Saturday, September 23, 2017

Of Dullards and Dotards


“Rocket-Man versus The Dotard”:  it sounds like one of those wrestling events that The Donald used to impresario.   And it has elevated the fine old word dotard, which goes back as far as Chaucer,  into the flickering limelight of public attention.  To explain the word  were needless, as there is a nice summary here:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/09/21/a-short-history-of-the-word-dotard-which-north-korea-called-trump/?hpid=hp_no-name_hp-in-the-news%3Apage%2Fin-the-news&utm_term=.d98bc93683c2

Note:  The word is sounded with a long "o":  DOTE-erd, almost rhyming with goat-herd.  Likewise the related word meaning 'senility', dotage.

But what younger readers may not realize (younger, that is, than four hundred years)  is that such spicy language on the public stage  is by no means an innovation.  For centuries, it has been the practice of controversialists   to belabor their opponents with colorful and inventive epithets.   Shakespeare’s plays well illustrate this.   Yet such slanging was not the province merely of playwrights and pamphleteers:  so sober a figure as Sir Thomas More, early sixteenth-century author and statesman (and ultimately martyr), and the subject of adulatory treatment in “A Man for All Seasons”,  whom no less than C. S. Lewis declared "a man before whom  the best of us must stand uncovered",  was a master of the genre.  His writings

… are by no means free from the scurrility which is characteristic of that age of controversy.  His opponents are “swine”, “hell-hounds that the devil hath in his kennel”, “apes that dance for the pleasure of Lucifer”, and so on.
-- The Cambridge History of English Literature, volume III: Renascence and Reformation (1908), p. 17.

Apes that dance, while Satan applauds!  If only Kim the Lesser had thought of that one!



As it is, this recent use of dotard  likely tumbled out of some old-fashioned Korean-English dictionary, rather than springing from the pen of any antiquarian Pyongyang polemicist.   Nonetheless, we applaud the momentary return to the scene, of this roguish old tatterdemalion vocable.

~

Despite the hoopla, dotard isn’t really so rara an avis as all that;  it should be familiar to anyone well-read.   Much more puzzling to American readers was the word wazzock, deployed back in 2012  against then-Presidential-candidate Mitt the Twit (to use another Britishism) after his lamentable junket to England.  You can read all about the word, and the episode, here:

     Word of the Day: “Wazzock”




And, for more on the variegated vocabulary of our present POTUS, this:


 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Autumnal Equinox


All summer long  we lay at ease
adrift  amid  the daffodils;
by dawn refreshed, and evening breeze,
the while  the Sun  the sky-dome fills.

Yet now behold,  the face of Day
confronted is  with that of Night.
And each upholds  its war-array:
there, of Darkness;  here, of Light.


Stark at noon  the balance stands;
th’ assailants are  of equal strength.
Yet mark how,  as each day  extends
it fades,  and lapses  in its length!

How too encroaches  on the brink
of twilight, when the birds seek rest,
the swarthy foe who smears his ink
alike on cloud-banks, and on nest.

Thus ever did the Gods contend;
thus e’er, the Giants  whirl the wheel
of Ragnarok, while sinews rend;
until at length -- the Noon must kneel.

Soon groan the lands ‘neath Winter’s torment;
in dark  the linnets  cease to sing.
Yet grant Lord, though the fields like dormant,
that from our ash,  may spring -- the Spring!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Adventures in Juvenile Lexicography


Katherine Nelson, in Keith Nelson, ed., Children’s Language (1978), p. 66,  offered the following glimpse into the orismological instincts of budding lexicographers.  Asked a “What is it?” question about the word tiger (“a large, fierce, flesh-eating animal (Panthera tigris)…” to you and me), the tots responded:

(1) “at the zoo”
(2) “animal”
(3) “it’s like a lion:
(4) “lives in the jungle and runs a lot”
(5) “animal with stripes and it eats a lot of things”
(6) “to run”
(7) “someone growls”
(8) “hair on its head”

I then polled our son (aet. su. 4 years,  3 months), who offered this:

   “It’s something that is big, and it eats people, and it runs around in the jungle.”

