in search of marvels; I saw the forest and the land and looked for marvels, but found none. I came back as a fool and went as a fool. I went as a fool and came back as a fool. I sought foolishness and considered myself a fool. (p. 162)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Wace, The History of the Norman People: Wace's Roman de Rou, Burgess, tr., The Boydell Press (New York: 2004).

Friday, May 22, 2020

Dashed Off X

Metaphor & irony establish that the 'only if' in "<p> iff p" is not universally true. An interesting question is whether the 'if' is. For intsance, if I say, "I'm fine", in response to polite query, can we consider it true even if I'm not, in fact, fine, as it may nonetheless be the correct response? But there are perhaps even more likely cases in idealization and in cases where special vocabulary are involved (e.g., what counts under law). One could perhaps deny that these are the 'same' propositionally, but then "'Snow is white' is true iff snow is white" illuminates exactly nothing in language, because it is just presupposing that you've guaranteed equivalence, which requires a correct pattern of assignments of truth value; you've just turned it into a notational device.

the distancing function of quotation (scare quotes the obvious -- but note that the distancing function is still operative in cases that aren't scare quotes, e.g., when you want to make sure that something is attributed to another person and not to you)

Metaphors are sometimes good for talking about *ranges* of positions -- e.g., 'open future' rules out nonexistent and definitely closed (i.e., strictly deterministic) futures, but does not otherwise specify the kind of openness.

swarm-and-review as an imitation of genius (i.e., solving a large number of small problems very fast, not letting oneself be bogged down, and moving on if there is any danger of that, but periodically assessing where you are with regard to the problems and solutions overall)

Controls in experiments primarily get their value from facilitating comparison.

journalism as informal law enforcement

If you cannot see that a truly good thing may be done even by the gravest sinner, you are already on the way to damnation.

Language allows one to do more with perception than one otherwise would by building descriptive structures of great versatility.

"If everything really depended upon everything else, in the organism as well as in nature there would be no laws and no science." Merleau-Ponty

natural sciences as the study of the causation, constitution, and coordination of kinds of change

Sensations differ in the way they draw attention.

Nobody can have full knowledge of all things relevant to the health of society and government, so in practice we all assess these things by selected markers. They may be more or less well chosen, but even the best give us only a limited view, and other people will always be assessing how things are going according to other markers.

rituals for forming evidence, rituals for acknowledging evidence

The Cartesian method of doubt as certainly establishes 'I act for an end' as it does 'I think' or 'I exist'.

(1) 'I act for an end'.
(2) But is every end just mental or is some physical?
(3) Attribution of ends to physical is sometimes irresistible.
(4) God is not a deceiver.
(5) Therefore &c.

formal-object truthmaker vs. cause-of-formal-object truthmaker vs truth-entailing truthmaker

By entailment truthmaking (a truthmaker is that the existence of which entails that the proposition is true), everything is truthmaker for all necessary truths.

truthmaker maximalism -rarr; 'Something exists' is necessary.

Truthmaking is not about the relation between truth and truth but about the relation between truth and reality.

'Snow is white' is made true by snow being white iff snow is white.

The thing that we consider as relevantly making something true varies according to context.

Moral judgments do not reliably express pro- and con-attitudes.

"Logic is truly and properly a science and it is, at the same time, an art, though a liberal one." John of St. Thomas

grounding, linking, and disrupting functions of metaphor

collecting, building, measuring, moving in mathematics

Acts of mercy often begin with inquiring.

All physicalisms are built on conjecture.

In politics one often does not need to get belief from people but just plausibility sufficient that few think it worth the effort of opposing it.

virtual rites arising by chance intersection of distinct rites

One of the most universal experiences is the feeling that there is some sort of falseness or emptiness to the world.

Articulations of arguments are fundamentally improvised, although these improvisations may undergo considerable refinement.

Possibility with regard to fictions is constructible within plausible consistency.

Fuller's account of legal fiction gives too central a place to falsehood. This has unfortunately carried through to other discussions of it. But, for instance, a corporation's being a person for the purpose of law is not *false* but *constructed* on analogy to a relatively nonconstructed fact, and once constructed is true. Likewise, taxonomies have focused too heavily on motivation or explanation for having the legal fiction and not enough on the fictions themselves.

