Monday, February 28, 2011

A Very Bloggy February

As it happened, this February was a heavy-blog month for me -- the second-heaviest ever, beaten only by September, 2008. And I like what I've been posting better than those older posts, too.* I don't know why this has been -- I've been busy as hell, and actually working fairly focusedly, so it's not primarily procrastination (although that's some of it, obviously). Of course a lot of them have been just quotes -- but not all, and some have been quotes with so much commentary as to approach bona fide blog posts. Some of them have been inspired by my work (that's a new tag, for the class I'm currently teaching; and I've only put it on the most directly related ones).

But mostly, I dunno.

I doubt it will keep up. But as I predicted early on, this blog has an ebb-and-flow pattern, and this particular month was high tide.

So I thought I'd organize the more substantial ones by categories, so you can look through and catch any you might have missed.

Posts on Pragmatism:
These were directly from my class. ("Pragmatism" by the way, is the philosophical movement, not the political tendency.) The first of them is my personal favorite of the posts this month.

Literary Curiosities and Links:
There are all, in a sense, just quotes, but they're fun quotes, assembled from multiple & often obscure sources, so I think they add some value.

Things That From a Long Way Off Look Like Flies:
Finally, I also reposted an old post I've always liked (Is This Man Worth Two Presidents?), now that I've figure out how to include title text, making the footnotes visible if you just hover your mouse over them; it's about presidential coinage, and the 22nd and 24th presidents of the United States.

...and, amazingly (at least to me) that's less than half of the posts I put up (not even counting this one). The others are simpler, mostly quotes and the like, but I still think they're all fun (maybe a few years from now they'll look less interesting, but at the moment I think they hold up). So go ahead: scroll through the archives, and have a look.

See you in March!

* Nothing wrong with them, really; they're just mostly real-time reactions to the financial meltdown and the McCain-Obama campaign, which are less interesting in retrospect. There are some that I posted from that month that I still like, though; here are a few:
...and "Button Wearers for Obama", which is political, but mostly about the surface kitsch of campaigning, and thus more fun 2+ years down the pike. But if you're curious about my most bloggy month ever, I'd suggest checking out those rather than scrolling randomly through the archive.

"Its called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."

George Carlin tells the truth:
But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.

Because the owners, the owners of this country don't want that. I'm talking about the real owners now, the big owners. The wealthy… the real owners. The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.

Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don't. You have no choice! You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They got you by the balls.

They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying, lobbying, to get what they want. Well, we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I'll tell you what they don’t want: they don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That's against their interests. That's right. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around a kitchen table and think about how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. They don’t want that!

You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shitty jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it, and now they’re coming for your Social Security money. They want your retirement money. They want it back so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street, and you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all from you sooner or later cause they own this fucking place! Its a big club, and you ain’t in it! You, and I, are not in the big club.

By the way, it's the same big club they use to beat you over the head with all day long when they tell you what to believe. All day long beating you over the head with their media telling you what to believe, what to think and what to buy. The table has tilted folks. The game is rigged and nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care! Good honest hard-working people; white collar, blue collar it doesn’t matter what color shirt you have on. Good honest hard-working people continue, these are people of modest means, continue to elect these rich cock suckers who don’t give a fuck about you….they don’t give a fuck about you… they don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t care about you at all… at all… at all.

And nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care. That's what the owners count on. The fact that Americans will probably remain willfully ignorant of the big red, white and blue dick that's being jammed up their assholes everyday, because the owners of this country know the truth.

It's called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

-- George Carlin, Life is Worth Loosing (2005)
Based on the transcript from here, which also has the video, as well as an interview with Carlin's daughter about the routine.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Autoanto and other -nyms

This delightful page gives a list of autoantonyms -- that is, words that have two opposite meanings, i.e. are antonyms of themselves. It's not clear how widespread the term is; the page itself lists a series of alternate terms -- contranyms, contronyms, antilogies, Janus words and enantiodromes. But it's a neat concept, well worthy of a term, and "autoantonym" seems like a good one.

Now, very few of the words are what one might call strict autoantonyms: which is to say, words which can have two opposite meanings in the same context. Sometimes, the difference in context is so clear that even calling the term autoantonymous seems generous:
• to miss (e.g. in baseball)
• to hit; collide with
Obviously, "strike" as in "miss" is a technical term; the latter is the common usage.

More often, the words appear at first blush to be strict autoantonyms; but I think that a careful imagining of the circumstances in which the word might be used will show two non-intersecting sets. For instance:
• to fasten
• to come undone; give way; collapse
The sort of things one buckles are very different than things which buckle; and I don't think there's going to be a case where "seatbelt buckles" might mean that it came apart, nor one which "a building buckles" would mean it fastened. (At least none come to find. Can anyone else think of one?) Similarly "clip" (meaning fasten, as with a paperclip) and "clip" (meaning cut, as in fingernails) are simply used in such different contexts that it is much a pair of homonyms as a single autoantonym.

I think these cases are the most common: a thing weathers well (meaning it persists) very differently than a thing is weathered (meaning worn); you bolt a door and bolt away, but it's only autoantonymic if you carefully define one to stick in place and the other to run away; otherwise they're just homonyms. No one would confuse something that's custom made (i.e. unique) with something that is customary (i.e. common); one's things, the other's habits. And so forth. Most are like that.

But there are others, and these cases slide, almost imperceptibly, into strict autoantonymism: the cases blur, the categories get less distinct, and soon you're getting words that are very nearly ambiguous: "it's fine", could mean just fine (i.e. ok), or very fine, i.e. high quality.

In practice, of course, we don't confuse them; the sets, while not strictly non-intersecting, and more carefully defined than it appears. As J. L. Austin wisely said, "our ordinary words are much subtler in their uses, and mark many more distinctions, than philosophers have realized".

But I think that "peer", "rent" and possible "temper" are pretty strictly autoantonyms.

Check out the full list and see what you think for yourself. If things seem strictly autoantonymous, however, be sure you're imagining very precisely the sorts of situations and cases in which the word is used; they may be "subtler in their uses" than you realize.

The same site, incidentally, has an entire page on -nym words. Many will be very familiar to educated readers. but speaking personally I'd never seen:
aptonymn (apt names, such as the famous Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia)
bacronym (a backwards coined acronymn, in which one starts with the final word and picks words to match)
capitonym ("a word which changes its meaning and pronunciation when capitalised; e.g. polish and Polish, august and August, concord and Concord.")
exonym ("a place name used by foreigners that differs from the name used by natives; e.g. Londres is the French exonym for London, Germany is an exonym because Germans call it Deutschland." -- That one's particularly useful.)
...and a number of others too. A number of them seem likely to have been coined but rarely if ever used -- we might term them dictionymns, words that exist only in dictionaries, perhaps? Or even coinonyms, words that were coined but never caught on and are rarely used save in reference to the coining. But, of course, all dictonyms and coinonyms can become real words if we choose. So take a look and see if any meet your fancy.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

An Ode to My Hometown... 's Namesake

On being (delightfully!) contacted by an old friend who was passing through Ithaca, I was informed that this blog gave no indication of my current residence. And, I guess, that's right. I mean, there are some clues -- on my about page, updated last fall, I mentioned that we're still living in Ithaca; last fall I blogged about an Ithaca-based book group that I was running; and I've mentioned teaching at HWS, which is in Geneva, NY, about an hour's drive north. But it's hardly blazoned. I should blog more about Ithaca! (Where, yes, I still live. If I ever leave, I promise I'll make it obvious here.)

So, of course, I thought of C. P. Cavafy.