His assessment of her other examples:

apple: “it’s juicy; it’s big; it’s round”

car:  “Something that’s big, and not so tall -- it’s this tall [shows with his arms];  it can kill someone that stays in front of it, if it’s moving.”

coat: “It’s something that keeps you warm, is big and sort of smooth, and has little furry stuff”  [Note:  Our family was at that time facing an Edmonton winter]

bed:  “It has legs, or doesn’t, and it has a pillow, and it stands up on its posts”.
[Note: That first idea in the definiens, at once oddly precise and maddeningly vague, probably meant:  “Prototypically a bed has legs (the ones you see in books), but ours doesn’t” -- the family, indeed, then in exile and furniture-poor, slept on a mattress on the floor.]


Striking  is this repeated note of ‘big’, present in every definition except the last:  extending even to the humble apple -- even a baby is bigger than an apple, let alone a robust four-year-old.   But in light of the lad’s subsequent specialization in differential geometry, an explanatory hypothesis presents itself.  What may well have struck him was the apple’s unabashed convexity -- round, not like a thin dime, but round all around:  having everywhere positive and (roughly) constant Riemannian curvature, as he would no doubt rephrase the definition upon more mature reflection.  Such an apperception of an apple was indeed the Eureka moment of the founder of differential geometry, Carl Friedrich Gauss, as depicted in the movie “Die Vermessung der Welt”.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sad Hamster


The notion of some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing




Rules of Evidence


Farther back than Iago, or than those who slandered A’ishah (the Prophet’s denunciation of whom  constitutes the longest of the Ahâdîth), stands, or rather skulks, the figure of the Calumniator:  impugning the reputation of a faithful lover, to break up a union.   The question of motive is something of a mystery.

A comparatively innocent instantiation was the 1960 song “Staying In”, sung with teenage angst but on a gently rocking rhythm

I punched my buddy in the nose after lunch.
Now I'm in trouble 'cause the dean saw the punch
He was tellin' things that were not true about her
So I let him have it in the:  cafeteri-a.

Now I'm stayin' in,   stayin' in
Now my baby's walkin' home with him.
They passed my window hand-in-hand just then
But what can I do? 'cause I'm stayin' in.

If she just knew what that son-of-a-gun said
I know she wouldn't   be caught    with him dead
She don't know what he has got up his sleeve
But she would find out if I could only leave

By 1963, the tone was less Galahadean, and meaner: “My Boyfriend’s Back”.  A girl sneers with Schadenfreude at the thrashing her calumniator will soon receive:

You’ve been telling lies   that I was un-true-hoo.
Well look out now,  ‘cause he’s coming after you-hoo!

The rhythm here is relentless, four-on-four, like a sledgehammer, or a fist on a face.

Antedating these is a gem from that vintage year of 1959: "My Heart is an Open Book".

Some jealous so-and-so
wants us to  part
That’s why he’s telling you
that I’ve got -- a cheating heart.

Don’t  - be - lieve !
All   -  those - lies !
Dar-ling just be-  lieve your eyes, and

Look;
Look;
My heart is an  op-en book.
I:
love:
No-bod-y  but : You.

It is difficult to convey, in mere print (however much we fiddle with the formatting), the plain candor, the openness, conveyed by this song.   He does not argue the matter, but lets himself be read:  like Jesus in the oleographs, pointing to a glowing heart within his chest.
The music too reflects this simplicity, though in an antisymmetric way.   A chirpy girl-choir accompaniment  trips lightly up the scale, like cherubs on the stairway to heaven:  “Tootle-e-tootle-e-tootle-e-TOOT!”;  while on the key pleading, containing the whole of the singer’s epistemology, his voice descends, unhurriedly,

            Dar-
                ling
                   just
                       be-
                         lieve
                            your
                                eyes

like Plato descending the steps in the “School of Athens”.

~

To return:   For most crimes, whether pecuniary or violent, the payoff for the perpetrator is manifest.  But what could motivate the Calumniator? In the “Staying In” case, apparently bare rivalry: the calumniator wants the same girl (thou one suspects that a relationship cadged by such means  will be unstable).  But that is not the case with Iago, nor with the “so-and-so” here.   No self-interest is readily discernable;  the motivation appears to be actually Satanic.
Or, perhaps, there are unconscious motivations.   To expend your envy, you can do something as simple as keying the guy’s Jaguar.   But here, crucially, the goal is not so much to injure the Envied One in his person, as to deprive him of an amour:  thus incidentally (in fantasy) placing him back in play…  But such spelunking we leave to the Viennese alienist.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Dueling Epigrams


Clashing stances re noögenesis:

   Materialist:   Mind is an emergent property of the  brain.
   Theist:   Mind is an emergent property of the  soul.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Sigmund Freud: R.I.P.?


