Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Citizen's Examination of Conscience


  1. From where did/do I derive my political ideas: Reason, tradition, emotion, et cetera?
  2. Have I ever returned to study, and possibly challenge, the ideas I first learned?
  3. Do I speak on, and address others about, only matters which I have thoroughly researched and considered, and on which I have opinions which I can logically and clearly articulate?
  4. Of my own ideas, do I keep current on matters with which they intersect?
  5. Do I stay informed on a variety of issues, or only certain ones?
  6. Do I speak as appropriate to prove my case to others, or to gratify myself?
  7. How often do I read scholarly books and articles?
  8. How often do I read any books and articles which articulate opposing viewpoints, or do I only read ones with which I already agree?
  9. Do I seek out the best opposing viewpoints to understand them and potentially challenge my own ideas, or am I content to read the most easily refuted opposing ideas?
  10. Do I check the facts of articles?
  11. Do I especially check the facts of articles with which I agree?
  12. Do I stay informed about legislation and court cases?
  13. Do I read legislation and court cases myself, or do I rely on others' opinions and summaries?
  14. In evaluating political decisions, do I consider:
    1. Both universal and particular law?
    2. Whether the matter is of a political nature in the first place?
    3. Whether the law ought to be passed or the case heard at that particular level of government?
    4. The principles on which the decision rests?
    5. The precedent which informs it and the precedent which it sets?
    6. Potential side effects, positive and negative, and their probabilities?
    7. Whether there is enough information to decide the matter at all?
    8. Whether the desired outcome might be better achieved by another means?
  15. In evaluating candidates for political office do I:
    1. Have an objective set of criteria against which I equally compare all candidates?
    2. Stay equally informed about all candidates?
    3. Consider as separate, but related and relevant the character, talk, and action of the candidate?
    4. Separate rhetoric from logical arguments?
    5. Hold officials accountable after delegating my authority to them?
  16. When disagreeing, do I do so from principle or as a reactionary or emotionally? 
  17. When disagreeing, do I use facts which I can cite, or have I allowed my facts and sentiments to congeal into a sense which is no longer rooted in particulars?
  18. Do I promote the good by ways other than voting?
  19. Do I treat speculation with appropriate skepticism?
  20. Do I expect of other citizens what I do not do myself?
  21. Do I admit when I am wrong?

Friday, June 28, 2013

Post #500: A Quiz for Myself


For the 500th post, fulfilling a kind request with thanks.

  1. Your favorite virtue? courage
  2. Your favorite qualities in a man? self-control
  3. Your favorite qualities in a woman? charm
  4. Your favorite occupation? anything which requires my full attention
  5. Your chief characteristic? thorough
  6. Your idea of happiness? joyful piety
  7. Your idea of misery? being a feminist
  8. Your favorite color and flower? no preference
  9. If not yourself, who would you be? Benjamin Franklin
  10. Where would you like to live? at home
  11. Your favorite poets? Horace, Catullus
  12. Your favorite painters and composers? Botticelli, Rembrandt; Mozart, Bach
  13. Your favorite heroes in real life? Cicero, John Adams
  14. Your favorite heroines in real life? Abigail Adams
  15. Your favorite heroes in fiction? Samwise Gamgee
  16. Your favorite heroines in fiction? Susanna in Mozart's Figaro, Cordelia in King Lear, Penelope
  17. Your favorite food and drink? lentil soup and cranberry juice
  18. Your favorite names? m. any virile, meaningful name; f. Jennifer
  19. Your pet aversion? gum chewing; see #7 below
  20. What characters in history do you most dislike? Alcibiades, Gracchi Brothers 
  21. What is your present state of mind? aequus
  22. For what fault have you most toleration? slowness
  23. Your favorite motto? Be good and do good. (John Adams to his children)

Ten Random Facts
  1. Age: 27 years
  2. unmarried
  3. born, raised, residing in Bronx, NY
  4. BA in Classical Languages
  5. grouchy when hungry
  6. prolix when angry
  7. misophonia
  8. baritone
  9. right-handed
  10. geek/nerd

Manus


Manus is one of the more unusual words with which the young Latinist must contend. As one might expect, manus means hand, but it also by extension can mean handwriting, and it can even mean a band of men. Never mind that, though, for the important concept for us now is that of manus as the seat of paternal authority. Ultimate power the Roman paterfamilias held in his hands over his family and property, arranging marriages, property, and all family business until his death. So too from his hands could he pass his power to (emancipate) his son, or send from his hands (manumit) a slave.

In another respect, though, were the hands of ancient man his life, for they were intimately connected with his livelihood. Across the professions the hands do the work, from the noblest farmer who puts his plow into the ground to the baker kneading dough and the soldier holding his spear. Those first Christians too must have felt the same connections as they cast their nets into the sea. In the ancient world, a man's hands were the seat, symbol, and means of his agency.

Specialization and technology have to varying degrees diminished the sense of importance otherwise obvious in the manual world. Specialization has offloaded good a deal of life's labor to others, leaving less of it for the average person. Technology has either replaced or distanced us from much work, whether it is the digital keyboard separating us from the striking of the typewriter, which itself separated us from the craft of penmanship, or firearms, which separate the act of, well, killing. Recorded music enables people to listen without playing, and cars to move, all without any sense of power, material, or process.

Sailing is perhaps the most illustrative example, for with one hand on the tiller and another grasping the sheets, you are part of the tool that is the boat. You can feel every shift, from the turbulence of the sails to the smooth groove of a good tack. With that power naturally comes responsibility, but the manual interaction forces an appreciation of the process, material, and power involved.

Is there any reason we can't cultivate such an appreciation today? Not that I can see. Apart from the general awareness it would engender, I think it would lend a little more reverence to life; perhaps people would think before getting so handsy and reckless. Most of all I should imagine a difference at mass. It's all well and good to teach children to be reverent and careful, but you can't be reverent without cultivating the skill of reverence, and you can't do that without some appreciation, however slight and inchoate, of what you are and how you meet the world.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Odd Couple



Rain on My Parade, Please


Something about celebration invites abuse. Atheists mock Christmas, anarchists mock Election Day, pacifists Veteran's Day. Irked by the politicization of "going green" a lot of conservatives have developed a not-so-quiet loathing for Earth Day. Valentine's day seems the most loathed these days, a towering rod electrified by hate. Why?

It's not so hard to imagine a few reasons. Some folks think qui tacet consentire and that's not unreasonable. They don't want to look like they condone something they find foolish or even worse. Other people simply bask in the joy of contrarianism and relish the thought of not joining the club. Some people are too insecure about an idea, even if they assent, to affirm their accord. At the dark end of the spectrum lurks envy, where some angry people find genuine displeasure at the sight of people affirming the good.

To varying degrees and toward various groups, holidays, and celebrations, we've all felt some of those ways. Perhaps we ought endeavor, though, to curb our sarcasm and not rain on anyone's parade. That it takes so much restraint to shut one's yap, or keep hands off the keyboard, suggests that silence is often a prudent response, at least at the time of their celebrating. After all, how much of our own disagreement is not justification of principle but rather self-aggrandizement and self-assuring masquerading as reason. There are in fact very few people with whom I'll disagree in person. In fact, whether and how I disagree is based on a rather complex calculation of the appropriateness of time and place, and most of all, how likely I am to persuade the individual. Most times and places aren't occasions for debate, and most people find genuine debate irksome, which is not unreasonable.

For my part, though, I welcome the rain, but mostly because I don't hold any parades. You see, the conservative that I am isn't in unqualified love with a great many things, first because everything has unintended consequences, and second because even the intended consequences can be taken too far in degree. As such, all activity is an invitation to a great deal of harm and I find do no harm an excellent principle. When you combine that approach with philosophical and generally curmudgeonly dispositions, you'll find that activity itself is a specious enterprise. In fact I'm not a fan of any activity per se, and find much appeal in the ideal of energetic stasis. Life requires a good deal of work just to maintain itself against entropy and it requires as much affection as well.

