Saturday, December 31, 2011

Story of Alan's life

From Alan Bennett's 2011 diary in the LRB (gated, I think; comes with peculiarly robotic-sounding podcast -- or perhaps that is how all podcasts sound, I rarely listen to any):
15 April. Seeing a banana skin on the pavement reminds me how when I first read the Dandy and the Beano the presence of a banana skin meant that inevitably it was going to be slipped on. No matter that at that time, in the early 1940s, few children had seen let alone eaten a banana, the skin was still shorthand for calamity. Other comic clichés were a fish, almost certain to be stolen by a cat and always represented as a perfect skeleton devoid of flesh but still with the head on; a string of sausages, destined to be grabbed by a dog, the sausages trailing from the dog’s mouth like a scarf in the wind; a bull (beware of) in a field, a billy goat similarly, with a ladder another portent of disaster.

21 May. A plumpish young man gets off the train at Leeds just behind me.
‘Aren’t you famous?’
‘Well I can’t be, can I, if you don’t know my name.’
‘It’s Alan something.’
‘From Scarborough?’
‘So which Alan are you?’
‘I’m another Alan.’
‘Are you just a lookalike?’
‘Well, you could say so.’
He pats my arm consolingly.
‘Be happy with that.’

14 October. Were I Adam Werritty and going into lobbying and PR I would have changed my name at the outset. Verity has the literal ring of truth about it, Adam Verity a dauntless fighter for justice, whereas all Werritty suggests is some anxious yapping dog which, whatever his faults, Werritty hardly seems to have been.

"'Tis well an old age is out, / And time to begin a new"

I thought of putting together a year-in-reading post but was confounded by the apparent length of this year, the sense that events in the psychological far past -- acquisition of Kindle, acquaintance with Cobbett -- really took place this March or April (the Kindle came about Apr. 15, I remember this because when I went home to collect it in the afternoon I found my landlady downstairs and said something about having to file my taxes). And it hasn't been a year that's defined by stuff I've read -- if anything, a year with swaths of mental paralysis cut through it, long intervals of staring at books and not registering a word -- although I discovered Thomas Bernhard [just noticed, and was amused by, his initials being TB] and Teju Cole. (Also: Cobbett, Saintsbury on prose rhythm, Flaubert's Parrot, Vertigo, The Ambassadors, two of Gissing's novels.)

Anyhow, it is a good time for a broader retrospective post, esp. because the year-end coincides with a "natural" break: I have just accepted a postdoc at Harvard, which I'll begin in the fall; while the thesis must still be written, I suppose I'm well into the home stretch. On this front at least, "things have turned out better / than I once expected or ever deserved"; I had multiple good options. Nevertheless, when I think back on the past five years or so the chief impression is one of waste, of time that I could have spent on various kinds of growth but did not, the sense that owing to my laziness I've been coming 

                                              to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted,

and that my immediate recourse to these lines -- which I might also have cited for similar reasons five years ago -- is further depressing evidence that they apply to me. But enough of this, it cannot be helped: one is less impressionable than one used to be -- people are -- and attempts to fight this are inherently limited. (One's memory is also less vivid than it used to be: it is appalling to think how little I remember of Proust. What else have I read as a grad student that really sticks in the memory? Lydia Davis, Thomas Browne, Urquhart's Rabelais, Sabbath's Theater, Hollinghurst. Muldoon's recent poetry -- especially this -- and fragments of Geoffrey Hill and Charles Wright. I went through a phase, in 2008 perhaps, when I bought a large amount of contemporary poetry; seems to me now that I only remember the titles of the books. Reading this list, I suspect that one thing I should definitely have read more of is literary criticism and/or philosophy.)

I am glad on the whole that I went to grad school in physics, and a little surprised that I've enjoyed the "work" aspect of it. (I cannot say much in defense of life in central Illinois, though.) I was fortunate to stumble quite blindly into an area -- in a field that I had been drawn to for its difficulty and lack of obvious correspondence with my strengths -- where taste and wide reading mattered as much as analytical ability, and to have an advisor who let me pick my own problems. I was fortunate to pick up the learning on the cheap, by going to talks rather than reading papers -- UIUC being fairly central in my field -- and especially by getting to spend fall 2010 in Santa Barbara where I was deluged with information at workshops and conferences. And I was fortunate, above all, that innumerable things did not go wrong that anyone acquainted with many grad students knows can easily go wrong. (I suppose some of this text will be reused in thesis acknowledgments.)

Which brings us to 2011, which was a strange year. (As a coherent unit it began Dec 18 2010 when I arrived in Chicago without an overcoat.) I had finished the paper that will presumably be most of my thesis in July 2010, and had spent the fall thinking of other things but mostly going to talks and meeting people; meanwhile the advisor decided to move to Atlanta, so when I came back I was in effect in the position of a postdoc without a group. I couldn't at that point have applied for any of the really nice fellowships -- deadlines tend to be Oct/Nov -- so the choices were (a) get a temporary postdoc and apply for fellowships in a year; (b) move to Atlanta; (c) stay on in Urbana and soldier on. Option (c) was the most appealing as it didn't involve moving, but also the most sensible as it turns out: really the imperative was to position myself optimally for the job market this year, and moving/completing thesis were much less useful than getting as much research done and published as I could. (Did not quite meet expectations but didn't fail completely either.) Esp. with the departure of two good friends in the summer and the encroachment on a third of child-rearing duties, I've had a wealth of solitude that I'm afraid I've mostly spent drifting about the internet, tweeting maniacally, and -- esp. in the fall -- inspecting the publication record of everyone who ever got a postdoc I wanted. I do not know if it was the solitude or the anxiety, but I have never had such an infertile year intellectually -- I cannot think of a single good idea.

But that's all over for now, and I can return, I hope, to attacking various things like a shark. I don't know when I'll be defending/moving yet, but it won't be until the summer: long enough to kippleize my surroundings a little further, write two or three papers, fill out some reimbursement forms, and figure out how to format a thesis according to UIUC registrar's specs. For the moment at least, I vaguely look forward to it.

(Previous, similar posts here and here.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Loose connections (a principled take)

Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible. -- Virginia Woolf

(This quote occupies a rather prominent place in the chambers of my mind; my interests coincide fairly well with the category of "things that are attached to life at all four corners.")

Michael Dummett has died; I was convinced I had blogged about him but I can't find the post. He was an interesting character -- analytic philosopher, Tarot expert, and more -- but I knew him primarily through a 1975 essay on "The Philosophical Basis of Intuitionistic Logic" that was in a book of philosophy-of-math readings. It appealed very strongly to me because Dummett's views ratified my biased belief that all the interesting problems in analytic philosophy could be restated as problems in the philosophy of mathematics. A few highlights (I realize that this is old hat for a lot of people, but it was my first exposure to late Wittgenstein -- late W. is a difficult writer and I needed someone to Dummett down for me): here he is describing the sort of theory of meaning an intuitionist could hold --