Legal fictions arise from the need to use artificial classifications for the practical purposes of law.

Legal fictions are legal facts had not by discovery practices, nor by practices of approximating the extralegal, but by imposing extensions on such facts had in these ways.

"The true sign represents the signified, not according to an empirical association, but inasmuch as its relation to other signs is the same as the relation of the object signified by it to other objects. It is because of this that we can decipher unknown languages." Merleau-Ponty

Prophetic foretelling is often treated as if it were pre-description; but this is not especially accurate as to what prophets usually do. Prophecy is rather pre-framing, so that by the foretelling you may understand what will happen when it has happened, or else so that by it you may understand the doing that brings it about or avoids it.

The apostles were either deceivers, or deceived, or at least approximately right.

Orthodoxy is, like philosophy in Plato's Gorgias, a form of self-restraint.

The New Testament is clear that the Church has a correspondence-network structure; this is clear from the organization of the New Testament and from the book of Revelation.

"In an organism, experience is not the recording and fixation of certain actually accomplished movements: it builds up aptitudes, that is, the general power of responding to situations of a certain type by means of varied reactions which ahve nothing in common but the meaning." Merleau-Ponty

"The unity of physical systems is a unity of *correlation*, that of organisms a unity of *signification*." Merleau-Ponty

Introspection cannot be sharply severed from external perception; granting the latter, you have already granted some of the former.

? Could one analyze validity/validities using a ternary relational semantics, Vabc, wehre a is a premise set, b is structural info of some kind, and c is a conclusion set?

Modern democracies consistently confuse the dramatic and the sincere. (The Athenians seem not have had this problem; they simply supported the dramatic and had remarkably little interest in the sincere.)

difficult-to-articulate inferences

With too many adaptations to too many problems, a philosophical movement can no longer (re)constitute itself as a unity through time.

The sin of Adam moves original justice out of the possessed common good of the human race, along with all of its concomitants and consequents.

Human beings naturally desire wisdom from the past and knowledge from the future.

Merleau-Ponty: The perspectival character of knowledge does not introduce subjectivity but assures us of the richness of the world (appearances are manifestations of something more).

the body as "the living envelope of our actions" (Merleau-Ponty)

The beloved sets ends for the lover, and what moves as beloved does the same.

the mutually representative character of perceptions

A body is a complex activity; it is a composition of things being done.

We recognize the reflection in the mirror as expressing ourselves and also the creepy uncanniness that would go with its detachment from that expression.

"A perception which would be coextensive with sensible things is inconceivable; and it is not physically but logically that it is impossible. For there to be perception, that is, apprehension of an existence, it is absolutely necessary that the object not be completely given to the look which rests on it, that aspects intended but not possessed in the present perception be kept in reserve." Merleau-Ponty

In the Xuting Mishisuo Jing, the Holy Spirit is referred to as the Cool Wind (lia'ng feng).

Each sacrament is a delomic symbolic legisign.

signum est res faciens cogitare (Petrus Margallus)
omnis res mundi est signum

Matrimony is a sign that gives birth to signs, as the Church is a sign that gives birth to signs.

The whole sacramental economy is found by sign in the sacrament of matrimony.

As a delomic symbol, the sacrament of matrimony is submitted to the Church, to be acknowledged; urged on the Church, as a guide; and presented to the Church for contemplation.

Divorce treats marriage as a purely external sign.

Matrimony, like revelation (cf. Ratzinger), is "a historical action of God in which truth becomes gradually unveiled".

sign of witness vs sign of sacrament

1 Cor 3:16 & 6:19 → divinity of the Holy Spirit

The sacramental character is a power of representation, both of Christ and of the Church.

sacramentalia caused by impetration (cf. Salmanticensis)

Trent, Session XXII cap 1 & can 2 on the apostles and the priesthood and the Last Supper

Extreme Unction does not remove from us our mortality and its consequences, but it strengthens us against the temptations therefrom, by strengthening our minds and wills according to disposition and, at times, strengthening our bodies through our minds & wills, by a sort of overflow.

Every human mind has a rhetorical firewall.

