Showing posts with label Literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Literature. Show all posts

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Quote: The Carthaginian Who Said No to War

from Livy's Ab Urbe Condita. Book 21.

Translation by Bruce J. Butterfield

21.3 ... The soldiers led the way by bringing the young Hannibal forthwith to the palace and proclaiming him their commander-in-chief amidst universal applause. Their action was followed by the plebs. Whilst little more than a boy, Hasdrubal had written to invite Hannibal to come to him in Spain, and the matter had actually been discussed in the senate. The Barcines wanted Hannibal to become familiar with military service; Hanno, the leader of the opposite party, resisted this. "Hasdrubal's request," he said, "appears a reasonable one, and yet I do not think we ought to grant it" This paradoxical utterance aroused the attention of the whole senate. 

He continued: "The youthful beauty which Hasdrubal surrendered to Hannibal's father he considers he has a fair claim to ask for in return from the son. It ill becomes us, however, to habituate our youths to the lust of our commanders, by way of military training. Are we afraid that it will be too long before Hamilcar's son surveys the extravagant power and the pageant of royalty which his father assumed, and that there will be undue delay in our becoming the slaves of the despot to whose son-in-law our armies have been bequeathed as though they were his patrimony? I, for my part, consider that this youth ought to be kept at home and taught to live in obedience to the laws and the magistrates on an equality with his fellow-citizens; if not, this small fire will some day or other kindle a vast conflagration." 

21.4 Hanno's proposal received but slight support, though almost all the best men in the council were with him, but as usual, numbers carried the day against reason. 

21.10 The result was that, beyond being received and heard by the Carthaginian senate, the embassy found its mission a failure. Hanno alone, against the whole senate, spoke in favour of observing the treaty, and his speech was listened to in silence out of respect to his personal authority, not because his hearers approved of his sentiments. He appealed to them in the name of the gods, who are the witnesses and arbiters of treaties, not to provoke a war with Rome in addition to the one with Saguntum. "I urged you," he said, "and warned you not to send Hamilcar's son to the army. That man's spirit, that man's offspring cannot rest; as long as any single representative of the blood and name of Barca survives our treaty with Rome will never remain unimperilled.

You have sent to the army, as though supplying fuel to the fire, a young man who is consumed with a passion for sovereign power, and who recognises that the only way to it lies in passing his life surrounded by armed legions and perpetually stirring up fresh wars. It is you, therefore, who have fed this fire which is now scorching you. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lost in Translation #1: Vergil

Perhaps the most difficult tasks for the teacher of foreign languages is to persuade students of the need to read a work in its native language. In an era not only of plentiful translations but of numerous good translations, why turn to the original? The difficulty of this task of persuasion is compounded by the fact that it's nearly impossible to make this point clear and attractive at the introductory level when students are performing the thankless work of basic mechanics. Yet if the student does not grasp this notion at some early point, he risks wandering astray from the appreciation of his acquired language as a conveyance of literature. It's a terrible fate that the first utility of Latin, for example, is so often said to be its ability to improve one's English vocabulary.

Toward the end of showing Latin as a language of literature I would like to take a look at some passages of choicest Latin and compare them not merely to good translations, but to fine ones. I hope to demonstrate in this Coleridge's dictum that, "one criterion of style is that it shall not be translateable without injury to the meaning." (Lecture 14 on Shakespeare) I don't mean in any instance to denigrate the translator, moreover in studying the Latin and English in parallel one's appreciation for the task and success of these translators can only grow. Still, that task is in the end impossible to fulfill to perfection, at least for any work which maximizes the possibilities unique to its native language.

It seems prudent to start with one of the best and best known passages of Latin's most famous work, the Roman Classic, the Unclassical Classic, the Homeric reincarnation, the Augustan renaissance, Vergil's Aeneid. The translation is by Robert Fagles, published 2006.

We enter in Book IV, where a seething Dido rages at Aeneas, whom she caught stealing away.

365 'nec tibi diva parens generis nec Dardanus auctor,
366 perfide, sed duris genuit te cautibus horrens
367 Caucasus Hyrcanaeque admorunt ubera tigres.

/ "No goddess was your mother!
No Dardanus sired your line, you traitor, liar, no
Mount Caucasus fathered you on its flinty, rugged flanks
and the tigers of Hyrcania gave you their dugs to suck!

English eschews both leading with the dative form and the dative of possession (it is to you, vs of you, or the possessive adjective your), so Fagles presents us first with goddess (diva) and the possessive adjective your. The logic of the sentence is preserved, but the effect of leading with Aeneas (tibi: to you) and concluding with Aeneas (perfide: you traitorous one) enjambed onto the next line is lost, and the effects are that of 1) amplifying the accusatory tone of the line and 2) linking the two lines.