A model of meaning is a model of understanding, i.e. a representation of what it is that is known when an individual knows the meaning. Now knowledge of the meaning of a particular symbol or expression is frequently verbalisable knowledge, that is, knowledge which consists in the ability to state the rules in accordance with which the expression or symbol is used or the way in which it may be replaced by an equivalent expression or sequence of symbols. But to suppose that, in general, a knowledge of meaning consisted in verbalisable knowledge would involve an infinite regress: if a grasp of the meaning of an expression consisted, in general, in the ability to state its meaning, then it would be impossible for anyone to learn a language who was not already equipped with a fairly extensive language. Hence that knowledge which, in general, constitutes the understanding of the language of mathematics must be implicit knowledge. Implicit knowledge cannot, however, meaningfully be ascribed to someone unless it is possible to say in what the manifestation of that knowledge consists: there must be an observable difference between the behaviour or capacities of someone who is said to have that knowledge and someone who is said to lack it. Hence it follows, once more, that a grasp of the meaning of a mathematical statement must, in general, consist of a capacity to use that statement in a certain way, or to respond in a certain way to its use by others.
This essay was the first thing I'd read pointing out the similarity between Quine's philosophy of language and Hilbert's chronologically earlier -- earlier, btw, than Woolf -- philosophy of mathematics (both "holistic" in some sense -- see below -- and both of which must be rejected, as Dummett argues, by the "intuitionist" view).
it is not that a statement or even a theory has, as it were, a primal meaning which then gets modified by the interconnections that are established with other statements and other theories; rather, its meaning simply consists in the place which it occupies in the complicated network which constitutes the totality of our linguistic practices. [...] Frequently such a holistic view. is modified to the extent of admitting a class of observation statements which can be regarded as more or less directly registering our immediate experience, and hence as each carrying a determinate individual content. These observation statements lie, in Quine’s famous image of language, at the periphery of the articulated structure formed by all the sentences of our language, where alone experience impinges. [...]

For Hilbert, a definite individual content, according to which they may be individually judged as correct or incorrect, may legitimately be ascribed only to a very narrow range of statements of elementary number theory [sg. Hilbert was talking about operations like addition of integers etc. which one can "verify" with reference to collections of carrots, sticks, and the like]:  these correspond to the observation statements of the holistic conception of language. All other statements of mathematics are devoid of such a content, and serve only as auxiliaries, though psychologically indispensable auxiliaries, to the recognition as correct of the finitistic statements which alone are individually meaningful.
(The connection with Virginia Woolf should be obvious.) Dummett goes on to suggest that if one rejects this sort of holistic view -- for which there are various reasons, Godel's incompleteness theorems not least among them -- one might find a path to a revisionist theory of meaning. I'm not going to bother with the argument here, interesting as it is (some of it also amusingly echoes his prescriptivist views on grammar in Grammar and Style (1993)); just one more amusing snippet:
The [conventional notion of mathematical truth] does not provide for inflections of tense or mood of the predicate ‘is true’: it has been introduced only as a predicate as devoid of tense as are all ordinary mathematical predicates; but its role in our language does not reveal why such inflections of tense or even of mood should be forbidden.
Finally I should mention that the Hilbert-Woolf-Quine metaphor comes up rather widely in discussions of mathematics; not just its validity but its value, as in this remark of Michael Atiyah's (quoted by Gowers, who is explicitly a Hilbertian formalist, though Atiyah probably isn't):
the ultimate justi cation for doing mathematics is intimately related with its overall unity. If we grant that, on purely utilitarian grounds, mathematics justi es itself by some of its applications, then the whole of mathematics acquires a rationale provided it remains a connected whole. 
(I have always tended to hold something approaching this view about physics, but it is far less popular in the physics community -- partly because the appeal to direct applications is easier, partly because a fair number of physicists believe it is obvious that new theories supersede old ones rather than adding to them, a view that I have never been in complete sympathy with.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Interesting Guardian article about CasaPound, an Italian fascist group named after the Pound:

[Pound's] daughter is now taking action to defend his reputation after an Italian fascist organisation named itself after the poet.
Mary de Rachewiltz, 86, has launched a lawsuit to force the far-right group CasaPound, which has about 5,000 members, to change its name.
"A politically compromised organisation like this has no business using the name Pound," said De Rachewiltz, who lives in a hilltop castle in northern Italy where she reads The Cantos to students.
Taking a lead from Pound's fascist ideals and denouncement of usury, CasaPound campaigns for cheap public housing but has been accused of attracting violent supporters. A Rome member was arrested last month on suspicion of assaulting leftwing activists.
[...]De Rachewiltz responded: "Pound was not leftwing or rightwing and you have to understand The Cantos to understand that. It is also a question of style. I have seen pictures of their shaven-headed leader and it does not impress me."

"The gray world of adulthood"

From Amy Clampitt, "Black buttercups":
under the same roof the memory of
a legendary comfort had endowed
with what in retrospect would seem
like safety, did the rumor
of unhappiness arrive? I remember waking,
a February morning leprous with frost
above the dregs of a halfhearted snowfall,
to find the gray world of adulthood
everywhere, as though there never
had been any other, in that same house
I could not bear to leave, where even now
the child who wept to leave still sits
weeping at the thought of exile.
(Vaguely topical as we had our first appreciable snowfall of the year this morning.)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The arbitrariness of the sign made flesh

Two passages I'm fond of that remind me very much of each other (both are about growing up in small island countries; I do not know if there is an Anthology of Island Writing out there (or a Treatise on the Insular Bildungsroman), but it seems to me that someone should put one together) --

V.S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival:
We lived, in Trinidad, among advertisements for things that were no longer made or, because of the war and the difficulties of transport, had ceased to be available. [...] Many of the advertisements in Trinidad were for old-fashioned remedies and "tonics." They were on tin, these advertisements, and enameled. They were used as decorations in shops and, having no relation to the goods offered for sale, they grew to be regarded as emblems of the shopkeeper's trade. Later, during the war, when the shanty settlement began to grow in the swampland to the east of Port of Spain, these enameled tin advertisements were used sometimes as building material.

So I was used to living in a world where the signs were without meaning, or without the meaning intended by their makers. It was of a piece with the abstract, arbitrary nature of my education, like my ability to "study" French or Russian cinema without seeing a film, an ability which was, as I have said, like a man trying to get to know a city from its street map alone.

What was true of Trinidad seemed to be true of other places as well. In the book sections of some of the colonial emporia of Port of Spain there would be a shelf or two of the cheap wartime Penguin paperbacks [...] It never struck me as odd that at the back of these wartime Penguins there should sometimes be advertisements for certain British things -- chocolates, shoes, shaving cream -- that had never been available in Trinidad and were now (because of the war, as the advertisements said) no longer being made; such advertisements were being put in by the former manufacturers only to keep their brand names alive during the war, and in the hope that the war would turn out well.

Now here's Halldor Laxness, in The Fish Can Sing:
This was about the time, not long after the Boer War, when the Barbed-wire Age was beginning in Iceland. This special commodity, which is banned by law in most countries except for military purposes and was indeed said to have been invented during the Boer War, has pacified the Icelanders more than any other foreign product one could name; and whereas in other countries there are severe penalties for putting this wretched stuff up in the open in peacetime, in Iceland barbed wire became the most desirable luxury commodity in the land for a while, next only to alcohol and cement. There are few things over which the nation has united so wholeheartedly as stringing this glorious material round every part of the land, over hill and dale, heath and moor, right up to the mountaintops and out to the farthest sea-cliffs. At first, many people behaved as the Boers had done towards the English, and simply climbed over the barbed wire whenever they came to it, but then the Althing passed a law declaring barbed wire to be inviolate in Iceland. [...]

After great detours and many digressions and the usual boys' dawdling for much of the day, we eventually reached some hillocks to the southeast of the horse-moors. There were a few scattered farms around, some up on the hills and others in the grassy hollows or dales, and the lands belonging to these farms were festooned with barbed wire for their full length and breadth.

One of the farms there was called Hvammskot. We halted on the bank of a stream just outside the home-field, where a strong barbed-wire fence had been erected -- quite at random, as far as one could see. And as we were standing there, out of sight behind a knoll, one of us volunteered the information that anyone who crossed a fence of this kind would be fined ten kronur.

