Monthly Archives: March 2012

Someone once said to me that learning a language involves acting the part of a native speaker. The language in question was Russian, and its seductive appeal can only be strengthened by prior reading of Pushkin and Dostoeyevsky, even in translation. My own experience is that this second skin becomes second nature and then vanishes altogether. Whatever drew us to spend time learning a whole language makes us perceive its strange new world rosily. The glow fades and the pathos of distance turns out to have been an optical illusion. People are just people, possibly in circumstances quite different from those we were used to before we met them. The parallel question is how the earnest outsider is perceived by the natives. Perhaps when he thinks he is joining them most authentically, he seems all the more exotic and other to them, a person who only exists as a larger-than-life parody of a misapprehension. What would lead the natives to even suspect that misapprehension is an introjection — of them?


The latest issue of the New York Review has a piece by Freeman Dyson on crackpot science, in which he makes a dig at string theory and gives the undoubted eccentrics full credit for creative flair and sincerity. There’s also one on Brazil’s Indian Policy, a depressing read which reminded me of a review elsewhere of a new book by Daniel Everett, a missionary turned linguist cum ethnographer who has studied the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon and is opposed to the predominant theory of Noam Chomsky that all languages are hardwired in the brain as “universal grammar”. Instead he argues it is an “invention”. This perspective is similar to the Chicago School which describes language as being governed by very simple rules, with the rest little more than collocation. Far from reducing the grandeur of language, this leaves it free to be the vehicle of culture rather than mere variations on a given theme. Like saying homosexuality is a splendid daring adoption become second nature, not inborn and immutable, there are political gains and losses. For Chomsky the innateness of language fits with his view of the dignity of man as universal and inalienable; but this doesn’t do justice to the wilful quirkiness we delight in, especially in languages we don’t yet know very well. I haven’t read either of Everett’s books, but my impression is he thinks the Pirahã have important insights into life that we lack. They are constantly smiling and laughing, even though they tend to die of malaria by their mid-forties without any help at all from the white man. Their language has no syntax to grasp the remote past or future. Chomsky doubtless thinks of Everett as a crackpot, or at best a careless amateur.

Someone warned me blogging can be addictive, a thought that surprised me at first. There is surely a strong tendency for the thing to fizzle out and die, especially if hardly anyone is reading it. But this shows signs of becoming a digest of whatever caught my eye in the LRB or the New York Review. Against that current, I was fascinated by Ian McEwan’s piece in the Guardian a few days ago on the place of originality in science and literature. Both stand on the shoulders of giants, or to use another metaphor, both are essentially collective dialogues. Yet the joyous sense of creation, even if it is as a conduit for the Muses or the Zeitgeist, that frenzied birth of splendid coherence, is almost divine. McEwan’s examples are taken especially from physics, and he gives an indirect sense of the beauty of several great discoveries that only really make sense with an awful lot more background. That difficulty of understanding he attributes to our origin on a roughly Euclidean savannah in Africa, which would reduce Kant’s Copernican revolution to a just-so story from evolutionary psychology.

The personal computer is a sorry tool. A tool should lie easy in the hand, though it may take years to master. The great trick with computers is the interface, and to some extent it must conceal what’s going on inside: we don’t want to be bothered with that, we want to write, administer, communicate, gather information or be entertained. But the cost lies in the ugliness of the tools blissful indifference demands. There are two aspects to this. The software often tries to do too much, for instance, bringing together editing and graphical design seems like a benefit, but the tasks would probably be done better separately; both also require skills that the computer itself cannot teach. Secondly, when things don’t work there’s often no way to fix them, and error messages are confusing because they don’t offer real choices. Knowledge means learning whether “OK” or “Cancel” will make the irritating boxes go away sooner. The alternative to putting up with this lumbering, clunky thing is to fix your own bike — Linux. That means encountering ballbearings, and other unattractive, greasy things, sooner or later. But people don’t usually go back. Enthusiasts justify their preference because of freedom, control and efficiency. I’d say this freedom relates to aesthetics in two ways. First, design isn’t corrupted by marketing, so applications aren’t overloaded with features or tied to something else. Secondly, fixing things reveals the spare beauty of what’s under the bonnet. Seeing it brings intrinsic satisfactions as well as greater control. Everything is interface till you reach the microprocessor at the heart of the onion, which is just a box to crunch bits and bytes. The onion is a human creation like any other, as ugly as bad taste allows, as fine as art can make it. Perhaps like the classics, it’s not for everyone, but it’s important some pursue this knowledge. The result is the Linux desktop probably now passes the “granny test” and the main commercial alternative doesn’t, though in both cases there’s bound to be a need for occasional support. sapere aude!