An understood linking verb (est: was) links diva to parens and Dardanus to auctor, a gapping which produces a line of stark juxtapositions. In the English, Dardanus auctor spills into a whole clause just for the need to use as a stand-in for auctor (founder, originator, progenitor), English's sired (forefathered), whose noun form sire is both deprecated and tied up with associations of its use as a salutation. Now sired is probably the best substitute, but its use results in a circumlocution which comes at the price of brevity and thus potency. Likewise perfide (faithless, traitorous, deceitful, false) becomes traitor, liar, which still doesn't quite capture the sense of scandal and outrage of perfide.

Fagles truly does a superb job with 366, so much that the layer of translation fades to an invisibility which would do Coleridge proud, but again there's no way to mimic the word order permitted by inflection, and thus the ensuing effects. Here, after in 365 declaring from whom Aeneas was not born, Dido describes who were his parents, according to her insult. The whole line is a preparation though, which isn't fulfilled until Caucasus enjambed into the beginning of 367 tells us just who was his father. Likewise lost is Vergil's sandwiching of te (you, i.e. Aeneas) between duris and cautibis (on hard crags.) Too, while flinty is a brilliant substitute for duris, conveying both physical and emotional hardness, rugged doesn't capture the sense of dread in horrens. Finally, in English we lose the emphasis of the parallel placement of Aeneas (perfide) at the beginning of the line and horrens at the end.

Again, though, Fagles' 367 captures the meaning of the line, but the style and imagery is in rerouting, lost. First, the English is cluttered with and, the, of, you, their, and to, a volume which dilutes the potency of the idea. Next, the stark back-to-back placement of Caucacus and Hyrcanae is an exotic splash which is lost in separation. What the Latin says obliquely or subtly in image, admorunt ubera tigres, the tigers drew up/near their teats, with "for suckling" implicit, Fagles says literally with "gave you their dugs to suck." This is quite a subtle difference, but the phrase "drawing up the breast" typifies the action as associated with nursing, whereas Fagles English spells it all out. Also lost is tigres' emphatic separation from its adjective Hyrcanae and placement at the line's end.

Finally, ubera tigres in Latin is a tight-knit pair of noun and direct object, linked by their constituting the hexameter's famous zippidy-do-dah final feet. Though they are in different cases and thus function differently, Latin can place them together and produce a non-grammatical, purely visual-aural relationship between the two. Here, the two words simply by their proximity produce a clear image: tiger nipples. It may sound silly, but that's a very bestial image which perfectly concludes Dido's scurrilous contention that Aeneas is not born from the soft goddess of love and a son of Zeus, but hard crags and animals. He's inhuman, to her, and this is the perfect image for that sentiment.

In contrast, Fagles' English shows the same images in a different series with different connections for a different effect. Compare the following and try to visualize each image as it comes:

Latin: Hyrcanian gave nipples tigers
English: tigers of Hyrcania gave you their dugs to suck!

More processing is required by the Latin to supply the understood information, but the brevity and word placement produce a more compact, more vivid image, compared to which the English seems rather literal, as if the image is being explained to you rather than presented. The potential of this cascade of images and associations is one of the chief powers and pleasures of the Latin language.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Presidential Rhetoric, Part VII: Andrew Jackson

Welcome to Part Seven of our series on the rhetoric of American presidential inaugural addresses. Please feel free to look at the previous entries in the series:
  1. Worthy of Marble?
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
  6. John Quincy Adams
We continue with our present look at the rhetoric of Andrew Jackson's inaugural address. Let us see if any of the blood and guts of Old Hickory are to be found in his first speech as president.

The text of the speech, via

Given it's brevity, it's best to make neither introductory nor concluding but rather summary remarks about Jackson's speech. We'll also dispense with the customary line-by-lie analysis. First, Jackson's is by far the shortest inaugural so far, weighing in at only 1,100 words or so. Second, it's plain and free of tropes, figures, and flourishes which adorned previous speeches. Jackson is his most poetical when waxing about the military, but generally he's quite sober. Third, the speech is not structured rhetorically, with formal sections devoted to refutation, summary, and so forth. Instead, it is structured as a list with little regard for the delicate task of transitioning from topic to topic. Fourth, Jackson does not offer examples or stop to paint pictures. He's not trying to persuade. In fact, and most important of all...

Fifth, Jackson's not really trying to persuade at all, and instead he's simply listing his policies. He's not trying to win over his enemies by making his plans seem ideal or reasonable and he's not trying to paint a picture of a grand, unified America to compensate for the inevitable sour feelings which follow an election. Jackson is laying down his agenda, not making any attempt at any of the classic modes of persuasion: 

A. of the personal character of the speaker
B. putting the audience in a particular frame of mind
C. proof or apparent proof of the words themselves.
Jackson at times qualifies statements, stating that the debt is a threat to liberty or the economy should favor goods essential to national independence, but does not actually argue the points. 