Great intelligence often consists in recognizing the possibility of a greater intelligence than one's own and working out some means of approximating it in various ways.

the organic unity of the Church through sacrament, charity, and doctrine

ontic vs epistemic senses of prediction (i.e., of the 'pre')

"The alleged self-evidence of sensation is not based on any testimony of consciousness, but on widely held prejudice." (Merleau-Ponty -- thus he takes perception, not sensation, to be primary)

Puller on Extreme Unction:
- Bellarmine seems to think extreme unction wipes away grave sins (he takes St. James's statement to be too strong to confine to venial sin); cp 1 Jn 2:1.
- Cajetan takes St. James to be talking not of extreme unction but of anointing the sick more generally [his argument puts too much emphasis on 'near the point of death', which VII later establishes as not understood quite that way, but also notes that the remission of sin is conditional]
- Bede takes the sickness & sin to be linked -- sometimes people are sick and dying *because * of their sins, so *if* this is so, the sins are remitted (Exp super Jacob) -- But he takes this to be conditional on confession.
- the Church Fathers often seem to envision the sick anointing themselves (or even being anointed by family) [but note Catholic arguments vs. this, that the anointing is passive anointing rather than active anointing]
- "The anointing oil signifies the mercy from God, and the cure of the disease, and the enlightening of the heart." Victor of Antioch
- clear statement of unction as part of viaticum begins in very late 8th/early ninth century
- Puller's argument that the Jacobean passage refers to two distinct cases and two separate institutions (rather than 1 case and institution with a conditional clause) is immensely implausible.
- Puller's argument with respect to remission of venial sins is also not very strong, for *many* things can remit venial sins; it's not a particular distinctive feature of sacramental unction. [This is why Bellarmine's argument above has some force.] On the other hand, he is probably right about the Carlovingian origin of the *full* Latin theory.

We tend to think of the seven sacraments as a group, but in fact, despite the intimate relations between them, each of the seven is the heart of an entire network of signs, rites, and doctrines, much of which is in various different ways more intimately related to that sacrament than the other six sacraments.

sacraments (broadly considered) instituted ad salutem, ad exercitationem, ad praeparationem (Hugh of St. Victor)

Rolandus in his Sentences treats the Incarnation of the Word as the chief sacrament and only then the others.

Theodore the Studite's list of six sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, Consecration of Chrism, Ordination, Monastic, Rites pertaining to death.

To pursue justice from a posture of pride is already to have begun corrupting it.

In absolution, the verdict is the sentence; such is the tribunal of mercy.

NB that Austin takes 'I absolve' as exercitative based on a verdict.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Law and Moral Revolution

I was struck by this passage in a review of Baker's The Structure of Moral Revolutions:

The third chapter disabuses the reader of the idea that abortion has always been about the presentist concept of the "humanity" of the fetus, its moral status. (pp. 86-87) Baker shows that this paradigm resulted from the recent, nineteenth-century moral revolution of doctors based on the biomedical idea of "the continuous development of the fetus as an independent human being" (p. 109) that became the driver of a campaign to change social mores and the law. This campaign, and not religions opposed to abortion, worked: "the sinless, guiltless, and legally tolerated practice of prequickening abortion was replaced by an incompatible alternative conception of abortion as a sinful, guilt-ridden, illegal act of homicide." (p. 113)

While there was a shift in the nineteenth century, due to the increasing realization that the transitions expected by prior biological explanations were not supported by the actual evidence of development in the womb, and (not having read Baker's book) I don't know what further argument is being assumed or whether it qualifies the portion quoted at the end, what is here stated in the review is not quite correct. First, outside of some very limited jurisdictions, there is no definite category of "prequickening"; different legal systems seem to have different cut-offs for different reasons. A common one, for instance, was presumed formation, which is the forerunner of the from-conception view. The reason for this is that prior to the nineteenth century development in the womb was considered a very messy 'cooking' process -- pretty much literally, since the common view was that pregnancy was the mother's body heating the materials so that they would take shape -- and thus there were no sharp, definitive lines. The notion that 'quickening', i.e., the point at which the baby starts to move and kick, was some fundamental component of reasoning about these matters is entirely a myth; it was one kind of thing of which some laws sometimes took notice as a convenient reference point, and that's about it. Second, in a number of situations, the standard way of handling it was not blanket penalizing of abortion but penalizing particular kinds of acts directly associated with it, like the use of certain drugs, so the lack of a direct category does not always indicate that it was treated as permissible.

