Monday, February 28, 2011

French 'Photograffeur' JR

Big Fisher is Watching You
(Image from New York Times)

Literary critic Gaby Wood writes in "Supercolossal Street Art" (February 24, 2011) for the New York Times Magazine of the street-art photographer "JR," a Parisan artist who posts enormous photographs on buildings, wall, embankments, rooftops, wherever a surface sufficiently flat enough presents itself and opportunity accords. He has an interesting method of operations for carrying out his artistic concepts:
His M.O. is to show up in a shantytown in Kenya or a favela in Brazil, a place where some event has been noted in the media and captured his attention, and turn it inside out, photographing the residents, then wrapping their buildings with the results, on a scale so vast that you can see their eyes from the sky. Often he has worked at night, and as soon as he's done, he disappears; so when the installation becomes front-page news, there is no one left to explain it but the people whose voices had not been previously heard.
I can appreciate what JR's out to do -- give voice to the voiceless and all that -- but he runs the risk of treating his subject matter superficially, as his persona might suggest:
JR's style is a little bit Belmondo, a little bit Buddy Holly -- the glasses are Perspex -- and he speaks in the enthusiastic slang of a hip, young Parisian. "C'était ouf!" is how he often describes some exciting or exceptional event -- the punched-in-the-gut exhalation of that last word standing in for anything more precise. "Nickel," short for "nickel-chrome," is applied liberally to mean "great."
But perhaps his aesthetic vision alone suffices. Check out the slide show for the man and some of his art works. Speaking of the man, here's a photo of JR, shot alone with his art:

But who shot JR? A certain wise guy with dead-eye aim, Jonathan de Villiers, hitman this time for the New York Times.

The wonderful pun "photograffeur" is not my own, incidentally, but I wish that I'd coined it . . .

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Canonization of Saint Galileo?

Galileo Galilei (1851)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

I've finished reading John Heilbron's biography of Galileo, which ends on a half-ironic but also half-serious note 'prophesying' sainthood for Galileo, based on the Catholic Church's revaluation of Galileo's 'reform' of scriptural hermeneutics in a way that placed his belief "that human beings can reach truth by the light of reason" above Pope Urban VIII's denial "that humans can recognize truth unaided by revelation," as well as on the treatment of Galileo's bones as 'relics' by various devotees of that man:
It might be objected that Galileo performed no miracles. What then were the miracles of Thomas Aquinas? In fact, Galileo performed a stupendous miracle. He obliterated the ancient distinction between the celestial and terrestrial realms, raised the earth to the heavens, made the planets so many earths, and revealed that our moon is not unique in the universe. Not since creation had there been such a refashioning. Then there was the miracle of himself, a rare combination of talents and personalities, who, despite mania and depression, arthritis, gout, hernias, blindness, and overindulgence in wine and wit, lived to write three books -- the Messenger, the Dialogue, and the Discourse -- any one of which would have given him enduring fame.

According to Galileo's mechanics, the slightest force can move the greatest weight given sufficient time. The direction of motion is clear. Who can doubt that within another 400 years the church will recognize Galileo's divine gifts, atone for his sufferings, ignore his arrogance, and make him a saint? (Heilbron, Galileo, pages 364-365)
Heilbron is a master of irony, so take these remarks with a hefty grain of salt, but there's a pinch of sincerity revealed in his words, properly interpreted with the aid of reason.

This book may facilitate in the irony of that canonization, which has already begun by popular acclaim and artistic endeavor, the latter of which Heilbron perhaps alludes to in observing that Aristodemo Costoli depicts "Galileo as an Old Testament prophet . . . in the Loggia of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence" (Heilbron, Galileo, Plate 16; see also above image).

Note, by the way, that this biography, published in the 400th anniversary year of the publication of the Starry Messenger, ends, appropriately enough for a book dedicated to a man concerned with the motions of the earth, on a page signifying both diurnal and annual motions, namely, page 365.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Kupchan on Democracy in the Middle East

Charles A. Kupchan

In an opinion piece for the New York Times titled "Be Careful What You Wish For" (February 24, 2011), Charles Kupchan offers a cautious reminder on euphoria concerning the revolutions sweeping the Arab world:
Western observers and policy makers had better stop operating under the illusion that the spread of democracy to the Middle East also means the spread of Western values.
Actually, a number of commenters have made this point, but the point is worth making again, and Kupchan expresses succinctly the civilizational difference and historical development that account for his caution:
In the West, modernity has meant the separation of church and state. Christianity is a religion of faith, not law; its outsized influence on European politics during the medieval era stemmed from a longstanding alliance between secular rulers and the Catholic Church. After the Protestant Reformation, politics in the West took a secular turn that only deepened with the arrival of democracy.

In contrast, Islam is a religion of faith and law, in which there is no separation between the sacred and the secular. Beginning soon after the birth of Islam in the 7th century, state and mosque became inextricably bound.
More democracy in the Gaza strip, for instance, has brought the Islamist movement Hamas to power, and democratic elections in the 1990s would have brought Islamists to power in Algeria if the military there had not intervened. Consequently:
This track record makes clear that the more democratic the Middle East becomes, the greater the role that Islam -- even if a moderate brand -- will play in its politics. This outcome is neither good nor bad; it is simply a reality in a part of the world where politics and religion are intertwined.
Neither good nor bad? I wouldn't put the point quite like that myself. The democratic outcome can be tolerable, if moderate Islam plays a moderate role, although a clear separation of mosque and state would be better, but relations with the governments that arise can be very bad if serious Islamists take power with an intent to impose shariah domestically and to offer hostility in foreign policy. Recall Iran in 1979.

Current signs are that these democratic revolutions may play themselves out differently in different countries. Tunisia might get a secular government like in the West. Egypt might get an Islamist Muslim Brotherhood hankering to be like Gaza's Hamas. Libya might get the tribal chaos reminiscent of Somalia. And I won't even try to imagine any 'mighty' eventualities elsewhere.

Not that my imagination isn't working . . .

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Moby-Dick Revisited?

Moby What?!
(Image from New York Times)

Janet Maslin, of the New York Times, has recently offered an amusing but serious review of an apparently amusing but serious book: "The Siren Song of the Bath Toy" (February 20, 2011), on Donovan Hohn's Moby-Duck.

Here's the book's extended subtitle, a lengthy subtext worthy of the 19th century: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them.