Such doesn't mean that the present is the best of all worlds, but that enough people cared to preserve it. Maybe it is the mindless accretion of prejudice or the meaningless terminus of accident-after-accident, but you can always spot the progressive by the list of geniuses he claims to have outsmarted. Problems rise and persist, often fundamental ones, but when possible they should be pruned and filed, not exploded. Rare is the need for violent revolution, and all revolutions are violent revolutions.

The complement of energetic stasis, then, is a sanguine curmudgeonry in which everything is at once loved and loathed. This all sounds very harsh, but what good relationship is rooted in unquestioning approbation? None, of course, or the short-lived perhaps. Instead we take delight in teasing and being teased, and in all teasing there is truth and tooth in the taunt. In time we correct our ways and all that's left is the happy memory of being teased. Life as love.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Presidential Rhetoric V: James Monroe


Welcome to Part Five of our series on the rhetoric of American presidential inaugural addresses. Please feel free to take a peek at the previous entries in the series:
  1. Worthy of Marble?
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
We continue with our present look at the rhetoric of James Monroe's inaugural address, delivered Tuesday, March 4, 1817. As with all of his presidential predecessors, Monroe received a Classical education. Let us see what traces remain in the First Inaugural of the last Founding Father.

As usual, the speech is available via Bartleby, which we reproduce here boldface, with my comments following.


[1] I SHOULD be destitute of feeling if I was not deeply affected by the strong proof which my fellow-citizens have given me of their confidence in calling me to the high office whose functions I am about to assume. [2] As the expression of their good opinion of my conduct in the public service, I derive from it a gratification which those who are conscious of having done all that they could to merit it can alone feel. [3] My sensibility is increased by a just estimate of the importance of the trust and of the nature and extent of its duties, with the proper discharge of which the highest interests of a great and free people are intimately connected. [4] Conscious of my own deficiency, I cannot enter on these duties without great anxiety for the result. [5] From a just responsibility I will never shrink, calculating with confidence that in my best efforts to promote the public welfare my motives will always be duly appreciated and my conduct be viewed with that candor and indulgence which I have experienced in other stations.

We see from the color-coding a preface dominated by first person pronouns: this is the president presenting himself to the people. More so than his predecessors, Monroe feels the need to explain who he is, which he does by the underlined phrases:

  • affected by proof
  • called to office
  • assuming functions
  • deriving gratification
  • sensibilities increased
  • conscious of deficiency 
  • entering into duties
  • not shrinking
  • calculating with confidence
  • promoting welfare
  • duly appreciated
  • conduct viewed
This most important, opening paragraph is structured around five paragraphs and five ideas:
  1. The president is affected by his election
  2. The president is gratified
  3. The gratification is increased by understanding of the importance of the position
  4. The president is humbled by this
  5. The president will do his best.
Monroe begins with what is the standard praise of the president's fellow citizens, but cleverly defines his election as "proof of their confidence," presuming the reason that the people selected him. Monroe continues defining the significance of his election in the following sentence by adding how it was rooted in "their good opinion of my conduct in the public service," and then follows up the observation with a most precise bit of elaboration: on the one hand he derives gratification from their esteem, and on the other hand he characterizes his gratification as of a degree which can only be attained by anyone who has done his best. The rhetorical effect is a sense of parity between what Monroe has offered and what the people want. He continues by defining his sensibility as an appreciation of the gravity of the office, an appreciation which results in a consciousness about his deficiency, and ultimately finds fulfillment in, well, this most specific situation:

[5] From a just responsibility I will never shrinkcalculating with confidence that in my best efforts to promote the public welfare my motives will always be duly appreciated and my conduct be viewed with that candor and indulgence which have experienced in other stations.

Monroe states that he won't shrink from a just responsibility, yet he seems to predicate this derring-do on the fact that his efforts, his motives, and his conduct will be appreciated. He has of course left out an important bit of information: the consequences of his action. Monroe concludes this slick reasoning with the even more clever coda wherein he states that he hopes for the same honesty and forgiveness he's received before; he's asking the people be fair and forgiving by defining them as fair and forgiving.

Undoubtedly the most argued introduction we've seen so far. 


Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Liberal Arts: Dead or Alive?


Everyone likes to declare something dead. Conservatives rejoice at the diagnosis so the idea can be lamented and progressives celebrate as they stomp it more fully into the dirt. The two parties then wag fingers at one another as the curmudgeon cackles with joy in the corner. Liberals, however, with fervor wish for everything live and it is this type of optimist who tells me that the Liberal Arts are alive and well. I want this to be true: it is not. I make this diagnosis from the observation that the Liberal Arts have no reason to exist.

I uncontroversially suggest that every thing which exists has a reason to exist, a cause. Since the Liberal Arts today lack a cause, a reason to exist held broadly by the people, where one finds them, one finds not culture but artifact. What cause does Western Civilization today have which might necessitate the Liberal Arts? Do we have a concept of any ideal to which the Liberal Arts and only the Liberal Arts will bring us? Earlier ages had purposes in mind for education: concepts like καλόν, ἀρετή, humanitas, and honor, and archetypes like the Christian man, the Renaissance man, the chevalier, the courtier, the aristocrat, the man of letters, the gentleman, or the citizen. Werner Jaeger from the introduction to his Paideia:

...the process of educating man into his true form, the real and genuine human nature. That is the true Greek paideia...It starts from the ideal, not from the individual. Above man as a member of the horde...stands man as an ideal. [Jaeger, xxiii-xxiv]
Does there exist then, in our society anything remotely resembling an ideal of man, or are we condemned to Plato's vision of the democratic "emporium of constitutions" which tempts man in a thousand different directions? In light of the above ideal and archetypes, our own vague notions seem soft and pitiable. The concept of negative liberty implies little about the ideal for man. Equality is no more vivid a concept: equal to one another but as what? Justice to us means mostly that no one ought to be aggressed against, which tells us precious little about what man ought to do. Now I'm not criticizing our ostensibly libertarian government, only observing that socially we seem to lack a motivating principle for education. Does the model of the citizen move anyone today? If the low voter turnout and the high rate of representative reelection indicate anything, it seems to me that we've contracted out civics to a class of administrators. Some ideal must remain, though, surely.

Two seem to prevail. The first is success, a word which we sometimes use as a respectable-sounding byword for power and money and sometimes as a stand-in for honor. Yet by neither success nor honor do we mean τιμή, a sense of one's cut and rightful place in society based on some merit or fulfillment of an ideal, or honoria, esteem for public service, but a vague unqualified approbation. By success we mostly mean status, which of course implies hierarchy and which today is synonymous with celebrity. It won't need much explanation to say that celebrity and the Liberal Arts have little in common.

The other ideal toward which we seem to strive is itself infamous: happiness. How often have we seen television film scenarios in which a surly conservative father castigates his son for not pursuing the proper profession whereas the good, liberal father tells him, "Whatever makes you happy." Without reference to a particular ideal, though, this is tantamount to relativism, and as such what seems so may be: that anyone who is doing well by his own standards is doing well enough. Of course this non-judgmental  approach might originate in benevolence, say, acknowledging someone's limitations and honoring them for achieving what success they can. We call such charity, or once did. On the other hand such relativism may be just that, relativism, and therefore feed into the burgeoning multiplicity of "values" among which no one is better than any other.

Perhaps if we lower our standards a bit and consider less popular ideals we may find some which might justify the Liberal Arts. Let us turn to the arts themselves, for surely they will be our refuge. The American PBS begins its television programs with the entreaty to, "Help everyone explore new worlds and ideas." To be frank: What? So "new worlds and ideas" are good for everyone? Not old ideas? Can ideas actually be new? What do they mean by "world?" Is this the best that anyone can come up with, or is this pitiful slogan the only accord we have on ideals?  Speaking of slogans, a most venerable statement has been trotted out as one. See image, left. What can Plato's famous statement possibly mean without context, though? Virtually anything, of course. Music lovers have simply recruited Plato amongst their ranks, heedless of his philosophy.