Cavafy is an important, foundational (modern) Greek poet. I was first introduced to his work on my trip to Greece (over two decades ago) when I bought an English-language anthology of modern Greek poetry (this one); Cavafy was the first in the book. He wasn't one of the two Nobel-prize winners included, but he was clearly central to the cannon of modern Greek poetry.

Interestingly, however -- and I only learned this when googling around a big for this blog post -- he was actually born in, and lived most of his life in, Alexandra, Egypt. His parents were Greek, he spoke Greek and wrote in Greek, but he lived in Egypt -- part of the Greek diaspora there, I suppose. I think that's kinda cool, myself.

He also -- and as someone about to turn forty in less than a month, this really won him my heart -- is described by Wikipedia as someone who's "most important poetry was written after his fortieth birthday." God bless you, Cavafy! There's hope for us after all.

Anyway, his Cavafy's most famous poems -- in English, that is; I have no idea what works his Greek reputation rests on -- are "Waiting for the Barbarians" (whose title was borrowed for a novel by the Nobel-prize winning J. M. Coetzee) and "Ithaca", which is our topic here. It was first published, if Wikipedia can be trusted in this instance, exactly a century ago -- in 1911. (Update: In his anthology, Kimon Friar lists it as 1910. Darn.)

Anyone who can read modern Greek can read the original poem here. On the other hand, I suspect that anyone who can read the original doesn't need me to tell them about it. So let's move on to English-language translations.

Cavafy's official site presents five different translations of the poem -- and it's not a complete list. I first read the poem in a translation by Kimon Friar; there also seems to be a version by Rae Dalven, and (another?) by Edmund Keeley without Philip Sherrard's revisions, which have that word in the first line; but most of the reposting I can find online don't list translators at all (highly annoying), and I'm not sure of the translators for any but those at the official site.

Just to give you a sense of how they compare -- I like this sort of thing, after all -- here are the opening three lines in each of the various translations included on Cavafy's official site. (Some of the poems used the spelling "Ithaka" instead of "Ithaca", a spelling which is, I think, more accurate as far as strict transliteration goes, but not the typical English spelling.)
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.

-- trans. Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard

When you set out for distant Ithaca,
fervently wish your journey may be long, —
full of adventures and with much to learn.

-- trans. John Cavafy

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.

-- trans. Daniel Mendelsohn

When you set out on your way to Ithaca
you should hope that your journey is a long one:
a journey full of adventure, full of knowing.

-- trans Stratis Haviaras

When you start on the way to Ithaca,
wish that the way be long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.

-- trans George Valassopoulo
Not knowing Greek, I can judge these only on the basis of their quality as English-language poetry. And reading through the entire poem (I'm not going to reprint the entirety of all five here; you can go look on Cavafy's site if you're curious), I think that I have a slight preference for the Haviaras -- although, truth be told, I don't have as strong feelings about this as I do about, say, Onegin.

But rather than simply reprint any of those five -- which, again, are already available online on the official Cavafy site -- here is the translation by Kimon Friar, from his 1982 anthology Modern Greek Poetry, which is my favorite -- quite possibly simply because I read it first. But here it is:

When you set out on the voyage to Ithaca,
pray that your journey may be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.
Of the Laestrygones and the Cyclopes
and of furious Poseidon, do not be afraid,
for such on your journey you shall never meet
if your thought remain lofty, if a select
emotion imbue your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygones and the Cyclopes
and furious Poseidon you will never meet
unless you drag them with you in your soul,
unless your soul raises them up before you.

Pray that your journey may be long,
that many may those summer mornings be
when with what pleasure, what untold delight
you enter harbors you've not seen before;
that you stop at Phoenician market places
to procure the goodly merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and voluptuous perfumes of every kind,
as lavish an amount of voluptuous perfumes as you can;
that you venture on to many Egyptian cities
to learn and yet again to learn from the sages.

But you must always keep Ithaca in mind.
The arrival there is your predestination.
Yet do not by any means hasten your voyage.
Let it best endure for many years,
until grown old at length you anchor at your island
rich with all you have acquired on the way.
You never hoped that Ithaca would give you riches.

Ithaca has given you the lovely voyage.
Without her you would not have ventured on the way.
She has nothing more to give you now.

Poor though you may find her, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Now that you have become so wise, so full of experience,
you will have understood the meaning of an Ithaca.

-- C. P. Cavafy; translated by Kimon Friar

(I've kept the original capitalization, rather than changing it to the English standard custom of a capital letter for each new line.)

I find it sort of odd to read this poem as someone who lives in Ithaca -- even though I know that my Ithaca is not that Ithaca, and that for that matter that Ithaca isn't really Ithaca either, since Ithaca here is just a symbol. Nevertheless.

I like this poem -- and "Waiting for the Barbarians" too -- but I will admit that, at least to this English-language reader in 2011, they both seem rather didactic. They make Points, and make them heavily. They have a Moral. It's not subtle. Oh, they're both good points, but still: heavily made. I'm somewhat reluctant to label this as a criticism, for a variety of reasons: I'm reading them in translation, which undoubtedly weakens the effect; I'm reading them in 2011, and I'm not sure that they seemed quite as didactic a century ago. And maybe the points (the journey not the arrival matters, a foreign enemy gives a culture focus and meaning although not in a good way) didn't seem so cliched then. (If anyone reading this knows either Greek or the historical context (or both) better than I, I hope you'll enlighten us in the comments.) Perhaps this is a case like the apocryphal reader who thought Hamlet was just a bunch of quotations strung together.

Or maybe it's just a didactic poem by a didactic author. Who knows.

But I will maintain that it's quality survives both its didacticism and translation: and thus I present it to you, Noble Reader, as an ode to my hometown... 's namesake.

(Note: This post was substantively updated after its first posting (once I laid my hands on my dead-tree copy of Friar's Modern Greek Poems.))

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Marvelous Mirthful Maddness of Harry Stephen Keeler

If you've never heard of Harry Stephen Keeler -- and frankly, there's no earthly reason why you should have --the best place to start learning about him is this introductory essay by William Poundstone. You may want to go read the entire thing, but just for context on what I'm about to quote, here's a bit of it:
In his time, [Keeler] was pegged as a mystery novelist who also wrote some science fiction. Today, if you've heard of him at all, it's as the Ed Wood of mystery novelists, a writer reputed to be so bad he's good.... his work bears no more relation to Christie or Hammett than does the phone book of Idiot's Valley. Although much of Keeler is steeped in the tradition of classical puzzle mysteries, woe to the reader who thinks he is going to guess the denouement... in X. Jones of Scotland Yard, the guilty party is not mentioned until the last sentence of the last page of this 448-page story....

Keeler created, and was seemingly the sole practitioner of, a genre he called the "webwork novel." This is a story in which diverse characters and events are connected by a strings of wholly implausible coincidences.... Keeler's narrative style is no less incredible than his plots. Indeed, the two can scarcely be distinguished, for his writing is essentially all plot. Characterization, description, dialog, and use of language hardly exist in the conventional sense. Every paragraph hits you over the head with new and implausible information. There is little room for anything else. In many of his later works, Keeler takes this daft aesthetic a step further. Despite this total concentration on plot, almost nothing happens within the time-frame of the narrative. It's all digressions about what happened off stage!...

In Agatha Christie at her sharpest, everyone is a suspect. In Keeler, everything is a McGuffin, that is to say, an essentially meaningless token that drives the plot. Because the webwork novel is so fundamentally phony, everything is, sooner or later, revealed to be irrelevant. A typical Keeler plot is a fractal shaggy dog story, filled with digressions, and digressions within digressions, that are themselves shaggy dog stories. As in a shaggy dog story, the truest synopsis of a Keeler plot is: Never mind.

