Saturday, July 04, 2020

Nguyễn Du, The Song of Kiều


Opening Passage:

It's an old story: good luck and good looks
don't always mix.
Tragedy is circular and infinite.
The plain never believe it,
but good-looking people meet with hard times too.

It's true.
Our ending is inevitable:
long years betray the beautiful.

This manuscript is ancient, priceless,
bamboo-rolled, perfumed with musty spices.
Sit comfortably by this good light, that you may learn
the hard-won lesson that these characters contain. (p. 5)

Summary: Vương Thúy Kiều is a beautiful and brilliant and honest young maiden with an extraordinary talent for poetry. One day she is visiting her ancestor's graves for the Tomb-Sweeping Festival and comes across an untended grave, that of Đạm Tiên, another beautiful and brilliant woman, and she has a premonition that this will be her fate as well. She burns some incense and says a prayer on the spot, and uses her hairpin to carve a poem on the nearby tree. A strange whirlwind shakes the tree, bringing a strange perfume, and they suddenly notice footprints in the nearby moss.

Kiều says: 'See the fierce power of a poem.
Learn how words can leap across the years.
She is my sister, though I am alive and she is dead.' (p. 9)

In thanks for the sign, she carves another poem in the tree bark, and at that moment a young man and a white horse comes by, Trọng Kim. Kim and Kiều fall in love at first sight. That night, however, Kiều has a dream in which she is visited by Đạm Tiên, who says that they are both part of "the Company of Sadness / of all those who are doomed / to live and die with a broken heart" (p. 11).

Love between Kiều and Kim continues to develop, and it eventually proceeds to promises of eternal love and marriage. Before this can happen, though, Kim's uncle dies, and he has to leave for several months to attend to matters related to that. While he is gone, Kiều's parents run into severe financial difficulties, and the only thing that will keep her father and brother out of punishment is if Kiều marries a wealthy man, Mã, and becomes his concubine. This is a serious matter, the most serious kind of matter in a culture that takes filial piety as a central virtue. With great grief, she agrees to marry Mã.

Mã, however, is a man of the worst sort, and he immediately turns around and sells her into prostitution; indeed, that is part of how Mã is so rich, he is a finder for a brothel run by Madame Tú. Kiều attempts at first to resist and then to commit suicide, but she is no match for Madame Tú, who has long experience in forcing girls into compliance, and she eventually gives in and becomes a prostitute, a very high-dollar one because of her beauty. She lives in misery for some time until a young man from a wealthy family, named Thúc, falls in love with her and marries her as his concubine. They live well enough for a short time -- "moon and flower", as the Vietnamese phrase goes -- but Thúc has a first wife whom he has been avoiding this entire time, Hoạn, a woman from a very powerful family. She resents very much the idea of Thúc having a second wife, and even more the fact that he hides her from it, and she is one of those people who is perfect on the outside, the better to stab you in the back unexpectedly. She works out an elaborate plan to have Kiều kidnapped then enslaved -- to Hoạn herself. Needless to say, this makes life in Thúc's household very awkward, particularly as Thúc cannot do anything about it, given the sheer importance of his wife's family, and Hoạn, always putting her barbs and provocations in the form of smiles and jokes, gives him no room to maneuver.

Kiều is saved from this by the power of poetry, which is a recurring theme in the work. She writes a poem so extraordinarily heart-rending that Hoạn herself melts enough to give Kiều the option of becoming a Buddhist nun and tending a shrine on the estate. This gives Kiều some small space, but only for a time; Hoạn surprises Thúc going out to talk to Kiều, and Kiều realizes that it is not, in fact, going to get better. But being an attendant at the shrine gives her an opportunity to run away that she had not had before, and she takes it, stealing some of the implements of the shrine to make her way. She comes to a Buddhist temple, where she gives the stolen implements and is taken care of by the nun, Giác Duyên. However, when Giác Duyên discovers that the implements were stolen, she notes to Kiều that this is eventually going to catch up to her if she stays at the temple. To hide her better, Giác Duyên sets her up with a local family that give lavishly to the temple, the Bạc family.

Unfortunately, we have been here before; the Bạc family is so wealthy because Madame Bạc runs a brothel, and thus Kiều is forced into prostitution again. So it goes until she meets the well-favored rebel lord, Từ Hải, a tall, handsome, broad-shoulder, larger-than-life, and utterly unconquerable man. They hit it off immediately, and Từ Hải gets Madame Bạc to agree to a price for her -- not that Madame Bạc has any negotiation leverage with him. They have an intense marriage, and Từ Hải goes off and conquers much of the south. Kiều is a rebel queen. It is in many ways very satisfying; Kiều is able to reward those who have helped her, and punish those who showed her no mercy. (Lady Hoạn, despite her villainy, she spares because of that brief mercy that had been given due to the poem.)