Bath toys? Lost at sea? As explained in an opening statement that also proves Ms. Maslin not the sort of writer to skimp on commas:
On Jan. 10, 1992, a container ship traveling south of the Aleutians, in the region once quaintly known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, en route from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Wash., took a steep roll and lost part of its cargo.
Playthings. And we already know what kind of playthings. Exactly "7,200 packs of bathtub toys." But there's a twist of fateful misunderstanding that was to prove decisive for Mr. Hohn decision to go to sea:
Each four-piece set included a blue turtle, a green frog, a red beaver and a yellow duck. This came to be erroneously understood as the story of 29,000 rubber duckies set adrift and washing up all over the globe.
Duckies are close enough, and the mythical 29,000 of them surely equal one great white whale in significance. Finding them was a job for a "modern-day Ishmael"! But the trail was cold, for Hohn only learned of the loss after 2007, when the 'duckies' had experienced "more than 15 years as castaways." So, why did he set out on a quixotic quest to find the ducks? Ms. Maslin explains:
Here's an important point about Mr. Hohn's many and varied subsequent travels and observations: He was not one of those journalists who dream up make-work projects and seek out exploits that can be turned into amusing reading. "Moby-Duck" makes him sound genuinely open-minded, inquisitive and eager to expand his own understanding of the freakish event on which he'd grown fixated. And he was eager to enhance his secondhand ideas about how the world works with firsthand images and experiences, which he eagerly incorporates into "Moby-Duck." As he puts it, he was not someone, like the explorers of old, who sought to turn the world into a map. "Quite the opposite," he says. "I wanted to turn a map into a world."
All that, yes, but he had also loved toy ducks as a child and had even borne the nickname "Donovan Duck." As Wordsworth put it, "The child is the father of the man," and Hohn's a typical nonexception that proves the rule. That must have been one hardy child, for the tale apparently takes a rough turn as he nears the end of his quest:
The last and most definitive parts of this book take Mr. Hohn to the apparent heart of darkness of his story: up through the Bering Strait and across the Northwest Territories. He is on board an icebreaker headed from Resolute to Cambridge Bay. And it is here that his strength of will as well as his boyish faith in the bath-toy armada will be tested. He is on the route that Floatees would have followed if they really got through the ice and voyaged all the way to Kennebunkport, Me. But he is now wise enough to realize that the Floatees may not have behaved exactly as expected, and that their actual fate is almost beside the point. What matters is that Mr. Hohn is now being addressed as "You! On the winch!" He has made himself a participant in a bona fide adventure. And he has done this without cheapening the great love of "Moby-Dick" that suffuses "Moby-Duck."
But not all is dark and seriously adventuresome, for the journey has its light, literary moments:
He has even found a ship's second officer who greets him with Ahab's famous question: "Hast seen the White Whale?" It's a rare English teacher who has been asked that question while at sea and has been able to answer: "Hast seen the Yellow Duck?"
But to see, or not to see . . . Or rather, to sea, or not to sea. That was the real question. And a marvelous quest seems to have followed.

Culminating in a book as provocatively titled as its 19th-century inspiration . . .

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Nigerian Jihad" Revisited

Shariah in Nigeria
Twelve States with Sharia Implemented since 1999
(Image from Wikipedia)

Way back on February 22, 2006, I posted a blog entry titled "Nigerian Jihad" in which I called attention to Nigeria, where Islamist attacks on Christians had occurred in 'retaliation' for the Muhammad Cartoons that had recently been published in Denmark. I summed up my post as follows:
This is not happening just in Nigeria, nor only in Nigeria and Indonesia, but throughout the Muslim world because of Saudi attempts to spread Wahabi Islam through education offered to non-Saudis, through indoctrination of Muslim pilgrims, and through the funding of mosques outside of Saudi Arabia. The Wahabi form of Islam quickly presses for sharia and engages in jihad against non-Muslims (or even 'impure' Muslims), with varying degrees of success.
I'd probably express that in a more nuanced manner these days, for I've learned more about various forms of Islamism, but I largely stand by what I wrote. Anyway, this blog entry, "Nigerian Jihad," got no attention until yesterday morning, which was the 22nd of February 2011 back across the International Date Line, exactly five years since the entry was posted (i.e., 22nd of February 2006). That apparently wasn't coincidence, either, for yesterday's blogger hailed from a website address that included the expression "nigerianjihad," which suggests that he was perhaps engaged in some vanity Googling, but he didn't like what he found, for he left this comment to express his ill-considered opinion:
These words steaming with their suffocating odour trickling from the prejudiced mind are words of Devil-incanate. It is unimaginable to think that a pilgrime in his short rigourous days of worship in Saudi Arabia could have time to sit and be programmed with any idea other than something related to pilgrimage ritual for which he travel to the place. Mind what you say.
A pilgrime?! Sir, clean up your own language! And tidy up your spelling of 'incanate'! I'll then deal with the odorous steam 'trickling' from my mind. Anyway, the good man's pseudonym was "Mujahid An Najeriy," which I suppose means something like "Nigerian Holy Warrior," so I can imagine the company in which "he travel" (if I might borrow his odd subjunctive). I responded to Mr. Mujahid in my usual respectful manner, first quoting his imperative to show that I'm paying attention:
"Mind what you say."

That's hard to do when I'm a "Devil-incarnate." But I'm pleased to see that your own words are so utterly under your control.
I then followed up his link to what turned out to be his own blog, titled Nigerian Mujahideen Forum. His motto reads: "A good Muslim is never a slave but struggler in the way of Allah." A bit lengthy for a catchy motto, though I'd extend its length by an indefinite article, but to each his own. From looking over Mr. Mujahid's 'forum', I see that he's also a straggler in the way, for he's posted only ten entries since his initial entry of March 26, 2010 and managed to garner merely a single comment in all that time: his own. Life must truly be a struggle for Mr. Mujahid in such a lonely forum.

But if he's not blogging very often, what exactly would a Nigerian Islamist whose pseudonym means "Nigerian Holy Warrior" be doing in all that spare time of his? Recall that wise old adage: "The Devil makes work for idle hands."

As "Devil-incarnate," I should try to keep him busy . . .

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

John Milton and Galileo Galilei: Curious Musings

Galileo's Telescope
(Image from Norton)

The Norton Anthology site that I've linked to above claims the image to be Galileo's telescope, but the link also says 18th century, and Galileo died on January 8, 1642, so this might be the image of a copy.

Whatever the fact of that matter, we find reference to one of Galileo's telescopes in Paradise Lost 1.283-291, which describes Satan in Hell shortly after he has awakened from the concussion sustained in his long fall from Heaven. He has just spoken to his partner in crime, Beelzebub, and is moving toward the shore of Hell's fiery lake:
He scarce had ceas't when the superiour Fiend
Was moving toward the shoar; his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large and round,
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev'ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe. (PL 1.283-291)

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, February 2011]
This is a curious place for a telescope, even if only as the vehicle for a figure of speech, but it does resonate with the theme of Milton's epic poem, the demonically all-too-human attempt to scale the heights of heaven and achieve divinity . . . prematurely.

As is well known, in the year 1638, Milton met the old, blind Galileo, similarly fallen from great heights and likewise somewhat confounded by the events. John Heilbron thought the meeting worth noting in his biography of Galileo:
To lighten his [Galileo's] darkening days there remained of his nuclear family his son Vincenzo and Vincenzo's wife and children, and his estranged daughter, Suor Angelica. Vincenzo shared his father's interests in mechanical devices and poetry. We already know one consequence of this alliance, the first semi-practical pendulum clock. Another was a meeting between Galileo and Milton. The English poet had attended a literary society in Florence to which Vincenzo belonged. With Vincenzo as intermediary, Milton satisfied his wish to see the famous man who could not see, "the starry Galileo with his woes," "the famous Galileo, grown old a prisoner of the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Domenican licensers thought." (Heilbron, Galileo, page 353)
Heilbron is quoting from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (4.54) and Milton's Areopagitica, a very literate thing to do in a history of science text (cf. Heilbron, Galileo, page 448, note 128). I wasn't actually surprised by this, for Heilbron had a literate hand in an article that I've written on the seasons in Paradise Lost. To understand the puzzling seasons of Edenic Paradise, I had to deal with the starry heavens, the solar position, and the lunar sphere in a cosmos of unerring planets and therefore needed assistance with some of the technical details. I didn't realize at the time that Heilbron was also dealing with Milton's epic poem, but around that same time, he was citing a passage from Milton relevant the status of curiosity in the Christian tradition. Heilbron did so with respect to the issue of divine "voluntarism (so called for stressing God's will, voluntas) as a sort of legal restraint on [the] philosophizing" engaged in by Galileo around 1616 in elaborating his (erroneous) theory that the tides were a consequence of the earth's motion:
The doctrine [of voluntarism] was not fresh, as it goes back to the time of Adam, who had it from the Angel Raphael. Shut up the book of nature, Raphael had advised Adam, after you have reckoned the months and years and seasons, for God will not reward further researches.
From man or angel the great Architect
Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
His secrets to be scanned by them who ought
Rather admire; or if they list to try
Conjecture, he his fabric of the heav'ns
Hath left to their disputes, perhaps to move
His laughter at their quaint opinions wide. (Heilbron, Galileo, page 222)
Heilbron is quoting Paradise Lost 7.72-78 as a residue of the warning against excessive curiosity in the Christian tradition. I say 'residue', for as Heilbron points out, "Conjectures that provoke divine chortles do not make heresies" (Heilbron, Galileo, page 222). But if not, what's that telescope doing in Hell?