We can state then that while the speech is political, it is so in a restricted sense because it doesn't advise, deliberate on, or urge so much as declare. Likewise it doesn't fit into Aristotle's epideictic mold at all since it doesn't bother to praise. Overall, we can conclude of it what we did of President Obama's Inaugural:

Aristotle at the opening of the Rhetoric identified the craft as that which utilizes the best of the available means of persuasion. The author of this speech would not seem to have availed himself of the potential means.
Still, there's a workmanlike clarity to the agenda as well as a noteworthy, if not praiseworthy, candor in its frank indifference to persuasion. Jackson is always crystal clear, if not memorable or persuasive. It's a plain, speech, if indistinct.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Wanderer

The second most boring part of teaching is reviewing material, for it catches the teacher in the doldrums between summarizing and examining. Said teacher always wants to teach something new, but the students would say such is not review. True, true. So alas we must say again what was said before. And say it again and again ad infinitum. The most boring of the teacher's tasks is proctoring. Here the teacher is caught between daydreaming and that unpleasant task of policing. The other day, though, all the students had finished their tests and in the fifteen minutes before we were permitted to leave, I picked in desperation a book off the shelf to stir my stilling mind.

What I picked up was Heart of Darkness, and what I found of course and in irony was the serene stillness of Conrad's opening with its pacific water, flat sails, and seamless sky. What caught my mind, though, that is before the school bell shattered it once more, was not the quiet grandeur of the Thames or the brilliance of its description as introduction, but  Conrad's characterization of Marlow as a wanderer.

The seaman, we learn, is always at home at sea, for the sea never changes and all boats are the same. The seamen's minds are sedentary, their stories singular.  These men may move about, but on the ocean his mind is ever at home. One might say of them what the narrator says of their stories: they have a direct simplicity. They're simple, perfected, self-contained. Later, Marlow comes upon a book, reflecting again on the type:
The simple old sailor, with his talk of chains and purchases, made me forget the jungle and the pilgrims in a delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real.
There is something authentic and revealing in such simplicity. Conrad's brilliant touch, though, is adding that someone had written notes in the margins of the book, and in cipher at that. Some greater intellect had come along and contributed incomprehensible commentary, muddling the simplicity as Marlow himself muddled the luminous Thames, describing it amidst its brightness as, "one of the dark places of the earth."

Marlow, in contrast to the simple seaman, is a wanderer, not with respect to body for he sails about like his fellow seamen, but rather Marlow is a wanderer of the mind. His stories are not about a simple moral but an unfolding, enveloping meaning.

Now one could surely discuss the theme of simplicity in Heart of Darkness, but I hadn't read the book in a while and I only had fifteen minutes. What was on my mind, then, wasn't the rest of the novel but a piece of music, Schubert's Der Wanderer an den Mond.

Schubert's song of Johann Seidl's text shares Conrad's fascination with simplicity. Here, the moon is simple and perfected, at home everywhere just like the seaman, even though it ranges far and wide. Opposed is the poet or speaker, who is a stranger wherever he goes. We sense this isolation in Marlow as he recounts the life of the Thames throughout history, always an observer, and sits "like Budha."

Marlow and Seidl's speaker sit at that mediating, meditative point between simplicity and complexity which stirs, perplexes, even torments the observer. Seidl longs to be at home although he lacks the simplicity of the moon, and Marlow admires the simplicity of the simple seaman untouched by the "detestable incomprehensible."

Thinkers perhaps too often idolize intellect, insisting it is edifying and unifying and not isolating, but seeing the boundaries of the comprehensible makes, as Waugh wrote, "a tedious journey to the truth," a journey, "confused with knowledge and speculation." The faithful also too often, perhaps, pontificate about the joyful universality of the faith without emphasizing the peregrinate nature of the worldly journey. The invariable existential question–compare Seidl's moon to Camus' omnipresent, impotent sun in The Stranger–leads he who walks the path of perception or faith, to a tortuous, wandering journey through seeing and seeking the incomprehensible in the light of the simple.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Movie Review: Great Expectations

Directed by Mike Newell. 2012.

Critics often observe that great technique can redeem humble subject matter with examples The Magic Flute to Raiders of the Lost Ark of talent triumphing over paltry literary offerings. Less often do we observe–perhaps because it is less often the case–that an ingenious story holds up a mediocre execution. That's what we have though in Mike Newell's 2012 film adaptation of Dickens' Great Expectations in which the author's ageless characters and one of his most satisfying and ingenious plots manage to shine through a veil of murky production and direction.

Dickens needs neither praise nor summary, but we might do some of both by observing Great Expectations' world of contrasts. We have the two orphans, Pip and Estella, each raised to gentility from squalid conditions. While each learns to be false for the new persona, Dickens inverts the parallels. For example, while they both tell untruths to others, Pip presents his studied propriety to the world and Estella a false interest in men, they give lies of omission to each other as kindness: Estella refrains from expressing her genuine interest in Pip, because she thinks she will hurt him, and Pip hides the truth about Estella's ignoble parents.