A new governor comes to power in the south of the Empire, however, Hồ Tôn Hiến (Hu Zongxian), and he is a cunning man. Realizing that Từ Hải is just too good at military matters for direct handling, he pinpoints exactly what Từ Hải's weakness is: Kiều, on whom he dotes, and whose advice he takes seriously. The governor thus sends Từ Hải a message, framing it in a way that he hopes will get Kiều's favor, offering Từ Hải amnesty and confirmation of his authority if he will meet and given a nominal allegiance to the Emperor. The message succeeds. Kiều advises the rebel lord to take the offer and Từ Hải goes to the meeting and is murdered in an ambush (although, being the man he is, he dies fighting and on his feet, unbowing even past death). Hồ Tôn Hiến marries her off to a local official.

Qiao, the historical character on whom Kiều is based, betrayed the pirate Xu Hai to Hu Zongxian in hope of reward; when Hu Zongxian reneged on his side of the deal, she committed suicide by throwing herself into a river, remorseful for having betrayed a decent man for a reward she could not even get. Kiều has been more noble and innocent than her historical exemplar, but she too is overcome with remorse at having been the one weakness of Từ Hải, and when she comes to the Tiền Đường (Qiantang) River, to the very spot where Đạm Tiên had met her own death, Kiều throws herself into the river to die.

But the Tale of Kiều does not end here. This is part of the power of poetry: it cannot make the world go right, but it has a power that goes beyond even death. Qiao's story ended with her suicide. Kiều's does not. Giác Duyên, the Buddhist nun, fishes out Kiều from the river and revives her. Kiều has died, but it was in her case a symbolic death, not a literal one. As she has passed through the waters of death, Đạm Tiên is able to erase her name from the register of the Company of Sadness in reward for her goodness through such terrible things. The past cannot be undone. Fifteen years have passed since that fateful day of ancestral rites; and the hardships Kiều has faced necessarily leave their mark. But Kiều, who in a sense has already died her death from a broken heart, is now freed. And while things can never be quite the same again, there is one person whose story also matters here: Kim.

Allen's translation was very readable. From what I could tell, occasionally comparing the translation with the original Vietnamese, the translation is sometimes closer and sometimes looser, and certainly much less flowery. As the original is infinitely beyond my limited and fragmentary Vietnamese, I can't really judge the quality of most of the translation, whether it was good or bad in general as translation of the poetry itself. Timothy Allen, the translator, faced a difficult task. Vietnamese is a language that tends easily to poetry; it has a very rich poetic diction, full of allusions that make perfect sense to those who have lived all their lives with them, but certainly not easy to convey in a language whose poetic diction is often very different. But what I can say is that I think he made one very crucial and valuable choice in his translation: he prioritized the narrative. This is a very readable translation; it still captures some of the poetic floweriness at times, but Allen generally prefers the way of translating that won't bog down the reader, and he succeeds. This is a good move; it's absolutely essential not to let narrative poetry get too slow and turgid, and I can recommend Allen's translation quite highly because of it.

Favorite Passage:

Her fingers dance about the strings
and the scent of sandalwood grows more intense.
Is this the butterfly that dreamed it was Zhuangzi,
or is Zhuangzi dreaming of his wings again?
Is this that king who became every cuckoo
to mourn from every mountainside
the loss of his land and his love?
Clear notes drop like pearls into a moonlit bay
and shimmer like the heat from sun-warmed jade.

He listens to the weave and weft of the five tones
and it thrills his heart.

'But is this the same melody you used to play,' he says.
'It sounds so cheerful now, though it was sad before.
Why does it sound so different?'

'Probably I lacked the skill before,' says Kiều.
'These fingers on these strings have caused me so much grief.
But now you've heard my little tune
the way it should be played,
I'll put away my lute. That was my final song.' (pp. 148-149)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Nguyễn Du, The Song of Kiều, tr. Timothy Allen, Penguin (New York: 2019).

The Goddess Comes, She Moves Divinely Fair

His Excellency General Washington
by Phillis Wheatley

Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light,
Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring's fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven's revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber'd charms and recent graces rise.