We quickly agreed that it would be fun to risk a death-leap which was valued at such a high price. And because this crime had all the fascination that any kind of gambling has when there is money involved, we all set to and began jumping over the barbed wire. I will not say that the deed was done entirely without palpitations, and indeed we had a lookout posted to see if there were any spies about; but as we had really suspected all along, no one noticed the outrage we were committing, and no fines were imposed on us. [...] It was still not nearly suppertime when each and all of us had become prosperous from unclaimed ten-kronur fines.
[On this topic cf. Michael Wood on Joyce and Carroll:
But Carroll has a taste for sheer absurdity, the collapse or travesty of plausible meaning, whereas Joyce, as far as I can tell, wants only to multiply meanings [...] the famous arbitrariness of the sign: ‘a “borogove” is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round – something like a live mop.’ Try working that out from the name. Compared with these astonishing jinks Joyce’s antics can look almost reasonable. In relation to ‘jabberwocky’, say, a ‘jibberweek’ seems quite familiar – we’ve all had one of those. And when Joyce recites the names of days, they too sound like many days we’ve known: ‘moanday, tearsday, wailsday, thumpsday, frightday, shatterday’. Sunday is safe for the moment; safe because unmentioned.]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The poor, the sleepless, the wet, and the cramped

1. A Thomas Bernhard story, "Two Tutors" -- as good a place to start reading Bernhard as any, though of course there is no excuse for not reading Wittgenstein's Nephew, which is short -- with some instantly recognizable Bernhard touches:
“If you can imagine,” he said,  “that already as a child I had to lie in bed awake for ten, twelve nights in a row, dead tired, without being able to sleep. An adult,” he said,  “can, thanks to his intelligence, control his sleeplessness, make it ridiculous. Not a child. A child is at the mercy of sleeplessness.” Above the New Gate, without as usual looking down vertically on the town, we turned, as every day, to the right, not to the left: he wants to turn right, turns right, so I also turn right, because at this point above the New Gate he has always turned right, he now no longer dares turn left, I think . . . It is up to me, one day to turn left, then he too will turn left, follow me, because he is the weaker of the two of us. . . For the same reason I have now for weeks been following him to the right . . . Why? The next time I’ll simply turn left, then he too will turn left . . . The time when I can be useful to him when as usual I allow him to turn right, follow him to the right, is over, I think, now I only harm him, when I let him turn right and follow him . . . He no longer has the strength all at once to turn left . . . Shortly after the fork he said:  “What I said to you regarding my sleeplessness is related to my discharge from the Innsbruck establishment, in which, as you know, I was employed until the beginning of the holidays.” He said,  “All my life I have led only an awful life, and it is my right to lead an awful life, and this awful life is my sleeplessness . . . But now, the story which led to my discharge from the Innsbruck establishment. Like all my stories it begins with my inability to sleep. I was unable to fall asleep. I take many drugs, but no drug helps me any more. I had,” he said,  “walked for hours along the north bank with my students. We were all tired. My eyes open, incapable of distracting myself by reading, at the mercy of my lifelong sleeplessness, I was gripped by the most despicable thoughts and said to myself again and again: they sleep, I don’t sleep, they sleep, I don’t sleep, I don’t sleep, they sleep, I don’t sleep . . . This boarding school silence, this dreadful silence emanating from the dormitories . . .
 2. A Christmas tree made of pencils; other things similarly constructed but merely rectangular:

3. Epic floods in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. (I'll put up a link to a relief/donations page when I can find one.)

4. Mike Konczal quotes T.M. Scanlon on the non-transferability of social obligations:
The strength of a stranger’s claim on us for aid in the fulfillment of some interest depends upon what that interest is and need not be proportional to the importance he attaches to it. The fact that someone would be willing to forgo a decent diet in order to build a monument to his god does not mean that his claim for aid in his project has the same strength as a claim for aid in obtaining enough to eat (even assuming that the sacrifices required on others would be the same). Perhaps a person does have some claim on others for assistance in a project to which he attaches such great importance. All I need maintain is that it does not have the weight of a claim to aid in the satisfaction of a truly urgent interest even if the person in question assigns these interests equal weight.
This makes sense at first glance but I am not sure I want to agree with it; as a descriptive statement it comes down to the observation that people are "paternalistic" towards other people (they're willing to "help" but only in matters in which they can imagine themselves wanting to be helped -- i.e., a typical limits-of-empathy problem). So the distinction most people would make between helping with the food and the monument is a moral failing in my book. Speaking of food, I recently came upon this Economist blog post:
as [Duflo and Banerjee] remark, “things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor”. They tell the story of meeting a Moroccan farmer, Oucha Mbarbk. They ask him what would he do if he had a bit more money. Buy some more food, came the reply. What would he do if he had even more money? Buy better, tastier food. “We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family when we noticed a television, a parabolic antenna and a DVD player.” Why had he bought all this if he didn’t have enough money for food? “He laughed and said ‘Oh, but television is more important than food.’”
As Sarah Duff recently said, Orwell has been here:
The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread…? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.  … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! ... Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the Englishman’s opium.
Scanlon would say, I suppose, that there's no obligation to let the poor buy the food they want. In a sense this is true: redistribution followed by frivolous use makes for bad politics; even non-fungible transfers to the poor are better than no transfers, and have the advantage of being politically (somewhat) safe. As a point of morality, however, I disagree, for reasons prev. discussed. (One could make a non-utilitarian argument for Scanlonian redistribution on the grounds that it reinforces civic participation or whatnot but I'm not interested in this line of thought.) The apparent broader lesson is that although redistribution and nannying are different issues in principle, they are largely the same issue in practice because people suck and are censorious/nosy. It is not clear what one can do about this: to the extent that morals are immutable, one either has to make pre-transfer outcomes much more equal (presumably by cleverly redefining the concept of transfers, or by intervening in economic activity) or give up on the issue.

(Perhaps because I have never attempted to run a business and have no interest in doing so, I'm not bothered by the idea of heavy economic regulations on corporations if the ultimate result is to give poor people more freedom to eat unhealthy food. I fear that this will always be a minority view.)

Friday, December 23, 2011


Recent reading has thrown up a cluster of bilaterally related stuff that more thought could perhaps assemble into a complete picture. For now I'll just provide the list.

First, Michael Wood, writing about the future of universities in the LRB:
If we can’t speak the language of our enemies, not only will they not listen to us – they might not listen to us anyway – but they can’t. We need to be saying things they could hear if they would listen. ‘They’, by the way, includes all kinds of people within universities as well as outside them. But what if we can’t speak that language without losing the battle? What if the very language wins the battle by definition? What if we can’t speak of cost-effectiveness because we don’t understand either cost or effect in the way our enemies do?
Amusingly, an article about Michael Polanyi in the same issue suggests what the right language might be:
Michael thought, with few exceptions, that political meddling with a self-organising economy was wrong and destructive. (Nye notes that Michael Polanyi, Hayek and von Mises were all using the notion of ‘spontaneous order’ at that time, and while it has been claimed that Polanyi’s scientifically derived concept had priority, the usage was common in 19th-century European liberal thought.) [...] Scientific research, in its essential nature, is spontaneous, self-directing and self-organising, driven on only by its ‘internal necessities’ [...] Bernal talked of the freedom of necessity, while Polanyi asserted the necessity of freedom. Scientific autonomy had historically been a substantial fact and it had proved its rightness.