But more importantly, abortion prior to these cut-offs was not generally regarded as "sinless" and "guiltless", and whether it was "legally tolerated" seems largely to have depended on legal reasoning that had very little directly to do with the ethics of it. It was widely regarded as a sin and often regarded as a crime; whether it was punished depended on kinds of punishment available and assessments of general enforceability. It was generally considered to be less punishable than homicide in a proper sense; Penitentials regularly required penance for it, but the penance before the cut-off was lighter than after it. As it was often considered a religious crime, it would often have been punished by penance in an ecclesiastical court rather than by physical punishment in a royal court, which wouldn't necessarily have been seen as having jurisdiction. If you really want to talk about quickening, English common law seems to have regarded pre-quickening abortion as a serious misdemeanor and post-quickening as homicide or related to it, for several centuries prior to the nineteenth century; the reason for the difference seems not to have been biological but legal. Modern centralized states have tended to treat themselves as having universal and unlimited jurisdiction, but this is not true of legal systems in general. Murder in England and many other places was regarded as a crime against someone specifically under the King's protection (or some equivalent to that); the conditions for when penalties against murder would apply depended on when someone was taken to have entered that protection. It wasn't a statement about the nature of those outside of that protection; outlaws were outside the King's protection, for instance, but that didn't make them nonhuman.

It's worth noting as well that the shift in views in the nineteenth century also went along with extending legal protections for children. Because children were often not considered as falling within the scope of laws except where public order or religious duty were directly involved, they had very minimal legal protections; the laws didn't have them much in view, and even when it did, it was only insofar as was needed for other purposes. That's where we get the notion of 'minors', except we extend massively greater protections to minors than the law has historically done. It's not an accident, though, that the nineteenth century became stricter on abortion at the same time it started expanding legal protections for children; they were both motivated by legal rationalism that did not like arbitrary lines, and an expansion of state authority into areas it had not previously ventured much, and a concern to protect the vulnerable from suffering. But (as has been noted by more than a few people) laws actively applied over a long-enough time become part of the general moral standard, so the legal shift resulted in legal ideas, or at least popular conceptions of legal ideas, that became part of the background apparatus people used to navigate the ethics of these kinds of cases.

Where Even the Slain Have Power

The Little Nation
by Jessica Powers

Having no gift of strategy or arms,
no secret weapon and no walled defense,
I shall become a citizen of love,
that little nation with the blood-stained sod
where even the slain have power, the only country
that sends forth an ambassador to God.

Renouncing self and crying out to evil
to end its wars, I seek a land that lies
all unprotected like a sleeping child;
nor is my journey reckless and unwise.
Who doubts that love has an effective weapon
may meet with a surprise.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Lukhimov Lord of the Rings

Among the best illustrations of The Lord of the Rings are those of the Russian artist Sergei Lukhimov for the Russian translation of the work. As it happens you can find a lot of them here. Every single one is worth stopping a moment and viewing; and it's impressive how easily identifiable the meaning of most of them are, just at a glance, to anyone who knows the story.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Some Poem Drafts

The second is based on a sentence in the Critique of Pure Reason. I think the second line of Martial's epigram is probably intended in the Latin to have a vulgar undertone; the word for pocket, sinus, sometimes is a sexual euphemism, and the vulgarization would convey the contempt for admiration. In any case, I thought that the last two lines could practically be the motto of much of social media, or indeed, many other kinds of media: Ecce rubet quidam, pallet, stupet, oscitat, odit. / Hoc uolo: nunc nobis carmina nostra placent.


In words we speak, but also hues
that tint the face with surging blush
or pallor when our wits outrush;
we speak as well with tones we choose,
with tremors in our hands and touch,
with twitch of lip and smiles and such,
our bodies thick with meaning's clues.


Kant reflects
on the mystery of rain:
The drops are but appearances,
and even the shape,
even the space
through which the rain falls
is but the order
of our many sensations,
and behind the rain
is but the unknown.