Anyway, I now understand why Heilbron went to the excessive trouble of helping me on technical aspects concerning the seasons of Paradise -- the issue was close to his own scholarly heart. But I'm curious about his citation of Milton here with respect to the Catholic Church's position on divine voluntarism and curiosity. There is a formal equivalence between Adam's desire in Paradise Lost for astronomical knowledge in his prelapsarian state and Galileo's desire for astronomical knowledge prior to his 'lapse' as a good Catholic, for both are curious about the true physical structure of the cosmos, and both are cautioned against delving into divine matters in which they might err since God is arbitrarily free -- that divine voluntas! -- to have constituted the cosmos in any way that He may have seen fit, even in ways such that cosmic appearances hide the physical reality and mislead human observers. But the Catholic Church didn't laugh at Galileo's 'errant' philosophy, unlike Raphael's more readily amused deity.

Which raises another question: Is God generally thought to have a sense of humor in the Christian tradition?

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sophisticated Phishing?

(Image from Wikipedia)

Phishers may be getting more sophisticated. A few days ago, I received the following email from a certain "Carmen":
I was reading "An Insightful Use of Reader-Response Literary Theory" and had a comment. Hmm, I think you might be misunderstanding Fish. His notion of interpretive communities suggests that the community creates the sole definition of a text, not a "fuller" definition.

One more thing, are you interested in getting paid to add a link on your page? Just a text link and it'd go to an education site.

I'd pay via PayPal at $100 for the link. Let me know and I can give you a call if needed.
I was somewhat taken aback by this email. While I appreciated the correction in my understanding of Stanley Fish, the offer of $100 triggered my suspicions. Nobody offers money to get a link, especially from a minor blog such as mine. But I didn't want to misjudge a helpful individual like "Carmen," so I replied:
I'm not interested in any money, but I might link to the site if I find it relevant.
In response . . . nothing, nichts, nada. "Carmen," apparently, believes that one gets what one pays for and thus wanted no free link. If it cost nothing, it meant nothing, I guess.

Was "Carmen" phishing? I can't be sure, but nobody offers to pay for a link, as I said, and she hasn't replied to my 'generous' counter offer. I therefore conducted a Google search using her full name (or the one supplied, anyway) and found only one site, a blog where she had apparently left a message in some fashion or other . . . indirectly, I take it, for the blogger herself seems to have had to post the message from "Carmen" (which strikes me as odd).

The circumstantial evidence might therefore suggest phishing, I hazard to think, but would a phisher of men like me be so knowledgeable about that Milton scholar and radical postmodernist Stanley Fish? Perhaps I should be unsurprised, however, that phishers might know about Fish . . .

Whether "Carmen," was a phisher or merely a naive, would-be letter-linker saying the darndest thing, the internet is a peculiar fishing hole . . .

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Whither Egypt? -- Yusuf al-Qaradawi

Yusuf al-Qaradawi
(Image from Wikipedia)

The recent Arab uprisings began while I was vacationing in regions with slow internet access, so I missed out on those beginnings and have been playing catch-up ball ever since. I did express a passing opinion last January 30th when I managed to access the Marmot's Hole:
If the protests bring down the Egyptian government, the Islamists will almost certainly take control.
The government hasn't quite fallen because the military retains control, but the Islamists in Egypt are positioning themselves to take advantage even though the January 25th Revolution was largely led by secular youth. One needs to recall the events of Iran's 1979 Revolution, in which the secular revolutionaries were edged out by Islamists guided by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Do we see anything similar happening in Egypt? According to Dan Murphy, "Egypt revolution unfinished, Qaradawi tells Tahrir masses" (Christian Science Monitor, February 18, 2011):
Leading Islamic theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi returned from Qatar to rally hundreds of thousands at Tahrir Square today in his first public speech since 1981 . . . .

The devout crowd . . . was also a reminder that huge sections of Egypt take their Islamic faith seriously -- and that real and open democratic reform will almost certainly lead to a stronger role for the faith in the nation's political life.

"Qaradawi is very much in the mainstream of Egyptian society, he's in the religious mainstream, he's not offering something that's particularly distinctive or radical in the context of Egypt," says Mr. [Shadi] Hamid[, research director at the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center in Qatar]. "He's an Islamist and he's part of the Brotherhood school of thought, but his appeal goes beyond the Islamist spectrum, and in that sense he's not just an Islamist figure, he's an Egyptian figure with a national profile."
This doesn't bode particularly well, in my opinion. The Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, want Shariah (Islamic law) for Egypt, and that is what is ultimately meant by "a stronger role for the faith in the nation's political life." Hamid insists that Qaradawi is more mainstream, more moderate that other Islamists. Perhaps he is comparatively less extreme, but that doesn't make him a moderate. Magdi Abdelhadi, reporting for the BBC News, "Controversial preacher with 'star status'" (7 July, 2004), relates Qaradawi's views on suicide bombing against Israelis:
Defending suicide bombings that target Israeli civilians Sheikh A-Qaradawi told the BBC programme Newsnight that "an Israeli woman is not like women in our societies, because she is a soldier.

"I consider this type of martyrdom operation as an evidence of God's justice . . . . Allah Almighty is just; through his infinite wisdom he has given the weak a weapon the strong do not have and and that is their ability to turn their bodies into bombs as Palestinians do".
Is this really so different in principle from Al-Qaeda's view that suicide bombings against the West are legitimate because Westerners are not innocent victims? Qaradawi distances himself from Al-Qaeda, but he seems to me to be of the same cloth.

And worrisome if true is this Agence France-Presse report in the Hindustan Times: "Egypt protest hero Wael Ghonim barred from stage" (February 18, 2011):
Google executive Wael Ghonim, who emerged as a leading voice in Egypt's uprising, was barred from the stage in Tahrir Square on Friday by security guards, an AFP photographer said. Ghonim tried to take the stage in Tahrir, the epicentre of anti-regime protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, but men who appeared to be guarding influential Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi barred him from doing so.
I've not been able to confirm this through any independent reports on other news sites, but if this should be an authentic report, it also does not bode well for the secular leaders of the January 25th Revolution.