...Much of Keeler's writing is genuinely hilarious. You are never given the luxury of being sure it is supposed to be.
Despite this rather odd approach to fiction, Keeler managed to publish a lot -- well over 50 novels, which just got stranger and stranger. (Some of his later work was published as trilogies just because it was too damn long to fit in a single volume.) Eventually his work stopped coming out in English; for a while his novels were first published in Spanish and Portuguese translation.* He left 16 complete unpublished books at his death. But fear not -- due to the magic of print-on-demand technology, nearly everything Keeler ever wrote is now back in print, for $18 a pop.

I haven't read any.

But in small bits, the man is absolutely, utterly hilarious. Here, for instance, are a few plot summaries, stolen once again from William Poundstone's essay:
A man is found strangled to death in the middle of a lawn, yet there are no footprints other than his own. Police suspect the "Flying Strangler-Baby," a killer midget who disguises himself as a baby and stalks victims by helicopter. (X. Jones of Scotland Yard, 1936)

Because of a clause in a will, a character has to wear a pair of hideous blue glasses constantly for a whole year. This is so that he will eventually see a secret message that is visible only with the glasses. (The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro, 1929)

A poem leads the protagonist to a cemetery specializing in circus freaks and the grave of "Legga, the Human Spider," a woman with four legs and six arms. Legga was born in Canton, China, and died in Canton, Ohio. (The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, 1934)

Every resident of "Idiot's Valley" is mentally retarded and packs a gun.** (Several novels; Idiot's Valley is Keeler's Yoknapatawpha County.)
[Footnote mine, not Poundstone's (or Keeler's).]

But somehow, those just seem to scratch the surface of Keeler's utterly luscious lunacy. Here, via a blog post by Roger Ebert, is a list of characters from Keeler's novel, The Iron Ring. Oh, and this is not some fan's summary; it's from a xerox of pages from the book. (Update: according to an anonymous but authoritative-sounding comment, this is wrong; this did start as a fan's summation, not Keeler's own character list. Ah well. Still fun.) This is pure Keeler, names, descriptions (and missing ones) and all:
  • Margaret Annister (awaiting execution in 24 hours for murdering her sister Joline with a batch of poison fudge)
  • Big Bella O'John (the prison matron)
  • Mrs. Yerxa Indergaard (wealthy socialite)
  • Orcutt Buffevant (hotel owner)
  • Canace Procunier (comely blonde receptionist)
  • Father Clanawly of the Church of the Inception (crooked priest)
  • John Very-Bad-Man-Makes-All-White-Men-Tremble (Indian chief)
  • Professor Adrian Summrescales
  • Beany Rylander (professional age-guesser)
  • Lettie Sydeaham (romance authoress)
  • Barnaby Gundelfinger (owner of a chamber of horrors)
  • Katy Miller (742 lb. woman)
  • Harry the Pinhead
  • Queenie, Tiniest Woman on Earth
  • John and Simon May (Siamese twins joined at the thumb)
  • Rodriguez, King of Sword Swallowers
  • Bakerby Butterfant (lawyer in the London law firm of Butterfant, Birthwhistle and Thurnbwood)
  • Nigel Wimpress (Junior lawyer in the firm of BB&T)
  • Moses Gubb (ancient Negro)
  • Roul de Sherbinin, Count le Mair
  • Bessie Guth (old maid)
  • Frank Welso (a crooked weasel)
  • Rose Welso (the weasel's mother)
  • Bull Buckdavis, Trigger Tatrini, Clubfoot Tatrelli, Guns Considine, Trigger Bozarth, Hoot Ivanjack (assorted gangsters)
  • Ms. Hannah Ivanjack (Hoot's mother)
  • Hurok Orcutt (handwriting expert)
  • Ruth Alberta Frisbee, R.A.F. (glamour photo model)
  • Mrs. Gerier (cleaning lady for mastermind criminal known only as "The Brain")
  • Ichabod Tsung (popular Chinese radio xylophonist)
...and that's only about half of them (I plucked out my favorites). Go look at Ebert's site if you want the full list.

And, it turns out, the first chapter of The Iron Ring is online for free! Here's the first paragraph:
Margaret Annister, waiting death in the gas-execution chamber of Nevada City prison, yet innocent completely of the cold-blooded murder for which, within but a half-dozen hours now, she was to inhale deadly cyanide gas, had little hope whatsoever that her last desperate appeal to the governor for reprieve or commutation would succeed. For since it had failed utterly in the hands of her attorney—and why not, in view of her unanimous conviction on the very first ballot of that mixed jury!—and their unanimous decree of death on their second ballot?—and, even more, the refusal of the State Supreme Court to find any error whatsoever in that trial!—how else could this last and final appeal fare in the hands of her only friend, Yerxa Indergaard? But she would know soon now, Margaret realised—with Yerxa’s return and admittance to this place—so very soon!—any minute, in fact—and then—

If you haven't seen by now why I'm quoting all this, then you never will: it's not for everyone, certainly. Personally I find it so literally laugh-outloud funny that at some points I had tears in my eyes. But I will admit that I rather prefer Keeler concentrate -- the plot summaries, the character list, the selected sentences (below), then the actual paragraph just cited; once you add the water of actual writing it starts to seem slightly less funny and slightly more just, well, bad. But in desiccated form, it's pure genius.

All of which leads up to the following revelation:

Harry Stephen Keeler has a twitter feed.

Yes, some noble soul is posting select sentences from Keeler's work as tweets (plus updates on reviews, new publications, and so forth -- I suppose I can't begrudge them that, although the truth is I do). Here, stripped of the announcements and so forth, are the tweets currently on the front page of the feed:
It’s not me, b’God, who intends to worry another eleven years about a striped tom cat and a banana.

The train station was like an exploded atom--containing 3,491 electrons--scurrying around to prevent themselves being fused into uranium x.

A wonderful man, that old Socialist John Jones the first, considering that he lived in such a dark era as the twentieth century.

Well, she had to tap them on the head with an ax, and cut their heads off--to bring her love to a rounded and satisfactory conclusion.

As the fattest worm always covers the sharpest hook, so do many words in a letter always cover the worst news!

Corpses did not ever rise from their graves and accidentally leave festoons of their spiritual vertebrae hanging on trees or bushes!

The fact might have come out if Dr. Harrowell, an old shark in hangings, had been on the case, instead of that raw youngster Dr. Farxx.

"What does Mrs. Sprudelganger think of my hibernation?"

Not that white prynose, nay. For when he sniffs about, there is, rest assured, within some verdant bush about, a most mouldy bone.

The world of vagabondia must necessarily contain queer human flotsam, if not queerer!

That blooming, blinking, bloody, blatant Monte van Tine has tipped over the receptacle containing the legumes.

A mouse, drinking its fill from a river, gets as much as the elephant--doing the same.

"I know not the 7 and 70 Classical Fables," rasped Kung Mee.

The gal was bleary-eyed when she drooled it forth, but baby, here, had his ears as wide open as the end of the old LaSalle Street tunnel.

My chow dog hath eaten up thy hen.

It takes money to make a marriage happy; not love--nor brats--nor--nor even chickens!

Jesus, but you count your chickens before the rooster has even winked at the hen who's to lay the eggs from w'ich them chicks is to hatch.