We are not the rainbow;
it arcs through endless sky
above our heads, above the trees,
above the birds that fly,
a covenant of promise
that though our troubles build,
the sun through silver lining
has cloud with glory filled.

Martial, Epigrams 6.60

My Rome lauds, loves, sings our chapbooks;
Every pocket, every hand, holds me.
-- Ah, see! Someone blushes, pales, gawks, gapes, hates:
This I want: Now our songs please us.

The Liar

I spoke a word; the word was wise,
but water fell from flooding eyes.
My heart misgave, misshapen mass
with broken beats, before the lass.
The lady knows her trade; she lies,
designs and draws a fair disguise,
with highest pitch of twisting art
which hollows out the human heart.
Her language loose, I knew her word
was false and fatal ere I heard
a breath of air she breathed my way;
the truth she cannot tell or say.
She lies; a light and liquid tongue
my hope has harmed, my heart has wrung;
she lies with all deceits of hell;
but oh! I ache for her as well.

Emma. (2020)

The Darwins had asked me about my thoughts on the recent Emma movie (or Emma., with a period, as its title often seems to be given). I hadn't had a chance to see it recently due to the end of term, but having reached the usual little lull between having finished all major grading and students contacting me a day before the final grade deadline to ask if there is anything they can do to make up for the fact that that they didn't do two major assignments, I took a break to see it. It's a very tricky movie to talk about, because it's very uneven, swinging from very nice touches to "What were you thinking?" to nice touches again.

In any Austen adaptation, you have to take into account of certain things right away. First, Austen adaptations don't make money by appealing to people who want to see an adaptation of Austen herself; they make money by appealing to women in general, especially women who like to consider themselves readers, and what such an audience usually wants if they go to an Austen adaptation is (1) period romance (2) with good-looking men and women dressed in gorgeous clothes (3) that is funny. Because these are the money-making things, these are the things that dominate everything else; the Austen adaptation that excels at them will prosper, the Austen adaptation that fails at them will die. (This is one reason why many of the better adaptations even qua adaptations are pretty radical Austen-in-a-different-situation adaptations -- Bollywood doing Austen stories in modern India, or the movie with which every other Emma adaptation must perpetually compete, Clueless. They have the advantage of not being held to the same standards.) One of the tricky things this movie had to navigate was that there already was an Emma that did very well at (1), (2), and (3), the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow Emma, so this movie had to differentiate itself from that movie while still competing with it on these points at which it excelled. We have to allow for the fact that much of the movie will be centered on things that have little to do with Austen's novel itself.

One of the major difficulties in adapting Austen to the screen is humor. Austen is extraordinarily funny, but most of her humor is dry or indirect, and much of it arises from the perspective taken by the narrator. None of this translates easily onto the screen. There are two ways you can go: you can add a lot of subtle touches or you can add slapstick. Probably the best example of the latter is Stillman's Love & Friendship, based on Lady Susan; Stillman's material gave him more room to maneuver than Austen's novels usually do, but he also made the choice, which is probably necessary for doing this well, of giving most of the slapstick to the secondary characters, so that the primary characters are mostly the vehicle for the dry-and-indirect humor, which is easier for audiences to catch given that it is in a framework and against a background that is more obviously comedic. (Austen adaptations suffer perpetually from an air of being Serious Moviemaking Done Seriously, so breaking this expectation is the first step to making sure Austen's actual jokes don't fall flat on the screen.) The other route, much harder, is to add a lot of subtle humorous touches. One kind of touch from this movie that I rather liked were the obviously bored footmen who keep being told to do obviously silly things, which they then have to do with great ceremony. One of the strengths of this movie is that a lot of the acting manages to add such touches; I liked, for instance, Emma's brief and quickly hidden look of shocked offense when Mr. Elton tells her, "Everyone has their level", thus implying that he is Emma's level, an idea which from Emma's point of view could hardly be regarded as anything but preposterous. But ultimately the movie tries to take both routes simultaneously, which is one of the things that contributes to the unevenness of the movie.

There are always cases in which the choices were odd but don't necessarily harm the movie as a movie. Casting is a good example; Johnny Flynn is not particularly well cast as Mr. Knightley, or Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse, but both handled their roles well enough.