Reading ancient texts becomes harder as we lose knowledge of the familiar context their authors assume, what every schoolboy knows and what shapes them without their knowing it, as we too are shaped by other things. That might be a verbal echo of another, lost text, or the actual meaning of a word — dictionaries of dead languages are digests of the writings in them that have survived, a circularity not always virtuous enough. It is a way of life, the Lebenswelt of the poet’s circle. It is a culture’s view of itself and of human nature. It is the idle talk and slang of the piazza. Literature is often almost their only remaining trace, apart from the odd rubbish tip or casual graffitti. The attempt to understand it is therefore also a way of recovering knowledge of other ways of thinking and being. To do so means weighing every word, a task made more testing still by the imperfect preservation of those very words, copied and recopied over millennia by scribes set in their own ways. Finally we must listen to those ancient voices with fresh ears and in each generation make them our contemporaries again. Virgil and Du Fu are no good to anyone behind a glass case.

I’m only a beginner with it, but these are some of my impressions so far. The language is very terse and spare, so the reader has to go a long way to meet the author. That’s always true — at least, every author hopes for such readers — but in this case it’s often impossible to make any sense at all of the text without entering headlong into the dark thicket. Grammatical persons and tenses, for instance, tend to be left implicit. Putting the sense together depends on a set of stereotyped associations and symbols, often quite elaborate. The art of the poet lies to a great extent in the freshness and life he can bring to these much handled old stones. As I see it, that’s what makes this body of work “classical”. The character of the language encouraged the formation of a symbolic lexicon that, by becoming somewhat rigid, allowed the growth of a stable literary tradition. In the case of Roman poetry, something similar happens in its relation to Greek myth and literature; the language can be dense as well as allusive, but in almost the opposite way, exploiting the grammatical exuberance of Latin to loosen word order and so permit expressive juxtapositions (Horace’s “callida iunctura”) and a general lapidary quality, but also great lyricism. In both cases, the tradition had high points — the end of the Republic and the reign of Augustus, and the Tang Dynasty — but the Chinese classical idiom seems to have been more durable as a living vehicle than the Roman. It is also inseparable from calligraphy and painting, an aspect that depends on the physicality of the writing system. Not only are the characters themselves an enduring symbolic code, but their rhythm derives from the fluid strokes of the brush. We do not even know how the classical language was pronounced, but its poets still sing.

Mary Beard, in a recent piece in the New York Review, takes an optimistic view of the future of the classics despite some striking figures. It seems only 300 people now take classical Greek at A-level (I’m not sure whether this figure includes Scotland). As long as classical culture continues to be valued at a remove, for instance in translation, very few people need acquire the skills to access the source directly, and the flame will still burn on.
My own Greek and Latin are so rusty as to be barely serviceable, and that scant competence feels to me like a basic element of literacy. I too am one of those who depend on the few who know it properly, but it’s laziness that stops me being one of them. Would it make any difference if I did — for instance if I took myself through Antigone, which I thought the other day would make a better example than Medea, but have never read because the Greek is hard, but knowing Greek, I feel it’s pointless to read it in another language? That is, would it make any difference to anyone other than me? I’m currently studying classical Chinese poetry using the wonderful book by Archie Barnes; et pereat mundus!

