Monday, February 29, 2016

Pop ! goes the Positivist

 [This is a continuation of a thread begun here.]

Another example of fetishizing the visible (cf. now also this)  occurs in Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations: the Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1962; page refs. to the Harper paperback reprint), p. 284:

In the last pages of Testability, Carnap discussed the sentence ‘If all minds should disappear from the universe, the stars would still go on in their courses.’  Lewis and Schlick asserted, correctly, that this sentence was not verifiable.

They so asserted incorrectly.  After all, we have a pretty good handle on those stars in their courses, beginning from not long after the Big Bang  through the present, during most of which there were no human minds.

And here’s a simpler experiment:  Let’s all just refrain from observing the moon for the next two weeks.  Now we open our eyes.  Surpri-ise!  Right where we expected to find it, and at a phase two weeks more mature than when we last checked (rather than the phase as last seen).

One occasionally observes a very young child shut her eyes and announce in a sing-song: “Youuu ca-han’t seee mee….!”  I doubt the child actually believes that, it’s just fun to say.  But suppose she did. She is then entertaining an erroneous optical theory, but not an erroneous ontological one.  She imagines that the lights went out for you as well; but she never entertains the thought that you yourself have been extinguished, or been transfixed into some mute deaf motionless limbo until such time as she shall be pleased to gaze again – after all, she has just shown this, by addressing you.

Incidentally, the whole Schlick-shop with its merry/morose band of logical positivists, appear to have created enormous problems for themselves, and come up with completely counter-intuitive results, from the basic motivation of wishing to exclude all metaphysical propositions from the outset as strictly meaningless.   (The story here is in line with our overarching defense of theism.)  In other words, it wasn’t enough to denounce as wholly unconvincing,  all purported metaphysical statements hitherto; nor to brand it a particularly uninteresting language-game; nor to marginalize the enterprise with the derision usually reserved for circle-squarers.  Metaphysics as such, and for all time, had to have a stake driven through its heart, the stake itself consisting in pure reasoning from selbstverständlich  (metaphysically a-priori? God-given? -- oops, NOT) first principles.  For a demonstration of the absurdities that apparently resulted, cf. Popper, passim.  As (p. 281, op.cit.)

My criticism of the verifiability criterion has always been this: against the intention of its defenders, it did not exclude obvious metaphysical statements, but it did exclude the most important … of all scientific statements … the universal laws of nature.

Why even go near such a disaster, for the sake of excluding-in-principle all metaphysical statements – which they were ignoring anyway?  Popper goes so far as to hazard a guess in a footnote to p. 175:  “One not need believe in the ‘scientific’ character of psycho-analysis (which, I think, is in a metaphysical phase) in order to diagnose the anti-metaphysical fervour of positivism as a form of Father-killing.”  (Note, b.t.w., the capital initial of “Father”.)


Since we were obliged, a moment ago, to deprecate Popper, let us hasten to another example, in which we find him on the side of the angels.  First let us note:

             * Our conduct is guided by moral laws.
             * Our scientific activity is guided by metaphysical principles.
             * Both categories are philosophically vexed, and any concrete application of these laws and principles may prove problematic; but we cannot do without them.

            Here is Popper (p. 287) characterizing the logical positivists: “They implicitly accept the rule: ‘Always chose the most probable hypothesis!’  He goes on:

Now it can be easily shown that this rule is equivalent to…’Always choose the hypothesis which goes as little beyond the evidence as possible!’  And this, in turn [amounts to] ‘Always choose the hypothesis which has the highest degree of ad hoc character!’

an undesirable result for science.   (Cf. Chomsky, passim, re the extraordinarily abstract and roundabout way you may have to proceed  to get valid results, by no means simply tip-toeing a bit beyond “the evidence”.)

            The principles which we require instead  may be best illustrated by an old joke (presented here in a slightly revised form):

     A zoologist, a mathematician, and a positivist  are touring the hinterlands of Bohemia by train.  Through the window they spot, standing motionless at some distance, a purple cow.
     “Fancy that!” exclaims the zoologist. “There are purple cows in Bohemia.”
     The mathematician, in a low voice, amends: “There is at least one purple cow in Bohemia.”
     The positivist, raising his finger, crisply corrects to:  “In Bohemia there is at least one cow, purple on one side.”