Whatever the case on that report, let's hope that the youthful secular leaders of Egypt's January 25th Revolution prove tougher, cannier, and better organized than Iran's were back in 1979.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Galileo contra Theological Voluntarism

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems
Galileo Galilei
(Image from Wikipedia)

John Heilbron's biography of Galileo is now moving toward the crisis of this scientist's life, Pope Urban VIII's reaction to the publication in 1632 of the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in which Galileo offers Copernicanism as an explanation for the tides, though his argument here was to prove erroneous. The Pope did not object to Galileo's book so much as to Galileo's obvious conviction that Copernicanism was true. While the Pope had allowed for Galileo to advocate the use of Copernican theory as a device for calculating the apparent motions of the heavens, the theory could not be defended as literally, physically true. Actually, the Pope went a bit further than that, insisting that God, in His omnipotence and infinite wisdom, may in fact have used any of a potentially infinite possible structures for the cosmic mechanism hidden behind the facade that we empirically perceive with our eyes. Galileo seems not to have liked the argument, but he put the Pope's position into the mouth of one of the three characters in his Dialogue:
As to the discourses we have held, and especially this last one concerning the reasons for the ebbing and flowing of the ocean, I am really not entirely convinced; but from such feeble ideas of the matter as I have formed, I admit that your thoughts seem to me more ingenious than many others I have heard. I do not therefore consider them true and conclusive; indeed, keeping always before my mind's eye a most solid doctrine that I once heard from a most eminent and learned person, and before which one must fall silent, I know that if asked whether God in His infinite power and wisdom could have conferred upon the watery element its observed reciprocating motion using some other means than moving its containing vessels, both of you would reply that He could have, and that He would have known how to do this in many ways which are unthinkable to our minds. From this I forthwith conclude that, this being so, it would be excessive boldness for anyone to limit and restrict the Divine power and wisdom to some particular fancy of his own. (Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic & Copernican, translated by Stillman Drake, University of California Press, 1967, page 464)
This was the Pope's position, a variant on theological voluntarism, which has a rather long history in Christianity. Heilbron suggests that the Pope wanted Galileo to offer as Galileo's own position, and in Galileo's own words, something like the following:
The comedy has ended. Italian honor and the reputation of the Holy Church are saved from the calumniators who would destroy our faith. But do not deduce from this happy outcome, gentle reader, that you are free to assert the absolute truth of a physical system even if the arguments in its favor seem unanswerable. For as I learned long ago from His Holiness, any such assertion would derogate from the Omnipotence of God, who in His wisdom and power can do or make anything that does not involve Him in a contradiction. The argument of His Holiness is in fact and logic unanswerable. A true Christian must bend the knee and fall silent before it. (Heilbron, Galileo, 2010, pages 303-304)
This variant of theological voluntarism is not the most radical sort, for it still presupposes a rational deity, one who does not contradict himself -- which is, I have read, different from Islamic voluntarism, which does not even limit Allah rationally to the principle of noncontradiction, but that's neither here nor there in Galileo's case. But even this limited voluntarism seems not to Galileo's liking, for he did not write these words and express them as his own position. Instead, he expressed the Pope's view as the view of the character named Simplicio, the simpleton in the Dialogue who supports the traditional, earth-centered cosmos that was a synthesis of Plato and Aristotle (even though the Pope's view is not, strictly considered, even Simplicio's position). But why didn't Galileo bend his knee on this point and express as his own the Pope's view on theological voluntarism? Heilbron suggests:
Had Galileo written such words, philosophers, mathematicians, and astrologers whose theories implicitly limited God's past and future actions would find themselves opposed to the greatest mathematician in Italy, and perhaps the world. But Galileo could not speak Urban's words. That would have amounted to a denial of his mission. (Heilbron, Galileo, 2010, page 304)
What was this mission? To defend the truth of Copernicanism! For Galileo, Copernicanism was the physically correct system to hold, for both rational and empirical reasons. Galileo was, implicitly anyway, opposed to theological voluntarism. But why opposed? Did he consider as unworthy the belief that God would offer a cosmic facade that misleads scientists to the conviction that one cosmic system is preferable to another, that one cosmic system is physically true?

I do not know what Galileo thought, but that would appear to me to be a reasonable objection to even Pope Urban VIII's limited theological voluntarism, for to concede that a rational God might nevertheless deceive our sense perceptions on the structure of the world is, arguably, inconsistent.

Such a voluntarist view is the sort that Hans Blumenberg, in his magnum opus, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, called a variant on Gnosticism, perhaps the oldest theological heresy, and hence constituting an irony of history, if anything should, that the Pope would be advocating it against the 'heresy' of Copernicanism.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Duck, I say."

Yesterday, on my En-Uk's Art Blog, my son drew a California surfer with a surfboard crammed into his mouth:

Just kidding. It's actually a drawing of a rude little boy sticking out his enormous, yellow tongue. Nah, still just kidding. That would be unforgiven.

He actually titled it: "The Strong Duck." I liked the image immediately upon seeing it when En-Uk asked me to proofread his English before he posted it to his blog, and I laughed out loud. Here's what my son wrote:
This drawing is called "The Strong Duck." I made this drawing because I like "The Strong Duck" comedy I made. Bye.
Dario Rivarossa liked it, too:
Wond-er-ful! I will draw him myself, then send you the picture by email through Daddy, ok?
Dario sent his own 'strong duck' drawing:

I think Dario's rendition deserves the title, "The Stronger Duck," for it's obviously more muscular, displaying those 'dukes of death', and even resembles a superhero . . . though I'm not sure that it fits the bill as a stand-in for En-Uk's duck. Dario, by the way, asked the question that's on all our minds:
What does the comedy deal with? (In brief.)
Yes, on all our minds is the topic of brevity! I debriefed En-Uk and briefly reported:
It's a divine comedy: The Strong Duck is searching through the universe for God because he holds God at fault for his appearance and is going to demand that He pay the bill, but the joke's on the duck because his looks don't stem from unnatural selection at all but from a natural process of adapting to being a bottom feeder, which strikes the duck as an insult, for he misunderstands God's description of the adaptation, so he challenges God to a duel, and . . . but I've already said too much.
As the Koreans say, "If you know too much, you will die." Or at least one Korean said that once, in a conversation class that I taught one time in an English Academy about ten years ago in Daegu. But no matter who said it, or how many times, or where it was said, it's true.

Think, for instance, of Adam and Eve . . .

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Poetry Break: "Dead of Night"

Vampyren, 1893-94
Edvard Munch, 1863-1944
(Image from Wikipedia)

Because I've been working hard, or maybe because I'm lazy, I'm offering for today's post another old 'poem' of mine, this one also written late on a Saturday evening in a lonely German cafe from the time, perhaps 1991, before I met my wife, who rescued me from such isolated pastimes:
Dead of Night
Pale trees glittering,
frosted lunar night,
dead fangs of vampires
bared against the light.

Thorax crack-creaking,
crunched to crushing tight,
gripped with a vampire's
death-lust-driven bite.

Slacked veins sucked seeping,
midnight proves its might,
coursed through the vampire's
dead-eye tooth delight.
Well, it's not a remarkable effort, and maybe it doesn't even quite make sense, if such a 'poem' need do so, but constructing the rhyme scheme was fun, as was limiting each line to five syllables, though the actual meter might not work so well.

As you can see, I had a thing about vampires back then, but I'm rather sick of them these days.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Galileo as Orlando the Mad?