Just now, you're nothing but a journalist, which means a newspaperman out of a job.
It disturbs me more than I can possibly express that I think that one of the above is actually a good sentence, and that one other is a sentence that, as a quote from a character in a novel, could easily be a good sentence (depending on the context).

If you find those half as funny as I do, you can find more by going to Keeler's twitter page and clicking "more" at the bottom, or (if it's been a while since I posted this) there might be new ones up top.

Because damn, he's funny.

Anyone got $18 they want to give me? Because I may need to buy a copy of X. Jones of Scotland Yard.

* Poundstone comments:
Did Keeler strike some responsive chord in the Iberian soul? Probably not. Keeler had been published in Spain and Portugal during his salad days. [A biographer] speculates that Keeler continued to be published there mainly through editorial inertia.

** No jokes about the Republican National Convention, please: it's important to respect our political opponents.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Yoram Hoazony, Israel and the Conflict of Paradigms

I met Yoram Hazony -- an American-born Israeli conservative, as well as a writer, think-tank founder and soon to be college founder -- back in the early 90's, and attended one of his summer programs (a sort of trial run for the currently-in-formation Shalem College) for a while. I still consider him a friend, although I haven't actually seen him in well over a decade.This means that I am even more interested in his work than I would be normally -- and I think that normally I would be quite interested, since he is one of the more intelligent writers and thinkers working on Israel-related questions around. (Lest you chalk that up entirely to friend-related bias, I should perhaps add that I also disagree with him on a great many points, that our politics are wildly far about, and that I think a fair number of his claims are flatly wrongheaded. (The fact that this coexists quite comfortably with my admiration for his work is a small example of a well-known set of facts which are of deep interest to anyone studying epistemology.))

Recently he's started putting up a series of essays -- blog posts, really, although they're longer than what a lot of people think of when they think of blog posts (although not me, as a quick browse through the "some favorite attempts so far" links over in the right-hand column will confirm) -- under the title "Jerusalem Letters". I've been reading them avidly, and went so far as to write him a lengthy email replying to one of them. He never responded directly (no hurt feelings there: he's busy, I get it), but when he mentioned (in a recent bulletin) that he'd posted some of the replies he'd received to his letters on his new web site, I looked and, yep, he'd posted mine too. I had thought myself that I might rewrite it and put it up as a blog post, but had never gotten around to it; but since it's now in the public sphere, I'll go ahead and post it here, with only minor emendations.

The letter is a reply to two of Hazony's Jerusalem Letters specifically (and while they're all interesting, I think these are clearly the ones to read if you're only going to read two (and if only one, read the first of these). The first of the letters is titled Israel Through European Eyes (from last July), the second is a follow-up titled More on Kuhn, Kant, and the Nation-State (from August). (Hazony has since put up another follow-up post titled EU Council President Van Rompuy: The Time of the Nation-State is Over.) You really ought to go read the original letters, but the on-one-foot version is that Hazony argues that Kuhn's paradigm theory is an important tool to understand current conflicts about Israel, and that Israelis and Europeans are using fundamentally different paradigms to understand the Israeli situation. In my letter, I comment first on two secondary issues, and then on his central point.

And I think it's fair to say that the third paradigm I outline in this letter is the one that I myself hold; and that it is the crucial theoretical critique (as opposed to more practical critiques about the occupation, say) I'd make of the Zionist project.

(What follows is the letter I wrote Yoram, as posted on his web site (no permalink -- but you'll see it if you go to the second of the essays & scroll down). I've cleaned it up slightly -- added a few links and two footnotes, changed a few misspellings, reformatted the quotes and fixed the emphases from *asterisks* to italics -- but it's substantially unchanged.)

I have a very long response to your two essays -- which I think are extremely perceptive, and do a lot to explain differing political views, even though I disagree with you in some key respects -- in my head, percolating, waiting to be written. But I have two books to write, courses to teach, a son to raise: I'm sort of doubtful I'll get around to it. So herewith are three brief responses to three specific points. If they're somewhat weaker, as thinking & writing, than I'd like, I hope you'll try to see beyond them to the hazy fuller text which I may or may not ever get around to pulling out of the Library of Babel (in one of its myriad versions).


Most recent letter:
Münkler blames the fall of the nation-state system on the misbehavior of the United States, which he sees as abandoning its status as a nation-state and becoming an empire. I can’t make any sense of this claim. The principal hallmark of empire—the possession of a rationale for permanently ruling over an ever-expanding roster of nations—is entirely absent in the United States. No American I’ve ever met is interested in taking over Canada, although the United States could easily do it. No American I’ve ever met is interested in maintaining long-term control over Iraq or Afghanistan.
This only makes no sense if you think of "empire" purely in terms of a military empire, a la Rome. Now, we've had a little bit of that -- e.g. the Philippines, and of course the southwest was won in a war of conquest (which some, including Lincoln in his sole congressional term, decried as a war of aggression) -- but it's not been our main thing. But there are other models of empire, in which economic empire, dominating and economically exploiting areas without directly governing them -- economics backed up with military force which is more threatened than used -- is one. IMS, the Athenian Empire was basically of this sort. And so is the American Empire. Some of our wars can be seen as attempts to keep economically pliable client states in place (e.g. Vietnam). And of course we've knocked over a fair number of unfriendly governments more easily than that (Iran in '53, Guatemala in '54, Chile in '73, etc.) And while no one wants America to directly rule Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, I think some influential people (largely conservatives but also some neoliberals) want to establish friendly regimes, regimes friendly enough to keep bases on indefinitely -- as we are doing in Germany and Japan, say -- for the future projection of military force. So that fits too.

Now, you may not buy this as a description of America's last sixty-five years of foreign policy -- I wouldn't buy it in quite this form myself, although I would buy it in a rather more nuanced & carefully articulated version -- but it's a perfectly coherent notion of empire, and one with an ancient lineage as a usage.

Earlier letter
: "...we have to begin talking about what it takes to establish a new paradigm, or to rebuild an old one that has collapsed."

I read Kuhn a decade ago, early in grad school -- so not in college, but not recently either.* Still, my memory is that he never discusses or describes any notion of rebuilding a paradigm. Once a paradigm is gone, it's gone. Part of this is related to Kuhn's repeated (and complicated to interpret) insistence that his theory includes, indeed accounts for, scientific progress and not just change in world views (so perhaps this is simply not part of the analogy between scientific and non-scientific paradigms which would hold). But in considering what you want to do, it's worth thinking about.

Incidentally, if you think (and based on my memory of Kuhn it sounds correct to me) that paradigms collapse in the face of anomalous facts, what do you think are the anomalous facts which the current European paradigm can't explain or account for? (This is a genuine, not a rhetorical, question -- perhaps a good one for a future letter.)**

Finally, point three, generally on both letters: your description of the European paradigm may or may not be accurate -- I don't feel qualified to say. But I don't think it's accurate for America -- and, for liberal America at least, the other paradigm you present (of the nation state) doesn't fit either. There's a third paradigm that most of liberal America holds in some view or another, which you don't discuss -- but which is, I would claim, a driving force behind much of the criticism of Israel in the U.S. these days.

Very briefly, this paradigm holds that nation states are fine, but that any ethnic distinctions made by those states (or, really, anyone else) are abhorrent. Thus the U.S. acting as a nation state is fine, because it's an ideological, not an ethnic-based, nation state. (At least that's how liberals who hold by this paradigm would define it.) Similarly France, to the degree that it accords itself as an ideological nation state (Liberté, égalité, fraternité) and not simply as an ethnic state of the French, fits too. In this instance what makes Israel a particular offender is not that it is a nation state, but that it is a nation state built on and by an ethnicity. (Think of your colleagues Daniel Gordis's column upon Obama's victory, about how a Palestinian prime minister of Israel would violate its purpose: from the point of view of this paradigm, that purpose is illegitimate because (although not only because) it rules out such a change in Israeli society).