Perhaps the National Endowment for the Humanities will light the way. For starters, what does it mean to be an "independent federal agency?" Independent of what? Anyway, let us give them a chance to justify the humanities.

Because democracy demands wisdom, NEH serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans. The Endowment accomplishes this mission by awarding grants for top-rated proposals examined by panels of independent, external reviewers. [link]
Well that's something, but it's just a hodgepodge of words. What's wisdom? Why does democracy demand it? Why do they use democracy and republic interchangeably? What are the "lessons of history?" Is that how history works? Why does excellence in the humanities strengthen the republic? Does promoting excellence strengthen the republic by creating wisdom? Why do they say serve and strengthen? Is there a difference?

It doesn't seem like they have any actual ideas, but they plan on achieving strength and wisdom by giving grants to "top-rated proposals," which I suppose are those which will bring about the most wisdom and strength, because money will fix everything. But wait, there's less, for the NEA wants to:

  • strengthen teaching and learning in schools and colleges
  • facilitate research and original scholarship
  • provide opportunities for lifelong learning
  • preserve and provide access to cultural and educational resources
  • strengthen the institutional base of the humanities

These are not ideals, or at least not beyond "learning for the sake of learning." Teaching and learning and research and scholarship and lifelong learning and resources and the "institutional base of the humanities." Are you inspired yet?

Let us at least see how they define the humanities, since they attempt to:

"The term 'humanities' includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life." --National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, 1965, as amended
Is not limited to? Are they serious that this list is not inclusive enough? Still, that's not their most egregious error, which is prefacing their list with "the study and interpretation of." I can't imagine a more meaningless premise, that you are "doing the humanities" just by "studying" and "interpreting," regardless of where you start, what you do, and where you end up.  I cannot pass over the ridiculous which follows: humanistic content and methods? What on earth? We apply the humanities to reflect our diversity? What gobbledygook.

Whatever we think of the NEA, it offers means, not ends. That may be well and good, but still then, from where will we get a reason for the liberal arts?

Undoubtedly there exist in many people true and proper ideals which kindle the liberal arts, but they do not endure in society as a whole. It is this degradation, and not laziness, lack of funding, or rampant philistinism which has sapped the humanities of its vital energy. Jaeger again:

Since the basis of education is a general consciousness of the values which govern numan life, its history is affected by changes in the values current within the community. When these values are stable, education is firmly based; when they are displaced or destroyed, the educational process is weakened until it becomes inoperative. [Jaeger, xiv]
The educational process does not die at once but is weakened until it devolves into pedantics and nostalgia and eventually is replaced. Too the process is not one which can be flicked on like a switched or programmed into a course of study, but must be lived and seen to be alive. It must be the culture.

We can only justify the liberal arts with concrete ideals about what man is and what he ought to do. Detached from them, these arts are neither liberal nor humanistic. The fact that we have so little art which reflects ideals tells us more about the state of the humanities than do the charters and funding of the nation's massive, grinding educational apparati. Like education, art without purpose is just so much pretend and pretense. Artists make no meaningful art because they have no ideals toward which they can struggle, no vision of man, God, or life which gives context to his otherwise self-orientated world. The Liberal Arts and Humanities kindle and cultivate in the individual, and urge him to recognize in others, an ideal, without which remains nothing but the bare world.


Jaeger, Werner. (Highet, Gilbert. trans.) Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Oxford University Press. 1939.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Celebrate Good Obama: Scandal Remix


Update: This video after several thousand views was blocked by Viacom, evidently because they don't understand the concept of fair use.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bullseye


I'd like to take a quick peek at an article which a friend brought to my attention this afternoon. I would preface with the fact that I'm not condoning or denying Mr. Taranto's arguments, only presenting them as I understand them and explicating them in the light of what seem to be the implications of the Media Matters "piece," which is in fact little more than an assumption hidden in a byline meant to cast a wicked spell over a series of quotations. Hard-hitting journalism at its finest.



First, in the most recent article in question, Mr. Taranto doesn't allege or deny that the judgments in question are illegal or immoral, but rather that they "show signs of becoming" an effort to criminalize male sexuality. 

Second, what he does affirm in his most recent article is that the judicial and legislative reactions demonstrate not that any crime is acceptable, but rather that, "The presumption that reckless men are criminals while reckless women are victims makes a mockery of any notion that the sexes are equal." In other words, Taranto's point is that either A) men and women are in fact not equal and thus the law and judgments in question  in the 6/17 article are potentially and partially proper in principle, or B) men and women are equal and thus the laws and judgments should reflect that premise in their executions. Taranto predicated this argument on the fact that with equally ambiguous evidence (in the case mentioned in his 6/17 piece), the man's testimony was deemed less reliable for no apparent reason.

Third and as such, the byline is disingenuous since:
  1. Taranto does not "dismiss" the allegations but asserts their handling demonstrates something
  2. Where did the word "epidemic" come from and how is it substantiated here?
  3. The statement "the epidemic of sexual assault in the military as a 'war on men'" is not even intelligible. It technically means that the actual assaults (presumably by men) constitute the war on men, which is of course incorrect and absurd. What it means to say was that "charging men with assault is evidence of of a war on men," which is what the subsequent quotations from Taranto's pieces are meant to suggest and which Taranto never alleges. 
The byline concludes the cutting commentary by asserting all of the following quotations demonstrate sexism, to which the commentariat replies with winning charges about Goebbels, the conservative oligarchy, 18th century mores, and one which proceeds to make Mr. Taranto's point:
Actually, [men] have the right to choose not to have unprotected sex with a woman. They know or should have known that unprotected sex can lead to pregnancy. If it does lead to pregnancy, they have the legal responsibility and the moral obligation to provide for that child that they knowingly created when they chose to have unprotected sex.
Perhaps, but the point is that in such a case men and women would not be equal, since while both parties were free to have sex, and the woman is free to abort the fetus to undo some of the consequences, the man is not free to forego any consequences by refusing paternal obligations. Again, the question Mr. Taranto concerned himself with was about apparent inconsistencies in allegedly egalitarian administration of law, which he attributed to a:
war on men—a political campaign against sexual assault in the military that shows signs of becoming an effort to criminalize male sexuality.
Taranto's argument seems to be that the apparent lack of egalitarian judgments, which he alleges occurred in the cases he cited in the 6/17 article, demonstrate that:

  • The principle of egalitarianism is unworkable and thus ignored in proceedings AND/OR
  • The principle of egalitarianism is ignored for the purpose of somehow harassing men, AND/OR
  • Such anti-egalitarian judgment by Lt. Gen. Susan Helms was still somehow unsatisfactorily punitive for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Whichever is the case, Mr. Taranto does not claim that any prosecution of sexual assault constitutes a "war on men," but that at the judicial level with Lt. Gen. Helms and/or the legislative level with Sen. McCaskill, a particular, alleged "political" pursuit "shows signs of becoming an effort to criminalize male sexuality" beyond, or instead of, trying cases based on an egalitarian justice.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Art of Stillness


People are loud. Not just some people, although some are noisier than others, but all people are noisy. It's not so hard to understand really, people moving around and making noise, and it might seem a grouchy contention that people ought to be quiet, but as we discussed before, silence destroys because some things can exist only in silence. When we last made that point we did so in an aesthetic dimension focused on perception of phenomena. To a different end I would proceed from Romano Guardini's definition of stillness:

Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. [Guardini, 11]
Many implications flow from these two lines, and bless the souls to whom Guardini preached that blissfully breviloquent–three page–homily, so let us look at those implications in turn.