Orlando Furioso
Ludovico Ariosto
Guido Waldman, translator
(Image from Amazon)

I'm still reading John Heilbron's Galileo, which I think he wrote to offer a moral lesson, a point that I might have more to say about after I've finished the book, but I believe that we can begin to intuit Heilbron's intention through what follows. Heilbron implies that Galileo wrote his famous Assayer to defend his honor and impugn that of his opponents, who were -- or so Galileo feared -- trying to steal his discoveries, much as he had once defended himself against an earlier, actual plagiarist, who had offended against his "honor, fame, and merited glory," as Heilbron quotes from Galileo's Difesa of 1607 (Heilbron, Galileo, page 246)

One surprising problem with Galileo as a person was, ironically, his limited horizon, for as Heilbron remarks in a chapter titled "Miscalculated Risks":
We are reminded again [by Galileo's social connections] how provincial or peninsular Galileo's purview was: his subject may have been the universe, but his audience was a few dozen highy-placed literate Italians whose good opinion he prized. (Heilbron, Galileo, page 245)
Regardless what others might think, these "literate Italians" would appreciate him as a literate man, even as a literary figure, who knows how to turn a phrase -- or better, a quote from his favorite poem -- against a 'dishonorable' challenger like Lotario Sarsi Sigenzano, the pen name of Orazio Grassi, a Jesuit astronomer and mathematician who (legitimately, in fact) disputed some of Galileo's views, e.g., on the nature of comets, Galileo not being the sort of man to share celestial glory with others who dared to explore his heavens:
Quoting a line from Ariosto, Galileo intimated that he was condescending to argue over truths he already possessed. Noblesse oblige. The line referred to a fight between Orlando and Mandricardo over Orlando's sword. "Mine it is by right, let us stage a chivalrous duel for it." (Heilbron, Galileo, page 245)
The version of Orlando Furioso that I've looked into has "Mine though it is by right, let us stage a chivalrous duel for it" (Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, translator Waldman, Canto 23.81, page 276, italics mine), but that's a minor point. What is significant is Galileo's manner of casting himself as a medieval knight in a romance, specifically Charlemagne's knight Orlando (also known as Roland), for at issue are not so much points of truth as points of honor. Intellectual opponents are not merely incorrect, they are unworthy!

In a further joust with Sarsi (Grassi), therefore, Galileo constructs a literary scene in which he overwhelms this 'unworthy' opponent and scornfully advises him, "Therefore yield, and be silent," concerning which Heilbron dryly observes, "That is the way a knight does science." The real life Grassi does not fall silent, but publishes a rejoinder, a challenge to which Galileo replies . . . not at all. Why not? Because Galileo's friends, some of those "literate Italians" who mattered, "judged that he had saved their honor and his" own (Heilbron, Galileo, page 252).

The chapter that follows this one in Heilbron's biography of Galileo is titled "Vainglory." Galileo, as the proud knight Orlando, sensitive to slights, loses all perspective, falls victim to his overweening pride, and meets with a tragic conclusion in a mad, furious fight with the Church that he cannot win and could have avoided (or so I infer, based on the chapter title and my background in history of science).

The moral of this story? Put it into a conditional: If you want to be a good scientist, then control your pride. In short, as I've noted before with respect to Heilbron's measured dose of what Galileo most needed: "humility, humility, humility."

And not coincidentally, Heilbron casts the historian in the role of one who can draw moral lessons from history, thereby also intimating that history is worthy of serious study.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Poetry: Sight or Sound?

Lee Chang-dong
(Image from Poetry: The Movie)

In yesterday's blog post, Dario Rivarossa and I briefly discussed the nature of poetry, partly sparked by a contrast that Dario sees between Dante and Milton, which he summarized:
Briefly: in Dante, words describe colors.

In Milton, words create them (so to speak).
Not knowing Italian, I can't judge about the validity of this contrast, here's how I stated my basic view:
Visionary poetry must be sounded to be poetry. Is there any poetry that is purely visual?

Some aspects are, of course . . . the shape of a poem on the page, which has even occasioned poems structured to look like butterflies, altars, and whatnot.

But poetry is fundamentally about sound, right?
After writing those words, I happened to read a New York Times movie review by Manohla Dargis of Lee Chang-dong's recent film Poetry: "Consider an Apple, Consider the World" (February 10, 2011). In this film, a teacher explains poetry to a classroom of aspiring poets: "he holds up an apple and talks about seeing":
The importance of seeing, seeing the world deeply, is at the heart of this quietly devastating, humanistic work from the South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong. Throughout the story, the teacher, a bespectacled man with an easy manner, will guide the students as each struggles to write a single poem, searching memories and emotions for inspiration. "Up till now, you haven't seen an apple for real," he says in that first class, as the film cuts to a student, Mija (Yun Jung-hee), sliding into a seat. "To really know what an apple is, to be interested in it, to understand it," he adds, "that is really seeing it." From the way the camera settles on Mija it's evident that he could substitute the word apple for woman -- or life.
Isn't this serendipitous? Dario and I are discussing poetry in the context of Dante and Milton, whose two poems both stemmed from differing perspectives on a woman biting into an 'apple.' And the movie appears to speak for Dario's view, that poetry is basically about seeing . . . but I'll have to sound out the movie to see what I think about that. And more broadly, beyond poetry, about what it says concerning art:
At one point, Mija asks her poetry teacher with almost comic innocence, "When does a 'poetic inspiration' come?" It doesn't, he replies, you must beg for it. "Where must I go?" she persists. He says that she must wander around, seek it out, but that it's there, right where she stands. In truth, there is poetry everywhere, including in those who pass through her life, at times invisibly, like the handicapped retiree (Kim Hira) she cares for part time, a husk of a man whom she will at last also see clearly. The question that she doesn't ask is the why of art. She doesn't have to because the film -- itself an example of how art allows us to rise out of ourselves to feel for another through imaginative sympathy -- answers that question beautifully.
Is that what art is about? Aesthetics as the art of feeling for others through imaginative sympathy? Isn't that more to do with ethics? Or do the two intersect here?

Anyway, for those interested, the trailer for the film, along with relevant information about story and cast, is viewable here.

UPDATE: Dario informs me that I misread him, clarifying that his "view is that poetry is basically about sounds." Hence, he and I are closer than I had thought.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fallen Language: Falsely Defined Terms in Paradise Lost?

(Image from Comic Book Religion)

Some students at Christs College, Cambridge have put together a high-quality site on John Milton called Darkness Visible, and I've come upon a page there titled "Milton's Language" that might be useful for thinking about 'fallen language' in Paradise Lost, for the page offers a section on "Dark Satanic Language" -- which later on the same page is characterized as "fallen language" -- and this section informs us:
Satan is an inveterate liar who abuses language for his own evil purposes. Satan's language is 'Ambiguous and with double sense deluding' (Paradise Regained, I.435), whereas the Son's language (and by extension God's) enforces a kind of linguistic harmony where 'Thy actions to thy words accord' (Paradise Regained, III.9). In Paradise Lost, Satan's 'ambiguous words' (V.703, VI.568) act as 'persuasive' traps, 'replete with guile' (IX.737, 733). He utters 'high words, that bore / Semblance of worth not substance' (I.528), and it is worth bearing this in mind should you be tempted to succumb to his enticing rhetoric, as Eve or, more recently the poets Shelley and Blake have been known to do! God's words are necessarily congruent with their meaning (God is unable to lie). But while Satan lacks the power of speech acts, he has the sophistical ability to dissemble.
Satan uses ambiguous words in Paradise Lost to mislead, but in many cases, the two different meanings of a word are both correct, and such a word is not necessarily 'fallen'. Rather, it is being misused by Satan, "who abuses language for his own evil purposes" and plays upon one meaning to legitimate acting upon the other meaning. For instance, if Satan were to urge Eve to cleave to God but persuade her that this means cutting herself off from God -- playing on the word's two meanings, "cling to" and "sever from" -- then this would be an example of using a word's double meaning to deceive. Both meanings are legitimate, however, or at least arguably so. They merely need to be kept distinct.