            The joke is that the positivist has the most precise view of the evidence; and of the three statements, only his own is certainly true (interpreting an unmodified “purple cow” in the natural way, as “purple more or less all over”); yet his scruples are absurd.  Science would not progress, were it bound by such fragmented literalism.  (Indeed, we should have to replace “cow” with “an apparently bovine organism”, and always assuming that we can rule out a mirage, or a collective hallucination, or some effect of swamp gas; or for that matter an analogue to one of Hilary Putnam’s pet entities, the Mechanical Cat from Mars.)  And we would have to gloss Quine’s celebrated interjection, gavagai!, as possibly:  “Lo, a rabbit-stage, seen from the east.”
(For more on bovine mathematics, see "How Now, Round Cow".)

Note:  Occasionally one meets with such unilateral positivist agnosticism  in a non-jocular context:

Franz Ferdinand rode erect, his visible foot deep in the stirrup, a saber at his side.
-- Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts (1993), p. xxvi


To move from this to an outlook useful for science, we need these metaphysical principles:
   (1) a certain uniformity or self-cohesion to nature
   (2) the reliability (not in a logical, but in a practical sense) of induction.

(There are others, of course, such as the usefulness of deduction;  but that applies in every world, not just in this contingent one.)

            Now, both these principles are of vexed and delicate application; as are, indeed, the Commandments.   Just as it is difficult to avoid situation ethics, I see no way around a kind of “situation metaphysics”.   The zoologist, using these principles, together with his discipline-specific knowledge (to the effect that animals generally come in species, not as singletons), concludes the presence of purple cows.  But here I must side with the formulation of the mathematician: there is at least one such cow, but perhaps no more.  For, nature’s uniformity depends on the domain.  Were an experiment ever to identify, say, a Higgs boson, we should conclude the existence of an emphatic plurality of Higgs bosons; that there should only be one in the universe, is inconceivable.  But biology is more mottled than that.  Given our collective prior acquaintance with hundreds of thousands of cows, none of which was ever purple, we would hypothesize here an extremely rare mutation for (bilateral) purple (bilateral because bilaterally symmetric animals generally continue to evolve with bilateral symmetry, pace the occasional narwhal).  Since a cow delivers but a single calf at a time, this one has no identical siblings, so it is probably unique.  Moreover, the bulls will likely shun her for her color, and she shall have no offspring.  The mutation dies with her.

Carnap attempts to avoid the assumption of a metaphysical principle, by declaring (1) to be “analytic” (i.e., more like “2+2 = 4” than like “animals tend to come in species” or “each elementary particle is invariable within its class”).  Popper comments (p.289) that “no such principle of uniformity can be analytic (except in a Pickwickian sense of ‘analytic’)."  In fact, we noticed, the principle is nothing remotely like analytic, having always constraints on its application, which in some domains may be severe.  And as for (2), I concur with Popper (p.292) that it is “a principle of a priori metaphysics.”  And none the worse for that.

[For further notes on ineluctable metaphysical underpinnings of the scientific enterprise, see here.]

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Neo-Cons avant la lettre

(Part of a continuing series of illustrative precedents  for phenomena that, to present citizens, might seem relatively new-hatched.)

Of the old reformers, only one was an active cynic, Charles A. Dana of The Sun.  Dana, for whom Brook Farm [ndlr: 19th-c. forerunner of the hippie communes of the 1960s ff.] had once been the hope of the world, was the enemy, in days to come, of all it stood for:  he ridiculed civil-service reform, opposed the control of monopolies, fought for high tariffs  and huge land-grants for railroads. … Dana alone, of the disillusioned farmers [i.e., the mostly intellectual participants in the Brook Farm experiment] seemed to take a bitter joy in reversing his former convictions.
-- Van Wyck Brooks,  New England:  Indian Summer (1940), p. 121

Sister’s monostich

~  a shaft of sunshine   shimmering through the pines  ~

[From the journal of Alice James, sister of William James plus some other guy.
Van Wyck Brooks comments (in New England: Indian Summer):  “Her journal revealed a literary gift  as marked  in its way  as that of her father and brothers.”]

Gray companions (on the back deck)

A junco,
and a squirrel,

each gray above
and white beneath,

maintaining a respectful inter-distance,
separately pecking  at the seed we have strewn.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Proto-Buffy

WDJ’s Department of American Incunabula  reports:

Hawthorne’s American notebooks from the mid-1840s  contain many brief notes for possible future stories, most of which he never got around to writing.  One such item he handed over to Longfellow, who turned it into the epic poem “Evangeline”.  Another fragment had to wait longer for its eventual embodiment:

To contrive a story of a man building a house, and locating it over the pit of Acheron.  The breath of hell shall breathe up from the furnace that warms it, and over which Satan himself shall preside.  Devils and damned souls  shall continually be rising through the registers.  Possibly an angel may now and then peep through the ventilators.