The need for corporal stillness is perhaps the most obvious necessity for a general stillness. Corporal stillness falls into the categories of the deliberate and the incidental. The prescription for both is simple: stop what you're doing. No typing, talking, texting, or communication. No work and certainly none of the manic multitasking to which the well-intentioned, foolishly overburdened incline. Stopping is the easy part, though, and it's the ensuing void that terrifies modern man back into activity. Not only the common man but also the philosopher both seek activity, the former for entertainment and the latter in endless thinking. What of inner stillness, then?

As Josef Pieper distinguished, [Pieper, 9] since Kant all happenings in the mind have been re-classified as activity. No longer can man simply see or listen or know, but he always actively reasons about an object of inquiry. The medievals, however,

distinguished between the intellect as ratio and the intellect as intellectus. Ratio is the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding. . . whereas intellectus refers to the ability of "simple looking" (simplex intuitus), to which the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye. [Pieper, 11]
So instead of pacing on an endless treadmill of ratiocination, man may both actively reason and passively receive. The two, however opposed, mutually reinforce. A man would not consider that he knows a piece of music which heard but does not understand, nor one which he understood from study but which he has not heard. Likewise most of us would not say that we know a person about whom we have read but with whom we do not live. The rational and experiential need one another.

So we have ceased our jabbering, curbed our tapping toes, and banished all thoughts from our minds. Now what? One needs a silent space, free from bustling people, blinking and booping electronics, and anything which tugs at the senses. Alas, this includes music, even our beloved relaxation playlists, for recorded music allows us to drown out noise, but it does not create silence from which something else may arise. Such is in contrast to playing, which requires focus and attention. Even physical activity must cease, for the focus is not on the body or its exercise.

So what is the focus? Not the usual subjects of beauty, truth, knowledge, and not even virtue. The goal is where we started: stillness.

Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. [Guardini, 11]
The goal is simply being in fullness. Yes, you can use stillness toward the end of knowledge, about oneself and the world, as the philosophers say. You can use stillness as preparation for an experience. In neither case though is use the proper word, for both intellectus and ἡσῠχικός (stillness) imply some superhuman faculty which simply perceives and waits.

Really it was already the end itself, the ultimate paradox of the end that's present at the beginning. [Kingsley, 186]
The knowledge we already have is useless unless we can really live it, in and through ourselves. Otherwise it becomes a burden that can weigh us down or even destroy us, like the oracle of the Phocaeans. We already have everything we need. We just need to be shown what we have. [Kingsley, 191]
Such is not, however, what Guardini cautions against, a withdrawal into the ego, for it is not a conceit, i.e. formed by the mind, rather it is in-formed. It is not rushing activity seeking completion, but the silence of the source, its distillation awaiting perfection.


Guardini, Romano. Meditations Before Mass. Matthias Grünewald Verlag. 1939.
Kingsley, Peter. In the Dark Places of Wisdom. The Golden Sufi Center Publishing. 1999.
Pieper, Josef. (Malsbary, Gerald. trans.) Leisure: The  Basis of Culture. Kösel-Verlag. 1948.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Barcids of Broadway



Book Review: A Dash of Style

by Noah Lukeman. 2006.

A Dash of Style is an exciting book on grammatical punctuation. Yes, that's right: exciting. It's not a history of punctuation and it's not a compendium of every which way you may use a comma. Instead, it's an introduction to a troupe of players who are going to help you put on your show. You meet the magician (the colon), the advisor (parentheses), and the bridge (the semicolon), and liberally spiced with examples of their greatest performances from Poe to Forster, Lukeman shows how the dozen or so points of punctuation can really make your work sing.

Lukeman's greatest strength here is his ability to define these strange little symbols in clear and memorable terms. He doesn't tell us how we're allowed to use it or even how we ought to, but rather he tells us what these marks do and how they'll affect our sentences: the dash interrupts, the colon "pulls back the curtain." With a crystal clear definition in place, Lukeman then gives examples of various combinations and uses, some contrived to make a point and some quotations from the greats. The quotations are generous and choice, creating a miniature anthology not of do's-and-don'ts, but of, well, style.

That's not to say Lukeman has thrown all the rules to the wind; he's clear about what constitutes strict and loose use of a punctuation mark. Yet Lukeman approaches from the point of style, that is, the expression of thought, not from rules. The result is a book which empowers you to refine your process, unlike textbooks which can paralyze you with conditionals. The happy result is that A Dash of Style is less admonition and more invitation, a book you can return to both for example and inspiration. In fact, the author concludes each chapter with a dozen or so questions for examining one's own writing. For example, take something you've written and take out all the semicolons, or try to find a moment to use a colon. What did it do? Do you want more or less of that effect?

It's a rather culinary approach, a pinch of this and a dash of that, and as such it respects the authority of the author. On the other hand you may feel more pressure to do well in the shadow of the masters than you do following the prescriptions of a rule book. Not quite pressure to punctuate well, though, so much as pressure to give proper expression to one's ideas. In this respect A Dash of Style is a challenge to know thyself by mastering that process of putting thought to page.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Accio Style!


Following up our analyses of Cicero and Melville, it's time to look at a less successful, though not wholly failed, selection of literature. From J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

As the pain from Harry's scar forced his eyes shut, his wand acted of its own accord. He felt it drag his hand around like some great magnet, saw a spurt of golden fire through his half-closed eyelids, heard a crack and a scream of fury. The remaining Death Eater yelled; Voldemort screamed, "No!": Somehow, Harry found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button. He punched it with his wand-free hand and the bike shot more flames into the air, hurtling straight toward the ground.
I would first like to note that there's a lot to like in the Harry Potter series, but the style and clarity of this passage are lacking. Second, I'm not suggesting the whole series or even book are as uneven as this passage.


Right out of the gate, describing the scar so literally is a missed opportunity: because the scar is synonymous with Voldemort it should seem to act as Voldemort. The pain shouldn't be doing the action of the verb, with scar shunted away to a prepositional phrase.

Why as here? It's not the simultaneity of Harry closing his eyes and the wand acting that is important, but the contrast of his impotence and the wand's power. For that reason, it was a good opportunity to personify the wand instead of literally saying that it acted of its own accord, which tells us very little.

He felt it drag is unnecessary: we'll imagine what Harry felt because we empathize with him and his intense situation. Simply it dragged will do. Also, the scene seems to be unfolding quickly, so is dragged the proper word? Let's take a peek.
  1. to draw with force, effort, or difficulty; pull heavily or slowly along; haul; trail
  2. to search with a drag, grapnel, or the like: 
  3. to level and smooth (land) with a drag or harrow.
  4. to introduce; inject; insert
  5. to protract (something) or pass (time) tediously or painfully (often followed by out or on )
  6. to pull (a graphical image) from one place to another on a computer display screen, especially by using a mouse.
Does any of that seem like it fits? Maybe the wand had difficulty dragging his hand? If so, why? And what of the sloppy simile, like some great magnet. Is his hand metallic? Couldn't we find something more original? And his eyes are half-closed now? Why? Also, who cares about his eyes? It's a jejune thought that because Harry is doesn't know what's going on his eyes must be closed, or that because the author needs Harry incapacitated, the easiest way to do that is to close his eyes.

The structure of the sentence continues the same problem of telling instead of drawing.

He felt it drag his hand around like some great magnet, saw a spurt of golden fire through his half-closed eyelids, heard a crack and a scream of fury.
It's structured around the verbs, but there's this layer of narration between us and the action. Just tell us what's happening without telling us how Harry's experiencing it. Again: we'll empathize. This was a good opportunity for short, declarative sentences, which we get next, but. . . let's see what happens.

The remaining Death Eater yelled; Voldemort screamed, "No!": Somehow, Harry found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button.
What is this? What's going on? Which Death Eater are we talking about? Yelled? What did he yell? Why? Is he yelling because he was hit or what he saw? Yell is also much too vague.