The work of David Lynch is full of moments that make powerful cinematic sense but with what can feel like a flippant disregard for dramatic or psychological coherence. It seems a fair interpretation of Mulholland Drive, for instance, to say that the first half of the film was conceived to be taken at face value, but Lynch could only manage to draw the film together by appending a coda that recast that first story as a fantasy in the mind of a suicide. Twin Peaks is currently something of an obsession of mine, and the first thing to remember is what writing for television was like twenty years ago. Viewers watched live and details from two episodes back could be glossed over; producers imposed plot developments — famously in the case of Twin Peaks, the revelation of the identity of Laura Palmer’s murderer, which took the wind out of the thing. But the perfect charge of certain moments throughout is untouched by the mess thus created. James Hurley’s on-the-road dalliance with a femme fatale is just fluff and nonsense, but perhaps that gave Lynch the free hand he needed to record its superlative eroticism, as in the scene where the pair drink champagne and kiss perched on the curves of the car James fixed — her husband’s car. Or take the theme of cross-dressing, as seen in the transvestite David Duchovny, or when “Mr. Tojamura” removes his shoe to reveal Catherine’s manicured foot. The surprise of that moment is possible because of Lynch’s weirdness, so that although the viewer knows there’s something fishy about Tojamura, belief remains suspended because there’s no guessing on which fantastic plane the fish resides — a realist explanation is not especially likely, let alone a plausible one, and we know there may be none forthcoming. In all this, Lynch is the playful enemy of the thudding, plodding, middlebrow metaphysics of his genre. Is there an affinity between opera and cinema, revealed in the dramatic virtues they can afford to disregard? The extreme is attained in the character of Josie, whose deceptions make so little sense she ends up vanishing in a puff of smoke. And it’s perfect.

Nonetheless the essential qualities of the opera are found in its great arias such as the Countess’s ‘Dove sono i bei momenti …’ which encapsulates a kind of marital unhappiness palpably near to our own sensibility, or Cherubino’s expression of the oversized emotions of adolescence in ‘Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio’ (with its wonderful rhyme with ‘ghiaccio’). It’s enough to understand the dramatic logic of the moment, and the words and music can stand alone. This is like much Greek tragedy, whose momentum is above all dramatic, and whose set speeches and dialogues are rhetorical elaborations of the situation of the character at that point. An example is Medea, a character it’s hard to feel empathy for or even make psychological sense of. Could this be because the stories were all drawn from an established body of myth, and the playwright’s role was to give it dramatic shape and verbal expression?

I’ve been watching my new DVD of David McVicar’s production of Le nozze di Figaro over and over, and I still don’t understand the plot. The outline is clear, and unlike many operas it is dramatically plausible — within the conventions of the genre. The emotional and psychological truth of its geat arias has nothing to do with that, but in the case of Figaro they fit easily within a coherent structure. However, I still can’t work out exactly what lies behind the machinations of Dr. Bartolo and Don Basilio, or who’s thinking quite what when Susanna and the Countess swap disguises in the garden. It matters because in this case, the comic elaboration of the plot can’t be dismissed as an absurd contrivance to hang set-piece arias on. In hope a penny or two will drop, I’d like to have a look at Beaumarchais, whose play was the source for Da Ponte’s libretto.

Coriolanus is an exemplar of the cardinal political vice of the Republic, superbia, one of a long line of those who betrayed its collegial spirit, up to Catiline and Caesar himself — the only one who got away with it. Plutarch, Shakespeare’s source, presumably presents him as such. (Is his the companion Life to Alcibiades?) Notice how Shakespeare gets in the central metaphor and ideal of the body politic right away in Act I Scene i. The play deserves to be more popular, and perhaps the only reason it isn’t is because Coriolanus’s character makes it seem more austere than economical.