The writings of Frederick Crews  have delighted me  ever since I was in Junior High, when The Pooh Perplex came out in 1963.  It gave me not just delight, but lasting literary influence (cf. our posts labeled sotie or pastiche).  Then later, essays collected in Skeptical Engagements and The Critics Bear It Away.     I have not especially followed his evolution from Freud-embracer to Freud-basher,  but it is a notable trajectory, and (being self-critical) is at the very least  entitled to a certain respect.

And now, after long incubation, he has just published a book which … the world was not exactly waiting for, holding its breath:  Freud: The Making of an Illusion.  It replows, and resows -- nay, re-salts -- old ground.   In a front-page review in the current New York Times Book Review, George Prochnik poses the inevitable question:

Crews has been debunking Freud’s scientific pretensions for decades now;  and it seems fair to ask what keeps driving him back  to stab the corpse again.

The most creditable answer would be that, if the case to be made is important, it is worth doing in full, taking into account new developments:  No-one questions when, say, a classic biology text or physics text  is given further editions.   Yet that doesn’t seem to be all that is going on in this case (cf. Chomsky, Freud, and the Problem of Acolytes).

~

Prochnik’s review is workmanlike, with several well-put observations; but Louis Menand’s essay in the current New Yorker, taking off from the same publication, is magisterial.  We’ll not go over any of his widely-informed insights, since the essay is well worth reading in full;  but only address a couple of points that pursue the theme, “Freudianizing the (anti-)Freudians”.
Menand too sees this new volume as something other than an updated and sturdier consolidation and regimentation  of arguments made reasonably well before:

His criticism of Freud is relentless to the point of monomania.

Menand then applies his magnifying glass to that vexed and vexatious bone of contention, Freud’s relations with Minna Bernays.

Crews imagines assignations in the family home in Vienna as well.  He notes that Minna’s bedroom was in a far corner of the house, meaning that “the nocturnal Sigmund could have visited it with impunity in predawn hours.”  Could he have?  Apparently.  … Did he, in fact?  No one knows.  So why fantasize about it?  A Freudian would suspect that there is something going on here.

As Menand here implicitly concedes, that sort of psychological second-guessing of possibly unconscious motives, in which he himself has just indulged, is rightly reckoned to the legacy of the Viennese master;  and is a permanent Errungenschaft of our cognitive culture, slate ye the master howsoever ye may.

~

Now we ourselves, in turn, shall get down on the intricate Persian carpet with our magnifying glass,  searching such fragments of analytic tobacco as might be telling, now not for Freud nor for his critic Crews, but for the meta-critic Menand. 

That salacious item from the gossip pages of history is one in which neither Menand (avowedly) nor I  have any particular interest.   But, oddly, amidst an exemplary essay, Menand now drops the logical ball.  In the very next paragraph, he reports:

Some Freud scholar floated the suggestion that  since Minna’s bedroom was next to Freud and Martha’s, there would have been few opportunities for hanky-panky.

So:  diametrically opposite assertions about the floorplan.   Yet Menand in his own words presents the contradictory assertions with idioms that, linguistically, are “factives”:  that is, they presuppose the truth of their predicate.   “He notes that (X)” and “Since (not-X)”.   Odd, from such a careful stylist.

And now let us wiggle the scalpel a bit, under the skin.
On page 79 of the magazine, Menand refers to a well-known doctrine of Freud, call it P (und den wir nicht nennen, daß wir selbst nicht angepöbelt werden; siehe aber dies, das, und jenes.)   Now, P may well be false, for all we know;  or, true only to a limited extent.   But Menand goes farther, calling it

patently absurd

Absurd is a very strong epithet.  A hypothesis may be provably, definitively false -- as, say, that of the postulated primality of Fermat numbers -- without ever have been absurd, even in retrospect.  And, patently absurd -- scarcely any proposition once held as true by some community, in context, can justifiably be called that:  Not astrology, not the ether, not the geocentric theory, nor even the flat earth.  Our Freudian-Sherlockian thus here arches a brow.  (Actually I suspect that Menand’s protest-too-much formulation here  does not reveal anything unsuspected about his own unconscious, but merely reflects the pressure of political correctness.   Likewise the nervous parenthetical qualifier “justifiably” on page 78.)

So, Freud, R.I.P.  Requiescat in pace?  No, they will not let him rest in peace.
Resurrexit in potentiâ?   Possibly.