In this view, what distinguished the Nazis was not that they were a nation state, nor that they were an empire, but rather that they were a nation-state built upon an ethnic definition (Aryans good, Slavs bad, Jews the worst of all). Auschwitz occurred not because Jews couldn't defend themselves, nor because Germans were trying to create an empire, bur because the Germans distinguished between Germans and Jews rather than treating all of its citizens equally. - But all this is also rather separate: in the American view the reigning example of national wrongdoing (of which Nazism is considered an even more extreme example, but not the classic example, if you follow me) is Jim Crow: a nation (or a region of a nation) discriminating on the basis of ethnicity (in this case color). South Africa lost the U.S. when we looked and said not, "this is Auschwitz", but rather "this is Mississippi circa 1950". In the U.S., we're not post-WW2, we're post-Civil Rights Movement, at least in what our focus is in these areas.

And it's obvious, I trust, why Israel does not qualify as good under this paradigm.

People operating under this paradigm tend to focus -- too much, in my view, but legitimately -- on racism and other forms of discrimination as the worst types of evil. (I think that liberals would do good to take other evils more seriously -- I personally would make violence, particularly state violence, more central. But that's me.) So since North Korea oppresses all of its population, while Israel (arguendo) oppresses only part of it, that makes Israel more noteworthy. (Although in fairness, nearly everyone who operates under this paradigm (and here I include myself) would point out another, far more salient reason for people in the U.S. to treat them differently: the U.S. is complicit in any crimes Israel commits, through financial, diplomatic and other aid, but not in the crimes of North Korea; it is also correspondingly easier for us to help end them if we should so choose.)

This paradigm also explains why there is a divide among liberal Jews on Israel. Some think that Israel could withdraw from the territories and thereby rejoin the family of non-discriminatory nations (i.e. don't see what happens in Israel proper as Mississippi circa 1960, but only in the occupied territories), and thus support a two-state solution -- but find Israel, until then, to be an extreme offender on the "distinguish-by-ethnicity" count. Others think that the very definition of Israel as a Jewish state is the equivalent to South Africa (or Mississippi) defining themselves as a white state, and that the in-practice quality of life for Palestinian-Israelis isn't as important as the very act of defining and treating differently citizens by ethnicity -- and thereby the only real solution is a single-state solution in all of Israel/Palestine. (Still others would be in camp 1, but think it's now impossible, so are edging into camp 2).

-- I think that this paradigm more accurately captures American -- at least liberal American -- problems with Israel. I think it's a very different beast than the EU paradigm. And if you want to defend Israel, you're going to have to tackle it as well as the EU one.

...Yeah, that was the short version. Long version can be found c/o J. L. Borges, the Library of Babel.

I get a lot out of your letters. I look forward to the next.

* I hadn't figured this out yet when I wrote this, but obviously this is going to change soon since I'm assigning Kuhn in my Intellectual History course, so will reread it in a couple of weeks.

** Sadly, Hazony has not yet responded to this particular point. I still hope he will, though: it really was a genuine question!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"I judged vast encyclopedias and books of natural history by the splendor of their tigers."

The internet now has what neither the splendid volume of Jorge Louis Borges's Collected Fictions nor its companion Selected Poems has: a complete English translation of Borges's book El Hacedor, first translated into English as Dreamtigers (the title of one of the stories therein, from which the title of this post was borrowed), but also referred to as The Maker, a more literal translation of its title.* (Of course it is online in Spanish too.)

Those fabulous English volumes don't have it because El Hacedor is a mixture of fiction, poetry and a small "museum" (quotes of others, both poetry & prose), and neither work was concerned to keep them together.

But it was a mistake, I think: the book is clearly a single work of art (in addition to, or rather made up of, multiple works of art that can be read separately as well). Borges is fairly explicit about this , in which he contrasts "the essential monotony of this miscellany" with "the geographical and historical diversity of its themes". He then ends with a story (parable? metaphor?) that could not possibly be more quintessentially Borgesian:
A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.
So now if you want to read it in English in its entirety (without flipping back and forth between two volumes, or buying a third whose contents you already own**), you can now do so thanks to the internet, this astonishing web of words of whom Borges was, as much as any other thinker, the spiritual grandfather.

* The tale of the book's title in translation is an interesting one; Andrew Hurley tells it, tucked away in the notes, in Collected Fictions (p. 544):
The Spanish title of this "heterogeneous" volume of prose and poetry... is El hacedor, and hacedor is a troublesome word for a translator into English. JLB seems to be thinking of the Greek word poeta, which means "maker", since a "true and literal" translation of poeta into Spanish would indeed be hacedor. Yet hacedor is in this translator's view, and in the view of all those native speakers he has consulted, a most uncommon word. It is not used in Spanish for "poet" but instead makes one think of someone who makes things with his hands, a kind of artisan, perhaps, or perhaps even a tinkerer. The English word maker is perhaps strange too, yet it exists; however, it is used in English (in such phrases as "he went to meet his Maker" and the brand name Maker's Mark) in a way that dissuades one from seizing upon it immediately as the "perfect" translation of hacedor. (The Spanish word hacedor would never be used for "God," for instance.) Eliot Weingerger has suggested to me, quite rightly, perhaps, that JLB had in mind the Scots word makir, which means "poet." But there are other cases: Eliot's dedication of The Waste Land to Ezra Pound, taken from Dante -- il miglior fabbro, where fabbro has exactly the same range as hacedor. Sever considerations seem to militate in favor of the translation "artificer": first, the sense of someone's making something with his hands, or perhaps "sculptor," for one of JLB's favorite metaphors for poetry was at one time sculpture; second, the fact that the second "volume" in the volume Fictions [a.k.a. Ficciones] is clearly titled Artifices; third, the overlap between art and craft or artisanry that is implied in the word, as in the first story in this volume. But a translational decision of this kind is never easy and perhaps never "done"; one wishes one could call the volume Il fabbro, or Poeta, or leave it El hacedor. The previous English translation of this volume in fact opted for Dreamtigers. Yet sometimes a translator is spared this anguish (if he or she finds the key to the puzzle in time to forestall it); in this case there is an easy solution. I quote from Emir Rodriguez Monegal's Jorge Louis Borges: A Literary Biography, p. 438: "Borges was sixty when the ninth volume of his complete works came out... For the new book he had thought up the title in English: The Maker, and had translated it into Spanish as El hacedor; but when the book came out in the United Sates the American translator preferred to avoid the theological implications and used instead the title of one of the pieces: Dreamtigers." And so a translation problem becomes a problem created in the first place by a translation!

** Well, you really should. The Collected Fictions at the very least; I'm admittedly less smitten with Borges's poetry -- I suspect it doesn't translate as well.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Using Dr. Seuss to Illustrate Points in Historical Texts

There are odd pedagogical moves one finds oneself making when both a teacher and a parent.

This past week I was conducting a detailed discussion and analysis of Madison's Federalist 10 in class, trying to really break down and convey the argument in all its detail, and we came to the following passage (the second half; the first is quoted for context):
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.... So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.
And as I was explaining what this meant (for unlike the idea that factions might be caused by religious differences, differences in philosophy of government, differences in property, etc, which my students got more-or-less on their own, this one was giving them difficulty), I quoted the following illustration of the point:
Now, the Star-Bell Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
And, whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking....
They left them out cold, in the dark of the beaches.
They kept them away. Never let them come near.

-- Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches
What can I say? It was a text I thought they'd all have read, anyway. I think it got the point across.

(I know, I know: a real scholar would have mentioned this instead.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Nine Planets Again?

Despite Pluto's demotion, there may be nine planets after all. And no, I'm not talking about Eris (the larger-and-farther-out-than-Pluto object that never even briefly got to be a planet, but went straight into the "dwarf planet" kill-file). This one is bigger than that. Bigger than Jupiter.

If it exists. Right now, they're not quite sure:
The hunt is on for a gas giant up to four times the mass of Jupiter thought to be lurking in the outer Oort Cloud, the most remote region of the solar system. The orbit of Tyche (pronounced ty-kee), would be 15,000 times farther from the Sun than the Earth's, and 375 times farther than Pluto's, which is why it hasn't been seen so far.

But scientists now believe the proof of its existence has already been gathered by a Nasa space telescope, Wise, and is just waiting to be analysed.

The first tranche of data is to be released in April, and astrophysicists John Matese and Daniel Whitmire from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette think it will reveal Tyche within two years.
Stay tuned! Breaking!

And of course, those spoilsport scientists may find away to make this not a planet too:
Whether it would become the new ninth planet would be decided by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The main argument against is that Tyche probably formed around another star and was later captured by the Sun's gravitational field. The IAU may choose to create a whole new category for Tyche, Professor Matese said.
Jeeze, waddya want? Pluto's too small, Tyche's an illegal immigrant...

Here's an image the Independent did (link to the original pdf) showing where Tyche would be (if it exists -- again, still not proven):

Wildly cool, says I.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Snarky Academic Comment of the Day

In later years Dewey deliberately adopted an antirhetorical style, in the belief that readers should be persuaded by the cogency of the thought rather than the felicities of the prose. He was uncommonly successful in getting rid of the felicities.

-- Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, p. 304

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Fifth Beatle of Pragmatism

Who is the "fifth Beatle" of pragmatism?

What does that question even mean?

Ok, it goes like this. Everyone decided (for some inexplicable reason) that the four-person musical group "The Beatles" actually had a fifth member; that person was the "fifth Beatle". But no one seems to agree who that is.* Wikipedia has (at least until some bozo decides to delete it) a fairly good list of candidates -- ten serious candidates, plus some minor candidates, and a large number of additional joke and fictional candidates.

So I decided (for some inexplicable reason) that "fifth Beatle" was a good generalized term for the following situation: pretty much everyone agrees that a particular group has X members, and pretty much everyone agrees on the identities of X-1 of them, whereas the remaining position has many plausible candidates. In these cases, the final person can be referred to as "the fifth Beatle of _____", where the blank is the name of the group.**

So: who is the fifth Beatle of the pragmatists?

The major classical pragmatists were, by broad consensus, a four-man band. And three of them everyone agrees on: the three central, core, canonical pragmatists are Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Everyone who makes such a list agrees on that. Even people like Rorty, who wants to read Peirce out, wouldn't deny his historical place on the list.

But who else?

I'm not going to answer that question; I'm just going to list some plausible candidates. In most cases, I've actually seen someone actually use that person as the fifth Beatle of the pragmatists.

1. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Holmes's big promoter as pragmatism's fifth Beatle is Louis Menand, who, in his Pulitzer-prize winning history of pragmatism, made Holmes his fourth main subject along with Peirce, James and Dewey. And there are some good arguments for him: above all, he was a member of the Metaphysical Club, the discussion group at which pragmatism was born.*** And his ideas are arguably pragmatist in spirit. On the other hand, many people have denied that Holmes was a pragmatist at all (let alone a key one), most notably Oliver Wendell Holmes himself. ("I think pragmatism an amusing humbug" Holmes wrote in a letter.)

2. George Herbert Mead

A very popular choice: I think I've seen more four-person lists with Mead as #4 than any other single candidate. Thus Israel Scheffler's introduction to the pragmatists is called Four Pragmatists: A Critical Introduction to Peirce, James, Mead and Dewey. And a fair number of people slip him onto lists of the 'great pragmatists' without any hint that he's not a unanimous pick. One argument for him is that he helps beef up the "Chicago" school of pragmatism (Dewey, more socially oriented) and keeps pragmatism less focused on the "Cambridge" school (of Peirce and James, and for that matter Holmes).

3. F. C. S. Schiller

The Englishman: good to stick on if you want to emphasize that pragmatism wasn't just an American movement; easy to leave off nonjudgmentally if you simply declare you're only talking about American pragmatists. Another good argument for him is that James cites him a lot in Pragmatism, along with Dewey (and more than Peirce). An argument against him is that he isn't read as much these days as Perice, James or Dewey -- or Holmes or Mead, for that matter. An early favorite, he's in decline these days.

4. Richard Rorty

Not really a good candidate -- he's simply a much later figure. (He is credited for pragmatism's recent revival, but that's another story.) Calling him the fourth pragmatist is like calling Julian Lennon the fifth Beatle of the Beatles. But I've seen him used on such lists.

5. A few other possibilities

Not as convincing as the above possibilities, but you might argue for: Chauncey Wright (a key influence, but not really a pragmatist per se); Josiah Royce (arguably pragmatist, but hardly on the classic track); Jane Addams (influenced Dewey), Ralph Waldo Emerson (not a pragmatist, but some argue for him as a precursor).


Strangely, while there seems to be no consensus on who the fifth Beatle of the pragmatists (that is, the fourth major pragmatist) is, there is a surprising level of consensus on who the fifth person (the sixth Beatle?) is, on lists which happen to include five. Even more surprisingly, he isn't one of the main candidates for the position of fifth Beatle! In lists of three, people stick to Peirce, James and Dewey; in lists of four, they add one of the candidates listed above. But in lists of five, people tend to include Peirce, James, Dewey, their choice of fifth Beatle, and C. I. Lewis, who was a later figure than Peirce, James, Dewey or any of the various fifth Beatle candidates. Lewis, in fact, was considered for a while the last pragmatist; now that there has been a major pragmatism revival in the last thirty-odd years, he's the last of the old school, or perhaps a transitional figure between the old school and the new school. (He taught some of the analytic philosophers who, while not pragmatists, were arguably pragmatic in spirit -- Quine and Wilfred Sellars -- who in turn were influences on the major promoter of the pragmatist revival, Richard Rorty.) So all the world can know: C. I. Lewis is the fifth member of the four-man band, the pragmatists.

Finally, let me close with a question about this whole notion of "fifth Beatles" as a general category. Can anyone think of any other groups which seem to have a "fifth Beatle" role? Remember, to count there have to be a (largely) agreed upon number, with all but one slot (largely) agreed upon, and that one spot fairly wide open. I think it's a fun little category, and I'd love to get more examples of it; but I don't know if there are any.**** To put the question in a pragmatist spirit: how useful an analytical category is this notion of the "fifth Beatle"?

* Personally I think the best answer is clearly George Martin: the most important thing about the Beatles was their music, and Martin clearly had an influence on the music comparable to that of the four (other) members of the group, which can be said of none of the other candidates. But lots of people -- including people like George Harrison and Paul McCartney, who one might plausibly think are in a better position to judge than I -- disagree.

** If this ever catches on, of course, it will lead to the traditional question of "who is the fifth Beatle?" being rephrased as "who is the fifth Beatle of the Beatles?" This is a feature, not a bug.