The punctuation here is also problematic. The first two clauses are not unreasonably edited together with a semicolon, appropriate on account of their similarity and because a comma might have been to little a pause while a period too much. It's a debatable, but not outrageous, punctuation. The problem is the climax and use of that colon. The colon should herald the big reveal of the sentence and instead it confuses: are the bad guys screaming because of what Harry did, or what he was about to do?

Somehow, Harry found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button.
Somehow implies improbability. What was improbable, though: Harry finding himself in that spot or him actually being in that spot? Also, why are either of those circumstances improbable? The event is also a bit of a cheat, because on the one hand the author has painted Harry as incapacitated, and on the other hand he's the only one on the bike so he has to do something. The wand can't do everything.

The next statement isn't awful but it doesn't work because it's too long and sounds preposterous until fully unraveled.

He found his nose (what?)
He found his nose an inch (what?)
He found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button (ohhhh!)

And what's all of these iambs? u- | u- | u- | u-

he felt it drag his hand around [like some great magnet]
found his nose an inch from the [dragon-fire button]
he punched it with his wand-free hand [and the bike shot]
We're in narration here: why this rhythm? It's a curious move even as a pacing device, because the following phrase neither continues nor contrasts the pattern, and thus there is no climax to the thought. The use of dragon seems to work, but dragon is dependent on the next two words thus its effect is diminished.

He punched it with his wand-free hand and the bike shot more flames into the air, hurtling straight toward the ground.

His wand-free hand? How about free hand? I haven't forgotten that Harry has two hands and is holding a wand in one of them, especially because she made such a big deal about the wand "acting of its own accord" three sentences ago. Why more flames? More than when? And into the air? OK, but where else were the flames going to go? If the author had said into the night or darkness or black, then we'd at least get an image out of the observation. Who cares about the air? Did we forget that he's flying?

None of this is horrific, but it's vague and sloppy, turning a thrilling moment into an mushy, unsatisfying read. With all humility: an alternative.

A hiss in the darkness: Harry's scar seared his eyes in flash of pain. Something of that sinister spite awoke the phoenix core of Harry's wand which, eyeing its twin across the sky, streamed gold and fire through the night. A deathly crack. Silence. Now the other Death Eaters howled, but one beastly bellow swallowed all their cries. The wand released Harry's hand and he lunged across the seat, jabbing around for the fire button. At last he punched it and the bike hurtled straight down toward the ground. 

What do you think? I can't claim to know Rowling's story better than she, so I'm not sure this is better or more appropriate, but I tried to make it vivid, clear, and specific. What I had in mind:
  1. Open with a clear image with a clear rhythmic profile: hiss in the darkness (zippity-do-da)
  2. Evoke Voldemort's presence with sibilance: hiss and -ness
  3. The colon is the deep breath before the plunge of the sentence paragraph, and also emphasizes the powerful, causal, dangerous nature of the brief opening statement which preceded it. I chose the colon over the dash because we know what follows the colon will be caused by what preceded it, not just interrupting it.
  4. Connect the idea of the hiss and the pain by personifying the scar. Use more sibilance to continue the idea. 
  5. End with a clear, contrasting image: flash of pain (contrasts and fulfills hiss in darkness)
  6. Sibilance continues Voldemort's presence: something...sinister spite
  7. Indefinite pronoun something implies that Voldemort's hatred is wider than the way in which we are discussing it and links the previous idea of pain to the subject of this sentence, spite.
  8. Making the spite the subject of awoke continues Voldemort's agency.
  9. Phoenix core 1) finally conjures a new, positive, colorful image, 2) plays into the idea of its verb, awake, since the Phoenix rises, 3) allows me not to use the word wand yet and save it for the end of the clause, where it emphasizes the relative pronoun.
  10. eyeing its twin harkens to the relationship of the wands, and their owners, without having to describe it, and explains what's happening without being boring and literal. 
  11. Making the wand the subject emphasizes Harry's passivity by not mentioning him. 
  12. sibilance with sky and streamed links the words over the comma.
  13. hendiadys with "gold and fire" instead of "golden fire" emphasizes both color and shape, instead of just color
  14. the iambic (u-) concluding clause to the sentence 1) puts emphasis on the important words (gold, fire, through, night) by placing them on the long beats, and 2) disappears into the darkness like the stream from the wand.
  15. That long sentence A) contrasts the ones which come before and after it and B) emphasizes Harry's daze by mimicking the slow-motion, hyper-acuity which people experience when shocked and afraid
  16. Two more short images: deathly crack and silence, contrasting the opening images, hiss and darkness. Tit for tat.
  17. Contrast of deathly and Death Eaters emphasizes that one of the self-styled death-dealers has himself been killed
  18. howled emphasizes the animalistic nature of the Death Dealers, and is a cliche of nighttime spookiness
  19. light assonance of l with howled, beastly, bellow, and swallowed, subtly unifies the bad guys.
  20. alliteration with beastly and bellowed unites the ideas and suggests Voldemort is, as their leader, the most beastly. 
  21. rhyming of bellow and swallow 
  22. contrast of bellow and swallow: bellowing goes out and swallowing goes in, also reinforces Voldemort's dominance and power-at-a-distance.
  23. cries contrasts bellows both in pitch and insofar as cries, like howls, conveys lamentation whereas bellows conveys anger. Even the Death Eaters feel for their companion whereas Voldemort is enraged only by the effrontery of the act.
  24. trochaic (-u) conclusion to the sentence contrasts the previous long sentence which, describing the deed of Harry's wand, was its opposite, and concludes with a pattern-breaking long to emphasize the conclusion.
  25. Finally the wand returns control to Harry, who finally reappears in the story.
  26. With Harry awake, the action speeds up again: lunging, jabbing, punching, hurtling
  27. Never mention Voldemort by name, adding to his allure and fear of his agency at a distance.
  28. Five distinct parts of the story: A) the cause of the action, B) the reaction of the wand, C) the bad guys' reaction, D) Harry's reaction, and E) Where the action's going next.
  29. Those five parts come in five sentences, split up between B and C into two parts, by the lacuna of the heavily elided "A deathly crack. Silence."
  30. Simple conclusion tells you where you are and where you're going.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Warm Welcome


Dear Everyone Who. . .
  • wants a powerful government
  • wants to "reform" government
  • wants to fix government by putting "good people" in charge
  • wants just to "trim a little fat" from government
  • can't imagine how life could go on without the government
  • is thrilled  by the idea of "energetic" government
  • doesn't hold "their guy" accountable in office
  • thinks it "would be even worse" if the government didn't do x,y, or z
  • holds statist beliefs of varying kinds
Thanks for following the whole NSA Spying Scandal.


Please consider applying the lessons of this scandal to your other ideas about government.

Sincerely,

Libertarians and Other Non-Statists

Word Power III: Die, Word, Die!


Words are powerful, and because of this sometimes they die iniquitous deaths. Verbicide, the twisting of an ancient, honest word to a new, nebulous purpose, is an ugly crime. C. S. Lewis catalogued [1] the types of verbicide: inflationary, of verbiage, politicizing, and approbatory. Inflation occurs when a word takes on many other meanings, verbiage when you set up an idea but never complete it, politicizing when you use just part of a word or redefine a word, and approbative verbicide occurs when you use a word only for the purpose of praising something, disregarding the word's descriptive power. Today I would like to take a look at some words that died on the political battlefield.

The first is that infamous word itself, politics. The Greek πολιτεία carries the senses of citizenship, a body of citizens (a polity), and a constitution. Helpfully, πολιτεία, along with πολιτεύω, the word for being a citizen, and citizen, πολιτηΐη, are similar, forming a happy little family of ideas which describe man's fate as a political animal. So what on earth do we mean when we say that someone is playing politics? Chiefly, we seem to mean that he's getting what he wants and we're not, and that his intentions are somehow nefarious. The business of living together and administering government is messy because men have conflicting interests and power seems to degenerate the character of men, but that's no reason to debase the very idea of living together in society and administering services. Too, we need not restrict political to describing activity centered around the state. Instead we ought with politics to reflect the free living and associations of free people.