Muse! Bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven's fair face deforms,
Enwrapp'd in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish'd ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or think as leaves in Autumn's golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior's train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl'd the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know'st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honors—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam'd for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!

One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom's heaven-defended race!
Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia's state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev'ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.

Wheatley sent this poem to Washington in October 1775; he replied with a thank-you letter in February of 1776; it seems to have been put in a pile of correspondence and only rediscovered that February when Washington was going through his papers. He then seems to have sent his thanks and showed the letter to Joseph Reed, with a comment that he had considered having it published, but decided he could not because it would like vanity; Reed seems to have taken this as permission to publish it himself, and it was published in Pennsylvania Magazine in April of 1776, as fitting a poetic preface to the rest of the year as any could be.

Wheatley, I think, had the great misfortune of being re-discovered in exactly that period of criticism least sympathetic to all the poetic arts at which she excelled, and least able to appreciate her excellence in them. One thinks of James Weldon Johnson's comment that she was not a great poet but an important one, which is the sort of damning with faint and condescending praise to which she has been continually subjected. And it is all based on entirely arbitrary notions. There is no universal poet; even Virgil or Dante or Du Fu could not have managed that. Every great poet is great at something. Wheatley's greatest strength is personal portraiture; this is an extremely difficult poetic field, and there have only been a handful of poets who are even as good at it as she is.

One of the nice features of the portraiture here (and one reason why Washington may have liked it), that is, the focus on person as such, is that instead of simply pouring out epithets on Washington, it frames him indirectly. We get Columbia, Columbia's armies, then Washington himself, but even the latter is as representing the former. This is good portraiture work, and not at all easy. All of Wheatley's portraiture is good; she is a poet who sees people.

But she's also more technically colorful than poets like Milton or Pope, and thus (despite being heavily influenced by the latter) is easily distinguished as not merely imitative; we see this in this eulogy on Washington for his victories against the French. What strikes me today is the restrained but excellent use of mixed alliteration and assonance as well as meter and rhyme to tie the poem together:

Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light,
Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring's fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven's revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

And, of course, we have the soundplay with refulgent and her offspring and with revolving and involved, which connect alliteratively with the v in veil, and the pattern scenes, see, scenes, see. None of this can really be done in a strained mechanical way, and that it is not an accident can be seen by continuing through the poem. She uses meter and rhyme as a trellis, and then runs through a vast and ever-changing array poetic devices and techniques; her metric verse is more free than most free verse.

Friday, July 03, 2020

The Misbegotten Subtleties of Malicious Wits

For such peoples, like so many beasts, have fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme of delicacy, or better of pride, in which like wild animals they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure. Thus in the midst of their greatest festivities, though physically thronging together, they live like wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will, scarcely any two being able to agree since each follows his own pleasure or caprice. By reason of all this, providence decrees that, through obstinate factions and desperate civil wars, they shall turn their cities into forests and the forests into dens and lairs of men. In this way, through long centuries of barbarism, rust will consume the misbegotten subtleties of malicious wits that have turned them into beasts made more inhuman by the barbarism of reflection than the first men had been made by the barbarism of sense. For the latter displayed a generous savagery, against which one could defend oneself or take flight or be on one's guard; but the former, with a base savagery, under soft words and embraces, plots against the life and fortune of friends and intimates. Hence peoples who have reached this point of premeditated malice, when they receive this last remedy of providence and are thereby stunned and brutalized, are sensible no longer of comforts, delicacies, pleasures and pomp, but only of the sheer necessities of life.

[Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, Bergin & Fisch, trs., Cornell UP (Ithaca, NY: 1984) pp. 423-424.]

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Some Poem Drafts


Sunlight I remember, laughter-lovely,
sparking on the Ness with beaming smile;
Faith and Hope and Love were standing sentry,
a puppy played its fetch upon the isle.
The people were all walking by the water;
the quiet college went its gentle way,
gathering the Highlands and the Islands
to catch a little more of glory's ray.
The church upon the left was saint-suggesting;
the castle on the right was fair and sure;
Inverness in sunlight is resplendent
and ever in the heart it shall endure.

Achievements of a Man

I made the speech of silence;
I sang to be unheard;
I spoke the word of the Word of God
for my lady was absurd.
I acted fool and was a fool,
but sages I outfoxed;
I ruled myself with an iron rule
but rebelled from being boxed.
To the fight I rose, and rose again,
the race I ran and ran,
and took the earth and an endless sky
within my outstretched span.
And what lies at the end of it?
A silent grave, and drear,
but, standing yet, though I do not,
the things that I hold dear.