Wikipedia, which is what passes for a library in Apipucos, tells me that both St. Paul and Shakespeare are looking back to Aesop’s The Belly and the Members (no doubt available on Project Gutenberg, or Perseus for it in Greek). It seems there has been a reversal of polarity: individualism was the language of rebellio, solidarity was the supposed virtue of the status quo. Two thousand years ago, nobody thought of equality — the cry of the oppressed was just for more for them.

Now clearly, equality as such cannot be a practical aim, because it could only be attained by interference that would preclude other essential freedoms; it needs to be translated into a Kantian regulatory ideal of fairness if it is to make political sense, perhaps along the lines of Rawls. To put it another way, we shouldn’t lose sight of the raw greed and narrow self-interest behind claims that owe their sole legitimacy to a larger perspective of social solidarity. Nose and face both must get their due.

The conservative doctrine that society is prior to individuals (pace Margaret Thatcher) is the received view of sociology, but if there’s an assumed political implication, it lies to the left: we’re all in the same boat, so we should help each other and spend time keeping the vessel seaworthy, if we don’t want to end up in the drink. Society cannot be reduced to its members, as St. Paul knew and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus after him (Act I Scene i):

There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebell’d against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I’ the midst o’ the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing
Like labour with the rest, where the other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body. The belly answer’d […]
‘True is it, my incorporate friends,’ quoth he,
‘That I receive the general food at first,
Which you do live upon; and fit it is,
Because I am the store-house and the shop
Of the whole body: but, if you do remember,
I send it through the rivers of your blood,
Even to the court, the heart, to the seat o’ the brain;
And, through the cranks and offices of man,
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live: and though that all at once,
You, my good friends,’–this says the belly, mark me, […]
Though all at once cannot
See what I do deliver out to each,
Yet I can make my audit up, that all
From me do back receive the flour of all,
And leave me but the bran.’ What say you to’t?

… and see I Corinthians 12:14 ff.

Here the idea is advanced in favour of patrician privilege, so maybe it doesn’t belong on the left at all. To return to sociology, crudely speaking, those who take something of an atomistic view of individuals court suspicion of entertaining right-wing sympathies. There is an elaborate insistence that their individualism is no more than “methodological”, but it’s clear there’s an elective affinity between methodology and ideology.

Perhaps in five hundred years, liberalism will be viewed as a passing aberration.

A recent piece in the New York Review of Books by Mark Lilla distinguishes between the conservative — liberal polarity and that between revolution and reaction; Lilla then contrasts the “restorative” reactionary impulse with the new American pereat mundus apocalyptic. Left and right remain useful tribal categories, but they are poor analytical tools. For conservatism, society is ontologically prior to the individual, but liberalism is plural and progressive. In practical mainstream politics, we are all liberals now, to the temperate right or left of some sane gradualist centre. The revolutionary and reactionary attitudes are about history not society. Restorative reactionaries want to turn back the clock. “Redemptive” reaction, recognising the impossibility of a return to the status quo ante, seeks a cleansing by fire to prepare the way for the phoenix. This is a bit like fascism, which was a new broom that wasted no time on nostalgia. What the two have in common is hatred of the corrupt, fallen present.

Lilla, watching the Republicans, sees this as new, and perhaps it is new in mainstream US politics, but the material has been available for a long time. Think of a film like “Terminator II”, where the mother of the saviour John Connor bides her time till the nuclear apocalypse husbanding her cache of semi-automatic weapons in the desert. Scorching the earth isn’t a coherent political programme until the earth has already been scorched, when it is a way of transforming the most feared possible outcome into an opportunity. Now, it serves to take the wind out of the sails of the ship of state by removing the idea of a desirable destination, a progressive direction – all is already lost. So it’s obfuscatory noise, and cannot by definition be policy. The Right’s policy is laissez-faire (or sometimes, regulation and protectionism), either in the sincere (progressive) belief that it is for the greater good, or as a second mask for honest cupidity.