Adaptations also have to adapt. There are always changes that lose fidelity to the original, but arguably work on their own. I think the scene at Box Hill is a good example. In this movie, the Box Hill incident was very nicely done -- some great acting done well. It is, I think, a very different incident from that in the novel. Here, Emma realizes that she's overstepped in her put-down of Miss Bates the moment she says it, and everyone else in the company is made uncomfortable and awkward by her failure. But I think it's important to the way the incident works in the novel that the novel goes exactly the opposite direction. Emma could have gotten away with it. It's a situation in which a person whom no one hates but whom everyone finds ridiculous and tiresome is wittily skewered by someone everyone likes on precisely the point that everyone finds ridiculous and tiresome. The movie presents it as perhaps the way we would all like such a situation to go. But the novel takes an infinitely more realistic approach. Almost everyone just accepts it without any commentary or pained pause; the party continues on merrily, with a lot of flattery of Emma. Miss Bates herself at no point ever blames Emma for it; she blames herself. When Knightley rebukes Emma over it, she's not (as in the movie) already down and self-reproachful about it; she's already forgotten it, and it's Knightley's rebuke that leads her to become depressed over it. And while Knightley does rebuke Emma, some things that Knightley says suggest that he too would not have done so if it weren't for the fact that Miss Bates was so bothered by the possibility that Emma's remark meant that she, Miss Bates, had acted inappropriately, that she worried about it to Knightley. It's the perfect encapsulation of Emma's moral danger, which is that she can get away with bad behavior. It also presents the two things that prevent her from being actually wicked: her bad behavior is not (yet) malicious and she has a good and healthy friendship with Mr. Knightley.

All of this is dropped by the movie. In absolute terms, the novel's handling is superior -- it is, indeed, a story in which the Emmas and Frank Churchills of the world not only can get away with most things, they are actively rewarded for almost anything they do. To those who have, everything is given, even when it shouldn't be. But the movie's changes on this point don't harm it, as far as I can see, as a movie; and the movie probably manages to capture the moral perspective better by them than it would if it tried to present the incident in the way the novel does (which would almost certainly give the impression that Mr. Knightley is being overly harsh about a joke that no one much minded, since part of the point of the novel is that at first no one other than Miss Bates much minded it, and that Knightley holds Emma to higher standards than other people).

There were quite a few really strange scenes that struck notes that never paid off in the movie. The bare-bottom scene, Mr. Woodhouse's bouncing entrance, some of the slapstick with Emma or with Mr. Knightley, all jarred because they were just thrown out there without any obvious reason why the movie needed them to be that way.

Most of these, while they detract, are just minor inconsistencies and weird bits. They are not serious mistakes with respect to the overall story or the movie as a whole, just minor ones. There is one very serious mistake, though, in the aftermath of Emma discovering that Harriet now has her sights set on Mr. Knightley; I'm not even going to talk about it, beyond saying that it made no sense and there was no reason for it. The only other mistake on the same level was the handling of Mr. Elton; the novel's Mr. Elton has many bad qualities, but smarmy is not the first to come to mind.

In terms of spectacle -- and movie is always primarily a matter of spectacle, whatever else we may get to ice the cake -- I thought the movie did very, very well at striking a balance between the pretty and the plausible in background and scenery and furnishings. Visually, this is a very nice film. The Pretty Young Things by and large bring a surprisingly high quality of acting to their primary role of being Pretty Young Things. The music was very odd. As music, it was all well done. As a soundtrack, it was one of the "What were they thinking?" parts of the movie. Almost every reviewer who has discussed the movie at any length has noted the music's strange combination of being technically well done while being intrusive and baffling in its choices, and they are all right.