*** The Cavern Club of pragmatism, perhaps? Or should that be the Liverpool College of Art of pragmatism?

**** The closest thing I can think of is the fact that, in a lot of college catalogs, there are courses on three modernist writers, and that they always seem to be courses in "Joyce, Proust and _____", with a variety of candidates for the third slot. I believe I've heard of classes on "Joyce, Proust and Faulkner", "Joyce, Proust and Mann" and "Joyce, Proust and Kafka", and of course there are other very plausible candidates too (Virginia Woolf and Robert Musil come to mind). But I'm not quite sure that that counts, or should count -- if nothing else because there isn't a name for this category, which the fifth Beatle could be the fifth Beatle of.

¶ Although you might, at least plausibly, think they are in a worse position to judge: too biased, no historical distance, etc.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Poem of the Day: To You

To You

Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of dreams,
I fear these supposed realities are to melt from under your feet and hands;
Even now, your features, joys, speech, house, trade, manners, troubles, follies, costume, crimes, dissipate away from you,
Your true Soul and Body appear before me,
They stand forth out of affairs—out of commerce, shops, law, science, work, forms, clothes, the house, medicine, print, buying, selling, eating, drinking, suffering, dying.

Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem;
I whisper with my lips close to your ear,
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.

O I have been dilatory and dumb;
I should have made my way straight to you long ago;
I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing but you.

I will leave all, and come and make the hymns of you;
None have understood you, but I understand you;
None have done justice to you—you have not done justice to yourself;
None but have found you imperfect—I only find no imperfection in you;
None but would subordinate you—I only am he who will never consent to subordinate you;
I only am he who places over you no master, owner, better, God, beyond what waits intrinsically in yourself.

Painters have painted their swarming groups, and the centre figure of all;
From the head of the centre figure spreading a nimbus of gold-color’d light;
But I paint myriads of heads, but paint no head without its nimbus of gold-color’d light; 20
From my hand, from the brain of every man and woman it streams, effulgently flowing forever.

O I could sing such grandeurs and glories about you!
You have not known what you are—you have slumber’d upon yourself all your life;
Your eye-lids have been the same as closed most of the time;
What you have done returns already in mockeries;
(Your thrift, knowledge, prayers, if they do not return in mockeries, what is their return?)

The mockeries are not you;
Underneath them, and within them, I see you lurk;
I pursue you where none else has pursued you;
Silence, the desk, the flippant expression, the night, the accustom’d routine, if these conceal you from others, or from yourself, they do not conceal you from me;
The shaved face, the unsteady eye, the impure complexion, if these balk others, they do not balk me,
The pert apparel, the deform’d attitude, drunkenness, greed, premature death, all these I part aside.

There is no endowment in man or woman that is not tallied in you;
There is no virtue, no beauty, in man or woman, but as good is in you;
No pluck, no endurance in others, but as good is in you;
No pleasure waiting for others, but an equal pleasure waits for you.

As for me, I give nothing to any one, except I give the like carefully to you;
I sing the songs of the glory of none, not God, sooner than I sing the songs of the glory of you.

Whoever you are! claim your own at any hazard!
These shows of the east and west are tame, compared to you;
These immense meadows—these interminable rivers—you are immense and interminable as they;
These furies, elements, storms, motions of Nature, throes of apparent dissolution—you are he or she who is master or mistress over them,
Master or mistress in your own right over Nature, elements, pain, passion, dissolution.

The hopples fall from your ankles—you find an unfailing sufficiency;
Old or young, male or female, rude, low, rejected by the rest, whatever you are promulges itself;
Through birth, life, death, burial, the means are provided, nothing is scanted;
Through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui, what you are picks its way.

-- Walt Whitman (via)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Quote of the Day: The Problem with Simple Philosophies

Whatever universe a professor believes in must at any rate be a universe that lends itself to lengthy discourse. A universe definable in two sentences is something for which the professorial intellect has no use. No faith in anything of that cheap kind!

-- William James, Pragmatism, Lecture 1

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Poem of the Day: L. A. Lindon's Dopplegänger

As a follow-up to yesterday's date-driven discussion of Perec's Palindrome, here is a palindrome of a very different sort: a poem by J. A. Lindon (who was apparently a master of palindromes at all levels) which is a palindrome by lines rather than by letters, that is, the first line and the last line are identical, and so are the second and the penultimate, and so forth. (A form with extremely different problems than the letter-by-letter, or the intermediate word-by-word, palindrome.)

Entering the lonely house with my wife
I saw him for the first time
Peering furtively from behind a bush--
Blackness that moved,
A shape amid the shadows,
A momentary glimpse of gleaming eyes
Revealed in the ragged moon.
A closer look (he seemed to turn) might have
Put him to flight forever--
I dared not
(For reasons that I failed to understand)
Though I knew I should act at once.

I puzzled over it, hiding alone,
Watching the woman as she neared the gate.
He came, and I saw him crouching,
Night after night,
Night after night
He came, and I saw him crouching,
Watching the woman as she neared the gate.

I puzzled over it, hiding alone--
Though I knew I should act at once,
For reasons that I failed to understand
I dared not
Put him to flight forever.

A closer look (he seemed to turn) might have
Revealed in the ragged moon
A momentary glimpse of gleaming eyes,
A shape amid the shadows,
Blackness that moved.

Peering furtively from behind a bush,
I saw him for the first time,
Entering the lonely house with my wife.

-- J. A. Lindon

Update: Text corrected from that at the link, based on pp. 118-119 of Howard W. Bergerson, Palindromes and Anagrams (Dover, 1978).

Friday, February 11, 2011

11/02/2011; or, Two Translations of Two Paragraphs of Le Grand Palindrome de Georges Perec

What dates count as Palindromic dates depends on the dating system you use: in American usage, today is not a Palindrome, but in European usage (which puts the day first) it is: 11 February 2011, aka 11/02/2011.* (I think the European system makes more sense than the American, but not as much sense as the Chinese, which apparently puts the year first: 2011-02-11.)

But since today is a palindromic date in European countries (one of only 60 they get this millennium (we Americans get a more paltry 36 in the same period)), I thought I'd mark the occasion by briefly mentioning a work which has often been called the greatest Palindrome ever written, by the French novelist (and member of the literary group the Oulipo) Georges Perec, "Le Grand Palindrome".

Perec's "Grand Palindrome" is 5,566 letters, and about 1000 words, long. In it, Perec -- a man given to word games in his literary works, as fans of his novel La disparition will know -- attempted to write a Palindrome that was not simply a series of words that read the same in both directions, but one which was, in some sense, a literary work.

I will admit I haven't read it. My French is too weak to be called shaky, and this is hardly very clear. As Perec's (generally admiring) biographer noted: is undeniably difficult to read. Knowledge of the constraint disarms critical faculties; when you know that it is a monster palindrome, you tend to see nothing but its palindromic design. At Manchester, in 1989, doctored photocopies and unsigned handwritten versions were given to students and teachers of French who were asked, respectively, to use it for the exercise of explication de texte and to mark it as an essay. Perec's palindrome barely made sense to the readers. Some teachers took it for the work of an incompetent student, while others suspected that they had been treated to a surrealist text produced by "automatic writing". Those with psychiatric interests identified the author as an adolescent in a dangerously paranoid state; those who had not forgotten the swinging sixties wondered whether it was LSD or marijuana that had generated the disconnected images of the text. Readers seem to project their won positive and negative fantasies onto Perec's palindrome, as they do onto other difficult, obscure and unattributed works.

-- David Bellos, Georges Perec: a Life in Words, p. 429
But the first and last sentences have been translated (not as palindromes, just for their plain sense (such as it is)) -- not once, but twice. So I thought I'd share them with you here.