Logic, which Is Hestia among Disciplines

Queen Hestia, blessing-filled,
of mighty Chronos daughter,
in the midst of the house
you keep your undying flame.
Home of the blessed gods,
strong support of mortals,
eternal, multiform, beloved,
in the high houses of all
you find an unending above
with highest honor.
Glorious is your portion,
glorious your right;
without you none hold banquet,
no feast in which libation
is poured out to you,
both first and last.
With smiles, blessed one,
kindly accept the sacrifices,
bestow upon us wealth and health.


I put a penny in the wishing well
to wish you well.
An endless day and night it fell
(I know not how)
past the norns and roots of hell
beyond where prophet's words can tell
the fates that rule, or bring back tale,
and down
through the shell
that shields the world it fell
and like a bell
resounded on your head.

A White Horse Song

Luminous divine, who makes the wheel revolve,
knower, font of time, all-pervading,
all-sure, all-knowing,
all elements forth-showing,
beginner, unifier, partless and undivided,
above the triple thread of time:
attaining this indwelling source,
mind attains to freedom.

He from whom the world goes forth
is higher than the world-tree,,
higher than time,
many-appearing and font of all;
knowing the indweller, good-bringer,
powerful and immortal support,
mind attains to freedom.


One of the most iconic public monuments in Portland, Oregon is Elk, which usually sits on top of the Thompson Fountain on SW Main. I have been around that fountain many times. Last night it was spray painted with graffiti and a bonfire was lit under it.

The statue was designed by Roland Hinton Perry, one of the great American sculptors at the end the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It was donated by Portland mayor David Thompson in 1900 -- originally scheduled to be dedicated on July 4 of that year, but due to delays only finished a few months later.

This is not its first abuse under protest; it was vandalized in 2016 after Trump's election, as well. (If I recall, Occupy Portland used it as a central location for protest a few years before that, but I don't think they ever did anything more than clamber on it and decorate it with flags.) And it survived last night's bonfire as well, but today apparently the city removed it indefinitely for its protection, although it's hard to find definite information about it. As far as I am aware, it is the first time it has not been standing above the Thompson Fountain since 1900, except for a brief restoration of the fountain in the 1990s. There was once a long series of attempts to move it, because as traffic patterns and routes have changed, it came to be in a very awkward place, traffic-wise. But attempts to change it just led to it being designated a Historic Landmark.

Apparently circa 2006.

I sort of regret that I didn't take time to see it the last time I was in Portland; who knows when it will be back up.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

The Sun Rose Up at Midnight

The Stars sang in God’s Garden
by Joseph Mary Plunkett

The stars sang in God’s garden;
The stars are the birds of God;
The night-time is God’s harvest,
Its fruits are the words of God.

God ploughed His fields at morning,
God sowed His seed at noon,
God reaped and gathered in His corn
With the rising of the moon.

The sun rose up at midnight,
The sun rose red as blood,
It showed the Reaper, the dead Christ,
Upon His cross of wood.

For many live that one may die,
And one must die that many live—
The stars are silent in the sky
Lest my poor songs be fugitive.

Joseph Mary Plunkett is perhaps most famous for having been one of the major leaders in the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, although he was sick for much of the actual rebellion. The British executed him on May 4, 1916; he was twenty-eight.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Rudolfo Anaya (1937-2020)

I went to part of high school in New Mexico, and as is common with different states in the US, high school literature courses often include a unit on the state literature. And the New Mexican literary work that I remember reading was Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima. Anaya was born outside Santa Rosa in Guadalupe County (sort of in the middle of the state in the llano, the desert flats) to a ranching family. He got his degree at UNM in Albuquerque. Bless Me, Ultima, his major work and his first novel, barely got into publication; publishers didn't a think a book written in English but with a lot of Spanish would sell. Eventually it was bought by an independent publishing house. It's a very interesting book. There was a movie based on it that came out a few years back; I saw it but don't remember much about it beyond the fact that I thought it was OK, but only OK. The book itself, though, is quite interesting.

In any case, Rudolfo Anaya apparently died on Sunday. Somewhere -- I have no idea where -- I have my old copy of Bless Me, Ultima, and will perhaps have to do it as a fortnightly book later this year.

Pronominal Innovation

Amia Srinivasan has a very interesting discussion of pronouns at the LRB; she provides a nice summary of the (continually failing) attempts to rationalize pronoun use in English, which have been occurring on and off for the last two centuries. I'm not convinced the summary quite captures, however, the problem which has given rise to this, which boils down to the fact that English in practice has involved conflicting rules of thumb, e.g.:

(1) There are four nominal genders: masculine, feminine, common, neuter.
(2) There are three pronominal genders: masculine, feminine, neuter.
(3) Gender follows sex.
(4) Neuter should not be used for persons.
(5) Pronouns should agree in gender and number with their nouns.
(6) 'He' is masculine.
(7) 'They' is plural and agrees with all nominal genders.
(8) 'She' agrees with common nouns that are allegorical representations.
(9) 'Man' is both masculine and common.
(10) Neuter should be used for animals except where sex is particularly important.

The jumble of rules of thumb guarantees asymmetries, and asymmetries guarantee conflicting possible extrapolations to any cases in which we are trying to communicate something new and not trite. The reason for this, of course, is that languages are not constructed out of rules of thumb but out of habits of use, and the rules of thumb are regularities identified after the fact that become used explicitly, due to the importance of regularities in both pedagogy and communication. The matter is complicated further by the fact that we use exemplars, not just rules, to maintain regularity, and Latin served and in a more limited way still serves as an exemplar for grammar in formal registers of English. No rule fix is ever going to solve all the asymmetries with respect to gender, and any attempt to solve the problem by that route tends to be easily recognizable as the artificial jargon of a few rather than a solution that arises naturally and organically in the process of the many using the language.

Of the latter, only two violations of widely respected rules of thumb have gained and maintain dominance with respect to pronouns and common or indefinite gender in the singular: for formal registers, common he, due to the influence of Latin as an exemplar; for informal registers, singular they. Were there a sharp difference between formal register and informal register, they would no doubt merely split the difference. But English has no such sharp difference; we have no English Academy, and despite the phrase "the Queen's English", nobody even in England actually models their formal speaking on formal practices of the court. We have situations that strongly require formality and situations that strongly require informality; this requirement is the only thing that maintains any kind of formal/informal distinction at all. So there has been a centuries-long struggle between common he and singular they in all the cases in between the extremes. Common he has always had the advantage that grammarians are latinate (English grammar, as a field, is in origin an imitation of Latin grammar); singular they has always had the popular advantage. The latter has been steadily winning, for two reasons: Latin has receded as a formal exemplar, thus weakening one of the pillars holding up common he, and the 'gender follows sex' rule of thumb has become increasingly dominant. I have no idea what has led to the latter; sex-based rules of thumb have become steadily less important in other areas of English, including nouns, but with pronouns at some point it began to swamp other rules.

Srinivasan, of course, is talking about this in order to talk about new gender pronouns, things like xe and hir. In talking about this matter, however, she unfortunately conflates two distinct things, grammatical conservatism and cultural conservatism.

The grammatical conservative's argument is that the new pronouns are jargon imposed for reasons external to the language, involving neither an extrapolation from regularities already in the language nor a diffusion from major exemplars. This doesn't rule out all pronominal innovation; grammatical conservatives have long been split over singular they, which is supported by both regular extrapolation and normative diffusion from authors like Jane Austen. And s/he, for instance, is an extrapolation of regularities for writing. Xe and hir and the like, on the other hand, are simply imposed; they require everyone who speaks the language to learn a completely new vocabulary, violate the rule of 'gender follows sex', and not only do not extrapolate the regularities already existing but posit a completely new rule of 'grammatical gender follows gender identity'. They're like the notorious Latinx, which is an obvious jargon-imposition on the Spanish language. Nobody would look at the actual regularities of Spanish and say, "Ah, an obvious thing to do for ambiguous or common cases is to use -x instead of -a and -o." What they might do is what some actual Spanish speakers did do: start using -e rather than -a or -o; -e, while not exactly common, is already used in some common-gender nouns. So that would at least be an extrapolation; it's a Spanish solution to a Spanish problem. Latinx has nothing identifiably Spanish about it at all. The grammatical conservative's point is that xe is not an English solution to an English problem.

Srinivasan does a bit of tapdancing around this, footwork that is obscured by the conflation of grammatical conservatism and cultural conservatism. Noting that one response to prior attempts to rationalize the English pronominal system was that people are free to invent their own languages, she says, "The Enquirer editors were conveniently forgetting that all languages, and all the words in them, are invented." No; you will look in vain for the inventors of the English language. All languages are artificial, in much the same sense that clothing or property are, but we do not invent most of our language. We inherit our native languages and we are usually taught our foreign languages, and we adapt both to actual situations over time. If we do so by extrapolating regularities, we are not inventing the regularities, just extending them. We do invent jargon, but jargon usually dies with us unless one of four things happen:

(1) someone uses it and becomes a major exemplar for the whole language, so it spreads by diffusion and becomes an ordinary part of the language;
(2) everyone in a field agrees to use it for some reason, so it becomes specialized or technically vocabulary;
(3) people use it in deference to the people in a field, so it remains specialized or technical vocabulary but occasionally gets used outside the field;
(4) people use it in deference to the people in a field, but the occasion for use of it becomes so great that it just becomes a normal part of the vocabulary.

Srinivasan quotes a Daily Gazette comment from 1920: "‘Surely great big men who can invent such fine words as “radioactinium” and “spectroheliograph” should be able to devise a little useful pronoun.’" But this is, of course, the whole problem: radioactinium and spectroheliograph are not generally useful, they are jargon that specialists agreed to use within particular specialties in order to make it easier to talk about things in those specific fields. Outside those fields, we might use the words if the occasion comes up, but this is in deference to the specialized vocabulary, and it stays specialized. The pronouns aren't being proposed for a specialized problem but for a general problem; but the solution proposed treats the general problem as if it could be solved by trying to impose a specialized jargon. It wouldn't be an issue if the point were just the convenience of, say, an academic field; academic fields are full of jargon, some of it quite barbarous and arbitrary, involving no regard for the common usages of the surrounding language at all, and it works for the purposes of an academic field. But the English language in general use is not an academic field; it is in fact only the arrogance of academics that treats it as if it were, in defiance of all actual reality; and if you want the spread of pronouns into general usage, it's going to have to be either by diffusion from something people like and imitate or by society changing first so that it becomes a handy solution people can use all the time. It is the many who determine general usage by their actual practice; academics and politicians cannot do it by fiat. And, of course, it's going to have to turn out more useful than both common he and (the even bigger challenge) singular they.

The grammatical conservative argument is about politics only in the sense that in this particular case the external reasons that are motivating the attempt to impose the jargon are political. The cultural conservative argument is in fact different from all of this and has nothing to do with grammatical rules, except insofar as this case happens to be about language. There are cultural conservatives who are grammatical conservatives, but neither position entails the other. Precisely the problem for the cultural conservative is that it is imposed punitively, by shaming and increasingly by threat to employment and legal penalties, and done so deliberately to further a specific political position. Having a problem with this does not require any particular position about whether the usual rules of English are particularly great or could not be improved. It certainly wouldn't have any implications one way or another for a popular and freely spreading solution like singular they. Even if the cultural conservative is also a grammatical conservative, there is all the difference in the world between people being forced to give up their native usages for someone else's political goals and freely changing their usages for their own. Indeed, all the difference, in its own micro-scale way, between fascist Orwellianism and democratic folly. Pick any folly you choose, and one can argue that if people are going to be fools, they should at least freely be fools for their own reasons, and not fools because other people are forcing them to be for their own reasons. And as the general point, about coercing people to do things, does not fundamentally change even if you don't think it actually a folly, so nothing prevents someone making the cultural conservative argument without being a grammatical conservative.

Srinivasan's conflation of grammatical and cultural conservatism helps her rhetorically for most of her argument, since it makes the cultural conservatives look more arbitrary than they are and it makes the grammatical conservatives look like they have more of a definite political agenda than they do. But the more she focuses on politics in particular the more it raises questions that need to be considered but are not, and in at least two ways.

(1) She effectively concedes all the major points of the cultural conservative argument, despite the fact that she clearly intends to be arguing that it is unreasonable. On Srinivasan's argument, the point of the new pronouns is indeed political; it is deliberately political; and it is pushing a particular political position. This position is being pushed against the resistance of at least a large mass of the broader population and is being pushed to change society for political reasons. She thinks they are good political reasons, ethical reasons; but outside a few sociopaths who don't care, everybody appeals to ethical reasons to try to justify impositions on others. Bare appeal to its being for an ethical end doesn't establish that it is an ethical means, much less one that is in any way obligatory. Given the premises of Srinivasan's argument, cultural conservatives are right by their own lights to oppose the innovation: if it really is pushing a politics on people, why would you accept that at all unless you already agreed with the politics? Srinivasan could defang the argument by saying that use of preferred pronouns should only be asked as a personal matter of courtesy. But doing this would mean her argument is backward. Personal courtesies become expected courtesies because society changes. Again, the actual history of pronoun innovation here is a history of failure. It very much seems as if this can work only by the slow but organic and popular path of singular they, which is really being rejected here, or by pushing a major revision of language on people, which is not a matter of words changing the world but the reverse.

(2) Srinivasan consistently speaks as if there were only one linguistic culture. There are many. And Srinivasan's argument from that perspective looks very much like an argument that justifies pressuring linguistic cultures to conform to a more enlightened universal language, even if they resist. It's a battle over which politics is to prevail; for instance, the progressive, enlightened Anglophone one, or the First Nations one. Perhaps the cultural conservatives of native linguistic cultures did indeed fear the power of words to change the world; but it is part and parcel of the cultural conservative argument that the real problem was that the world was changing the words.

I've noted before that academia tends to hide its own relation to colonialism, for all that it has become fashionable for academics to attack everything else for colonialism. And the relation is ultimately this, that they are in some sense the same; when you start going back to the primary texts, it becomes quite obvious that this is so. Colonial administrators did not pop up from the ground; they were born from European universities. Colonial administration as we usually think of it just is university habit applied to ruling foreign nations; the same principles that were part of university reforms in education were extended to reforms in government, and entire populations were put under tutelage as students of the European nations who took themselves to be improving the world by educating it. And since it was for such a very ethical reason, of course, the idea was that they had to be; sometimes by force, sometimes just by continual pressure, they had to be made to learn, so that their injustices would stop. And pressure against the language was one of the ways it unfolded. After all, who can be counted as educated if they don't got no ability to speak good? And what are enlightened languages, suitable for civilized life, on this view? It's not that of peasants and farmers; it's whatever language happens to be spoken in the universities.

University habits as a political regime for ruling foreign nations ran into problems as an explicit view because the resistance of an entire foreign nation is quite formidable, no matter what their disadvantages, and the military and economic cost of continuing such a regime eventually became unmanageable given other demands on both army and purse. The similar technocratic rule is a recurring temptation for domestic politics, but it's never been quite able to find a solution to the regular populist revolt against it. But academic life is sheltered, with its structures and processes changing slowly and often only superficially, and it gets protection from a general perception of serving a useful function, so the worst consequences are very occasional and very limited anti-intellectual and anti-academic backlashes. Thus the university habits are still there. Put any of us academics under the microscope, and you'll find us all tempted to slip into thinking as if the rubes must be civilized -- who counts as rubes and why, and what counts as civilizing them, shifts around a lot, but if you spend your life lecturing and grading, it takes a genuine effort never to treat the general population as students who need your training and junior scholars who need your mentoring, rather than (what they much more certainly are) the people who pay your bills on the understanding that doing so will ultimately make their lives less difficult. But even more broadly, I think, it tempts to one particular form of the overmoralization I've been going on about recently, and in particular a tendency to insist that your views are the direct and necessary requirements of ethics and reasonableness, and that therefore anyone who resists them can't really be resisting your own proposals as unreasonable impositions to which you have no right. They are just afraid of your good work of making the world better; they find your suggestions disturbing because they are complicit with the world's wrongs -- their unreasonable resistance is a further proof your rightness, and of their need to be enlightened, made civilized.

People who are in no way colonialist may nonetheless have the university habits of which colonialism was a monstrous growth, the academic garden envisioned at the size of a world. And almost all of us academics do; it's part of how you present yourself as a serious scholar rather than -- well, rather than as one of the rubes. Thus it's not surprising that people who absolutely repudiate colonialism will nonetheless sometimes turn out to give arguments that are structurally very similar to justifications of colonial interference. It's not even necessarily a bad thing to do so, since nothing in the abstract prevents practical arguments that are utterly monstrous at imperial size from being perfectly fine at miniature scale. That's a matter of proportion and evidence. But no one who genuinely rejects colonialism can simply dismiss the cultural conservative argument; nor does the cultural conservative argument actually depend on whether the culture in question is right. It's not a justification of colonialism that native cultures were flawed; of course they were, since all cultures are. It's not even a justification that some of them had practices that were ethically horrendous; it's not the end but the means that are in question. The cultural conservative has a point, and one that cannot be easily dismissed. The cultural conservatives are sometimes absolutely, definitely right. This needs to be faced squarely, and conflating the grammatical conservative and cultural conservative arguments makes it impossible to do so.