Their patrons are also a pair of contrasts with both Magwitch and Miss Havisham seeking to save someone from his and her terrible fate. Magwitch hopes by funding Pip's life as gentleman to spare him the squalor and suffering he knew as a criminal while Estella is brought up to avoid the same fate which jilted Miss Havisham at the altar. Yet contrasts persist here as well. First, while Magwitch stays out of Pips life, only helping him from afar by means of an allowance, Miss Havisham tries to remake Estella. Second, Miss Havisham seeks someone to raise as such while Magwitch is simply repaying Pip's kindness to a criminal that Christmas morning. Dickens' masterful denouement manages to thread and contrast both pairs of characters.

First, both tutors fail, Magwitch by omission and Havisham by meddling, to raise the children. Surrounded by falsity Pip becomes prey to his own affectations, and guided by Miss Havisham Estella's heart becomes hardened against love. Second, Magwitch is rewarded with a peaceable death when his beloved Pip informs the dying ex-con that his daughter, whom he thought dead from consumption in childhood, not only lives but has the affections of his very own Pip. On the other hand, Miss Havisham endures a fiery end worthy of Euripides. Finally, Pip and Estella are redeemed by selfless loves which endured past rejection. The first is Pip's own love for Estella which paves the way for their relationship by remaining past her rejection of Pip to the death of her husband. The second is that of Pip's brother in law Joe, whose craft and apprenticeship Pip rejected for the gentleman's life but who still spent his life's fortune to pay off the debts Pip accrued in the absence of Magwitch's confiscated fortune. Great Expectations' is an ending both elaborate and elegant, satisfying and moving as its threads, ever in contrast to one another even as they share space, time, and attributes, at last resolve.

Would that the expression of such a great work had equal vitality. Instead the direction and nearly every production element threaten at nearly every turn to enervate Dickens' vital characters and plot. Now one can look past the narrow color palette and flat tones, whose purpose is clearly to accentuate the characters at the expense of the environment. In fact I might even praise the aesthetic sacrifice. What I cannot overlook is the relentlessly flat direction. There's no dynamic variety to the movie. There's no mood to many scenes, no sense of tone to complement the emotion and activity. Even lighthearted moments like those between Pip and his chum Herbert Pocket don't play as light-hearted scenes because they don't have the support of direction which shapes the scene into something more than words and motion. Neither the marsh nor river nor forge achieve a sense of place nor even do the opulent settings later feel much a contrast. Only the office of the solicitor, Jagger, seems lived in, and the scenes there have a certain sense of type as Pip picks up his allowance from the lawyer barraged by clients. The cinematography is also unhelpful, with awkward close and mid-range shots forcing us around at inopportune moments. Even the blocking at times seems to stymie the sense of space and scene.

The only scenes which succeed visually and tonally as well as in terms of plot, that is to say which succeed as scenes, are two between Joe and Pip. We see the first when Pip impresses Joe with his writing. The moment achieves a sweetness because neither knows just how bad poor Pip's spelling really is. Complementing the action, the camera rests behind the pair as they recline next to one another on the river's crunchy coastline. The second scene contrasts the first. Now Pip admonishes Joe's provincial manners at the table of an urban tavern and here they sit facing one another, opposed. These scenes are subtle and more effective than the seeming absence of direction elsewhere. There's a line between Newell's spare style and the globs of gloss which often cake upon classics and Dickens, A Christmas Carol most infamously. Only a moderate touch will support without distracting by absence or excess.

The cast is fine, but most of all Toby Irvine as Young Pip and Jason Fleming as Joe Gargery shine. There's a sweetness to their simple relationship, and Young Pip does seem to have something bottled within, something which Joe with his wide smile and unconditional love tries to shield. In another good scene, between the two above, Joe gets tongue-tied as he tries to speak properly for Miss Havisham and Pip, now a teen, nudges him to keep it simple. Unfortunately, Young Estella suggests more of interest with her educated affectation than the lapidary stares of her older self, and Helena Bonham Carter seems too Tim Burtonized and Harry Potterized to come off as damaged and not simply eccentric. Finally, Ralph Finnes is superb as Magwitch. We get a real sense of the urgency he feels to help Pip, an angry desire to make amends to Pip for the world.

While a more moderate style would have better served the story, with a fine cast one of Dickens' best works shines through. To its credit, there are no distractions or intrusions upon the plot and characters. I enjoyed that characters weren't burdened with excessive dialogue and cues to remind audiences who-is-who, but it can be a tad on the confusing side. Perhaps Newell's biggest success with this look at Great Expectations is the sense of gravity he brings to Pip's initial act of kindness. We really sense his risk and fear, but the deed also contrasts the passivity that characterizes his youth. Pip didn't have the ability to choose very much, and his lone choice was an act of kindness. The weight of his act, as both a kindness and a singular event, presses home all the points of the resolution not only because it sets them in motion but also because in resolution we see all the loves are the same: undeserved, unasked, selfless, and enduring.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Keats' Bright Star

It's a trite saying that school is wasted on the young, but I can't otherwise explain how a precious poem, studied in one of my favorite classes, made no impression upon me whatsoever. At least, none of which I am conscious. In fact I'd utterly forgotten the miniature masterpiece, Bright Star, until a most charming girl just reminded me of Keats' swooning tour of sights and sensuality. Yet what did not, alas, appeal to my youth has captivated your present blogger, who has by now outstripped in years the poem's ill-fated author. It's less that fact, though, than the author's youthful creativity which confounds mortal readers. The work of most youthful prodigies, however meticulously laid, is largely precursor. We can understand a gifted youth writing counterpoint, painting large canvasses, and so forth, as mimetic facility. Then there's the music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, Gretchen am Spinnrade, and Bright Star, which possess if not sophistication, great expressive depth.