Here is Perec's opening paragraph:
Trace l’inégal palindrome. Neige. Bagatelle, dira Hercule. Le brut repentir, cet écrit né Perec. L’arc lu pèse trop, lis à vice-versa.

Perte. Cerise d'...
Here's how Bellos translates it in his aforecited biography (p. 430):
Trace the uneven palindrome. Snow. A trifle, says Hercules. Unadorned repentance, this piece born [of] Perec. [If] the bow of reading is too heavy, read back-to-front.

Loss. Cherry...
And here's how the same words (save for the two at the end) are translated by Perec's friend and fellow Oulipian Harry Mathews (as given by Martin Gardner in his book Penrose Tiles to Trapdoor Ciphers... and the Return of Dr. Matrix (p. 83)):
Trace the unequal palindrome. Snow. A trifle, Hercules would say. Rough penitence, this writing born as Perec. The read arch is too heavy: read vice-versa....
And, of course, reading backwards in the French (and respacing and repunctuating the words, to be sure) gives us:
.... Désire ce trépas rêvé : Ci va ! S’il porte, sépulcral, ce repentir, cet écrit ne perturbe le lucre : Haridelle, ta gabegie ne mord ni la plage ni l’écart.
Which Bellows translates:
Desire this dreamt-of death: Here goes! If it bears, entombed, this repentance, this writing bears not on lucre. Strumpet, your trickery has no bite on range or space!
Whereas Mathews translates it:
Desire this dreamed-of decease: Here goes! If he carries, entombed, this penitence, this writing will disturb no lucre: Old witch, your treachery will bite into neither the shore nor the space between,

...comparing those translations, and imagining each of them as palindromes of their mates is, I suspect, as close as non-French readers can get to experiencing Perec's "Grand Palindrome". Probably not the biggest loss ever, I'll admit. But one that I will also admit saddens me just a little.

Happy 11/02/2011!

* There are still other results if you use only the two-number abbreviation for the year, of course. See the above links for all the obsessive details you could wish.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Characterizing Pragmatism

Pragmatism is an incredibly important philosophical and intellectual movement -- "widely described as America's distinctive philosophy", or "America's one original contribution to the world of philosophy".* 

 Great. So what is it?

In order to clarify this for my students -- or, at least, in order to leave them confused in a much richer, more educated way -- I passed out (on the day I first began talking about pragmatism) four characterizations of pragmatism, three of which attempt to summarize its core contribution in a few words. Here they are, with a few stray comments interlaced:

Pragmatism... could be characterized as the doctrine that all problems are at bottom problems of conduct, that all judgments are, implicitly, judgments of value, and that, as there can be ultimately no valid distinction of theoretical from practical, so there can be no final separation of questions of truth of any kind from questions of the justifiable ends of action. -- C. I. Lewis, "Logical Positivsm and Pragmatism" (1941)
That one is a twofer as far as characterizations go, since not only is Lewis a prominent pragmatist in his own right** (yet a later one, and thus writing after Peirce and James and after most of the work of Dewey), but it's also been endorsed by one of the more prominent figures in the pragmatist revival, Cornel West, who has cited it as "the best characterization of pragmatism ever formulated".
If we strain out the differences, personal and philosophical, they had with one another, we can say that what these four thinkers had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea -- an idea about ideas. They all believed that ideas are not 'out there' waiting to be discovered, but are tools -- like forks and knives and microchips -- that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves. They believed that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals -- that ideas are social. They believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment. And they believed that since ideas are provisional responses to particular and unreproducible circumstances, their survival depends not on their immutability but on their adaptability. -- Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (2001)
I like that one in part because, right after saying that "what these four thinkers had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea", Menand goes on to list four different ideas. Now, it's clearly fair to say that those ideas are connected (probably logically, and certainly historically insofar as they were held by the key pragmatists***). But that's just to say that they're "a group of ideas". To avoid inconsistency here, Menand is committed to the claim that they are a single idea as opposed to a group of ideas -- which is, I think, hard to maintain. So if the Lewis is a twofer in one sense, this is a twofer -- or, more accurately, a fourfer -- in a different sense: four characterizations of the key pragmatist idea(s) for the price of one.
Indeed, from the earliest of Peirce's Pragmatist writings, Pragmatism has been characterized by antiscepticism: Pragmatists hold that doubt requires justification just as much as belief (Peirce drew a famous distinction between "real" and "philosophical" doubt); and by fallibilism: Pragmatists hold that there are not metaphysical guarantees to be had that even our most firmly-held beliefs will never need revision. That one can be both fallibilisitc and antisceptical is perhaps the basic insight of American Pragmatism. -- Hilary Putnam, Pragmatism: An Open Question (1995)

So between the characterizations of Lewis and Putnam, and the four from Menand, we have a list of six ideas where are said by quite distinguished authorities to be central to pragmatism. Now, I don't think that all six of these (or even all four of Menand's) are "a single idea" -- I think they are quite clearly a group of ideas. In fact, I think that they are (at least on their face) "separate not merely in the sense of being discriminable, but in the sense of being logically independent, so that you may without inconsistency accept any one and reject all the others, or refute one and leave the philosophical standing of the others unimpugned." (You could make an argument against that, but I don't think it's obviously false.) Nor do I think that they are all variations on a theme; I don't think that (say) they all bear a "family resemblance" to each other. But they are clearly linked -- historically, obviously, in their adaptation by the pragmatists, but also in making up the core of a worldview -- the philosophy of pragmatism. And I think that, put altogether, they make a decent beginning at characterizing what this thing called "pragmatism" is.

Incidentally, the quote in the above paragraph is from the fourth of the quotes I handed out to my students -- a quote from a 1908 essay, meant to show, basically, that this confusion is (at least) not new. Here it is in its full glory:

In the present year of grace 1908 the term "pragmatism"--if not the doctrine--celebrates its tenth birthday. Before the controversy over the mode of philosophy designated by it enters upon a second decade, it is perhaps not too much to ask that contemporary philosophers should agree to attach some single and stable meaning to the term. ...[E]ven after we leave out of the count certain casual expressions of pragmatist writers which they probably would not wish taken too seriously, and also certain mere commonplaces from which scarcely any contemporary philosopher would dissent, there remain at least thirteen pragmatisms: a baker's dozen of contentions which are separate not merely in the sense of being discriminable, but in the sense of being logically independent, so that you may without inconsistency accept any one and reject all the others, or refute one and leave the philosophical standing of the others unimpugned. All of these have generally or frequently been labeled with the one name, and defended or attacked as if they constituted a single system of thought-sometimes even as if they were severally interchangeable. -- A. O. Lovejoy, "The Thirteen Pragmatisms" (1908)

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


 * The latter quote is from John Patrick Diggins, The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority (U Chicago, 1994), p2; the former is from a book called Four Pragmatists: A Critical Introduction to Peirce, James, Mead and Dewey (Routledge, 1974), p. 1, written by a man named Israel Scheffler, who also happened to teach a seminar I took way back in the fall of 1990 called "Philosophy 136: The Pragmatists", which was my introduction to this particular school of thought, and which has (clearly) stood me in very good stead for lo these many years. Thanks, Professor Scheffler! 

** According to most people; there isn't (in an appropriate irony) consensus on this issue. I don't think there's anyone who everyone would agree is a pragmatist, except maybe William James.

 *** Who the "key pragmatists" are is, as mentioned in the previous note, a contested question. Menand's list of four thinkers are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey.