30 April, 2006

Freedom Towers

The forthcoming replacement for the World Trade Center, the Freedom Tower, has been in the news recently. It's a rather Orwellian name—next, the Department of Warmongering is to rename itself the Department of Defense—and a rather unimaginative one, too. Leaving that aside, the design itself has some merit, consciously modelled on the simple grandeur of the Empire State Building. As you can see, the square base gives way to a series of isosceles triangles with an octagonal cross-section—in architectural lingo, the 'edges are chamfered back'—before culminating in another square at a 45-degree rotation to the base. 'Ultra-clear' glass will apparently lend the exterior a gleaming, ivoryish quality. There's some number-symbolism too, as the tower's total height will be 1,776 feet high, in celebration of the birth of E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). So far, so good. Here's what the Freedom Tower website says about the project, just the sort of appalling drivel that you expect from American officials about this type of thing:
'Lovely'. There are some curious reminiscences here. The language of light and crystalline form stems immediately from the rhetoric of the Expressionist architects of early 20th-century Germany, glutted with the new delights of steel and especially glass. The visionary poet and science-fictionist Paul Scheerbart composed a slew of couplets for his friend Bruno Taut's extraordinary Glass Pavilion in 1914, including:
Das Licht will durch das ganze
All und ist Lebendig im Kristall

Light wills through all space,
And comes alive in crystal.
But if the aesthetic is expressionist, the general conception harks back to Wren's new design for St. Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire of 1666, his vision completed in 1708. The old cathedral had been substantially damaged in the Civil War, but after the fire it was unsalvageable. The new building was to be grander and more impressive, with a dome inspired by St. Peter's in Rome, hence the large Baroque-classical edifice today. Wren's work, like the Freedom Tower, was thus a statement of national superiority and defiance against disaster, as well as explicitly commemorating fiery conflagration. (Wren even erected a subsidiary monument to the blaze, a 311-step hollow tower which, if it fell in the right direction, would touch with its tip the exact location of the fire's origin.) St. Paul's, too, has a significant height, stretching 365 feet from ground to summit, one foot for each day of the year.

29 April, 2006

Hermeneutic circle

Tonight we went to see 'Back to Back Beckett', a collection of 9 short pieces put on by some graduate students here at ASU. It wasn't bad at all; the more challenging verbal performances, Play (1963) and Not I (1972), were handled deftly, and the simpler Catastrophe (1982), with which John Gielgud recently ended his career in a Channel 4 production, was particularly strong. Mrs. Roth wasn't very taken with the evening's performances; but then, Beckett's pieces all inhabit the same universe, and the more familiar you are with it, the more interesting you find each work.

This is a general problem of appreciation, known as the 'hermeneutic circle', and is the basis of the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, whom I've been reading lately. To know the parts you must know the whole, and to know the whole you must know the parts. Our understanding, said Schleiermacher (and he was referring especially to the New Testament), is a continual process of re-evaluation, each new piece of information assessed in light of its unified context, and each new piece causing that context to be itself reassessed. We understand the exterior, grammatical aspects of a work first; these help us to understand the interior, psychological aspects; these in turn regenerate our understanding of the exterior aspects. When writing a biography, therefore,
The task is to grasp what is inward in the man with such certainty that it can be said: I can say with a measure of assurance how what is outward with respect to the man would have been, if what affected him and also what he affected had been different.
More than with any other writer, Beckett's works resemble propositions of metaphysics, stated according to a hidden and unique set of axioms; each piece, a small gesture, we make sense of in relation to our knowledge of these axioms, and each in its turn reveals a little more of the whole.

26 April, 2006


English, dolphin.

French, dauphin, le Dauphin, the Valois heir, orig. d'Au fin, from the motto of Guy VIII of Vienne, To the end! (playing between la fin and the adjectival le fin, 'the fine'), and from the popular association of the Valois monarchs with the Christian virtue of caritas (signified by the dolphin) following the canonization of Louis IX. For the dolphin-determination link, compare porpoise / purpose.

Latin, delphinus, from Greek δελφις, 'dolphin', variant of δελφαξ, 'young pig', both from δελφύς, 'womb', from which also αδελφος, 'brother', lit. 'of the same womb' (see E. Benveniste, Indo-European Language and Society), from which Phil-adelphia, brotherly love. The womb-dolphin connection is unclear, but compare Delphi (Δελφοί), womb or omphalos (navel) of the world, in other words its centre, sacred to Apollo, and the story of Arion, beloved of Apollo and rescued at sea by dolphins.

German, Delphin or Tümmler. The former, a false classicism, in reaction to the native 'tumbler' or 'acrobat', coined by dissimilation from the IE root represented also in the names Adolf, Rudolf, which refer to adult and young dolphins respectively.

Cornish, Godolphin, for which see here.

Serbian, srecendan, contraction of Srecan Rodjendan, 'happy birthday', in recent vernacular replacing the older loanword delfin, from the popular tradition of giving chocolate or paper dolphins, or delphinoid amulets, again symbolising Christian charity and good luck, as birthday gifts.

English, dulphing, a nonce-word coined by Samuel Butler in Hudibras (1678) to describe the action of a dolphin's leap, 'gracefully dulphing', to rhyme with 'engulphing'.

English, endorphin, earlier endolphine, a fanciful classical formulation proposed in Punch by T. E. Hulme in 1909 to suggest the free play of the sea-creature in the water, as if by analogy to the spontaneous pleasure occasioned by the release of these chemical compounds in the brain.

24 April, 2006

The practical reason of free will

N., who reads this blog, said something when he was about 19 that was probably more profound than anything I've ever thought of myself. He said, "If one behaves rationally at every given moment, then one isn't free—one's choice is predetermined by what is rational." It was an astute point, I thought (and think), even if wrong. The problem with it is that all acts are rational, in the sense that all acts are performed with the view to an end; this is simply inescapable. If I make the 'wrong' choice in a given situation, for the sake of irrationality, of 'being free', then in fact my end is not practical benefit but the well-being which (I hope) accompanies the sense of acting freely. So my choice turns out to have been rational: I have done that which I think is best overall, valuing emotional over practical gain. This means that the notion of a 'rational act' is tautologous, empty of meaning; an 'unrational act' is logically impossible. Man, as Sartre famously said, is condemned to be free.

These days I don't believe in free will in any metaphysical sense; I'm confident that it is effectively done away with by a verifiability criterion of meaning. In other words, a world A with free will, and a world B without it, can't be meaningfully distinguished, either externally or from the point of view of the conscious agent.

But N.'s succinct argument was very much in tune with the great modern philosophers. By Kant's time, discussions of free will were secular, struggling not with divine predestination or foreknowledge (as through the Middle Ages and Renaissance) but with the determinism implied by Newtonian mechanics. Kant wrestled with the issue in the Critique of Practical Reason (which, I must confess, I haven't read, only read about—Kant, as Lewis Beck wrote of Christian Wolff, "moves with glacial celerity. He ruthlessly bores.") Even without a positivist formulation of the verifiability criterion, Kant was aware that the determinism / free will debate could not be resolved on its own terms. It is impossible to escape the implications of empirical physics, he said, and yet man is compelled to act as if free. Determinist constraint exists on the level of phenomenal reality (ie. reality as we perceive it), but metaphysical freedom has its place in the noumenon (the reality of the Ding-an-sich* or thing-in-itself, beyond our objective perceptions). Like much of Kant's philosophy, this was clearly a fudge. For my money, on Kant's terms even the notion of the noumenon itself is unjustifiable; he claimed strenuously that he believed in the real existence of things beyond man's perception (despite our inability to know anything about these things), but I can't make much of his argument for this belief. Still, I'm really just beginning to deal with Kant, so perhaps there really are good arguments to be discovered.

* The Ding-an-sich was the subject of a pompous joke I once made at a bar, with N. himself as it happens. We were accosted by some half-stotious lummox, who insisted on boring us with talk of 'dings', by which he meant sexual liaisons, and the various types thereof—the romantic ding, the opportunistic ding, and so forth. I suggested the 'ding an sich', but sadly nobody had a clue what I was talking about, least of all myself, and so the joke was lost. In another situation, perhaps, it would have caused general mirth. . . ah well.

23 April, 2006

U'mipnay Chato'aynu Galinu May'artzaynu

Today a proud day for the Englishman—we laud patron hero (aptly a third-century Cappadocian tribune) as well as the ortus et interitus of Shakespeare himself—who may or may not have written such masterpieces as Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Comedy of Errors—sticking his nose out of his mummy's belly on April 23 (Julian), and snuffing it on April 23 (Gregorian). Not only that, but more! Ed III founded that great monument of British chivalry, the Order of the Garter—and shame on him who thinks badly of it—658 years ago, and only 38 years ago Betty II brought us bang up to date with base-10 money. 23/4, dies mirabilis!

Sad, then, that I am exiled, here with my wife in the bright, bright land of the barbrous fovs. Gas-prices have shot up like a GI on a landmine, sis-boom-bah! and the grasses outside are withering in the new heat. We just got wireless here and when you hook up it shows you a little atomic orrery, network-electrons orbiting serenely, jumping now and then between their shells, it's magic. You feel like a world unto yourself, all others spinning around you. Nonetheless, there's an odour of desperate, very messy romanticism in the air. I think my composure is breaking down; maybe it was reading trench doggerel or browsing obscene and gestural internet rants. Is the Ciceronian period, or some degenerate English variant thereof, now compacted, now attenuated, with precision and elegance, completely the wrong sort of language to be using at a time like this? I would like to speak with my voice, and I would like to throw my voice, isn't that the goal of all literary writing? But it is a fetter I cannot escape. Thus I experience the desire to lie (mentir) voraciously, as a path to authenticity.

22 April, 2006


Today I've been reading about the old WW1 satirical journal, The Wipers Times, published on a press salvaged at Ypres by one 'Sherwood Foresters'. It's great stuff, naturally, with a sardonic British humour, full of in-jokes, military slang, parodies of famous poems like Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat and Gray's Elegy, and fully suffused with the miseries of trench life. The poetry is popular and un-'poetic', as I suspect poetry should be; it recalls to me the jaunty high-life of A. P. Herbert's She-Shanties (1926), as well as the violent 1640s doggerel of the Rump collection. Here's Gilbert Frankau:
Those dreams are dead: now in my Wiper's dug-out,
I only dream of Kirchner's naughtiest chromo;
The brasier smokes; no window lets the fug out;
And the Bosche shells; and 'Q' still issues bromo.
Kirchner's 'chromo', here, is a pornographic picture, and the 'bromo' is the bromide with which troops' tea was allegedly spiked to quell their libido. The verse is real verse, raw and staccato, clever unexpectedly in the rhyme of dug-out with fug out, and in its palsied metre. The last four commata, yanked together with semicolons, and then, miserably, with 'ands', are perfect. Best of all, while shells by comparison to smokes and lets is a verb, the word works equally as a noun, making 'the Bosche shells' merely an item in a dreary list. The Wipers texts, both prose and verse, are full of slang still vibrant and uncontained; one example is na poo or narpoo, from the French 'il n'y a plus', meaning 'there's none left', or more generally, 'no good'. Hence:
The privit to the sergeant said
"I wants my blooming rum."
"Na poo," the sergeant curtly said,
And sucked his jammy thumb.
Narpoo indeed. An example of a word dragging meaning into itself like a vortex, the finest moments of a popular vocabulary; compare 'fuck' now, or 'quoz' in the 1840s (for which see Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions, chapter 13).

21 April, 2006

20 April, 2006


It was possibly Donald Theall who said that Joyce was half-poet, half-engineer. I always liked that image of him; I imagined the old coot with a loupe clenched in his failing eye, peering at the surface of a Wake page, inspecting for plain prose, perhaps arranging paper fragments with a pair of tweezers, calibrating reference density, welding together portmanteaux with an acetylene torch.

I have come to see my own act of writing in such terms. The thought is always present in my mind that there is a correct poem waiting to be produced, my challenge being to find it. In a directly mimetic artform, such as classical sculpture, such a notion is commonsensical—the statue is there in the block of marble, waiting to be carved out, and true insofar as it represents accurately the given subject. But with poetry, and post-metric poetry at that, it is hard to justify such a Platonic conception of the making. Nonetheless, that's how I understand it. The process of writing is a game: I set myself parameters, in the initial words, and let the work develop from there, not fully of its own accord, yet with a measure of objectivity. I never conceive of it as self-expression; this lets me write utter lies, such as 'Easter, 2006', with complete impunity. The poem is merely a set of axioms to be worked out, in the geometrical method. I suppose some might see translation in this way: an act of refinement, reaching for (but never quite reaching) a definite goal or 'ideal poem' represented by the original text. For me, all poetry is translation in this way. Each line can either close a previous pattern, or start a new one—or very often, do both. Thus a poem has an arc of open and closed threads, both semantic and phono-/morphological: rhymes, sound-patterns, themes, repeated words, etc., what Greimas calls 'semes'. To give an example from 'Easter, 2006' (which in fact required relatively few revisions):
And on this day did that spine of words rise up from the tomb,
coming with vivid faces, bestowing life, changed utterly. He spoke
not, but virid phrases issued from his mouth—that opulent room
sprung on twin columns
—a pillar of fire, and a pillar of smoke.
The highlighted words were added or revised: 'rise', which goes phonetically with 'spine' and 'life', was originally 'come', which I altered once 'coming with vivid faces' and 'changed utterly' (from Yeats' Easter, 1916) had been added. I toyed for a while with puns on 'yeast', 'easter', 'yester-day', but it wasn't working for me. Once I reached the third line, it was clear to me that 'vivid faces' had to be phonetically closed, and the solution was quickly apparent: 'virid' goes semantically with 'green' (line 11), and by implication I think also 'vine', while 'phrases' continues the linguistic metaphor of 'syntactic, tongue, letters, words, spoke, verbs, nouns'. The opulent room was originally 'that fine loom strung fine with notes (/thread)', but 'fine' proved too great a phonetic reiteration on 'spine' etc., and the loom was too new a metaphor, too open a semantic pattern. The room, on the other hand, with its twin columns, fitted perfectly with the two pillars, with the spine, and with the metaphor of Christ-as-Bible (one of the distinguishing features of the Bible as a printed text is, naturally, its two columns). Apologies if I'm spoiling the magic for my readers (well, for those who liked the poem!); perhaps this is terribly self-indulgent of me. I thought, however, that some might be curious to know how I worked.

One last note. I have never liked English poems which obey dully the rules of other languages. Particularly irritating are English haiku, for instance, or near-haiku like the 'wet black bough' drivel of Pound. Similarly, I dislike rigid metre, at least in lyric (. . . epic is another matter). But unconstrained poetry is equally banal; chopped-prose free verse is never successful for me. Some of the best (and most well-known) modern poems manage to strike a middle path between these two extremes: the work of Hopkins, Eliot's Prufrock, Stevens' The Emperor of Ice Cream. I find myself quite naturally articulating an organic, open-ended line, caught in on itself (and made poetic) by the tight patterns of repetitions described above.

19 April, 2006

Easter, 2006

— Yes, I know the Lord.

His frame is scored
onefold, and his members
are syntactic.

His tongue remembers
always the movements of his two hands,
recto and verso, with which he commands
his chirhopractic.

For me those bones of his spine
exist in perpetual holography,
green entoptic phosphenes, a true vine
of the—

—and there are letters
also, arranged as a fixed lattice
of elements, a crystallography
of constants, and by constants
I mean words, which must refuse
to speak falsely or surrender to inconstants,
not a comma to make all terrene refuse
—Spirit and water and blood—into one.

And on this day did that spine of words rise up from the tomb,
coming with vivid faces, bestowing life, changed utterly. He spoke
not, but virid phrases issued from his mouth—that opulent room
sprung on twin columns—a pillar of fire, and a pillar of smoke.

They dare to give his day to pagans, to Ishtar, even to the dawn
personified as she. We put our altars eastward with the rest;
but dawn to us was always He, who alters all that into him are born.

His Word, to me, is a crystallography of vows
and consonance. With his verbs he dowses and endows
me with life; with his nouns he doses and induces me to rest.

17 April, 2006

Poetics of the soap-bubble

. . . although these my principles make appearances of the representations of the senses, they are so far from turning the truth of experience into mere illusion, that they are rather the only means of preventing the transcendental illusion, by which metaphysics has hitherto been deceived, leading to the childish endeavor of catching at soap-bubbles, because appearances, which are mere representations, were taken for things in themselves.

— Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783), Main Transcendental Question, First Part, Note III.

It can only be our familiarity with soap-bubbles from our earliest recollections, causing us to accept their existence as a matter of course, that prevents most of us from being seriously puzzled as to why they can be blown at all. And yet it is far more difficult to realize that such things ought to be possible than it is to understand anything that I have put before you as to their actions or their form.

Sir Charles Vernon Boys, Soap Bubbles (1890).

But while I have always known exactly and with premeditation what I wished to obtain of my senses, the same is not true of my sentiments, which are light and fragile as soap-bubbles.

— Salvador Dali, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1942).

Once you decide to give credence only to those things in Lacan that are based on reasoning from evidence, as those terms are usually understood, what remains is little more than the residue of soap scum after the bursting of a glistening bubble. If I were to use Lacan's method I would write that soap bubble metaphor in more abstruse terms, stretch it for endless pages of waffle, and pretend that it was an argument or proof rather than merely a figure of speech.

'Laon', review of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense, at amazon.com.

16 April, 2006

A geometric problem

I received a pamphlet this week, offering a 10-point proof of the Intelligent Design of bananas. An appropriate fruit for such an exposition, one might think. I was particularly interested by Point Number 10: "Is curved towards the face to make eating process easy". This might sound commonsensical as a proposition, if not as evidence for ID—but is it? Below is an elegant montage (I thank you, my photoshop chops are sans pareil) demonstrating two plausible orientations for the banana during its consumption:

I ask my reader: in which of these two pictures is the banana "curved towards the face"? The problem with the initial statement is that it only makes sense to speak of one object being curved towards another when that object is fixed at one end, allowing its distal end to be pointed towards or away from the other. But in the case of the banana being eaten, the fixed end is at the mouth, ie. on the face itself. Therefore its distal end can only be said to curve away from the face, either up into the sky, or, as with the two pictures above, towards the ground. In other words, it is impossible for any object, while being eaten, to be curved towards the face in any meaningful sense (unless, I suppose, one were eating the banana while still attached to the tree, which would give it another fixed point). One's only option, in light of this, would be to accept the notion that all curved foodstuffs were evidence of ID. Alas, the only other possibility for an attenuated comestible is to be straight. Which would leave carrots, celery sticks, rhubarbs, corn-cobs, and men who manufacture kebabs, chocolate bars and breadsticks, as incontrovertible proof against Intelligent Design.

12 April, 2006

What if. . .

. . . Poe wrote academic theology, au style francais?
In this article, I trace the deathly lineaments of the unliturgical world whose struggle to quell the agonies of obsolescence and desire involves the provocation of an effort of security against the void which, in a newly unilateral universe, is configured as a mobilizing gesture of spatialization (the eradication of time, difference, and death in favour of a virtual reality without depth.)

— Catherine Pickstock, 'Necrophilia: the Middle of Modernity. A Study of Death, Signs, and the Eucharist', in Modern Theology, Oct. 1996.

11 April, 2006

Pamphile translata

Priusque apparatu solito instruit feralem officinam, omne genus aromatis et ignorabiliter lamminis litteratis et infelicium navium durantibus damnis, defletorum, sepultorum etiam, cadaverum expositis multis admodum membris; hic nares et digiti, illic carnosi clavi pendentium, alibi trucidatorum servatus cruor et extorta dentibus ferarum trunca calvaria. (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, Book III).
Marvelous stuff; here the sorceress Pamphile prepares to do her voodoo with a hair-sample which, she wrongly imagines, belongs to a young Boeotian hunk. Apuleius was first Englished by William Adlington in 1566, the start of a golden dawn of translation—one thinks of Florio, Holland, North, and all the rest—and this work indeed has the rumbustious vigour characteristic of the period. Here's Adlington's rendering of our passage:
. . . preparing her selfe according to her accustomed practise, shee gathered together all substance for fumigations, she brought forth plates of mettal carved with strange characters, she prepared the bones of such as were drowned by tempest in the seas, she made ready the members of dead men, as the nosethrils and fingers, she set out the lumps of flesh of such as were hanged, the blood which she had reserved of such as were slaine and the jaw bones and teeth of willed beasts. . .
The most well-known version today is that of Robert Graves, a pedestrian writer and thinker who produced little of interest after his homage to Frazer, The White Goddess (1948-66). In fact, his plundering of historical source-material for almost every literary word he wrote might suggest a nickname: Graves Robber. Here's our boy coughing out Apuleius, 1951:
She had everything ready there for her deadly rites: all sorts of aromatic incense, metal plaques engraved with secret signs, beaks and claws of ill-omened birds, various bits of corpse-flesh—in one place she had arranged the noses and figures of crucified men, in another the nails that had been driven through their palms and ankles, with bits of flesh still sticking to them—also little bladders of life-blood saved from the men she had murdered and the skulls of criminals who had been thrown to the wild beasts in the amphitheatre.
There are some anomalies in both versions. I'm confident that Graves gets his 'ill-omened birds' from a reading of 'avium' for 'navium'. But he insists on spelling out the (possibly) implicit, so the birds are given their 'beaks and claws', just as the nails are given their 'palms and ankles', the blood is given its 'little bladders', and the beasts are given their 'criminals' and 'amphitheatre'.

Adlington, as well as being a far superior handler of English, is generally more honest, even tending towards compression, eliding 'sepultorum', 'clavi' and 'trunca calvaria'. The last phrase, incidentally, should be 'maimed skulls wrested from the jaws [lit. 'teeth'] of wild animals'. Adlington also introduces the elegant articulation of 'instruit' (the only finite verb in the Latin) into 'she gathered together', 'she brought forth', 'she prepared', 'she made ready', 'she set out'. This linguistic variation on one concept was a common precept of classical rhetoric, one which Augustine metaphorically applied to history itself. Interesting also is 'willed beasts'; I don't know if this is a spelling of 'wild' (which has no etymological connection to 'will'), the actual word 'willed' (as in 'strong-willed') or a pun on both. We also see here the classic early modern spelling of 'nosethrils'.

09 April, 2006

I am not what I am

Iago. (. . .) For when my outward Action doth demonstrate
The native act, and figure of my heart
In Complement externe, 'tis not long after
But I will weare my heart upon my sleeue
For Dawes to pecke at; I am not what I am.

Othello, Act 1 Scene 1.

Olivia. Stay: I prithee, tell me what thou thinkest of me.

Viola. That you do think you are not what you are.

Olivia. If I think so, I think the same of you.

Viola. Then think you right: I am not what I am.

— Twelfth Night, Act 3 Scene 1.

je suis ce que je ne suis pas, et. . . je ne suis pas ce que je suis

— Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Être et le Néant (1943), 'Le Regard'.

Wrestling with the first quote, I find it very difficult to understand Iago's statement that 'I am not what I am'. This has been almost universally interpreted as 'I am not what I seem', which appears entirely plausible in light of the quotation from Twelfth Night, where the sense is less ambiguous. Viola is not, as Olivia thinks, Cesario, but rather a woman. Similarly, it is argued, Iago is not, as Othello will think, his friend, but rather his enemy.

The problem for me is that the contexts are different—the exchange between the two women is playful banter; it is ironic that, unbeknownst to Olivia, Viola's statement is literally true. Iago's statement, however, comes at the end of a long speech with sinister intent. He is not trying to fool his interloctor, Roderigo: when he utters his words he intends that his accomplice understands exactly what he means. His statement, furthermore, is the climax of the speech, and of the entire scene, whereas in Twelfth Night, rhetorical emphasis is balanced between the two women. The great weight of Iago's utterance suggests a particular density of meaning.

Iago's 'I am not what I am' is not casual and mocking, like Viola's. Shakespeare could have written 'I am not what I seem' (= 'that-which-I-am is not that-which-I-seem'), but he instead he produced a proposition with an almost metaphysical ring to it. To me it suggests a koan or insoluble contradiction; the listener constantly tries to make sense out of it, for example by hearing it as 'I am not what I seem', but ultimately he can't. Thus is produced in his mind a state of tension or anxiety, Iago's lingering presence throughout the rest of the play. Iago, like Sartre's homme engagé, has retained his existential autonomy, his capacity to transcend the limits of all verbal or ontological formulation.

08 April, 2006

O the humanities!

Humanistic education aims first and foremost at knowledge, that knowledge that used to be called 'culture'. In the past this culture was largely transmitted and absorbed in the home or on travels. The universities did not concern themselves with such subjects as history or literature, art or music. Their aim was mainly vocational, and even a training in the Classics, though valued by society, had its vocational reasons. Nobody thought that it was the purpose of a university education to tell students about Shakespeare or Dickens, Michelangelo or Bach. These were things the 'cultured' person knew. They were neither fit objects for examinations nor for research. I happen to have some sympathy for this old-fashioned approach, for I think that the humanist really differs from the scientist in his relative valuation of knowledge and research. It is more relevant to know Shakespeare or Michelangelo than to 'do research' about them. Research may yield nothing fresh, but knowledge yields pleasure and enrichment.

— E. H. Gombrich, 'In Search of Cultural History' (1967)

04 April, 2006


The fruits of a book can be unexpected. I just breezed through Kandinsky's 1912 On the Spiritual in Art; the psychology of colour articulated in Part Two has made me see things all newly. The Palo Verde blossoms this morning, yellow and expostulatory, are tempered by a misted sky, blue and receding; they have indeed acquired that green, sickly and quieted, caught in the throes of an obscene discomfiture, of which Kandinsky wrote. Still, I shall resist the urge to compose a poem about it.

02 April, 2006

Apocalypse Then?

Well, it turns out that D. W. Griffiths' Birth of a Nation (1915) is pretty dull, at least until the final fifteen minutes. One query struck me, though. As the heroic Ku Klux paladins storm Piedmont, SC to rescue the film's heroine (Lillian Gish), what should the orchestra strike up but Ride of the Valkyries? The Teutonic military-mystical aspect of Wagner's music fits the cinematic theme well. But one wonders if Coppola had this scene in mind when filming his more famous sequence in Apocalypse Now—the reference would certainly reinforce the ambivalence of Coppola's portrayal of Kilgore et al.