Keats structures the poem as a sonnet of a single sentence, apostrophizing and personifying the star at which he marvels. The apostrophe encloses a poem which might easily run away with imagery, instead creating a sense of dialogue and intimate space even though one party is silent. Because of that dialectical sense, then, it is a natural turn from discussing one party, the star, to the other, the poet. Similarly, the personification of the silent party, the star, lends to its activity a sense of agency and as such the star becomes a foil for the speaker. 




Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
___Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
___Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
___Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
___Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
___Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
___Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
___And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

Line 1 Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —

The aforementioned structure and sense is conveyed in the not only the opening line but its first word, the addressee, which pushes the lone image center stage without any context to shine. Keats then sets up the poem's premise: if only he were like the star. The poet follows not with similarity but difference, a series of vivid images describe how he would not imitate the star. This also sets up the contrast for the poem's volta at line 9.

Line 2 Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

Lone splendour picks up the image of the star's isolated introduction in the previous line. Hung is a curious choice here, for unlike other possibilities such as floating, hovering, and the like, hung implies an agent, someone who did the hanging, and the passivity of what was hung. The image is then that of the star having been placed, with the creator hovering behind the image. It's easy to take aloft for granted, but it's the perfect word here, with its prepositional meaning of up and on and its adverbial sense of gentle loftiness.

Line 3 And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Keats now begins the personification proper, describing the star as watching, but there's more connotation and association in the line. Eternal on the one hand from hung picks up and augments the idea of passivity (the star is both far off and looking, not touching), which the poet does not want to imitate, and on the other hand introduces the idea of fixity, which the author will reveal he does envy the star. Apart serves two purposes, the first of completing the image of the star's open eyes, and the second of emphasizing the theme of the star's distance.

Line 4 Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,

The poet now likens via simile the star to one of mankind's secluded creatures: the hermit. Aside from its rhythmic flourish, the splash of French with Eremite calls to mind the Greek έρημία, solitude, loneliness, desert, which again picks up the theme of the star's passive solitude, but also, with its idea of desert and wilderness, sets up a visual contrast for the imagery of the next line.

Line 5 The moving waters at their priestlike task

Against the deserted image of the hermit in the previous line, we now see the first object of the star's gaze, the earth's waters. Here the participle moving gives energy and motion to the object of the star's sight and thus also emphasizes the star's stillness. Keats then personifies the waters too, describing them not simply as moving but performing a priestly task. The mention of priest here picks up the religious connotation of Eremite above and then contrasts it: one task is sacred but secluded for the purpose of personal purity and the other sacred but active toward the end of purifying others. Keats may also have had in mind the contrast of kind between the hermit's spiritual mercy as almsman and the priest's pastoral works of corporeal mercy.

Line 6 Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,

Now Keats describes the waters' task as one of ablution, furthering the religious overtone. With round he not only details the motion of the water but outlines and thus calls to mind the shape of the earth, emphasizing its discrete unity as separate from the star. He also characterizes the shores as human because the land is man's only home, a description which again distances the star, inhuman since it's not on the land, but also the hermit in his desert distant from the fertile shore and the chaste waves at their priestly task, all foreshadowing the poet's amorous turn of mind at line 9.

Line 7 Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Before the star was watching the waters and now he gazes on one of the poem's most beautiful images, the new soft fallen mask. Keats amplifies the tension and effect of this image by enjambing the key modifier onto the next line:

Line 8 Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —

What an image is revealed here, a new soft fallen mask of snow. First, describing the snow as a mask draws together all of the potential connotations and images we might have into one single one because a mask is a singularity. The effect, then,  is that of one image: a vast white mask. Second, the idea of a mask naturally conjures images of the human face, which in this case would be looking up at the star, concealing the earth. We ought not overlook those two little adjectives from the previous line either, new and soft, which now achieve full effect with the image of the snow: the star watches the earth slowly shroud itself in white. Keats concludes the image with contrasting images of depth and height, mountains and moors, united by alliteration.

Line 9 No —yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

The poet makes his point that while he does not wish to imitate the star's distance or passivity, he does want its steadiness and permanence. He achieves ingenious and economical effect with still. On the one hand still denotes stillness, emphasizing the fixity of steadfast and unchangeable. On the other hand, adverbially it means nevertheless, suggesting contrast from the activity of the previous lines. Keats envies the star because while it sees much change, it is itself steadfast and unchangeable, words which the poet also applies to himself as he becomes the subject.