And thus it came to pass, that in our own day and age, a prophet named Josh Whedon did chance upon that manuscript;  and thus was Sunnydale, and Buffy, born.


An hideous hole all vast, withouten shape,
Of endless depth, o'erwhelm'd with ragged stone,
With ugly mouth and grisly jaws doth gape,
And to our sight confounds itself in one.
Here enter'd we, and yeding forth, anon
An horrible loathly lake we might discern,
As black as pitch, that clepèd is Averne.
-- Th. Sackville, “Induction”

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

In search of “The Unpardonable Sin”

I’ve been delving into nineteenth-century English-language literature, in particular (at present) Hardy and Hawthorne;  and in the latter’s story “Ethan Brand” (original title: “The Unpardonable Sin”), happened upon this:

… Ethan Brand’s solitary and meditative life, before he began his search for the Unpardonable Sin.

That brought me up short.  For I once published a novel -- generically, Detective Fiction -- whose undercurrent is that very theme:

Hawthorne describes such putative sin  to be such as is “beyond the scope of Heaven’s else infinite mercy”.   So far, so good.
He also states that “Ethan Brand … had conversed with Satan”.    Bad.  But then, detective Michael Murphy has (initially, unwittingly) several times had Satan (or one of that fallen angel’s emissaries) as a client in a case.

But then, this:

Ethan Brand became a fiend … he had produced the Unpardonable Sin!
“What more have I to seek?  what more to achieve?” said Ethan Brand to himself.  “My task is done, and well done!”


At that, Ethan Brand (Nicht gedacht  soll seiner werden) cast himself into the furnace (a perfect instance of how, in C.S.Lewis’ theory, the obstinate  do indeed  wind up in the Pit).
So, a motivation quite different from that, of the Christian sinner Murphy.

It is perhaps wise, not to inquire too nicely  into the meaning of Hawthorne’s tale.  I shut the book, and sain myself, and there’s an end to it.


Hawthorne’s American notebooks from the mid-1840s  contain many brief notes for possible future stories, most of which never got written.  Here are the germs of the story at hand:

The search of an investigator for the Unpardonable Sin -- he at last finds it in his own heart and practice.

The Unpardonable Sin might consist in a want of love and reverence for the human Soul;  in consequence of which  the investigator pried into its dark depths, not with a hope or purpose of making it better, but from a cold philosophical curiosity -- content that it should be wicked in whatever kind or degree, and only desiring to study it out.  Would not this, in other words, be the separation of the intellect from the heart?


[Personal footnote]  I once studied under a professor of linguistics  -- CJF, or informally “Chuck” -- a gentle man, in all ways inoffensive,  who, as an adult, to signal a conclusive break with his fundamentalist upbringing, did one day “curse the Holy Ghost”, by way of committing the Unpardonable Sin. 
So he confided to me, in his office.   I mention it now, for the first time, only because he has by now slipped off the mortal coil, awaiting his reward.   The which, I pray, and indeed believe, shall be that of those, who never did blaspheme.   It is not so easy as all that, Professor, to baffle God’s infinite mercy (and sense of proportion)!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016


With sad pace creeping,  dull,   as doth
along the bough   the nerveless sloth.
-- Herman Melville, Clarel (1876)

Yo, jus’ hangin’ out … 


Like a duck in thunder (II)

Recently I had occasion to seek the origin and meaning of the phrase (in full) “like a dying duck in a thunderstorm”.   If you google that phrase, you’ll find plenty -- mostly pages and pages of ill-informed and inconclusive forum-discussion;  even if an authoritative answer lies buried there somewhere, it is not worth one’s while to sift through the debris.

So here is the entry from a standard reference-work, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, by Eric Partridge (first edition 1937; many subsequent updates), in its entirety:

To have a ludicrously forlorn, hopeless, and helpless appearance :  coll., orig. rural:  from ca. 1850 (Ware).

Now, as it happens, we can antedate that date;  and this, in a lexicographically most interesting way:  not with a simple antecedent Erstbeleg, but something more powerful though more roundabout.