01 April, 2006

William III of Portugal

One of my subscribers recently asked me about the neglected figure of William (Guilherme) III of Portugal (1689-1750). I've never been much interested in kings-and-bishops history, but the occasional character sticks out—the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, for instance. William was another fascinating monarch; little information can be found about him online, so I have done some library research, and turned up quite a profile. A child prodigy, he acceded to the throne in 1707, and immediately began consolidating Portuguese power in Brazil, expanding the territory from a small enclave in Spanish lands almost to the gigantic country it is today. Like all the best kings, William was a great patron of the arts, so much so that his enemies began to nickname him o Esbanjador, the profligate. Unusually for his age, he regarded 16th-century culture and fashion as the pinnacle of elegance. In this bizarre portrait, for example, he poses mocked up in the costume of the 16th-century Valois dynasty, which he admired in particular. William also commissioned a definitive edition of Luis de Camoes' famous epic the Lusiads, which since its 1572 editio princeps had been a mess of pirate copies and badly-printed manuscripts. William, according to popular tradition, was personally involved in the recension of this fragmentary masterpiece, considering himself a modern-day Pisistratus of Athens. It is quite probable, indeed, that much of what has traditionally been ascribed to Camoes was in fact the work of William himself.

If William III had a great impact upon Portuguese national poetry, he had an even greater effect on philosophy. In 1729, while a guest at William's court, negotiating commerce-rights for a prospective Bristol employer, the young David Hume had his well-known epiphany about the irrationality of causation, which would eventually lead to the 1739 Treatise of Human Nature, completed in France. It is now generally accepted that Hume's ideas were heavily influenced by his conversations with the king, who had himself been meditating along similar lines at least since his letter to his father-in-law Leopold I in 1727: "When we observe in nature," he wrote, "the constant conjunctions of two events, we are often inclined to interpret cause and effect, where in fact there is only conjunction" (my translation). Hume retained his admiration for William throughout his professional career, dedicating to him a revised 1744 edition of his Essays Moral and Political.

Less auspicious was William's encounter with another genius of the age, Gottfried Leibniz. At the age of 13, the prince had already learnt, in addition to his native Portuguese, fluent English, French, German, and Latin, with some Greek and Hebrew, and he had read the works of Leibniz and Newton with great interest. In 1702, accompanied by his uncle on a diplomatic journey to Italy, William happened to meet the philosopher, then acting as a courtier to Georg Ludwig of Hanover, soon to become George I of England. In his later memoirs, George recounted with some affection the meeting between the boy and his aging courtier; the latter, it seems, was piqued by William's impudent and unpetitioned rebuttal of several arguments from the 1686 Discourse on Metaphysics. Their dispute continued for some time, the prince refusing to back down, his subtle motions of philosophical reason finally degenerating into crude name-calling, even spitting and threats of violence. Leibniz, wrote George, was "quite ruffled," his characteristic dignity "stripped away by the prince's fiery impertinence".

Still, it wasn't until much later that William really became a character. His obsession with the 16th century, and particularly France, grew ever more pronounced in the 1740s. He invited Louis XV to his court in 1743, though he rapidly became disenchanted with the French king, calling him "disgusting. . . uncivilised," a judgement he might have tempered two years later, when Louis began his relationship with the beautiful Madame de Pompadour. William began to insist on spoken French at his court, at one point going so far as to cultivate Renaissance idioms, improvising Ronsard-esque verses at table, and quoting the most vulgar passages of Rabelais at every available opportunity. William even had books printed with type modelled on the fantastical designs in Geoffroy Tory's 1527 Champfleury. He would refer to himself in the third person as 'Guillaume', delighting in such imagined Gaulish delicacies as sugared oysters, elk pastries and roast chaffinch. The court grew dissatisfied with his antics, and in 1749, after attending a performance of Handel, William set sail for Africa. It is not known today how he died, but many stories proliferated of his adventures among natives; some spoke of children conceived with a Mali priestess, others of his induction into some tribe or another, disappearing altogether from Western society.