The next four lines are an overflow of sensuous imagery.

Line 10 Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,

The poet is not simply laying on or with his love, but pillowed, which connotes an image of him, or his head I suppose, airily, effortlessly laying atop her breast. The participle ripening gives the line its sensual edge, though, with its present tense urgency and connotations of ruddy, full health.

In keeping with the littoral imagery above, it's tempting to place the poet atop Venus herself, coming into being on the fertile human shore.

Line 11 To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,

Keats continues to paint the picture of his perfection with him feeling forever the rise and fall of his lover's breast, as if she's embosoming him from below. Forever doesn't just augment feeling with some handy alliteration, though. Moreover, the poet is so enthralled with the sight that he's carried away forever in it, and forever picks up the theme of permanence and begins the climax of the poem.

Line 12 Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Awake for ever parallels to feel forever above, amplifying the repeated word and accentuating the difference, which is the catch that he'll also be awake forever. It's that combination of love and sleeplessness which makes it a sweet unrest.

Line 13 Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

Still, still here picks up the same from line 8, and completes the scene describing himself not now as feeling but as hearing, and hearing not just her breath but her delicate tender-taken breath.

Line 14 And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

The last line offers the two alternatives in equal measure. In the first half ever picks up forever above, and in the second half death contrasts the preceding end-rhyme and thought of breath.

The contrast between the poet and the star is the impossibility of his hope. The star is permanent but impotent, and the poet may love but only for a time.

This poem is a sensual delight. Its chief pleasure is a vivid and increasing intimacy as the poem moves with flawless transitions from the firmament to the earth to the lovers. Keats' mellifluous, euphonious vocabulary brings to life the physicality of the moving world, the fixed star, and the impossible perfection of the lovers' tender repose.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Presidential Rhetoric VI: John Quincy Adams

Welcome to Part Six of our series on the rhetoric of American presidential inaugural addresses. Please feel free to look at the previous entries in the series:
  1. Worthy of Marble?
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
We continue with our present look at the rhetoric of John Quincy Adams' inaugural address. The first presidential son of a president, John Quincy fittingly owes his considerable education, Classical and otherwise, to his father.

As a child he was instructed in history yes, but with a point of observing "treachery, perfidy, cruelty, and hypocrisy" which he "should learn to detest." Before his teens he delighted in Shakespeare, though in old age he confessed what humor he had missed as a child. Later, visiting Johnny at the Passy Academy in Paris in 1778, the father Adams would remark, "this child. . . learned more french in a day than I could learn in a Week with all my books." Years on when studying at Leyden, Johnny would receive from his father a gift of Terence in  both French and Latin, which the boy had of course learned by now de rigueur. From Leyden Johnny would write how he was "writing in Homer, the Greek grammar, and the Greek testament every day," although his father would write, outraged that the curriculum didn't include Cicero and Demosthenes, an inclusion upon which he insisted. Johnny's Harvard years, which he didn't reflect on with too much affection, rounded out his formal education, before adding to it an MA from his alma mater and joining the bar, age 23.

Let us see to what end the second presidential Adams' considerable intelligence, education, and experience met the occasion of his Inaugural Address, delivered Friday, March 4, 1825.

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

[A] IN compliance with an usage coeval with the existence of our Federal Constitution, and [B] sanctioned by the example of my predecessors in the career upon which I am about to enter, [C] I appear, [D] my fellow-citizens, in your presence and in that of Heaven [E] to bind myself by the solemnities of religious obligation [F] to the faithful performance of the duties allotted to me [G] in the station to which I have been called.

For his opening, Adams has folded all of his introductory ideas into one sentence. He begins with two parallel prefaces in which he identifies the occasion of his inauguration as [A] coeval, and thus of equal authority, as the constitution, and [B] sanctioned by his predecessors' examples, and thus sanctioned by tradition and excellence. Adams delays his appearance in the speech until [C], which coming after his prefaces about the history of the constitution and the previous presidents, gives the effect of Adams appearing at this moment, a subtle and effective instance of style mirroring content. No sooner does he introduce himself, though, than he addresses his fellow-citizens [D], smartly associating himself with the people and continuing the image of the speaker presenting himself to the people. Adams continues with overt religious analogy by identifying his oath as sacred [E], his duties as both [F] obligatory (faithful performance) and specific (allotted), and his election as democratic. [G]

The most succinct opening yet, Adams packs a lot of detail into a very small span with his Latinate and Ciceronian phrasing.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Odi et Amo

Some attain immortality by doing great deeds, others by getting swept up in the affairs of great men. It's unlikely we would remember a fourth-rate crook like Gaius Verres had Cicero not so ferociously denounced the fool, nor would an obscure archbishop like Hieronymous Colloredo be remembered but for getting under the skin of a certain W. A. Mozart. Lesbia, as her lover called her, we know for her affair with the greatest poet of his age, Catullus. Her reputation fared somewhat better than those of Verres and Colloredo, who were both eviscerated to rags, but we generally remember her as the woman not who loved, but who tortured Catullus. Lesbia is not the inspirational Muse that Simonetta Vespucci played to Botticelli, inspiring thoughts of a perfected beauty to be contemplated and never defiled, but the spark of Catullus' very earthy passions of love and hate.