But what of Satan's famous redefinition of evil in Paradise Lost 4.108-112, which he states in his famous speech upon Mount Niphates after briefly considering repentance but deciding that he cannot be forgiven because he cannot truly repent:
So farewel Hope, and with Hope farewel Fear,
Farewel Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good; by thee at least
Divided Empire with Heav'ns King I hold
By thee, and more then half perhaps will reigne; (PL 4.108-112)
Note the redefinition: "Evil be thou my Good" (PL 4.110). As C. S. Lewis notes in his Preface to Paradise Lost (page 95), such a statement is about the same as saying, "Nonsense be thou my sense." This is a special case of linguistic ambiguity, for evil cannot be its opposite, the good. Thus, one of the two meanings is manifestly false, so perhaps one can say that in this sense, a postlapsarian language can be fallen. The language in this case is not merely used to deceive; it is, in part (or parts), intrinsically deceptive.

Which leads me to a point raised in yesterday's post, where I noted the following about that angel loyal to God, Abdiel:
Speaking of Abdiel's words, when he meets Satan on the field of battle and says, "This greeting on thy impious Crest receive" (PL 6.188), and then brings down upon Satan's helmeted head his righteous sword, isn't he using the term "greeting" in a sense so ironic as to be contradictory, in that it contains two meanings that contradict each other, as in some puns?
And I inquired:
Does Abdiel thus speak in a postlapsarian, 'fallen' tongue?
Today, I can press this a bit further, for one could argue that a "greeting" defined as "a blow on the head" is a false definition and that Abdiel is using fallen language. This would be not so dissimilar from Satan saying, "Evil be thou my Good." On the other hand, and unlike Satan, Abdiel is speaking ironically, even sarcastically, so nobody is deceived, nor is any deception intended.

But the question then to be raised is this: would there be any use for irony in language in an unfallen world? Perhaps not, but there might be a legitimate use for it by unfallen beings confronted by fallen beings and a fallen world. What do readers think, is Abdiel a little bit fallen . . . or not?

He certainly looks somewhat fallen in that image above.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

John Milton: The Word Unbegotten and Begotten in Paradise Lost?

"This greeting on thy impious Crest receive."
Abdiel Attacks Satan, PL 6.188
(Image from History of Art)

Several days ago, Dario Rivarossa called my attention to an odd contrast between two passages in Paradise Lost. In Book 5, verses 600-606, God states:
Hear all ye Angels, Progenie of Light, [ 600 ]
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Vertues, Powers,
Hear my Decree, which unrevok't shall stand.
This day I have begot whom I declare
My onely Son, and on this holy Hill
Him have anointed, whom ye now behold [ 605 ]
At my right hand; your Head I him appoint;

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed., The Milton Reading Room, February 2011.]
But in Book 5, verses 833-838, Abdiel maintains:
Thy self though great and glorious dost thou count,
Or all Angelic Nature joind in one,
Equal to him begotten Son, by whom [ 835 ]
As by his Word the mighty Father made
All things, ev'n thee, and all the Spirits of Heav'n
By him created in thir bright degrees,

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed., The Milton Reading Room, February 2011.]
Why is this odd? Because we know from the work of Milton scholars (e.g., Michael Bauman, Milton's Arianism) that Milton held to a quasi-Arian view on the Godhead, namely, that there is no Trinity and that the Son is not co-eternal with the Father but is begotten at some point in time, and that fits quite well with Paradise Lost 5.600-606, where God declares in heaven to His assembled angelic host that he has that very day begotten his Son (i.e., "This day I have begot . . . / My onely Son"), which would appear to put the process by which the Son was begotten some time after the creation of the angels.

That, however, comes into tension with Paradise Lost 5.833-838, where Abdiel reminds Satan that the begotten Son made all things, including the angels (i.e., "by whom / As by his Word the mighty Father made / All things"). The Son surely cannot be begotten twice. That would be like the statement of a janitor at Baylor, when I was an undergrad back in the 1970s, who told us that his father died of pneumonia twice.

But there was a resolution to the janitor's odd statement -- his father died of double pneumonia -- and there might be a resolution to Milton's two statements if we read carefully. The begotten Son was the one "by whom / As by his Word the mighty Father made / All things." This line can be read as distinguishing between two states of the Word of God: a pre-sonship state and a sonship state, differentiated by the event of being begotten. If so, then for Milton, 'divine sonship' is a role taken on by the eternal Word of God in the act of being begotten by God Himself, who (I presume) becomes the Father at that point. This reading of Milton raises the question as to what Milton thought the act of begetting to mean. I haven't looked into that yet, but perhaps Milton thought that the Word was a power of God that became hypostasized through an emanation of God's own substance, but I'm merely guessing.

I suppose that one could try to take the position that Thomas Burgess took in his 1829 book, Milton not the author of the lately-discovered Arian work De Doctrina Christiana (London: Thomas Brettell, 1829), for he calls attention on page 151 to Abdiel's contention in Paradise Lost 5.831-837, i.e., that the Word created all things, as evidence that Milton could not have been Arian in his theology, and therefore asserts that Paradise Lost 5.603-604 (i.e., "This day I have begot whom I declare / My onely Son") "has nothing Arian in it" and merely denotes "a high commission then declared" (page 168), but most scholars today seem to accept the Doctrina Christiana as Milton's work and Milton as some kind of Arian in his theology.

Speaking of Abdiel's words, when he meets Satan on the field of battle and says, "This greeting on thy impious Crest receive" (PL 6.188), and then brings down upon Satan's helmeted head his righteous sword, isn't he using the term "greeting" in a sense so ironic as to be contradictory, in that it contains two meanings that contradict each other, as in some puns?

Does Abdiel thus speak in a postlapsarian, 'fallen' tongue?

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Literary Galileo . . .

Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica
(Image from Wikipedia)

Galileo was often jousting quixotically with Ptolemy's epicyclical windmills, various sly coiling serpents, and other antiquated revolutionary objects in his guise as knight errant, and the historian of science John Heilbron notes that in Observations on Sunspots, Galileo employs "a far-fetched allusion to the stars" to adopt the role of the knight Ruggiero, a Saracen (i.e., Muslim) convert to Christianity in Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso who rescued Angelica from a dragon, I gather, and gains her Ring of Reason, though I've not read much of Ariosto's masterpiece and am not certain of these details, nor of their order (cf. Heilbron, Galileo, pages 191-192).

That ring, anyway, would perhaps have served Galileo well in his intellectual jousts . . . except that reason was hardly sufficient in a time when science wasn't supported by scientific institutions, and that Galileo thought of himself less as a 'scientist' anyway than as a philosopher, and as a poet.

By the time Galileo wrote his works The Assayer (1623) and Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632), he was even less interested in writing science -- though he was also doing that -- than in having a splashy literary impact. Heilbron explains the 'nonscientific' character of these two 'literary' works by Galileo:
And what shall we make of the extravagance of the Pisan Drop, the creation point of the planets, said to answer perfectly to calculations? Or of the bizzarria (oddity), to which we will return, that a freely falling body does not accelerate but only changes its direction of motion? Salviati [i.e., Galileo] takes the trouble to demonstrate this bizzarria and Sagredo accepts it as a marvel. Modern readers also wonder at it. Was Galileo, the master of experiment, the facile geometer, the slayer of Aristotle, dishonest, as Arthur Koestler would have him, or just a charlatan, as Paul Feyerabend preferred? Neither. Galileo as stage manager is the creator of ingenious fancies, mathematical caprices, an epic poem, a set of stories. Sagredo asks Salviati to describe the curve of a freely falling body in space; the masked Galileo replies with the clever nonsensical bizzarria; nature too is part of the masquerade. Galileo's comedic talent reached full strength in the barbs, jokes, word plays, paradoxes, irony, satire, and gross caricature of the Assayer. As if to signal its epistemological level, Galileo inserted more quotations from Ariosto than he did in any other of his books. (Heilbron, Galileo, pages 230-231)
Heilbron's point is that Galileo wasn't writing science as we understand it today. He was marshalling the power of rhetorical techniques and poetical figures, along with accepted literary convention, to overwhelm his opponents, all of which helps explain the 'martyr' of early modern science who often doesn't seem very scientific to us now.