Back when I was an editor at Merriam-Webster dictionaries, I had full responsibility for the two technical disciplines of Etymology and of Pronunciation, but none at all for the company’s meat and drink, which was defining;  let alone for deciding which new words were to be entered in the flagship Collegiate ™ dictionary, which was lightly revised each year, and wholly reedited each decade.  That privilege fell to the Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Mish -- an intelligent and well-educated man, and not without a certain wry humor;  but as regards the humors, he rather took after his atrabilious and phlegmatic predecessor, Doctor Johnson, whose sour frowning portrait hung over his desk, exactly matching the successor’s habitual mood.  I used to despair at the chef-rédacteur’s obstinate sluggishness against admitting culturally key new words -- they’d make it in eventually, but only after the kairos had long passed -- and occasionally would champion some one particular word for inclusion, loading the files with attestations for the definer to refer to next time around.
One such, at the height of Gorbachev, was glasnost.   Many were the citations I supplied, to no avail.  However (one might argue) you can always pile up stats for some particular term, no matter how specialized, by drawing from specialized sources:  which would prove nothing.  The Collegiate is not for the specialist, but for the general educated public;  and glasnost is, after all, in origin  Russian:  the Collegiate is quite rightly chary of letting in too many foreign terms (like Erstbeleg -- common in the lexicographic literature, but unknown outside it).  So, how to show that the word had passed into English common currency?
In support of the suggestion that glasnost be included, I submitted slips attesting such derivata as glasnostic, with fully English morphology (and phonology:  the stress shifts to another vowel, which additionally is detensed).  Now, that was a nonce form, unworthy of inclusion on its own;  but it did witness the fact that, by then, glasnost had already passed into the everyday Wortschatz of American English, for a confection like “glasnostic” presupposes the antecedent currency of the base.


And so, back to our duck.

Consider the following passage from Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit:

‘What,’ he asked of Mr Pecksniff, happening to catch his eye in its descent;  for until now  it had been piously upraised, with something of that expression which the poetry of ages has attributed to a domestic bird, when breathing its last amid the ravages of an electric storm

Now,  this circumlocuitous, scarcely lapidary, obscure expression, is (as the annotator notes, in the Penguin edition) nothing more nor less than a winking allusion to the set expression (alliterative, assonant, and striking in its imagery) a dying duck in a thunderstorm.  Moreover, the allusion could not possibly work unless that expression were antecedently quite familiar to the reader, since -- much more than the morphological presupposition of glasnost by glasnostic-- there is a significant gap (lexical, though not semantic) between the original and the pastiche.   The case is often to be met with in literature -- more usually in a droll setting, as here, though we do find  “like the cat in the adage” in MacBeth, an allusion  (one requiring rather a lot of the groundlings, one should have thought) to the Latin catus amat piscis, sed non vult tingere plantas (a cat likes fish, but doesn’t like to get its paws wet).

The key point here is that the first half of Martin Chuzzlewit  (where our passage appears) was initially serialized  in 1843,  thus antedating the Ware/Partridge date.  And if the proverb had occurred literatim, it would antedate matters no further.  But as it stands, we can deduce that the adage was already in wide circulation among Dickens’ anticipated readership, well before 1843:  else he could not have counted on them to get the reference:  and without that, the passage falls flat.

[Psychostylistic footnote]  It is the very paradoxical absurdity of the original adage, that tempts Dickens to toy with it.  For after all, ducks do just fine in thunderstorms, much better than do squirrels (or the proverbial “drowned rat”) -- rain being, as the expression has it, “nice weather for ducks”.   In just such a fashion does Wodehouse (through his character Bertie Wooster) play, in novel after novel, with the speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that ends “like quills upon the fretful porpentine”.  Or, at a humbler level, such dimestore wit as hasta la pasta (for hasta la vista).
(For our own discourse upon said porpentine, click here.)

For final proof, if proof be needed, this witness from Washington Irving’s fine finger-exercise of a story of 1824, “The Stout Gentleman”:

Rain pattered against the casements.  … There were several half-drowned fowls crowded together under a cart, among which was a miserable cristfallen cock … Everything was comfortless and forlorn, excepting a crew of hardened ducks, assembled like boon companions round a puddle, and making a riotous noise over their liquor.
-- Washington Irving, from Tales of a Traveller


Mobystich, v. 6.1

~      ~        ~

two hundred tons of blank immensity     immobile and alone

~      ~        ~

Note:  The reason these things are labeled “versions” is that they are all instantiations of the original Urmobystich or Moby-Archistich.   To wit -- from the chapter called "The Town-Ho's Story" (and no, "Town-Ho" does not mean what you think it means; it's the name of a ship):