In other words, the argument against planning science -- either central or corporate -- is formally the same invisible-hand argument that the right uses to argue against planning the economy, and that "Burkeans" have used for various purposes. (It is trivial to generalize this argument to some aspects of the humanities, certainly the creative arts.) Of course, it would be silly for me to expect anyone on the contemporary right to find this persuasive, but that simply indicates the extent to which ideology is subservient to class warfare in politics (and probably has always been).

The article goes on to describe Polanyi's irrationalist defense of science:
The notion of ‘connoisseurship’ hasn’t often been attached to scientific judgment, but Polanyi repeatedly did just that: ‘Connoisseurship, like skill, can be communicated only by example, not by precept. To become an expert wine-taster, to acquire a knowledge of innumerable different blends of tea or to be trained as a medical diagnostician, you must go through a long course of experience under the guidance of a master.’ And so too to become a scientist.

Science is a vast fiduciary system. Scientists know what they do by finding trustworthy sources and then trusting them. It is also what Polanyi called a polycentric system, in which autonomous and only loosely co-ordinated groups of specialists – mildly sceptical and mainly trusting – periodically keep an eye out for what is going on next door. The coherence and integrity of the body of scientific knowledge arise through these processes of mutual adjustment. Finally, the bases of scientific judgment cannot be completely articulated because the ‘tacit dimension’ is ineliminable. It is not a fly in the formal ointment; it is what makes science science. You would understand that, Polanyi suggested, if you knew what it was to be ‘confronted with the anxious dilemma of a live scientific issue’. The further away you are from the quotidian life of scientific practice, the more you tend to be infatuated with myths of method.

Nye convincingly argues that the major purpose of Polanyi’s anti-rationalist philosophy of science was political and, specifically, that it was meant to counter Communist visions of hierarchical control. The political machinery of Communist planning proceeded through rational and formal method and it presumed rational and formal method in the object of planning. Conceptions of effective method had been devised to celebrate science, but in the middle of the 20th century they were having the unintended consequence of making people think they could command and control scientific inquiry in whatever direction they thought society needed. But you cannot plan and co-ordinate practices that are in their nature self-organising and whose most basic judgments are not formally specifiable. It was not just that a proper understanding of the nature of science was necessary to defend it; a proper understanding of science could contribute to the defence of liberal society as a whole: ‘The world needs science today above all as an example of the good life. Spread out over the planet scientists form even today, though submerged by disaster, the body of a great and good society.’ The fabric of science was political.
(When I hear "the fabric of science" I inevitably think of nylon.)

The bit in bold reminded me instantly of Michael Wood summarizing Auden:
Art can’t redeem the world, and that is why we must be modest about it. But it can show us what redemption would look like, and this is why it matters.
And thence, by a relatively short step, to Auden, in "Streams," writing about the innocent anarchic nature of water, which
    tells of a sort of world, quite other,
  altogether different from this one

with its envies and passports, a polis like that
to which, in the same of scholars everywhere,
   Gaston Paris pledged his allegiance
  as Bismarck's siege-guns came within earshot.

(There is an interesting tension here between the idea of art or science as romantic, spontaneous effusion that is implicit in this line of "spontaneous order" thinking, and the more common idea in Auden that the redemption is hard work, that it is something arrived at by a painful process of discipline. It is hard to think of redemption in non-Arcadian terms. The art/nature contrast and the planning/spontaneity contrast are not quite the same because traditional ways of life or scientific practice, which are spontaneously ordered, quite seamlessly include many very artificially organized activities. Conservatism is on this reading chiefly opposed to glibness -- David Brooks often says or implies this, but of course it is nothing if not glib to conflate this kind of view with the politics of the contemporary right.)

But to return to Polanyi. Shapin doesn't say this but his views on science are reasonably common among theoretical physicists; a good example is Steven Weinberg on scientific beauty in Dreams of a Final Theory:
A physicist who says that a theory is beautiful does not mean quite the same thing that would be meant in saying that a particular painting or a piece of music or poetry is beautiful. It is not merely a personal expression of aesthetic pleasure; it is much closer to what a horse trainer means when he looks at a racehorse and says that it is a beautiful horse. The horse trainer is of course expressing a personal opinion, but it is an opinion about an objective fact [...] that this is the kind of horse that wins races.

And elsewhere, flogging the horse metaphor on PBS:
The horse breeder has seen lots of horses and from experience with horses knows that that's the kind of horse that wins races. [...] So it's an aesthetic sense that's been beaten into us by centuries of interaction with nature.
(Weinberg's thoughts on this topic are stimulating but I disagree with them -- I think a majority of theoretical physicists nowadays would dispute the plausibility of "rigidity" as a criterion -- and I fear that it is ultimately just another example of the depressing trend where very successful people over-generalize from their success.)

I'm not sure how much weight any of these ideas individually bears, but I think they form an interesting strand in the history of 20th century liberalism.

Streaked and rayed

Gavin Ewart, "Little girl writes a sonnet about her dead cat" (link asks for password, I recommend not following it -- poem is via Calista, who also offered a culinary interpretation of Lowell's "cured, I am frizzled, stale and small"):
That there's Cat Heaven, kitten-having-fun,
I don't believe---where any cat can lie
stretched out like streaky bacon, always fed,
happy and purring in perpetual sun.
(Arrgh purr-petual!)

Wallace Stevens, "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle":
Our bloom is gone. We are the fruits thereof.
 Two golden gourds distended on our vines,
 Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost,
 Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque.
 We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed,
 The laughing sky will see the two of us
 Washed into rinds by rotting winter rains.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Porcine, peregrine, passerine

(Further adventures in naming and necessity)

1. From the Times archive (1828), a story about "Mr Hogsflesh, the Sapient Pig":
One day last week a man of the name of Hogsflesh, a vender of fish about the streets of Lewes, who, from the singular coincidence of his name and disposition, has obtained the nickname of the Sapient Pig, undertook for a trifling wager to eat a raw rabbit, which he devoured as hungrily as a ploughman would a beef-steak pudding, picking the head and legs in clever style. He is in a short time to eat a cat in the same raw state, for which purpose he has had a tooth drawn, which troubled him when tearing to pieces his raw meal.

2. I was delighted by this term in a PRL that came out today [Bailung et al., PRL 107, 255005 (2011); for solitons see here; cf. peregrine falcons, Peregrine Pickle...]
Peregrine analyzed the [non-linear Schrodinger equation] ... It has been suggested that rogue waves in the ocean are related to what are now called Peregrine solitons. Peregrine solitons have been observed in nonlinear fiber optics experiments [8]. They have also recently been observed in deep water wave experiments performed in a water tank.

3. I was also instantly reminded of Passerine's tanager (more commonly Passerini's but never mind that), a name that borders on tautology (tanagers being by definition passerines). (HT Jenny Davidson.)

4. The Philip Larkin toads trail in Hull (via Calista). It seems to me that there's a crude chiasmus in the fact that Larkin had a toad squatting on him, while Toad of Toad Hall was on a perpetual lark.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


From the bear section of "Flaubert's Bestiary," in F's Parrot by Julian Barnes:
From the chef to Their Majesties of Prussia Dumas obtained a recipe for bear's paws, Moscow style. Buy the paws skinned. Wash, salt, and marinade for three days. Casserole with bacon and vegetables for seven or eight hours; drain, wipe, sprinkle with pepper, and turn in melted lard. Roll in breadcrumbs and grill for half an hour. Serve with a piquant sauce and two spoonfuls of redcurrant jelly.

It is not known whether Flaubear ever ate his namesake. He ate dromedary in Damascus in 1850. It seems a reasonable guess that if he had eaten bear he would have commented on such ipsophagy. 
From a fascinating LRB piece (prob. gated) on the medicinal properties attributed to human remains:
[Richard Sugg] makes disturbing revelations about the eagerness of the English to see the numerous bodies littering the war-torn countryside of Stuart Ireland as ‘a reservoir of profitable corpse materials’ – especially the usnea moss that grew on unburied skulls. As his account of the popularity of skull moss indicates, Sugg’s interest in corpse medicine reaches well beyond mumia to inspect all those strange concoctions of human tissue and waste favoured by early modern pharmacology: blood, ground skulls, crushed brains and human fat, not to mention ‘hair, nails, lice, sperm, saliva, milk, sweat, tapeworms, stones, urine and excrement’, ingredients which suggest that the potions contrived by the Earl of Rochester in his notorious impersonation of a quack – as Dr Bendo – may not have had the purely satiric intention usually attributed to them. By the same token, Sugg’s vivid accounts of epilepsy sufferers rushing to consume the blood gushing from the bodies of executed felons gives an unexpectedly literal twist to Hamlet’s ‘now could I drink hot blood.’

The health-giving virtues widely attributed to such sanguinary draughts suggest, he writes, ‘an uncertain but intriguing link with the most successful demon of postmodern culture, the vampire’. This is a connection Sugg follows through the prescriptions of the 18th-century Irish clergyman and amateur physician John Keogh, whom he calls ‘the cannibal priest’, to Bram Stoker. As well as mummy for green wounds, distillation of brains for epilepsy, and pulverised heart for apoplexy, Keogh recommended warm blood as a tonic for the falling sickness. In folk-belief Keogh’s prowess seems to have endowed the blood of all his descendants with mysterious properties, so that in 1883 William George Black recorded that Dubliners regarded Keogh blood as a proven remedy for the toothache, while an acquaintance claimed to know of a Belfast Keogh ‘whose flesh had actually been punctured scores of times to procure his blood’. Black does not explain to what use the dour bloodsuckers of Ulster might have put his vital fluid, but such rumours may have provided additional inspiration for the Dublin-born Bram Stoker.
Flaubert, of course, was epileptic, and is also reported to have said that "People are like food."

Two recent poems that are worth reading but have nothing to do with ipsophagy: "The World's Arm" by Brenda Shaughnessy and "Not Beyond All Conjecture" by John Ashbery.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Grief-bacon, contentment-bacon

Dept. of stuff Germans have words for:

1. The German for living the good life is "to live like a maggot in bacon." (Hanging Noodles)

2. The German word "kummerspeck" means "excess weight gained by emotional over-eating" and translates literally as "grief bacon." (Nick Confessore, twitter)

3. From a W.G. Sebald poem that appeared in the New Yorker sometime this year:

A young woman
came up to me
& said that al-
though on vacation
she had spent
all day at
the office
which unlike

her apartment was
air-conditioned &
as cold as the
morgue. There,
she said, I am
happy like an
opened up oyster
on a bed of ice.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


0. As a programming note, regular programming is back, as there's no imminent travel and won't be for a month or two.

1. Frances Cornford, "The Visit":
There is a bed-time sadness in this place
That seemed ahead so promising and sweet,
Almost like music calling us from home;

But now the staircase does not need our feet,
The drawer is ignorant of my brush and comb
The mirror quite indifferent to your face.
(I have always been vaguely fond of Cornford and of good Edwardian writing more generally -- Edward Thomas for example. Fleur Adcock brilliantly characterizes Cornford and her ilk as the "more ladylike" poets of the period; it is worth realizing that this description is not in itself an insult.)

2. from Yves Bonnefoy, "The Tomb of Paul Verlaine":
Humble, out of simple pride, he agreed
To be for others just a mirror
Whose tarnished silver would filter the sky.

Let them see that the sky was in him
At its reddest through the evening leaves
As the pigeons’ cooing darkens. 
Via the indispensable seventydys on twitter.

3. Yet another argument in favor of booze (MetaFilter, via D. Avid):
More commonly known as rat lungworm, Angiostrongylus cantonensis is widespread in Southeast Asia and Africa. A growing problem is the spread of this parasite by the giant African land snail. Rat lungworm is known to cause disease in humans, but previously was confined mostly to those who had consumed a Thai dish called koi-hoi containing raw snail meat. Lovers of raw snails need not despair however, a study shows that ingesting alcohol along with your snails lowers the number of viable parasites.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Rewrite man"

Christopher Logue has died. I was never an unconditional admirer of War Music but have always sort of seen what others like about it; and some bits of description have stuck with me:
Achilles saw his armor in that instant
And its ominous radiance flooded his heart.
  Bright pads with toggles crossed behind the knees,
Bodice of fitted tungsten, pliable straps;
His shield as round and rich as moons in spring;
His sword's haft parked between sheaves of gray obsidian
From which a lucid blade stood out, leaf-shaped, adorned
With running spirals.
  And for his head a welded cortex; yes,
Though it is noon, the helmet screams against the light;
Scratches the eye; so violent it can be seen
Across three thousand years.
Apparently Logue was a colorful character:

In the 1940s he even penned a pornographic novel, entitled Lust, under the nom de plume Count Palmiro Vicarion.

His poems were set to music by both jazz musicians and in ballads by Donovan and Joan Baez.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Some cemeteries are beefing up patrols"

Follow-up on a couple of recent posts:

1. The WSJ picks up the Tribune story I previously linked to, re the recent urn theft fad.

On a recent day, Mr. Snook showed a visitor what the grave looked like when he discovered the theft this summer—with a gaping hole in the middle of the handsome marker where the vase should have been—and how the replacement vase now fits in.

"I think she'd like that we got a replacement and fixed it up so we can put her flowers in there," he said.
Obligatory Thomas Browne quote:
He that lay in a golden urn eminently above the earth, was not like to find the quiet of his bones. Many of these urns were broke by a vulgar discoverer in hope of enclosed treasure. The ashes of Marcellus were lost above ground, upon the like account. Where profit hath prompted, no age hath wanted such miners. For which the most barbarous expilators found the most civil rhetorick. Gold once out of the earth is no more due unto it; what was unreasonably committed to the ground, is reasonably resumed from it; let monuments and rich fabricks, not riches, adorn men’s ashes. The commerce of the living is not to be transferred unto the dead; it is not injustice to take that which none complains to lose, and no man is wronged where no man is possessor.
2. Having blogged about ASJ Tessimond I have an excuse to quote this letter in the new LRB:
Tessimond’s father died in 1936; it was on the occasion of his mother’s death in 1942 that the poet received the inheritance that he subsequently spent on chorus girls and analysts. I am writing a biography of the poet and have access to his unpublished journal, where he recalls this figure being nearer £7000. It is ironic that the money should have come from his mother: most of the analysts believed she was the cause of his problems.
James Bainbridge
University of Liverpool

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cigarette lighter or squid?

The epigraph of Paul Muldoon's translation of Baudelaire's "Albatross" is from this BBC story:
Nearly two million Laysan albatrosses live [in the Midway Islands] and researchers have come to the staggering conclusion that every single one contains some quantity of plastic. [...] He explained how some chicks never develop the strength to fly off the islands to search for food because their stomachs are filled with plastic. [...] Many albatrosses are found to have swallowed disposable cigarette lighters - which look remarkably similar to their staple food of squid. 
I can't see the resemblance myself, but it is exactly the sort of association that belongs in a Paul Muldoon poem. I've skimmed through the new volume, Maggot; it offers the usual pleasures, but there are perhaps too many stunt poems, e.g., sonnet sequences that exhaust all possible rhymes for a word. (I guess I was also expecting more maggots!) Nevertheless, if you like reading about someone "malformed in his formaldehyde" this is very much the kind of book you should read; the sequence on "The Humors of Hakone" in particular is very good. One of the best poems in the new volume, "Love poem with pig," is here; "Quail" is available here and used to be on Muldoon's website for a long time.