Speaking of the state, our usage of the word borders on the ridiculous. From the Latin sisto it can mean appointed, fixed, or regular, and from sto it can mean positioned, arranged, or ranked. In both cases, one's status, i.e. situation, is relative to something. That something may very well be the government, but to use the word state to refer to the government is unbecoming because the government is not the nexus of being around which all life turns.

In fact, government isn't such a fine word either. The Latin verb guberno, even when used to mean govern a polity, retains its sense of to steer, as the gubernator steers the ship. Today's connotation of government, regardless of whether you want it big or small, is that of a large, monolithic or at best tripartite, entity. That doesn't seem to be the best fit for the metaphor, steering the ship of state. Ship implies swift, light, and maneuverable–if you want a big government, I humbly suggest a related name: leviathan.

The last word I'd like to reconsider is right. As an adjective it's just fine, meaning just, correct, or fair, or more literally, straight or set straight. The modern sense of right meaning a guarantee of something, stems from English legal notion of having a just claim or title. These words succeed, though, where rights fails because they are specific. Claim retains its root of clamare, Latin for to shout, and the notion that you are yourself claiming something for yourself. Likewise title, or entitled, retains the idea of a written document, a title, declaring your ownership of real property. Both claim and title are preferable to the nebulous definition of rights as "something I get because it's right," a notion at best a misdirection of natural law.

In conclusion, our goal should be to protect all ideas, not just the ones we like, so that they remain distinct and comprehensible. One step toward such a goal is to express them with as much clarity and precision as possible, and that requires from us both study and honesty.




[1] Lewis, C. S. Studies in Words. Cambridge University Press. 1960.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Please Stand Up


The Atlantic is running another boilerplate encomium to our beloved 16th president, but above the heaping praise dangles a tantalizing question: how do you get to know a president? That's not how the author asks it, of course, but that's the bottom line. In private life we're pretty cautious about declaring that we know someone. This is simply common sense, owing to the fact that it takes us a long time to feel comfortable around someone. In public life, though, we hop aboard the political bandwagon at the slightest coincidence of feeling. We love them, we hate them, we vote for them, seldom do even the most scrupulous actually research them. And when we do our homework, what do we learn? What can we? By the time they've taken office, most politicians have held every conceivable position and grabbed dollars from every possible pot. Look at our current chief executive: we're finally at the point where every conceivable opinion of him is held by someone.

Among his supporters, he is or has been, a messianic figure who'll heal the nation and the planet. Among his detractors, he's an antichrist who is actively trying to ruin the United States. He's a radical leftist, a moderate, and too far to the right. He's too Christian, he's an atheist, and he's a Muslim. He's too agressive and too conciliatory. He's the philosopher president with Moby Dick in one hand and Thomas Aquinas in the other, and he's just having a beer with the guys. He's the peacemaker who hasn't bombed Iran or North Korea, and the warmonger waging a drone campaign. He's a pragmatist and an ideologue, a bona fide American and a foreigner, he's too formal and too casual, too cold and too folksy. He's everything to everyone.

Now I'm not saying President Obama's character is an indecipherable enigma, but I'm saying it's awfully hard to tell precisely what he believes and what he'll do in a given situation. When he acts is the deed for or against his principles? Is it the ideologue or pragmatist, and in what degree?

As we try to judge him now, we also contend with our own prejudices as well as those of the news sources, the opinion the president himself wants to convey, and the general static of life. Nate Silver has recently argued that although the information revolution has spread facts, it has amplified the noise too. Will it be any easier then, as the author of that Atlantic piece suggests, to judge President Obama in hindsight? I don't think Lincoln is the best example of a man vindicated by history, but his criterion is revealing: success. Is that the only standard? What about consistency, or the Hippocratic principle of doing no harm? How easily do we shift into relativistic judgment, and how unconsciously do we do the dirty math of calculating means and ends.

Again, though, does hindsight help us distinguish anything? Other than by success, what differentiates Marius, Sulla, Catiline, Pompey, and Caesar? Is it any clearer to us now than it was for their contemporaries? In some ways it was surely clearer and others muddier.

Of course there's no easy solution to this epistemological conundrum, save the bromides about diligence, skepticism, and reason, which are true enough. The more useful question is perhaps about the American people. What do we really want from a leader and government? Does our schizophrenic policy simply reflect a schizoid people? I can't say, but I've noticed one thing during the administrations of Bush and Obama, and that during both tenures there were seemingly substantial groups of people who just couldn't acknowledge the man as the Commander in Chief. He was always an interloper, a fraud, Bush because of the irregularities of the 2000 election, and Obama because of doubts about where he was born.

There was of course much emotion and little reason behind any of the sentiments, but in both cases, each side quieted down to a deafening silence once "his guy" was in office. I think now, perhaps, that people are genuinely afraid of the government, and only the thought, however misguided and misconstrued, of a friend at the helm, lets people sleep. I'm reminded of the famous passage from Xenophon:
The Paralos arrived at Athens during the night, bringing news of the disaster at Aigospotamoi, and a cry arose in the Peiraieus and ran up through the Long Walls and into the city itself as one man imparted the calamitous news to the next. As a result, no one slept that night as they mourned not only for the men destroyed but even more for themselves, thinking they would suffer the same catastrophes they had inflicted on others. –Xenophon, Hellenica 2.2.3
We want power, we want technology and energetic government, then we abuse it, and then like any guilty man we make excuses, and then we grow afraid, and we turn to a protector.

Or is it the politicians or pundits who whip up fervor? Most people seem pretty busy with work and life, and if left alone wouldn't have much cause to stir up trouble. Likewise the news, if it informs at all, still primes people for delusions of superiority.

Maybe, as a new account argues was the case before the civil war, that we just plain don't like one another. If that's true, a powerful and energetic government is unlikely to ameliorate relations.

There doesn't seem to be golden bullet, either, no perfect policy or system which is both energetic and incorruptible. It might be a start, though, to stop admitting leaders to the pantheon of presidential immortals, and praising citizens who do things apolitically, that is, themselves. Unlike the presidents, we really do know people like that; they're called friends, neighbors, and generally, good people. Maybe they should get a monument instead, or better, our esteem and affection.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Thinking 9 to 5


Teacher, gardener, cat.
A short time after my first year of teaching I discussed the upcoming term with another teacher, who intimated that I'd completed the curriculum and wouldn't need to do much, if anything, the next time around. My reaction was a moderated version of, "Away, fool!" I was and remain simultaneously flattered and offended by the notion that I've completed anything, seemingly an odd position for a conservative, who by nature looks askance at progress and seeks more to conserve what already exists. Yet while life is not led by the arrow of progress, it is neither sustained by curating hoary antiquity. Instead, living is cultivation in a cycle of renewal. It's about growing, staving off entropy and ennui, and then adding what you can. Nothing is perfected and there are no revolutions, life is the slow, steady mixing of effort, virtue, and whatever comes your way.

I seldom consider what I've done as completed or perfected because I don't think of myself as perfected or, at least in the foreseeable future, ending. Sure, in the short term, things end. Projects have deadlines, payments are due, and other concerns arise, but I'll be back to everything at some point, hopefully bringing something new and finding something buried. This sounds very discursive, very unsystematic, and maybe it is, but I can't imagine having my head in the sand for so long. Maybe it's unprofessional too, but I think students would rather learn from a living person than a fossil who has "completed" his studies. In fact I think the whole educational system of the country would collapse forthwith if students knew their teachers and professors were 9-to-5 intellectuals.

In fact, I've often thought the teaching world would benefit from what's usually and idiotically called professional development, but not of the curriculum-planning, rubric-writing, box-checking, mandate-fulfilling variety. Instead, teachers should, wait for it, study their disciplines. I suggest this not so much to keep up with new developments but for education's salutary effect on the character.