~  the appalling beauty  of the vast milky mass ~

 In the spirit of Minimalism, we would not wish to devote more than one single monostich to the subject of Moby Dick;  he himself would wish it no otherwise.     In the ideal Mobystich Acquisition Device, there exists but a single monostich;  yet by Symmetry Breaking, this gets framed differently on different days.   These are, you might say, contextually conditioned mobyphones deriving from a single basic monosticheme.
[For the pronunciation of that last, $500 word, click here:
Once you have mastered it, simply walk into any singles bar
(provided you are single; offer void where prohibited)
and utter those plangent syllables.
Never again need you spend the night alone. ]

Here's lookin' at *yew*,  Ahab !

Bonus:  Meta-Urmobystich.

Melville himself  penned such another,  in one of his poems about the Civil War:

The shark    glides white
through the phosporus sea

On this, Alfred Kazin comments (in An American Procession, 1984):  It certainly breaks up the evening labor wreathed in cigar smoke;  Melville is full of wonderful lines."

Uber-bonus:   For our earlier mobystichs, try these:

Monday, February 22, 2016

P.G. Wodehouse in memoriam (expanded)

I have just finished reading the prolific master’s comparatively little-known but quite wonderful comic novel, Money for Nothing (1928).
Someday  I may have something intelligent to say about this wordsmith magician who pulls rabbit after rabbit out of his fathomless hat,
but for now, the following observation must suffice:
He is both unfailingly wholesome, and (to a degree you do not fully appreciate  till you have lived a while, and beheld the alternative, and seen how, decade after decade, he soldiered on  through it all)  deep-seatedly humane.

Usually he is jolly and joshing, by choice;  but when he wishes, he can conjure up effects out of Wind in the Willows.   As here, describing a pair of young lovers drifting the river:

The Skirme rippled about the boat, chuckling softly to itself.  It was a kindly, thoughtful river, given to chuckling to itself like an old gentleman who likes seeing young people happy.

Many of his characters are -- designedly -- stock figures, recycled from story to story with slight variations.   (Cf. the Commedia dell'arte -- there is no blame in this.)  But Wodehouse can capture the mind’s movements exactly, when so inclined.   A disappointed lover:

‘I hear you’re engaged to Hugo,’ he said, speaking carefully  and spacing the syllables so that they did not run into each other as they showed an inclination to do.

 (A simple-seeming sentence, yet with much art.  A while after reading it, I tried to recall it from memory, but could not fetch up such perfect wording.  All I could think of was “as they seemed inclined to do”, which is not nearly as good.)

Yet later, as she accepts his proposal and offer her hand, the pan-psychism of a benevolent world  springs up anew, now with a touch, not of Willows, but of Mary Poppins:

The garden had learned that dance now.  It was simple once you got the hang of it.  All you had to do, if you were a tree, was to jump up and down, while, if you were a lawn, you just went round and round.   So the trees jumped up and down  and the lawn went round and round, and John stood still in the middle of it all, admiring it.

If a Heaven there be, which I am bound to believe, then I likewise confide, that old P.G. is up there, chuckling with contentment, and playing golf atop the clouds.

Pleased as Plum


When considering writers like Petrarch, a primary consideration is his influence on later authors:  he lives on abundantly, in the works of those unblushing borrowers the Petrarchians.   For Wodehouse, the case is otherwise.  He wrote in a century when, unlike in olden times, great premium was set upon originality.  Furthermore, once he found his voice, he kept doing the same thing over and over -- but so devilishly well, that he formed a sui-generis genre, which none dare ape upon pain of being dismissed as derivative.   So, there is no-one, certainly no prominent writer, who can be called a “Wodehousian”, in anything like the sense that whole passels of poets are Petrarchians.

The thing, then, for those who relish parallels, is to keep an eye out for antedatings of the Wodehousian manner.  After all, he must have derived his distinctive manner from somewhere, unless it were dictated to him directly by Comus (in lieu of the Spiritus Sanctus).   Thus, herewith  some attestations from our own random readings -- foreshadowings of the droll style on which Wodehouse later took out a patent.