(Needless to say I'd welcome any insight into why/which cigarette lighters look remarkably like squid.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"The psychological or human 'beginning'"

I was strongly influenced (as an undergraduate?) by this remark of Helen Vendler's about Stevens:
I do violence to these lines in detaching them from what precedes and follows them, but I do so for a reason. More often than not, the human pang in Stevens is secreted inconspicuously in the poem, instead of being announced in the title or in the opening lines. It is the usual, if mistaken, way of the commentators to begin at the beginning and take Stevens's metaphysical or epistemological prolegomena as the real subject of the poem, when in fact they are the late plural of the subject, whose early candor of desire reposes further down the page. And so I isolate what I take to be the psychological or human "beginning" of the poem, its point of origin in feeling...

This was extremely useful advice: Stevens was an acquired taste for me, and even now I find that I usually have to rearrange a Stevens poem before I can appreciate it or understand why it is put together the way it is. There is a peculiar similarity here with the business of appreciating mathematical proofs, which I was reminded of by something Gowers said in his recent (and very good) post on proving the unique prime factorization theorem:
I worry sometimes that accounts like this of how a proof might be discovered can be off-puttingly long. So it’s important to stress that the actual proofs are much much shorter. Here’s how the proof that the above thoughts lead to ends up. I’ll just do the uniqueness part, and I’ll write the whole thing in logical order, which is more or less the reverse of the order in which one discovers the steps.
I am sympathetic to the idea that real appreciation is never without an element of reverse engineering, or of hypothetical intellectual history: the completed work in itself might offer some immediate delight, but to go any further you need to have some theory, accurate or not, of how it might have been arrived at, and why it was then organized as it was. (Notable exception here: Milton. But then I think of Paradise Lost as pure verbal texture a la Campion's songs.) I imagine that this is a more tenable procedure with a poem or a proof than it is with, e.g., a novel.

It has always struck me as a regrettable deficiency -- maybe a necessary one -- of education in math and physics that there is very little intellectual history, and I think it is fair to say that many practicing physicists are not connoisseurs by temperament; there is a widespread tendency to regard historical aspects as "impractical" -- which they are, for premeds and engineers -- though I have always found it invaluable to have a sense of how people have gone about doing things. (My views on pedagogy are too uninformed and too reactionary to discuss safely in public.)

[As an admin note I'll be traveling the two weeks after Thanksgiving: Boston Nov. 26-30, New Jersey Nov. 30-Dec 2, New York that Friday night and part/all of Saturday, San Francisco Dec. 6-8. It is only mildly indiscreet to note that this is all job-quest-related to some extent; the old talk has been revised and will have to be practiced and touched up repeatedly; it is against the culture of physics to read out any part of a talk, so that, in practice, one has to memorize the first three or four agonizing minutes until one hits one's stride.]

Thursday, November 17, 2011

1Q66 and All That

Charles Baxter reviews Murakami's 1Q84 (NYRB):
the locale also includes two moons, miniature angels or demons (it is hard to tell which they are) referred to as “Little People,” ghosts knocking on the door demanding payment, insemination-by-proxy, and air chrysalises: cocoons created by the Little People in which pod-like human replicas, referred to as dohta, are hatched. 1Q84 is a marathon novel. (Murakami himself is a marathon runner and has said that “most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day.”)
But the Little People are "absolutely mystifying. It is as if the Seven Dwarfs had gradually made their presence known and their powers understood in a novel by James T. Farrell." I'm not sure I want to read this novel. (I've read very little Murakami, but have a vaguely favorable impression of what I've read -- read 2.2 novels in succession in 2009, then forgot my copy of Norwegian Wood between the sheets in a hotel room in Vannes, and never returned to his work.)

In other news, the Lethem-Wood plot has thickened, with James Wood responding to comments at the Millions -- I recommend Ctrl-F -- disconcertingly, Wood refers to himself in the third person and then seems surprised when other commenters refer to him as "'James Wood'". (Back-story: Lethem recently wrote a content-free whinge at the LARB (naturally) about a supposedly dishonest/elitist review by Wood ca. 2003; this got more coverage than it deserved because everyone likes to bait Wood.) I haven't read the comments, there are too many of them, but I am indebted to the (as-of-now) very last one, by "Edmond Caldwell," for a phrase -- revanchist domestication -- that accurately if uncharitably describes my approach to the more experimental stuff I like.

(Re post title see here.)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

"Not all good poetry is also 'important poetry'"

Mark Ford has a good article in the new LRB (gated) on A.S.J. Tessimond and Bernard Spencer, two largely forgotten English poets of the Auden generation; on the strength of the quotations, Tessimond seems reasonably worthwhile, Spencer less so. (Ford's remarks on Spencer seem muddled to me. Not only is all the quoted verse bristling with Audenesque phrases -- "a word or a lock which gunfire may not break, / Or a love whose range it may not take" -- but surely the idea that one couldn't write tentatively while under Auden's influence is refuted by the example of Louis MacNeice.) Anyway, here is Ford on Tessimond:
Tessimond can’t be said to have developed as a poet in any clearly discernible way, and it’s not easy when reading his posthumously published poems to decide which is early, which middle and which late. All seem buoyed up by his wit and curiosity and compassion; this is especially surprising given that in middle age he developed severe manic depression and underwent extensive electric shock therapy.

And here are two Tessimond poems quoted in the article, both of which I like:
Letter from Luton

Dear Hubert,
                  Bored, malevolent and mute on
A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton
And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double
Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,
Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,
Manic depressive madness growing madder,
Cretins with hideous tropical diseases
And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes
From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes
Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,
And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on
And on and on and on.
                      Yours glumly,

In that cold land

Ghosts do not kiss, or, if they kiss, they feel
   Ice touching ice, and turn away, and shiver;
But there as here, perhaps, we still can steal
   Quietly off, and talk and talk for ever.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"The ambiguity of the apple"

Alan Garner remembers Alan Turing (Guardian):

He was stocky, barrel-chested, with a high-pitched, donnish voice and the aerodynamics of a brick. He was funny and witty and he talked endlessly, but I understood very little of what he was saying, and it became clear that he ran in order to think. He seemed to be obsessed by mathematics and biology. That much I could work out.

We had one thing in common: a fascination with Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, especially the transformation of the Wicked Queen into the Witch. He used to go over the scene in detail, dwelling on the ambiguity of the apple, red on one side, green on the other, one of which gave death. We had both been traumatised by Walt.
Also an appealing piece in Nature News, casting doubt on the claim (which I missed at the time) that cows are magnetic:
Three years ago, Hynek Burda, a zoologist at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, and his colleagues added cattle to the magnetic family with a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team used data from Google Earth to show that domestic cattle seem to prefer to align their bodies along Earth’s magnetic field lines1, and showed a similar phenomenon in field observations of deer. [...] Burda and his colleagues reanalysed the replication attempt by Jelinek and his colleagues4. Burda says that half of the Jelinek team's data should be excluded because some of the pastures are on slopes or near high-voltage power lines, for example, or because the images are too poor to make out cattle, or appear to contain hay bales or sheep instead. “One half of their data is just noise,” says Burda.
I wonder if Lydia Davis reads Nature News.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

"Death to me subscribes"

Thanks to my favorite twitter bot Willy Shakes, I discovered this Shakespeare sonnet, which I don't even remember having read before (though I must have) but now like very much indeed:


 Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I'll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes:
   And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
   When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent.