He does, however, come across as more interesting, partly because his clever wit made him many powerful enemies and thereby undermined the very cause for which he jousted . . .

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Benjamin Hale's Evolution of Bruno Littlemore: Published

Bruno Littlemore?
(Image from Amazon)

My right to write on this novel that I haven't (yet) read is grounded in the fact that I knew Mr. Hale when he was only a few weeks old.

His father Pete -- who seems to prefer "Charley" these days -- grew up with me in the Ozarks, just a year behind me in school, and the two of us spent a lot of time running around together and reading the same books. Pete, in fact, introduced me to The Hobbit, The Whole Earth Catalogue, Buckminster Fuller's writings, and a host of other things that I might have overlooked due to my hillbilly ways.

But we parted our 'redneck' ways when we quit those days and left Salem High School, only to meet up again several years later when the two of us both wound up in the San Francisco Bay Area at the same time. Pete and his wife Leigh soon added Benjamin to their duo there, and I got to know Ben as a very tiny creature who -- perhaps like Bruno -- has evolved more than a little. Indeed, he has evolved into a recognized wordsmith, a bona fide novelist, for his first novel has now been published, as Pete informed me by email last week on February 4th, while I was stuck with a slow internet connection:
Yesterday kid Ben's book ("The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore", if you want to google around at it but have forgotten the title--) at long last hit the proverbial streets and can be had by the curious and burned by the outraged (they're probably not quite on track yet there, but I expect they will be pretty soon). A relative in Little Rock was having trouble finding it, and I told him to check out a Barnes and Noble, because they picked the book as a "new discovery" or something along those lines, and one of the perks is getting a good display of your book in all those stores. He's getting mostly very positive reviews (one not-happy one that I've seen so far, out of about a dozen otherwise, so not bad), and has a "tactical nuclear weapon review" in the NYTimes this weekend, which I know for sure is very positive because I got to read it early . . . it'll be interesting to see how that one goes.
I think that readers will understand that I can never, ever be impartial in a review of this book . . . not even after I've managed to get around to reading it (which may take some time). I will thus direct the interested reader to the afore-alluded-to review by Christopher R. Beha in the New York Times, "Primal Urges" (February 4, 2011), which I may have missed in the International Herald Tribune last week during my week without newspapers, unless that review is yet to appear in the IHT. Anyway, the review is not merely positive, it glows nuclear, as Pete implied, for Beha even compares Hale to Nabakov, or at least Bruno to Humbert, but I think that the comparison is meant for both pairs:
Vladimir Nabokov claimed that the "initial shiver of inspiration" for "Lolita" came from a newspaper account of an ape in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris that produced the first drawing ever made by an animal. "This sketch," he reported, "showed the bars of the poor creature's cage." The story neatly encapsulates the tragedy and comedy of Humbert Humbert: for all his preternatural brilliance -- no one of his kind has ever set such things down on a page -- he knows less than nothing because he doesn't know that a world exists outside himself. The narrator of Benjamin Hale's first novel, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," has some of Humbert's erudition and much of his arrogance. Like Humbert, he is imprisoned for a murder he can't bring himself to regret, and like Humbert's, his confession is far less concerned with that act than with the scandalous love affair that precipitated it. The difference is that Bruno knows he is trapped, for he has "seen this cage from both within and without." Also, Bruno is an actual ape.
Beha then says a number of things that make this novel sound like the difficult sort of reading that I like but that some people don't, so Beha makes sure to let us know that:
Hale's novel is so stuffed with allusions high and low, so rich with philosophical and literary interest, that a reviewer risks making it sound ponderous or unwelcoming. So let's get this out of the way: "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" is an absolute pleasure.
That means that you might like it, too . . . maybe. Beha is an editor at Harper's Magazine, which might or might not recommend him, I suppose, depending on what you think of that magazine (and I don't have an opinion). Readers will undoubtedly want to look around at more reviews, and the Wikipedia entry on Benjamin Hale looks to have links to a number of them.

And of course, there is that little thing that Pete vaguely alluded to, about Ben's novel possibly ending up "burned by the outraged," an obscure allusion, no doubt, to what Beha himself referred to as a "scandalous love affair" of the kind that set off a different sort of nuclear reaction by Wesley J. Smith in First Things: here and here.

This 'love affair' issue is one that will have to be taken seriously, but I won't comment upon it any further until I've actually read the novel.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

En-Uk and Sa-Rah: Squabbling Siblings or Arguing Artists?

My children appear to be competing for aesthetic honors, or perhaps sniping out of sibling rivalry, but I'll let readers judge. Here's one of En-Uk's latest artistic efforts, direct from his art blog:

He calls this artwork "My Home" and identifies it as the national flag of En-Ukistan! I had noticed him growing rather hegemonic around the apartment lately.

Sa-Rah, however, is not surrendering without a fight. Here's her effort, which she calls "Imaginary Creature Uk-En":

The drawing doubles as a homework assignment for her online homeschooling course in . . . uh, 'science', which also required a description of this imaginary creature and its special adaptations:

My imaginary creature is called Uk-En. It has a very big head compared to its long slim legs and arms. There are no male or female Uk-Ens. They are all neuter, and to reproduce they have to eat 50 kg of Danish chocolate and 30 kg of Swiss cheese, and when they digest and excrete, the baby Uk-En comes out. The baby Uk-En is covered with a hard brown layer that is a mixture of chocolate, cheese, and liquid vitamins that help the baby grow up immediately so that it can live on its own -- the parent gets stunned and passes away after seeing how awful the baby looks because it can't believe the baby is actually its own: the parent has never looked in a mirror.

All Uk-Ens work as models with its long skinny legs, and all the fat that they get from eating goes to their brain, changing into the brain energy that makes them extremely intelligent. This helps them stay skinny. Uk-Ens are extremely smart creatures that have also made a new standard of beauty. Everybody loves them!
Everybody loves them . . . excepting their parents, apparently, who die of embarrassment! I'm beginning rather to understand that feeling myself.

I suppose that I ought to reflect well on all this . . .