We really do owe to the ancient lovers a great debt, though, for the poet's pains bore one great fruit: a poignant, poetical crystallization of that curiously close kinship between love and hate.

That brilliant single couplet of poem 85, odi et amo, gets the glory, but Catullus 85 is best seen as the culmination of thoughts more fully explored in poem 72.

Here, Catullus begins by retracing his affair with Lesbia.

1 Dicebas quondam solum te nosse Catullum,
2 -----Lesbia, nec prae me velle tenere Iovem.
3 dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam,
4 -----sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos.
5 nunc te cognoui: quare etsi impensius uror,
6 -----multo mi tamen es uilior et levior.
7 qui potis est, inquis? quod amantem iniuria
8 -----talis cogit amare magis, sed bene velle minus.

The first two lines are a miniature masterpiece describing the good old days, a couplet structured around dicebas and te, which set up the two parallel, sequential indirect statements describing Lesbia's promise.

On the one hand Lesbia once promised that she loved Catullus alone (1), and on the other that she didn't prefer even Jove to him (2). It's a simple, even slight, notion which only someone head-over-heels could have taken to heart. I wonder just when and why made this "promise?" To coax her reticent, junior lover, maybe? In flagrante delicto? Or maybe, perish the thought, the poor, proud boy, as she ushered him out the back door, paused at the threshold and asked how much she loved him, to which she replied with invisible irony, More than Jove, darling.

Perhaps, though, Lesbia did make this promise a full-hearted confession to Catullus one afternoon in some sacred lovers' grove and for a time at least, truly meant it. Either way, Catullus seems to have thought the love both permanent and binding, seeing how he interweaves the thoughts. Notice how solum...Catullum (Catullus alone) surrounds te nosse (you knew), how Catullum runs into Lesbia on the next line, and how nec prae me (not before me) literally precedes velle tenere Iovem (you wanted to hold Jove.)

3 dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam,
4 -----sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos.

The word order of the next couplet is a twofold contrast. Instead of discussing Lesbia's promise we move on to Catullus' love, and instead of interweaving the thoughts, they are simple and linear. I loved you not as a crowd [loves] someone, but as a father loves his sons and sons-in-law. The contrast within the couplet is between vulgar, public, and temporary effusion, and heartfelt, private, and perpetual love.

5 nunc te cognoui: quare etsi impensius uror,
6 -----multo mi tamen es uilior et levior.

The third couplet opens with a brutal contrast, continuing the parallelism in the hexameters of leading with the main verb giving action to te (Lesbia) but viciously subverting the meaning. We move from Dicebas...te (you were saying... that you) to Dilexi te (I loved you) to Nunc te cognovi, Now I know you. All of Catullus' love seems to shatter and we expect a torrent of vituperation, but the poet twists our expectations by returning immediately to the thought of his love, which is not diminished byt amplified in impensius uror (althought I burn more strongly.) Catullus leaves us hanging at the end of line 5 and then drives home his point:

6 -----multo mi[hi] tamen es uilior et levior.
6 -----by much to me you are cheap and meaningless. 

This is the final evolution of the second person characterization of Lesbia:

Dicebas...te - you were saying that you...
Dilexi...te - I loved you
te cognovi - I know you
es vilior et levior - you are...

Here, however, Catullus opens line 6 not with Lesbia, but with his valuation (multo) and himself (mihi.)

The structure of the closing couplet encapsulates the whole of the poem, introducing by a rhetorical question Catullus' lesson: such injury urges lovers to love more, but to regard less.

What a delicious paradox: Catullus hates her for rejecting him even as that spurning betrayal inflames his ardor. As he values her less, he wants her more. It's a sentiment which has to be felt to be believed. On the one hand the rejection spurs furious outrage at the perfidy and indignity. It means nothing to be rejected by her. How could I ever have valued her highly?

On the other hand her faithlessness implants the secret suggestion that somehow, in denying you, she's demonstrated that she has higher standards, a tantalizing and infuriating fancy. Every tricksy turn, then, inspires both hate and love, and thus the full weight behind Catullus' most famous lines.

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
-----nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Epimetheus at the Library

I don't frequent libraries for a number of reasons, chief among them that environments in which people are trying to keep quiet perturb me even more than noisy ones. Think of all that whispering, those clopping shoes, shuffling papers, the clearing of throats–ack! Recent trips to my local branch, however, gave me pause to think.

First off, it was tidy, relatively quiet, and opened promptly, though 11PM is pushing respectability. It was even, dare I say, cheerily operated. It was also cold, and as such operating as a sort of kook-refrigerator for the morning. Kooks? Yes, kooks, and I didn't draw the conclusion lightly, say, after the wheezy octogenarian read his papers or the couple quarreled over which happy partner bore the burden of filing their taxes. Neither did I chuff at the lady reading the Pathmark flyer aloud or my table neighbor who went into some considerable detail about his, how did he put it, motherfuckin' problem. Folks watching sports highlights on YouTube? de rigueur. I was positively thrilled by the strophic cachinnations of the children following all 1,600 verses of The Wheels on the Bus.