The movie is watchable. As movies go, you could do much worse. I'm pretty sure the intent was to pitch it at a younger female audience than most Austen adaptations do, and I think for the most part it was very successful at that; it has a younger, more active feel than most Austen adaptations do. Among the odd choices, there were some brilliant ones as well. The only real failure, acting-wise (and a number of things suggest it was in great measure a directorial failure), was Josh O'Connor's Mr. Elton. Taylor-Joy was a great Emma; when Callum Turner's Frank Churchill showed up, I mostly thought he looked like a monkey, but he grew on me. Harriet Smith is a tricky character for the screen, because she has to come across as a very prettily presented and well-mannered girl who is nonethless very obviously Emma's inferior in both respects, and most adaptations give us a Harriet whose inferiority we can see but who (precisely because of that) could never really be friends with someone like Emma. This movie solves this problem very well, in part due to Mia Goth's charming portrayal. Miranda Hart's Miss Bates was a very good portrayal of the kind of person you can't help but like but also can barely stand. It's just so very uneven in so many other respects.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Whole World's Heart Is Uplifted

In Guernsey
To Theodore Watts
by Algernon Charles Swinburne

I. The heavenly bay, ringed round with cliffs and moors,
Storm-stained ravines, and crags that lawns inlay,
Soothes as with love the rocks whose guard secures
⁠The heavenly bay.

O friend, shall time take ever this away,
This blessing given of beauty that endures,
This glory shown us, not to pass but stay?

Though sight be changed for memory, love ensures
What memory, changed by love to sight, would say—
The word that seals for ever mine and yours
⁠The heavenly bay.

II. My mother sea, my fostress, what new strand,
What new delight of waters, may this be,
The fairest found since time's first breezes fanned
⁠My mother sea?

Once more I give me body and soul to thee,
Who hast my soul for ever: cliff and sand
Recede, and heart to heart once more are we.

My heart springs first and plunges, ere my hand
Strike out from shore: more close it brings to me,
More near and dear than seems my fatherland,
⁠My mother sea.

III. Across and along, as the bay's breadth opens, and o'er us
Wild autumn exults in the wind, swift rapture and strong
Impels us, and broader the wide waves brighten before us
⁠Across and along.

The whole world's heart is uplifted, and knows not wrong;
The whole world's life is a chant to the sea-tide's chorus;
Are we not as waves of the water, as notes of the song?

Like children unworn of the passions and toils that wore us,
We breast for a season the breadth of the seas that throng,
Rejoicing as they, to be borne as of old they bore us
⁠Across and along.

IV. On Dante's track by some funereal spell
Drawn down through desperate ways that lead not back
We seem to move, bound forth past flood and fell
⁠On Dante's track.

The grey path ends: the gaunt rocks gape: the black
Deep hollow tortuous night, a soundless shell,
Glares darkness: are the fires of old grown slack?

Nay, then, what flames are these that leap and swell
As 'twere to show, where earth's foundations crack,
The secrets of the sepulchres of hell
⁠On Dante's track?

V. By mere men's hands the flame was lit, we know,
From heaps of dry waste whin and casual brands:
Yet, knowing, we scarce believe it kindled so
⁠By mere men's hands.

Above, around, high-vaulted hell expands,
Steep, dense, a labyrinth walled and roofed with woe,
Whose mysteries even itself not understands.

The scorn in Farinata's eyes aglow
Seems visible in this flame: there Geryon stands:
No stage of earth's is here, set forth to show
⁠By mere men's hands.

VI. Night, in utmost noon forlorn and strong, with heart athirst and fasting,
Hungers here, barred up for ever, whence as one whom dreams affright
Day recoils before the low-browed lintel threatening doom and casting

All the reefs and islands, all the lawns and highlands, clothed with light,
Laugh for love's sake in their sleep outside: but here the night speaks, blasting
Day with silent speech and scorn of all things known from depth to height.

Lower than dive the thoughts of spirit-stricken fear in souls forecasting
Hell, the deep void seems to yawn beyond fear's reach, and higher than sight
Rise the walls and roofs that compass it about with everlasting

VII. The house accurst, with cursing sealed and signed,
Heeds not what storms about it burn and burst:
No fear more fearful than its own may find
⁠The house accurst.

Barren as crime, anhungered and athirst,
Blank miles of moor sweep inland, sere and blind,
Where summer's best rebukes not winter's worst.

The low bleak tower with nought save wastes behind
Stares down the abyss whereon chance reared and nursed
This type and likeness of the accurst man's mind,
⁠The house accurst.

VIII. Beloved and blest, lit warm with love and fame,
The house that had the light of the earth for guest
Hears for his name's sake all men hail its name
⁠Beloved and blest.