Teacher in summer. url
First, it's exciting to learn, and I'm certain teachers get numb and dumb teaching the same thing over and over. Second, that repetition gives them a false sense of their expertise. It'd do the Gradgrind of an English teacher some good to have some red ink spilled over his own precious prose. Too, maybe the music teacher could put the brakes on his singing and tear out a few tufts of hair while he tries to write a fugue. Maybe everyone in the humanities could actually learn Latin so they could know what they're talking about. Third, teachers should study things outside their discipline, yes because life is bigger and more complex than any one branch of study, but also to feel some sympathy with students who are compelled to switch gears ever 45 minutes. Most of all, the ossified teacher brain will learn that it too must work slowly over time, and that neither 45 minutes nor a day nor a week nor a month nor a year nor is the divinely ordained span of time during which learning must begin and flourish.

Unfortunately the academic calendar, with it's short days and numerous vacations, fosters the opposite of a desire to cultivate slowly over time. In my experience, the less your job requires of you, the less you do, and the less you do, the less you want to do. At the bottom of the spiral you grow to resent the little that you have to do because it feels like an encroachment on your time rather than the focus of it. On top of this, the defined beginning and end, rigid track of courses, and clockwork exams press everyone to perform in a limited time, so everyone grows miserable. The remedy is simple: more work, more learning. In approaching the job this way, summer vacation comes less like the desperately needed crash onto the couch or beach, and more like a shifting of responsibilities from the external and quantifiable to the internal and perennial.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Review: Sherlock

Directed by Paul McGuigan. Written by Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat.
Seasons 1-3

The Holmes stories aren't rich or full of significance. The characters don't have that Dickensian ability to walk right off the page. The vocabulary is fine but workmanlike, without the bubbly perk of Woodhouse or the twisting of Joyce. Superficially, of course, the appeal is the plot. We like trying to figure out the mysteries. True enough the first time through, they're pretty absorbing, but why read, or watch, them again and again? Why remake them decade after decade?

Sherlock, of course. He's not the most fascinating of characters, though. His knowledge and activities are limited. He's not prone to passion and "has no vices," Watson tells us. How exciting. The appeal of Holmes, I think, is an attraction to his relentlessly logical reasoning and fantastic powers of perception.  We follow along and feel the thrill as Holmes reveals his astute observations to the mere mortals around him, from the flatfooted police and his capable-but-humble partner, Watson, to the criminals he's just outwitted. Even more, we like to fancy ourselves just as rational as Holmes.

If that is indeed the appeal of the famous detective, then the BBC's first three seasons of Sherlock deliver. Seldom has watching Holmes churn through facts, sifting the significant from the peripheral with superhuman speed, been so fun. Indeed, the driving forces of the show are the scenes of Holmes breathlessly narrating his conclusions to the mere mortals around him and we viewers, like poor Watson and Lestrade, simply get whisked along in Holmes' intellectual whirlwind. As we follow the keen perceptions of the self-declared "consulting detective," the camera zooms in on the minute objects of his inquiry. This not only emphasizes the superhuman degree of Holmes' powers, but balances with dynamic visuals the talky explanation and exposition which otherwise can grow tedious. It's more inventive, though, the way Sherlock handles the flip side of Holmes' insistent perspicacity: that' he's beyond bored when not stimulated by a tough case. In fact, here Holmes is in thrall to his senses, endlessly jonesing for his next kick that will only come from a near-uncrackable case. Cumberbatch's Holmes less the professional sleuth, more the boy genius. Less Bohemian, more curmudgeon.

Indeed, it's all Watson can do to stop Holmes from offending everyone in sight and he usually plays Holmes' buffer or gopher to the outside world. Watson's no fool though, and unlike previous incarnations of the solider-doctor-sidekick, he doesn't exist simply to be wrong and showcase Holmes' smarts. The first three seasons give Watson a meaningful arc as he moves from traumatized veteran to, well, Sherlock Holmes' sidekick. And what a pair, with the indefatigable Holmes striding off after some obscure clue and Watson scrabbling along after him. One lanky, the other short. One with the soldier's brevity and the other who's a plain old showoff. One indifferent to romance, the other unlucky. They're more than an Abbott and Costello, though. There's some substance to the duo, for we see Holmes move from a total indifference toward anyone's feelings, to a subdued respect for the plucky doctor, finally to caring for him as a a friend. These details aren't overplayed though, and we don't venture into buddy-cop territory.  Holmes is still irascible and Watson is always playing catch-up, but they're friends.

If Watson's the everyman and Holmes his boy genius, then Moriarty is the enfant terrible. Just as mad, just as brilliant as Holmes, the gawky, mousy Moriarty wants his complementary nemesis to come out and play. Their parallels aren't superficial, either. Where Holmes has buried his emotions and runs on the adrenaline of the case, Moriarty's rage fuels his plans. Holmes is the consulting detective, Moriarty the consulting criminal. They're both in it for themselves, though, and perversely each needs the mad, inverted brilliance of the other to satisfy his own mind's lust for challenge. The writers tried to throw in some bits about how Holmes isn't "really" on the "side of the angels," i.e. law and order, but it wasn't so persuasive. Perhaps the authors thought it a betrayal of Holmes' curmudgeonry to let him identify with any group, but he's not a psychopath. Eccentric misanthrope, yes. Murderer, no.

The six episodes of the first two seasons neatly thread these characters through some interesting variations on the Conan Doyle mysteries, which were updated just enough for my liking. Most of the updates are sensible reactions to the technology of today, whether it's genetic engineering or digital cryptography. At last, we don't have to pretend to be fooled by phosphorescent paint and forged signatures. This is also the first mainstream programming, in film or television, that really seemed at home in the digital world.  People talk about blogs and databases and what have you, without introducing them to the audience. As if that's not refreshing enough to satisfy my inner geek, finally some fine producer decided just to overly onto the tv screen the content of text messages and computer screens in the show: no more close ups of generic operating systems and characters reading their messages aloud. Finally, we and Holmes are on an adventure in the 21st century.

Each step of the way we're treated to a pitch-perfect score from David Arnold and Michael Price. With it's boomin bass line, The Game Is On superficially resembles Hans Zimmer's score to the Guy Richie  films, but the blend of plucked, bowed, and percussive instruments here is even more pleasing, a clever and complementary mix of interiority, drama, and good old fashioned adventure. Just like the show.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

On A Passage from Melville


I came upon here today this passage from Moby Dick, a work I've not read in toto for some years. How much richer it seems now! So much that I'd like to look at the selection in detail. The passage is from Ch. 96 in which the narrator describes the fat rendering furnace of the Pequod.

I'll reproduce the passage in miniature and then selections in bold followed by commentary.
The hatch, removed from the top of the works, now afforded a wide hearth in front of them. Standing on this were the Tartarean shapes of the pagan harpooneers, always the whale-ship's stokers. With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces. Opposite the mouth of the works, on the further side of the wide wooden hearth, was the windlass. This served for a sea-sofa. Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.
The hatch, removed from the top of the works, now afforded a wide hearth in front of them. Standing on this were the Tartarean shapes of the pagan harpooneers, always the whale-ship's stokers. 

What subterranean and alien imagery with Tartarean shapes and pagan harpooneers, which also share the same rhythmic profile (-u -u -.) Notice also the merging of the s in ship's stokers, as if the two are one.

With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. 

Here we have the alliteration of p in pronged, poles, and pitched, as well as assonance of s with hissing masses and scalding pots. Also note the prolepsis: the blubber wouldn't be hissing until it hit the pot. What shapely diction follows: snaky and darted and curling, and then the personification of the flames, as if they jump out of the oven to chomp at their provocateurs. You can feel the searing heat and crackling activity.

The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces. Opposite the mouth of the works, on the further side of the wide wooden hearth, was the windlass. This served for a sea-sofa. Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. 

What a gloomy pair: sullen heaps. Then the parallelism of to every pitch... there was a pitch and the assonance of boiling oil. Eagerness being predicated on oil may throw the modern reader, but the effect of all eagerness is not simply of personification but of amplification, as if the flames are not just eager, but the essence of pure eagerness. Then more alliteration of w with works, wide, wooden, was, and windlass, and of s with sea-sofa. Note here the verb preceding the subject, lounged the watch, to connect the ideas of sofa and lounged.

[A] Their tawny features, [B] now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, [C] their matted beards, and [D] the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, [E] all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. 

See the structure here: B modifies A, then D both modifies B and C and is parallel to them relative to E, and finally A, C, and D do the action of E. It reads easily enough, but to write...

What a great word, too: tawny. Notice begrimed and not grimy, the former emphasizing the cause of their grunge. The following phrases are similar yet contrasted: on the one hand begrimed and smoke and sweat have parallel syllable-lengths and on the other they have different aural profiles, the former consisting of mutes and nasals and the latter of sibilant liquids. What pleasing variety.

Next we see the alliterative barbaric brilliance of their teeth contrasted against the earlier imagery of their sooty faces. Melville finally ties up the pictures by telling us it was the strange light of the works, its capricious emblazonings, which revealed out these features. Can you not see their faces in the flickering flames?

As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; 

This section begins the climax of the passage and is structured on polysyndeton of as giving way to same with and. Within we have:
  • Rhythmic parallelism in unholy and adventures: u-u
  • Alliteration: tales of terror told
  • Contrast of terror and mirth
  • Simile: laughter forked... like the flames
  • Contrasting imagery of forking upward and dipping downward
  • Metonomy of hell for fire
  • Personification of the wind with howled and sea with leaped 
  • Personification of the ship with groaned, steadfastly, scornfully champed, mouth, and viciously spat.
Notice how the action moves from the men on the ship to the ship on the sea, and how the personification of the Pequod makes the ship's activity on the sea a contrasting parallel to the men's activity on the ship, contrasting because the men are carousing while the Pequod is straining. What an image here: the Pequod, rending her meal and spewing its fire round herself in defiance of the blackness and thrashing sea. Wow.

then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and 
plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.

Now the climax with the subject followed by four descriptive phrases and then its predicate.

then the rushing Pequod
---freighted with savages, 
---and laden with fire, 
---and burning a corpse, 
---and plunging into that blackness of darkness, 
seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.

That the interior phrases are parallel in structure yet so different in tone gives them an added punch, and what brutal imagery of savages, fire, and corpses. Melville ends the descriptive phrases contrasting the fire in the pleonasm of blackness and darkness.

Having deftly shifted focus from the ship, to the men, and back to the ship, Melville comes round to Ahab, likening the vengeful, flaming ship in the blackness to her monomaniacal captain's own roiling soul. This is not only a striking image, but an ingenious narrative shift from describing setting and plot to describing character and foreshadowing the intertwined fates of the vessel and her captain.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness


Several weeks ago I enjoyed a delicious piece of cake. Exquisitely layered and textured, it exploded a starburst of sweet delight. The other day I ate a piece of cake which looked very much the same, with its creamy exterior and fluffy innards. This piece, I soon discovered, was an elaborate forgery! It had the appearance of cake, but none of the depth or detail, thus eating the dull concoction was akin to watching a cheap magic trick. I say cheap trick and not simply one whose secret you've figured, because even when you know how a trick is maneuvered, if the performer has enough skill and panache, if he can sell it, you're entertained.

So which cake is Star Trek Into Darkness?  I'm sorry to say it's not the real deal. Like it's rebooted predecessor from 2009, Into Darkness is a Trek forgery, albeit a polished one. Yet where Trek '09 succeeded because of its simplicity, clarity, and sheer verve, the flimsy plot of Into Darkness falls under the weight of its incongruous parts.

Spoilers

It's not even that there's so much wrong with the plot, about a rogue Federation operative, but rather that throughout it, nothing important happens. Since nothing happens, the movie's just an elaborate manhunt. What do I mean when I say that "nothing happens?" Well, I mean that nothing happens in the development of an idea. Let's look a few examples.

First, the opening sets up the theme that Kirk doesn't follow orders, so you would think this might become the theme. Instead, Kirk saves they day by continuing not to follow orders. Even that lack of movement might have been justified if the script had set up a principle which Kirk subsequently vindicated, which it did not.

Second, nothing happens in any relationship. Kirk saves Spock twice. So? Spock didn't change at all except to get angry, which he had done before anyway. It's not as if Spock didn't care that Kirk saved him the first time, but rather that Spock thought following orders more important. At the end of the film, it's not as if in chasing down the bad guy Spock has decided to break any orders. So what's the point, other than catching him?

Third, the Khan reveal was a big let down. The fact that the rogue agent turns out to be Khan has no weight in the movie because it's unsupported by the rest of the story. When we learn of Khan's plan to free and awaken his crew of supermen, the news doesn't feel important, and for a few reasons. First, the character, either as the "rogue agent" or as Khan, has not been developed. So who is this person? Should we empathize with him for being manipulated by Starfleet and Admiral Marcus or is he really a bad guy? Is he crazy or just vengeful? Second, the only motive which Khan himself declares is that he wants revenge on Admiral Marcus. As far as his motives qua Khan from previous Star Trek incarnations, these are announced by another character in only one line, which is neither followed up nor elaborated. Then based on this one line, not even from Khan himself in a traditional bad-guy monologue, we're supposed to fret that these people we know nothing about are going to take over the entire federation and kill anyone they deem imperfect. Why would they do this? Are they crazy too? Why? Besides, if Khan is any indication, the genetically enhanced people are going to be better than everybody. Are they going to kill everybody, by themselves? I guess it's more likely that they'd take over and rule, a possibility which could have made for some interesting political possibilities, but that's not what the writers put in the movie. I'm not asking for heady philosophy here, just a little something about the motivations of the main characters.

So the plot's virtually meaningless: what's left? Today's cliches: the enemy getting captured on purpose, a big bad enemy ship, a surprise reveal. For the Trekkies we get reference after reference to the original Trek: aggressive redshirts, womanizing Kirk, tribbles, Khaaaaan! Finally we have the elements that writers have to throw in to get the booboisie in to a nerdy Trek movie. So we get the completely undeveloped and implausible quasi-pseudo-relationship between Uhura and Spock for the ladies, a blonde in her skivvies for the frat boys, and a ridiculous chase scene for the teenagers. That J. J. Abrams was at all able to direct these cheap ingredients into a popular movie is a testament to his status as the new Spielberg. 

Even the technical elements flounder this time. We've already seen the swooping views of the Enterprise inside and out. We've already seen a big bad ship. Yeah we're on a Klingon planet, but it doesn't feel different because it doesn't look unique and no one does acknowledges the change in setting by what they do. They just start shooting again. Yes, we're on the border of the Klingon Empire, but there's no frisson of danger because we again only get one line of dialogue establishing the Federation-Klingon tension, and because the movie moves so quickly that it doesn't build suspense. Worse than this indistinct sense of setting, though, is the finale's indistinct sense of narrative. No climax builds up to the end so who cares about the big action set piece?

So on its own terms, Star Trek Into Darkness is flat and vapid. How does it fit in the Trek tradition?

Well, it's a soggy hodgepodge of half-a-dozen other Trek movies, peppered with nostalgic bits from the television shows, and larded with the junk du jour. Only Michael Giacchino's soaring, dauntless take on the classic score retains a sense of wonder and grandeur for the promise of the stars. The fate of everything else from Star Trek is pretty sad. What began with Gene Roddenberry as a romantic, even foolish, vision of a future in which technology and peace have liberated the best of man and sent him from home in the hope of finding himself and his brothers amidst the stars, has degenerated into noisy pop culture claptrap spliced together by technicians and packaged for the popcorn munching masses just to gross a buck. How bold.

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