No, I came to my conclusion about the kooky nature of my fellow bibliophiles when, as I read a little passage of Latin, I overheard that distinct clatter of pills clanking into their plastic container. The contrast of experiences juxtaposed so much that I sat astonished for a moment. How could those two experiences, reading Latin and pouring pills, occur in the same place? Nothing I'd ever experienced let me bridge the gap. I wonder whether the woman was as shocked as I, perplexed why this fellow was reading Latin where she measures out her medication.

Truly did I wonder that, because those folks were all pretty comfortable there, whereas I wasn't. They were at home in this place, probably because their homes are not particularly luxurious. This library, on those days I visited, seemed to exist less for scholarship than as a refuge. In a way that's appropriate because the selection is pretty mediocre unless you're looking for the soundtrack to Hot Tub Time Machine, film classics like Au Pair 3, and the latest issue of Seventeen.

Would that the classics section redeemed the place but alas it did not. In one way I'm not concerned, though, because the classics are freely available online, more easily and cheaply by the day. On the other hand I wonder whether the absence of serious, weighty tomes has itself shorn the library of its grave appearance and thus its serious, academic purpose. It is no library, however many computers there are, if you can't feel the presence of Athena hovering behind the shelves. Libraries need books.

Now I can see the liberal kerfuffle bouncing its way toward me like some vast tumbleweed: the budget! Ah, the budget. If the first chopped dollar snatches the celery from grandma's Meals-on-Wheels, the second saved buck is sending Moby Dick gleefully into the incinerator. It's not a question of cost, however, so much of purpose. If the goal is to educate people, then the public should know how many classics and scholarly works are checked out and we need to consider whether the present lending models are achieving as much as, say, those of Amazon and Google.

Unfortunately, the name of any company sends shivers down the spines of liberals who fear imminent privatization like a libertarian comet steered by Mr. Monopoly. If the goal is education, though, we are fools if we opt for no more empirical standards than the much touted access and exposure, and frauds if we only adopt means of education which satisfy ulterior motives.

If libraries are about something outside education, like being havens for the poor, then that's a reality we should admit. Likewise if they're about catering to popular tastes. If they're about something else, though, if they're about being places of social quiet, about research and discovery, about interior liveliness and timeless excellence, then we ought to strive for that, and not tout as success what is in fact an afterthought.

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.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

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.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

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.

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.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Word Power, II: What's In A Name?

Fourteen years ago, a teacher told me that he didn't share his father's given name because his father wanted him to be unique. A few weeks ago, someone expressed this same sentiment and what once seemed true now seems to me rather ridiculous. Not that I mind either the seriousness of purpose or the liberal gesture, of course. Far from. In fact, it refreshes me to hear someone express care over the use of words, having as much respect as I do for words. There are, however, distinctions we must make, namely between care and superstition, and between naming inanimate objects and naming people.

Using words with precision is a virtue of both intellect and communication. Whatever suspicions our ancient forbearers may have harbored, we do not in fact control things by naming them. It would be an improvement to say that we taxonomize them.  This is surely not news. The burden is simply on us to categorize with care, and so we without much trepidation call something a com-puter because it seems to think, or a library because it holds books. Naming people, though, is a different matter.

It's a curious and persistently illiberal fact of life that we don't get to choose our names. We might avoid the fact, but our given name always retains a certain authority over us. Nicknames and abbreviations let us pretend, yet it's not what we're called by any old person or even ourselves but rather what we were named which, in some inescapable way, makes us.

So we're named, but do we really think we impute qualities to a child when we name him? Probably not, though we'd like to and we try. When you name a child after someone you hope they turn out like their namesake, the cause of their name, but we know that their name assures nothing. Naming your daughter Iris won't give her a penchant for flowers and rainbows any more than naming your son Benito will turn him into a fascist. Nonetheless, names retain identities, some with which we identify and others by which we are repulsed, and we name people (curious how serious the act sounds when defined) based on what we believe and what we hope for them.

Obtuse hopes aside, though, if you think giving own name to your child will confine him to a life of carrying the cherished hopes and expectations of his parents, perish the thought!, why not give him a wholly different name? Why is being half unique just right? Should you research your family tree to make sure no one ever had that name? Won't you eventually run out of names? Also, since many people who are not related nonetheless share a name by chance, why not make up a new name ex nihilo? Is it better deliberately to avoid naming your child after yourself and, to no purpose let him end up with the same name as a stranger, rather than find someone after whom to name him?

It's a liberal sentiment, that in giving him a "free" name you'll pass down liberty to your child, but it's also futile. If we want to pass on an idea, we need pass on not a blank slate, but that which is meaningful.