The last line is uncharacteristically good for a Shakespeare sonnet. I like the messing around with choriambs in the first two lines -- a stretch to call it a conscious rhythmical echo of "Exegi monumentum aere perennius," which the sonnet generally evokes, but it's very effective on its own terms. The second quatrain definitely refers -- to my mind -- to James I's peace with Spain ca. 1604, but there's some controversy about when exactly the poem was written. NB there is a very closely parallel passage by Drayton, who is more explicit about the events (Idea, LI):
Lastly mine eyes amazedly have seen
Essex's great fall, Tyrone his peace to gain;
The quiet end of that long-living Queen;
This King's fair entrance; and our peace with Spain,
We and the Dutch at length ourselves to sever.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Quite useful"

New issue of Science has a fascinating profile of the (depressive, hand-waving, enormously influential) evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers [Science 334, 589 (2011)]:
Stories of his reckless and aggressive side abound. He loves to use the words “fuck” and “motherfucker,” calling them quite useful, and he has gotten into public spats with many people over the years. Trivers can be brutally honest and plain rude, as many letters he has written to colleagues over the years testify.[...] Asked whether his discussion of Middle East politics might not turn off some people whom he might otherwise convince of his ideas, he just says, “Well, fuck 'em."

 Trivers has accused Brown, who he says was in charge of the statistics, of preselecting the dancers and changing the values on some of the dancers' measures of symmetry to get that result. Trivers has even written a short book about it that he sends to whoever cites the paper. Brown will only say that Rutgers is investigating the matter, and Nature has no comment.
A potentially useful aphorism:
“Did you know that the enjoyment of sex is actually correlated with sperm count in the ejaculate?” he asks. “So it is true that in old age you appreciate the smaller things more. There are no big things to enjoy anymore.”
According to the profile, "Most biologists spend their lives studying ants, geese, or other animals and then extend their conclusions to humans later in life. Trivers tended to start with humans." The profile in general reminds me of something I've always disliked about the human-and-mammal end of evolutionary biology, which is that people's scientific opinions are really worldviews -- and usually the worldviews that you would expect them to hold given their temperament and background. (Not surprising: as Lewontin remarked in an article -- NYRB? -- I cannot find, if your motives were scientific in the conventional sense you'd probably be studying plants.) Now there's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and you could even argue that the community picks out people whose worldviews happen to be good biology, but at a minimum it tends to blur the line between simplifying-one's-research and mouthing-off-in-general.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


From today's Chicago Tribune:
A routine burglary call at a South Side apartment building early Monday led police to an unusual find: 89 funeral vases and a metal plaque, allegedly stolen from area cemeteries. [...]

"I remember a while back … it hit the news that it was a big theft problem because of the value of the metal and the scrap prices," Malecki said.

Of mice and shoes

1. from Marianne Moore, "Silence":
Self reliant like the cat 
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth --
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
2. "Mice" in A.J. Snijders's Very Short Animal Stories (trans. Lydia Davis, in Asymptote):
A mouse inside a shoe is not a primal fear, not a trauma, but I do pay attention, all the same. It's because of the open roofs. I have a house with three tile roofs. They used to be haylofts, they were not timbered, the wind had to be allowed to blow through freely, against the heat and damp. Time and objectives change, I timbered one roof, gas was installed, the electricity went underground, drainage pipes were laid, but the mice stayed. The house is in the fields, there are mice everywhere. [...] Yesterday in a forgotten cupboard I found two pairs of shoes. I recognized them, old, but still useable. First I hold them by the tips, and I shake them—to be absolutely sure, I even poke them with a little piece of wood. Then I put them on; once my feet are inside them, I feel ten years younger, but that doesn't help, I'm still thinking about the oil, the energy, the mice, the people and the water.

I have a Google-reader-shaped hole in my heart, now that their latest shitty "update" has excised not only the social features but the "share with note" feature I used to make clippings. For now I've made a new tumblr that should serve some of the same purposes (via GReader's "send to" feature), but it is more work and doesn't work nearly as well. The malign Google+, which is cannibalizing all of Google's other "social" features in a futile attempt to compete with Facebook, is apparently to blame... I fear for the future of Google chat.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Swimming and glasses

From Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Folding Star:
Part of the misery of swimming was that you couldn't do it in glasses; the surrender to cold water followed immediately on the surrender to a world of vague distances and confused identities, and as I stood squinting down the lanes in the dim hope of picking out Matt's dark head I had a moment's foretaste of the fears of the old, as you see them smiling anxiously against imagined threats and half-heard ridicule. [...] The showers were functional and fierce, a yellow-tiled room with six fixed nozzles and high up in one wall a narrow strip of meshed window that could be tugged open by a chain. I was amazed to pick up, through the crash of the water and the suck and wheeze of the drain, the putter of a boat's engine and a brief reek of burnt fuel. A canal must lie just outside, perhaps lapping against the very walls of the bath.

The first part of this resonated very strongly with me; I've been very nearsighted as long as I can remember, and (being messy and clumsy and lazy besides) have never been comfortable with the idea of contacts.

(Blogging has been v. light lately; I've been too preoccupied with job-seeking for my own good, but have finally managed to distract myself to some extent with work...)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The poem as zombie, the zombie as poet

Christopher Ricks on Philip Larkin, in Dylan's Visions of Sin:
This sentence [paraphrase of a Larkin poem] exercises a summary injustice. It is not much more than perfunctory gossip, whereas Larkin's three sentences are a poem. The poet makes these dry bones live -- or rather, since he is not a witch-doctor and the poem is not a zombie, he makes us care that these bones lived. 
(A phrase I remember hearing a lot in workshoppy college classes was "this sonnet comes to life in l. 10"; for some reason no one felt compelled to add that it staggers through the next five lines grunting and attempting to devour the reader's brain.)

Colson Whitehead on his zombie book:

For me, the terror of the zombie is that at any moment, your friend, your family, you neighbor, your teacher, the guy at the bodega down the street, can be revealed as the monster they've always been.

(Which, come to think of it, is apt if applied to Larkin, "the sewer under the national monument" etc.)

This bit from Elif Batuman's uncharacteristically boring NY'er article (gated; the outtakes on her blog are good though) caught my eye:
the endangered white-headed duck [...] has one of the highest penis-to-body ratios of all vertebrates. Its pliant, corkscrew-shaped penis is longer than its body, with a spiny base and brush-like tip. The first time Cagan observed one of these outgrowths, he thought the duck had been disemboweled. 

Puerile to pick this bit out, I know, but the piece is at its best in these sections.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"He is na dog, he is a lam"

1. A house made entirely of vintage books (appropriately I got this from Random House's twitter feed):

2. From Sally Mapstone's LRB review of an edition of William Dunbar's poems:
Scots were not popular in late medieval Oxford. Two fellows of Merton came up before the college authorities in 1497 after a fracas in which one had accused the other of being a Scot. The perpetrator, William Ireland, was warned not to issue such an infamy against anyone else.

This stereotype was new to me:
The first of a pair of punning poems on James Dog, an officer in the Queen’s wardrobe, persistently declares, ‘Madame, ye heff a dangerous dog,’ and the second then just as assiduously corrects that statement: ‘He is na dog, he is a lam.’ [...] Unravelling the nature of Dunbar’s relationship with the Queen is even trickier because of Margaret’s appalling posthumous reputation among Scottish historians, in which the familiar stereotypes of the unstable, sexually malleable, meddling English female have played far too straightforward a part.