This eyrie was the homeless eagle's nest
When storm laid waste his eyrie: hence he came
Again, when storm smote sore his mother's breast.

Bow down men bade us, or be clothed with blame
And mocked for madness: worst, they sware, was best:
But grief shone here, while joy was one with shame,
⁠Beloved and blest.

The island of Guernsey is one of the three jurisdictions of the Bailiwick of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, the other two being Sark and Alderney. Its Latin name was Sarnia, and its capital is St. Peter Port. As a Crown dependency with its own government -- in Guernsey the government is called the States of Guernsey -- it is not part of the United Kingdom but only associated with it, and operates with a mix of English and Norman law under Queen Elizabeth II as Duke of Normandy (although she governs as Queen and not as Duke). Historically, its most famous resident was Victor Hugo.

When Napoleon III seized power in 1851, Hugo, who was very active in politics at the time, denounced him as a traitor to France. This was obviously not a safe position. He fled to Brussels, then Jersey, but was expelled from Jersey due to his inability to avoid getting involved in the local politics; so he came to Guernsey, settling at what has since become known as Hauteville House (which is currently owned and held as a consulate by the City of Paris). He bought the house because in Guernsey, under Norman law, no one who held property could be deported. It was there that Les Misérables was written.

Swinburne corresponded with Hugo several times while Hugo was resident on the island; he also visited the island, but, I think, could not do so at a time when Hugo was there. The eighth canto of this rondel is, of course, about Hugo and Hauteville House. Swinburne liked swimming in Channel waters, which we see expressed in the poem above. Because Guernsey is a major island of the Channel Islands, it has very often been fortified, and there are old defensive fortifications, including towers, throughout the landscape.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Abreast and Ahead

In Sark
by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Abreast and ahead of the sea is a crag's front cloven asunder
With strong sea-breach and with wasting of winds whence terror is shed
As a shadow of death from the wings of the darkness on waters that thunder
Abreast and ahead.

At its edge is a sepulchre hollowed and hewn for a lone man's bed,
Propped open with rock and agape on the sky and the sea thereunder,
But roofed and walled in well from the wrath of them slept its dead.

Here might not a man drink rapture of rest, or delight above wonder,
Beholding, a soul disembodied, the days and the nights that fled,
With splendour and sound of the tempest around and above him and under,
Abreast and ahead?

Sark is one of the Channel Islands, which are the last remnants of the Duchy of Normandy. To be exact, it is a royal fief in the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which is ruled by the Duke of Normandy, who is,of course, at present Queen Elizabeth II, often toasted as La Reine, notre Duc. The Channel Islands are not, however, constituents of the United Kingdom, but associated Crown dependencies that have their own independent laws and governments -- in the case of Sark, called the Chief Pleas. The basic form of their laws is still feudal Norman law, although over the decades the specifically feudal or manorial characteristics have in many cases become purely ceremonial and nominal.

Sark itself is a small island of about 500-600 people, very rocky, consisting of Greater Sark and Little Sark, connected by an isthmus; it is riddled through with hollow sea-caves. It mostly governs itself and the nearby island of Brecqhou, but is subordinate to Guernsey in matters like criminal law, and is currently most famous for its complete ban on cars and its status as a Dark Sky Island, with a minimum of nighttime light pollution. Swinburne's visit to Guernsey and Sark was due to his enthusiasm for Victor Hugo, who was in exile in the Bailiwick of Guernsey for about fifteen years, which I'll discuss briefly in a future post on a poem by Swinburne about Guernsey.

Word Burst on Word

I Turn'd the Pages
by Alexander Anderson

I turn'd the pages writ by mighty men--
Giants who in the past had toil'd and fought,
And won great trophies in the war of Thought,
And with them immortality. And when
Word burst on word with all the heaven fed glow
Which is of genius, I stood like one
Who hears a melody he cannot shun--
So sweet its music that perforce must grow
Upon him with its rapture. And I felt
Another soul possess me as I caught
The inspiration of their words; and fraught
With wonder at their mighty toil, I knelt,
And whisper'd with a sense of holy fear--
"They move still with us; lo! the Great are here."