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

R. A. Shoaf on Milton and Puns

R. A. Shoaf on Milton as Poet
(Image from Amazon)

R. A. Shoaf, author of Milton, Poet of Duality: A Study of Semiosis in the Poetry and the Prose, provides some interesting ideas on what it is "about a pun that makes it a figure for the effects of the Fall" in Paradise Lost (page 61). He suggests that "Geoffrey Hartman offers a helpful clue," namely:
You can define a pun as two meanings competing for the same phonemic space or as one sound bringing forth semantic twins, but, however you look at it, it's a crowded situation. Either there is too much sound for the sense or too much sense for the sound.
Shoaf quotes this on page 61, citing Hartman's article "The Voice of the Shuttle" (Beyond Formalism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, page 347). Shoaf then argues that "[a] pun . . . is a moment of confusion, and confusion is the prime effect of the Fall" (page 61). He quotes Milton's Christian Doctrine: on the meaning of death as punishment for the first sin:
This death consists, first, in the loss or at least the extensive darkening of that right reason, whose function it was to discern the chief good, and which was as it were, the life of the understanding. [CD I.12, YE 6:395] (Shoaf, page 61)
Confusion therefore immediately results after partaking of the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Shoaf has already analyzed this confusion earlier in his article, showing the effect of the Fall upon Adam:
After Eve has sacrificed Adam, "fondly overcome with female charm" (PL 9.999), to her own desire and he has eaten of the fruit, he begins "to dalliance [to] move [her]":
'Eve, now I see thou art exact of taste,
And elegant, of sapience no small part,
Since to each meaning savour we apply,
And palate call judicious.' [PL 9.1016-20]
Much is readied in the word dalliance, of course: we know that what follows will be frivolous, not severe, and we also know that frivolity at this is tasteless. Adam's dalliance is a frivolous pun on sapience, which, however, for all its frivolity from his of view, from ours sounds heavy with the Fall itself -- it is the d(e)-alliance of the Fall (cf. PL 2.819 for the same pun) -- especially if, as readers of Milton, we remember Comus tempting the Lady just before her brothers rescue her: "'Be wise, and taste . . .'" (C 812) -- of course, ifi the Lady tastes (sapio, -ere), she is not wise (sapient). In the word sapience, Adam has confused the sense "taste" and the sense "wisdom" or "judiciousness," to each of which "savour we apply," where the sense "knowledge" (savoir) is replete, beyond Adam's knowing, with the crime he and Eve have just committed. The word sapience is now evidence of the Fall. (Shoaf, Milton, Poet of Duality, pages 60-61)
Shoaf argues that Eve ought to have used her right reason to recognize Satan's puns, distinguish their duality, and resist, but she is deceived by Satan's wordplay, "[a]nd then, convinced by this contradiction in terms, she eats the apple; and with this act, Milton will write, she 'knew not eating death' (PL 9.792), where the four words are syntactically what the pun is semantically -- the confusion of senses (she did not know she was eating death; she did not know [sense: 'connaître'] death who eats [cf. PL 10.597,609]). (Shoaf, Milton, Poet of Duality, page 70)

Thus have we returned to where I left off in my analysis of "knew not eating death." I believe that I can make use of Shoaf's analysis to show how this line in Milton's Paradise Lost incorporates a confusion of languages that parallels the confusion of meanings in puns.

More later . . .

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A Resounding Pun in Paradise Lost

Thomas Sprat
"mathematical plainness"
(Image from Wikipedia)

I've just recently read an interesting paper by Paul Sutton, "Puns Lost, Puns Regain'd: The Pun in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regain'd," which appears to have been a presentation given at the ANZAMEMS Conference in Adelaide, 7-10 2007, i.e., the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Mr. Sutton was a PhD student at the time and was expecting to finish his thesis later in 2007, though I've not yet discovered if he wrote more on puns in works by John Milton.

But his paper will suffice. Mr. Sutton helpfully points out that "What we term an act of punning would, in actual fact, be one of five rhetorical techniques . . . . Paranomasia, Antanaclasis, Asteismus, Syllepsis, and Polyptoton." By "one of five," he means any of them, not just one. In other words, all five are types of puns . . . though things are a bit more complicated than that, as we shall see. (I'm also now no longer sure that I used "Paronomasia" in a strictly technical sense, though I think that I spelled it correctly, whereas Mr. Sutton appears to have misspelled, or used a variant spelling.)

One problem that punning occasions for language is that with overuse, it "tests the limits of the word . . . to signify meaning." Recognition of this tendency moved some to radical solutions:
The poets and critics of the eighteenth century were well aware of this problem inherent in language. Several times people called for language to be cleaned up and become more mathmatical in nature, most famously, perhaps, by Thomas Sprat in his History of the Royal Society who piped up with a call for a "mathematical plainness" in language. As we are all well aware, theory and practice rarely meet. (Sutton, "Puns Lost, Puns Regain'd," page 2)
What does Milton think about such a mathematical solution? He does have Jesus tell Satan in Paradise Regain'd 1.434-5, "But what have been thy answers, what but dark / Ambiguous and with double sense deluding" (Sutton, page 3). A reader might therefore imagine that Milton favored simplicity and plainness in language, much as Sprat praised in the Royal Society's usage:
They have exacted from all their members, a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness: bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness, as they can. (Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London, 1667, page 113)
The "naked, natural way" would surely fit the prelapsarian Adam and Eve -- perhaps some of the other characteristics would as well -- and Mr. Sutton notes that "common view of critics, as expressed by Christ in Paradise Regain'd, is that ambiguity is a hallmark of the Satanic style" (Sutton, page 4), so a bit of mathematical plainness might help since Milton believed that "[t]he end . . . of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents" and "that language is . . . the instrument conveying to us things useful to be known" (Of Education).

Milton, however, has the Son use at least one pun, possibly several, as a passage from Mr. Sutton's paper demonstrates:
It is polyptoton that becomes the central pun technique of Milton's new poetic because it is the favoured technique of Christ. Polyptoton, is where a word is repeated but in a different case or inflection. As evidenced here, in book 3 [lines 144-155] of Paradise Lost where we first meet Christ:
O Father, gracious was that word which clos'd
Thy sovran sentence, that Man should find grace;
For which both Heav'n and Earth shall high extoll
Thy praises, with th'innumerable sound
Of Hymns and sacred Songs, wherewith thy Throne
Encompass'd shall resound thee ever blest.
For should Man finally be lost, should Man
Thy creature late so lov'd, thy youngest Son
Fall circumvented thus by fraud, though joynd
With his own folly? that be from thee farr,
That farr be from thee, Father, who art Judg
Of all things made, and judgest onely right.
. . . What I would claim is that polyptoton is a rhetorical technique that works in English but that it only carries the disruption of being a pun in some instances. The changing of 'gracious' to 'grace' and 'judge' to 'judgest' do not stike me as being puns but are instances of polyptoton. 'Sound' to 'resound', is a pun and a polyptoton. What polyptoton allows the poet to do is to utilize the polysemous potential of language by explicitly calling attention to the changing of the word and meaning. Instead of making one word, or one sound, or the repetition of one word carry multiple denotations, polyptoton allows multiple meanings to build up through multiple words. It shows how language is linked, how one sound is linked to another similar sound and how meanings are built up and differentiated. (Sutton, "Puns Lost, Puns Regain'd," pages 7-8)
Mr. Sutton admits of only one pun -- "resound" upon "sound" -- but of several instances of polyptoton, which are at least some sorts of wordplay. Punning and wordplay are thus not intrinsically qualities of fallen language, so long as they're not being used deceptively. All the more interesting, then, the following passage from Mr. Sutton:
Milton attempts to redeem language through Christ and . . . . [move] from a freer, Satanic, play to a more restrained, more focussed, Christ like play, where the ideal is not necessarily for one word one meaning -- that is a pipe dream, as Milton knew and Paradise Lost is a testament to that. Much of the power and sublimity of Paradise Lost comes from Milton's struggle to represent God, Christ, and Paradise through an imperfect, fallen, language. Milton, as I hope I have demonstrated in some small way in this paper, attempted to compensate for the Satanic elements in our fallen language through the use of polyptoton . . . . [and thereby] subdue the logic of the pun" (Sutton, "Puns Lost, Puns Regain'd," page 9).
I think that we can all see a taint of tension here in subduing the logic of the pun even while allowing the Son his one use of a pun in heaven. My point is that the 'fallenness' of language lies not in the polysemous quality of words but in the use of multiple meanings to deceive. I'd thus like to know more about what Mr. Sutton meant by "the Satanic elements in our fallen language."

Knowing that would offer food for thought . . .

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