(The reviewed edition -- which I had checked out for much of college -- is notable partly for ordering the poems alphabetically by first line. This is actually what led me to the review: I was reminded by the abstract of Jenny Davidson's ABCs of the novel event (which I would definitely attend if I were in NYC) of alphabetical order as one obvious alternative to chronological order...)

3. Courtesy of Calista, a magnificent bit of scatological verse (John Oldham, "Upon the author of a play call'd Sodom"):
Vile Sot! who clapt with Poetry art sick,
And void'st Corruption, like a Shanker'd Prick.
Like Ulcers, thy impostum'd Addle Brains,
Drop out in Matter, which thy Paper stains:
Whence nauseous Rhymes, by filthy Births proceed,
As Maggots, in some T---rd, ingendring breed.
Thy Muse has got the Flow'rs, and they ascend,
As in some Green-sick Girl, at upper end.
Sure Nature made, or meant at least t'have don't,
Thy Tongue a Clytoris, thy Mouth a C---t:
How well a Dildoe, wou'd that place become,
To gag it up, and make't for ever dumb? 
Or (if I may ordain a Fate more fit)
For such foul, nasty, Excrements of Wit,
May they condemn'd to th'publick Jakes, be lent,
For me I'd fear the Piles, in vengeance sent
Shou'd I with them prophane my Fundament)
There bugger wiping Porters, when they shite,
And so thy Book it self, turn Sodomite.
See also: Language Log on excrement as metaphor; it is only a minor stretch to read LL's name in a scatological sense.

Monday, October 10, 2011

"Unjoynt that bittern!" Etc.

A link-dump:

1. James Wood reviews the new Hollinghurst novel in the NY'er, with more irritation than liking (nevertheless it sounds very much worth reading); here is his takedown of the Henry James pastiche:
In Hollinghurst’s new novel, “The Stranger’s Child” (Knopf; $27.95), the Jamesian cadences come in peristaltic waves: “This large claim seemed rather to evaporate in its later clauses.” “This was exactly Dudley’s version too, though the cool nerve of ‘improving’ made Daphne laugh.” [...] Sex itself—specifically, gay sex—is feared by one character as “the unimagined and yet vaguely dreaded thing.” It does a writer as talented as Hollinghurst few favors to be fossicking in fustian in this way; I spent too much time, while reading this often beautiful novel, itching to write a parody of Hollinghurst’s Jamesianism. (“Ralph’s cock was small but sincere; in the afternoon’s fading light, thinned by winter’s quick transit, it seemed to Hugh almost shyly noble. The two men could hear Lady Soames’s little lacquered laugh, somewhere downstairs. . . .” And so on.)

2. Teju Cole reviews Andre Aciman's Essays on Elsewhere (Aciman is v. much a personality in my imagination thanks to Lydia Davis's story "The Walk"). Here is Aciman on the kinds of lavender:
There were light, ethereal lavenders; some were mild and timid; others lush and overbearing; some tart, as if picked from the field and left to parch in large vats of vinegar; others were overwhelmingly sweet. Some lavenders ended up smelling like an herb garden; others, with hints of so many spices, were blended beyond recognition.

3. Jeff Gordinier (who?) ends up in the Hebridean island of Luing thanks to a Don Paterson poem:
What I found tantalizing about “our unsung innermost isle,” as Mr. Paterson put it, was the very obscurity of the place. It was obscure not because it was theatrically desolate and raw, but because it was the opposite of that. It was an island that just sat there and gazed out at all the more famous islands.
I didn't know the poem -- I ought to know Paterson's work much better than I do -- and wasn't bowled over by it (the ending, I think, is off-key) but I thought this bit was rhythmically very nice:
Kilda's antithesis,
yet still with its own tiny stubborn anthem,
its yellow milkwort and its stunted kye.

4. A wonderful list of nonce words from the 17th cent. for carving specific kinds of meat. Birds, for some reason, have many of the best ones (virtually all of these have potential euphemistic uses btw):
Rear that Goose.
Lift that Swan.
Spoil that Hen.
Frust that Chicken.
Unbrace that Duck or Mallard.
Dismember that Hern.
Display that Crane.
Disfigure that Peacock.
Unjoynt that Bittern.
Allay that Pheasant.
Mince that Plover.

I also liked "tame that crab" and "splat that pike" though.

5. Two strange news stories, about sharks invading a golf course in Brisbane and about a supposed Saddam Hussein lookalike being pursued by a supposed porn gang.


In other news, work is in a heightened degree of disarray because our automatic spam filter has gone rogue, marking (e.g.) correspondence with journals as spam! I can't figure out how to turn the filtering off...

Calista reminded me yesterday of an intriguingly nasty Rochester poem that I had blogged a long time ago (scroll 2/3 of the way down) as a bridge between Herrick and Pope. (It is a post that is quite needlessly tl;dr and badly organized, I don't remember what I was thinking at the time.)

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Robin Robertson, whose translation of the Transtromer book The Deleted World I will have to buy when it appears (being favorably disposed to both translator and translatee), records a delightfully untranslatable Swedish word:
the plosive musicality of Swedish words like “domkyrkoklocklang” lose all their aural resonance when they become a “peal of cathedral bells.”
[Cf. hottentottententententoonstelling] I take it the way the word parses is "clock-clang in the doom-church" (i.e., the church of judgments and decisions, the cathedral); nevertheless I am struck by the aural similarity to "ku klux klan" -- itself of apparently onomatopoeic origins -- as well as the perhaps more obvious similarity to Donkey Kong.

Related: the Guardian's selection of poems by Forward-Prize-winning poets is worth looking at.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Not what Berkeley meant at all

I have a weakness for well-put-together poems with Bishop Berkeley in them:

The Fountain

Feathers up fast, and steeples; then in clods
Thuds into its first basin; thence as surf
Smokes up and hangs; irregularly slops
Into its second, tattered like a shawl;
There, chill as rain, stipples a danker green,
Where urgent tritons lob their heavy jets.

For Berkeley this was human thought, that mounts
From bland assumptions to inquiring skies,
There glints with wit, fumes into fancies, plays
With its negations, and at last descends,
As by a law of nature to its bowl
Of thus enlightened but still common sense.

We who have no such confidence must gaze
With all the more affection on these forms,
These spires, these plumes, these calm reflections, these
Similitudes of surf and turf and shawl,
Graceful returns upon acceptances.
We ask of fountains only that they play,
Though that was not what Berkeley meant at all.

The phrase "graceful returns upon acceptances" in particular is worth keeping in mind.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"To rise in froth or white fcum"

Wikipedia article on ataraxia:
Ataraxia (Ἀταραξία "tranquility") is a Greek term used by Pyrrho and Epicurus for a lucid state, characterized by freedom from worry or any other preoccupation. [...] For the Pyrrhonians, owing to one's inability to say which sense impressions are true and which ones are false, it is the quietude that arises from suspending judgment on dogmatic beliefs or anything non-evident and continuing to inquire. The experience was said to have fallen on the painter Apelles who was trying to paint the foamy saliva of a horse. He was so unsuccessful that, in a rage, he gave up and threw the sponge he was cleaning his brushes with at the medium, thus producing the effect of the horse's foam.[1]
This sent me off looking for a passage I seemed to remember from somewhere about the spittle of horses (actually cows) threading the wind, which led serendipitously to a good definition of "foam(v.)" in Dyche's New General English Dictionary, Peculiarly Calculated for the USE and IMPROVEMENT of such as are unacquainted with the LEARNED LANGUAGES:
FOAM (v.) to be vastly enraged, angry, or mad, so that the spittle is as it were dried up, and comes out of the mouth involuntarily, like a wild boar that is closely hunted, and wounded; also to rise in froth or white scum, like a turbulent or disturbed sea.