Travellers gathered in an inn:

“And was there anything remarkable in her history?”
Never was question more unlucky.  The little Marquis immediately threw himself into the attitude of a man about to tell a long story.  In fact, my uncle had pulled upon himself the whole history of the civil war of the Fronde, in which the beautiful Duchess had played so distinguished a part. 
[some time later]
“… I’ll tell you how it was.  Her father, Henry de Bourbon …”
“But did the Duchess pass the night in the chateau?” said my uncle rather abruptly, terrified at the idea of getting involved in one of the Marquis’s genealogical discussions.
-- Washington Irving ,“The Adventure of my Uncle”, in Tales of a Traveller (1824)

Compare Wodehouse’s recurring character, “The Oldest Member”.


And, from the pen of an American:

A cook she certainly was, in the very bone and centre of her soul.  Not a chicken, or turkey, or duck  in the barnyard, but looked grave when they saw her approaching, and seemed to be reflecting on their latter end.
-- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a serious book;  it is said that Lincoln, upon meeting Mrs Stowe, said, “So you’re the little lady that started a war!”  But here we have a passage that might have wafted over from Castle Blandings.


The first place you’d look, for PGW-parallels, might be Dickens -- the early Dickens of The Pickwick Papers.   Therefore, we shall not fish in so shallow a pond.  But the masterpiece Our Mutual Friend is another mostly rather somber novel; yet even there, one finds snippets that, did they follow the Wodehousian oeuvre, rather than precede it, one might have deemed echos:

When R. Wilfer returned, candlestick in hand, to the bosom of his family, he found the bosom agitated.
-- Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1864-5), ch. 4

Pure Wodehouse:  deniching a word from an idiom wherein it figures in a special sense,  to comic effect.  Even the name, “R. Wilfer”, sounds somehow Wodehousian.

“Inasmuch as every man … appears to be under a fatal spell  which obliges him, sooner or later, to mention the Rocky Mountains  in a tone of extreme familiarity  to some other man, I hope you’ll excuse my pressing you into the service of that gigantic range of geographical bores.”
-- Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1864-5), ch. 6

That passage is not so close to PGW as the other; moreover, is at least as close to any number of other English humorists, some of them from the Dickens era or earlier, others quite modern (Kingsley Amis, Aldous Huxley).   I cite it merely to show how difficult it is   truly to unearth such correspondences.

We ourselves noted a possible (though problematic) Dickens/Wodehouse parallel, in our notes to the previously unpublished fragment:

There we remarked, in a footnote to the recovered text:

(2) boil his head:  Connoisseurs of both authors will here instantly recognize a favorite phrase of Mr P.G. Wodehouse, so strongly influenced by Dickens in point of style.  Yet he cannot actually have read this particular passus, since, as mentioned previously, it was never published before this very day.  Consequently a direct le-style-c’est-l’homme influence of the earlier upon that later novelist, cannot in this instance  be established.
Whether the contavenient influence, of Wodehouse upon Dickens, might be surmised in this case, mediated perhaps by signal-bearing tachyons traveling backwards in time, we must leave to the physicists.

Scholars are divided as to the proper interpretation of this suggested influence -- indeed, as to the status of the resurrected fragment  as a whole.


Earlier than Dickens, indeed:

“The good wine  did its good office.” The frost of etiquette … began to give way … and the formal appellatives with which the dignitaries had hitherto addressed each other, were now familiarly abbreviated in Tully, Bally, and Killie.
-- Sir Walter Scott, Waverley (1814)

Sunday, February 21, 2016

"Ginger Man" monostich

~   Mushrooms  fatten    in the warm September rain   ~

[quarried from:  the 1955 novel by J.P. Donleavy]

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Feet of Clay

The motif of disillusionment via a detail, goes back to the Old Testament:

Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.
This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. (Daniel 2:31-33)

An example from Austria, in the early years of the twentieth century:

Herr Professors were demi-gods  who had deigned to descend from their Mount Olympus  to impart knowledge to that sub-human species in short pants known as Gymnasiasten.  I have never forgotten the shock I experienced when I saw one of my professors eat a ham sandwich during break.
-- George Clare, Last Waltz in Vienna (1980), p. 54

We have examined another such sudden loss of reverence, this time again involving the feet, here:

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

An After-chapter of “The Pelican Brief”

In the aftermath of the assassination untimely demise  of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, conspiracy-theorists are crawling out of the woodworks.    In attempt to get to the bottom of this, the Washington Post assembled a crack panel of legists, detectives, and forensic experts.  Their learnèd conjectures  were all over the map.  Here is a selection:

Possible list of suspects in the assassination of Scalia: 
- Obama 
- Hillary 
- Bill Ayers 
- Vince Foster 
- Greenpeace ninjas 
- Illegal immigrant Mexican Muslims 
- Operation Jade Helm 
- The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad
I'm positive this all ties in with Obama's bungling of Katrina.
Was Dick Cheney in the area ?
It was Valentine's Day, and they were having a Boys Night together to celebrate. Cheney skipped out before his blood alcohol level could be tested, just as he did the last time he tried to kill someone in Texas.
Cheney was taken by black helicopter to the closest Wal-Mart where he entered the secret tunnel system. The entrance is in the aluminum foil section of every Wal-Mart, and the password is "Benghazi!"
I think this country has gotten stuck inside an X-Files episode.
Were any quail seen entering or leaving the inn that night?
On the night of the death Obama was seen waving a bone over a fire and chanting a Kenyan Voo Doo chant.
Colonel Obama with the candlestick from the grassy knoll.
I personally do not believe the Fox News report that Judge Scalia's family opposed an autopsy because the entire family had recently converted to Islam. A cruel lie. And in questionable taste.

But connoisseurs of the Riemann Conspiracy  meet all such wild conjectures  with a tolerant smiles.  The truth lies much, much deeper.
Begin the journey  here.

T. C. Boyle monostich

~  ~    back as the farthest

             wheeling reaches
                        of a sunless     universe  ~  ~

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Constitution

Here, in honor of Presidents' Day -- and of the Founding Fathers generally --
is a list of our essays  that touch upon the question of the Constitution:

“Presidents” Day, 2016

I grew up in a moderate secular home, in a religiously moderate place and time (New Jersey; Eisenhower).   There would be bunting on Main Street on the Fourth of July, and a parade, at which the children might wave little flags -- though these were no more pugnaciously patriotic than banners at our high school football games (the red, white, and blue  passing imperceptibly into “Fight, fight, maroon and white!”).  Columbus Day and Thanksgiving were occasions for teaching schoolchildren some easy bits of American history;  there would be a crèche on the lawn by the town hall at Christmas;  all without arousing controversy.  Patriotism blended inconspicuously into religion, to the benefit of both:  each infused the other with its own better nature;  religion shed some potential sharp edges in that it was aware that it served the whole nation, and patriotism was put in its proper, modest place, as we were reminded that there is something higher than White House or town hall.   That the whole nation (so it seemed) celebrated Christmas (or quietly acquiesced in its celebration), made that holiday itself both less and more than specifically religious.   It was, if we may so phrase it, political but not politicized -- a symbol of the collective reverent well-being of the polity.   And (by duality), occasions like Washington’s Birthday or Columbus Day, though amenable to tub-thumping if you were so inclined, still partook of a certain prayerfulness, as though we were acknowledging secular saints.
Prayer itself, in those days, was by no means excluded from the public square, nor from our public schools.    Group recital of the Lord’s Prayer was like a mini-holiday within each schoolday, as we bowed our heads and joined our hands -- and were permanently the better for it.    (Coming personally from an utterly unchurched background, I yet never felt this as any sort of imposition.  Rather, it was a welcome window upon an aspect of life shared by a majority of the townspeople, and from which I felt otherwise uncomfortably excluded. )

Now all that lies in ruins, undermined  in part  by identity-politics of increasing stridency, in ways all too familiar, that need not be here rehearsed (consult our essay, Happy Sacagawea Day), in part by mere indifference or convenience.   Latterly, such Presidents as Princetonian Woodrow Wilson, or ten-dollar Alexander Hamilton, are under attack from sectarians -- and on grounds, that would apply equally to Washington and (yes even) Lincoln, or almost anyone of consequence that you might name.   And the campaign race for that sadly tarnished office, has become ever more feral.  Come time, the holiday itself may be buried, along with Columbus Day, to be replaced, perhaps, by Subaltern Day.

The snare of convenience we may observe in that subtly poisoned chalice, the Monday Holiday Bill. 
Now, in origin, the word holiday means ‘holy day’, and not simply a day off, or an opportunity to get bargains at WalMart on flat-screen TVs.   The days on which these were to be observed  were based either on fact (Fourth of July) or on tradition (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter).  And the most important ones still retain these roots.  But the second tier now gets shunted to Mondays.  Mind you, I enjoy a three-day weekend like anyone else;  just pointing out that something was lost when we decided, as a nation, to “reschedule”.   We went from “Washington’s Birthday” to “Washington’s Birthday (Observed)” to … Washington’s Birthday (Forgotten).
The final blow to this last  was when it was folded in with Lincoln’s Birthday  to re-emerge as the entirely bland and meaningless “Presidents” Day, on which we observe the mighty accomplishments of such leaders as Millard Fillmore and Rutherford B. Hayes…  