Of course, it is entirely possible that Srinivasan sees the matter as she presents it at the end, as purely a matter of courtesy and kindness and working with people to make a better world. It's possible that she would vehemently oppose any attempt to penalize people for not using preferred pronouns, or perhaps allow no greater penalty than just treating it as a rudeness not to be condoned but nonetheless to be tolerated. If that's the view put forward, then the cultural conservative argument is entirely bypassed. But I take it that the reason the cultural conservative argument comes into play so much in this context is that there are more than a few people who are not convinced that this is really what is being put forward.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Under Much Better Auspices

Today is the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, Apostles. From one of St. Leo I's sermons on this very feast (Sermon 82):

The whole world, dearly-beloved, does indeed take part in all holy anniversaries, and loyalty to the one Faith demands that whatever is recorded as done for all men's salvation should be everywhere celebrated with common rejoicings. But, besides that reverence which today's festival has gained from all the world, it is to be honoured with special and peculiar exultation in our city, that there may be a predominance of gladness on the day of their martyrdom in the place where the chief of the Apostles met their glorious end. For these are the men, through whom the light of Christ's gospel shone on you, O Rome, and through whom you, who was the teacher of error, was made the disciple of Truth. These are your holy Fathers and true shepherds, who gave you claims to be numbered among the heavenly kingdoms, and built you under much better and happier auspices than they, by whose zeal the first foundations of your walls were laid: and of whom the one that gave you your name defiled you with his brother's blood. These are they who promoted you to such glory, that being made a holy nation, a chosen people, a priestly and royal state, and the head of the world through the blessed Peter's holy See you attained a wider sway by the worship of God than by earthly government. For although you were increased by many victories, and extended your rule on land and sea, yet what your toils in war subdued is less than what the peace of Christ has conquered.

Romulus and Remus are "they, by whose zeal the first foundations of your walls were laid: and of whom the one that gave you your name defiled you with his brother's blood", so St. Leo's point is that Peter and Paul are a greater Romulus and Remus.

Sunday, June 28, 2020


Today is the feast of St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Bishop and Martyr, although, of course, in the actual liturgy Sunday takes precedence. St. Polycarp had sent St. Pothinus to be the first bishop of Lyon. In the persecution under Marcus Aurelius, St. Pothinus was killed; Irenaeus, who seems to have come with Pothinus because he was definitely born in Smyrna, became his successor. The period after that persecution was quite peaceful in comparison, so Irenaeus set himself to address a major problem, the proliferation of semi-Christian and pseudo-Christian Gnostic cults. His major work, Adversus Haereses, is one of our most significant sources of knowledge about Gnosticism as actually practiced; until the Nag Hammadi discoveries in 1945 it was almost our only source or knowledge at all, almost everything else being obscure references and allusions. An occasional anti-Catholic charge -- you still find it -- had been that Irenaeus had falsified the positions and practices of the Gnostics, but even in light of such new discoveries it is very difficult to point to anything that Irenaeus got definitely wrong, particularly since, unlike some of his critics, Irenaeus is obviously very aware of how diverse the Gnostics actually were. And for the most part, Irenaeus is still our major source for having any understanding of how the Gnostics themselves interpreted their texts.

Irenaeus seems to have died shortly around the beginning of the third century; he's generally presumed to have been a martyr, although we don't have any evidence for his having been so beyond the fact that this is generally presumed. He was buried under what became known as the Church of St. Irenaeus in Lyon, and there his body remained until Huguenots destroyed the church, his tomb, and his body in the sixteenth century. He was very influential on the next generations, but it's only by accident we have his works at all. He wrote in Greek, but we have no complete Greek copy of any of his works. We have Adversus Haereses in an early Latin translation and a lot of Syrian and Armenian fragments and we have The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching in an Armenian translation that was discovered in the twentieth century. Beyond occasional fragments of other works, that's all that's survived, despite the fact that we know he wrote several other works.

From Adversus Haereses III, 19:

But again, those who assert that He was simply a mere man, begotten by Joseph, remaining in the bondage of the old disobedience, are in a state of death having been not as yet joined to the Word of God the Father, nor receiving liberty through the Son, as He does Himself declare: "If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed." But, being ignorant of Him who from the Virgin is Emmanuel, they are deprived of His gift, which is eternal life; and not receiving the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life. To whom the Word says, mentioning His own gift of grace: "I said, You are all the sons of the Highest, and gods; but you shall die like men." He speaks undoubtedly these words to those who have not received the gift of adoption, but who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God, defraud human nature of promotion into God, and prove themselves ungrateful to the Word of God, who became flesh for them. For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?