In this age when the top P.C. priority is to shun controversy and offend no-one, it is easy to forget that neither Washington’s Birthday  nor Lincoln’s Birthday  were  in origin  blandly celebratory or pro-forma.    They did not commemorate these men as merely persons --  both Washington and Lincoln were, in their own day   and for some time thereafter, subjected to such scurrilous abuse as makes the Birthers’ razzing of Obama seem mild by comparison.  Their contingently quirky personalities were not at issue -- this was not Oprah, this was not People magazine -- rather, they each represented a principle.   Those holidays in fact commemorated violent events of rebellion, one of which gave birth to the nation, while the other (by bloody surgery) prevented its death.   So far from being apple-pie-and-motherhood, these were principles, and drastic remedies, which anyone might well oppose, and many did:  at the time of the rebellion against our Colonial master, about a third of Americans supported the insurrection, a third were opposed, and a third sat on the fence;  and the Civil War split us cleanly down the middle.

Washington, we salute you.  Lincoln, we salute you.  Aye, and Columbus as well -- without whose bold adventure, your service might never have come to pass.


[Update 15 February 2016]


Sunday, February 14, 2016

John Adams monostich

~  "For fifty years   he rose before the sun."  ~

Phrase of the Day: “I’m from Missouri”

Throughout most of my lifetime,  the American two-party system has met little serious challenge.  (“Third parties are like bees:  they sting, and then they die.”)  That hasn’t yet really changed (anyone seen the Tea Party of late?):  even the floridly contrarian candidates Trump and Sanders  chose a major-party banner to run under (or in Trump’s case, perhaps to trample underfoot).   Yet the public mood is indeed evolving -- souring, mostly -- even if not in a way that so far has managed to embody itself in an organized party with a positive platform.  The movement is essentially negative, or rather a congeries of semi-related negatives.

The phenomenon is not unexampled in our nation’s history.  In the early years of the nineteenth century, Andrew Jackson came, for a time, to be the seed around which contrarian sentiments nucleated:

Jacksonianism was … a “persuasion”, a set of attitudes  united by little save discontent.
-- Wilson McWilliams, The Idea of Fraternity in America (1973)

A prominent feature of the present mood, is simply not believing what the government tells you (nor indeed anyone perceived as somehow working for the government, such as climate scientists).   And alas there has been much matter, indicative of the wisdom of examining their statements from this angle and that, and reserving judgment --  though surely politicians are no more egregiously peccant in this respect, than beleaguered generals, gossipy neighbors, ex-wives, and anyone trying to sell you something.

Again we notice widespread nineteenth-century precedents:

Missouri's nickname is The Show Me State. There are several stories concerning the origin of the "Show Me" slogan. The most widely known story gives credit to Missouri's U.S. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver for coining the phrase in 1899. During a speech in Philadelphia, he said:
"I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me."

(Melville features a relatively hard to bamboozle character called the “Man from Missouri”  in his enigmatic 1857 sotie The Confidence Man.)
So far as that goes, it is an expression of healthy skepticism.   The implication is that the speaker is open to being shown, given well-marshalled evidence.

A rung lower than this, this classic expression of popular disbelief:

“Sez you” became the cry of millions.
-- D. W. Brogan, The American Character (1944), p. 92

(Mostly among men.   For women, a couple of generations later, the catchphrase was a less chin-out pugnacious, but even more utterly dismissive “What-ev-vahh…”)

Or again, the Studs Lonigans of the day:

He may fall back on “Oh, yeah” or the more adequate “however you slice it, it’s still baloney.”
-- D. W. Brogan, The American Character (1944), p. 164

(Cf.  “I say it’s broccoli, and I say the hell with it.”)

Such folks are, unlike the Missourian, not inviting you to “show them” anything;  but in many such cases, attitudes are still subject to change,  not perhaps via reasoned argument, but by such dramatic images as may eventuate.

Rungs below that  is the attitude of systematic belief  that scarcely deserves the name of “skepticism” at all, for it simply does not engage in the practice of evidence-and-argument.  Birthers, alien-abductionists, conspiracy-theorists of various stripes, are no progeny of Diogenes;  and their abstraction from the world of fact  would have baffled Aristotle.


For more on genuine skepticism versus lazy know-nothingism: