Monday, December 15, 2008

Quid Est Veritas

Every true faith is indeed infallible; it performs what the believing person hopes to find in it, but it does not offer the least support for the establishing of an objective truth. Here the ways of men divide. If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness, then have faith; if you want to be a disciple of truth, then search.”

---Friedrich Nietzsche

“What is truth?” asked Pilot to Christ, and though Christ had his own opinion the question must still be asked.

I have always been impatient with the human capacity for self-deception. In so far as the believer dares to reason, his reasoning is biased in his favor, something I like to call Jackoffhistry, a form of pleasing self-deluding sophistry.  But perhaps I am being too harsh, it is only our nature.

I was amused to create a comforting dogma for myself. What if it was widely believed that gravity was a myth, and that every man, woman, and child was kept tidily stuck to the ground by a multitude of divine fingers pushing down on our heads? We could add the charming intuitive connection that this is why babies have soft spots. It is a delightful tale that could give comfort to millions, and just as ridiculous as many another thing people believe without good cause. But, I must ask: do you believe in the value of truth? If you answer yes, but argue for something like the above out of comfort, then what is the difference between lying to yourself and others lying to you? At what point does comfort become an acceptable argument for laying down our duty to the truth?

To be fair, the capacity to reason is equally capable of forming chains of thought to tie one down. Much in the fashion of the circus elephant who, being chained when young, by habit and indolence remains chained ever after. Like all tools it is only as useful as the ability of the one who wields it. To lack basic critical thinking skills is to be prey for any con-artist or unscrupulous soul, so it is in everyone's best interest to exercise daily their critical muscles. This is why all things are open, or should be open, to criticism. And the believer must not frown but prove.

A little practice at basic reasoning would clearly do most people a world of good. Few follow the implications of what they believe to its ultimate end, and this is demonstrated by a simple thought experiment. When the child of a, for lack of a better term, ghost enthusiast comes to them from a nightmare seeking solace, do they reply honestly with what they believe: “yes sweetheart, the Bogey-man really is under your bed”? If so, they are at least being true to their convictions if not at the same time revealing their inadequacy's as parents.

When I was a boy I was fascinated by the supernatural. Finding a book at the library on palm reading I took to my classmate's sweaty uncertain hands, and divined their future's. I had a passionate interest in UFOs, spirits, and all things unusual, and readily believed whatever confirmed my desire to believe. When others scoffed I became defensive and indignant, and asserted my claims to the point of tears.

Thankfully, my natural curiosity was inoculated by an even greater love of science. I began to submit my belief's to the same rigor as any question should be, and found in each case a myth with no foundation.

I am still waiting for the ghosts to appear, the aliens to land on the White House lawn (not those trimming the hedges of course), and for a Bigfoot in a cage that the world might marvel at and the believer's at last receive their overdue praise. I have been waiting for some decades but, in this at least, I have no doubt I shall be waiting very much longer.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Dead Satyr

Van Dyck's Silenus

Satire is the weapon of the aristocrat, and so must always die in the hands of a democracy. A perfect example of this we can see in the just past presidential election. For weeks leading to the event, Saturday Night Live aired a series of devastating skits at the expense of McCain's running mate Sarah Palin. They were full of the true spirit of satire, a sublime mocking spirit of the noble soul who smiles in condescension at the fumbling's of the village idiot who pretends to more than she owns.

After a series of these scathing broadsides, the show decided to allow the attacked to attempt to laugh at themselves, completely negating the power of their parodies‘. The American answer to this is: "we want to be fair and give the other side a chance." Since when is fairness a requirement of satire? When Voltaire so nimbly vivisected the buffoonery of the Catholic church, he did not then turn to the Jesuits and say: "Now you do me."

The whole point of satire is to belittle one's enemies and bring to light the foolishness of the world. By then handing the poor man's (often) only weapon to that same enemy is an act of shear stupidity.

To add to the sense of cognitive dissonance, Tina Fey, who played the rustic Palin with such delicious glee, and who made comment that she would have to leave the planet should Palin be elected, was recently reported saying: “The people on the left were like, ‘No, you can’t do that!”’---And it’s like, ‘We don’t work for you.”’ First, all entertainers do work for us, the public. That is why when we are no longer entertained we ask for our money back and take our business elsewhere.

Secondly, I know there are those who will argue she has a point in giving the other side its voice, but no. We must live in a truly cynical and relativistic age when all points are deemed valid, and any fool can be allowed a clear shot at destroying the world. It defies reason and likewise, defies the spirit of the form.

If the mirthful spirits of Voltaire and Dean Swift could listen to such logic, no doubt they would find their disdain for human intelligence justified and smile just a bit more.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The People's Choice

Recently my Grandmother had a slight stroke.  While she, my mother, aunt and I watched the news overhead, the controversy concerning McCain's vice presidential choice, Sarah Palin, and her pregnant daughter began.

Now I do not believe in the democratic process.  As Rousseau said of the English, that they are free to elect their leaders but after that go back to being slaves, can just as well be applied here.  However, I am liberal in my social view's and the hypocrisy over this matter sickens me.  At once they came to Palin's defense, my Grandmother accusing the Democrats of just trying to nit pick.  But this is no small matter.  To cry fowl when a major part of your policy is used against you is not an injustice.  This is just another example of the Republican double standard, of "it's okay for me because I'm rich, but not for you because you're poor" school of thinking. 

This episode has also given me an excuse to discuss politics in general.  I believe many would agree with me if I said it doesn't matter what form of government we live under, so long as those who govern are wise and virtuous.  There have been several enlightened dictatorships in history (Marcus Aurelius comes first to mind) and, though there are those who will argue that despotism is despotism no matter the quality of the despot, I thought it more productive to look at the other major flaw in this idea.

Plato said that unless kings are philosophers or philosophers kings there would never be true harmony in the state, and he set about his little experiment in engineering a society that could pop out worthy citizens.  I think I am more partial to the Confucian ideal of setting a good example and hoping others will follow, but the problems of producing worthy and reliable rulers remains the same.  What to do?  If we cannot go forward perhaps we should go back.  If we cannot guarantee a virtuous autocrat perhaps we should instead reverse that power, give even greater liberty to the individual and circumscribe the power of the state.

Now I am beginning to sound like a true conservative, but that is the crux of the matter.  Every political view, liberal, conservative, moderate etc. is divided into two positions, one social the other economic.  One can be liberal socially but conservative fiscally, and any combination there of.  It is no wonder such confusion reigns in the minds of many when they see the flaws but are uncertain how to fix the system.  Perhaps there is no perfect government as there is no perfect person.  Each has its pros and cons.  This does not answer the question (as I had no presumption of doing so) but it does lay out the complexities of a branch of human endeavor whose great ideal has always been to help us get along together and work for the common benefit of all.  Thus, in that sense at least, any choice of government remains the people's choice. One can only hope they choose well.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Wizard of Words

Erasmus Whether you are caught “between a rock and a hard place” or, living “on the razor's edge”, you owe it to one man for putting the words in your mouth. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1537) was one of the greatest scholars of the Renaissance. Using his vast knowledge of Greek and Latin literature, he culled the classics for tiny bits of wisdom to enlighten the reader and hopefully act as memorable guides to moral conduct.

This was not unusual at that time. Study of the classics was believed to improve not just the mind, but character as well. With the growing availability of cheap paper it became the practice of most people to jot down any scrap of information they might wish to remember in what became known as commonplace books. In education, students recorded important and insightful passages from their reading. They would later make use of these extracts as an aid in assigned compositions and as an indication of their learning.

The first edition of his book the “Adagiorum Collectanea ” or just, The Adages as it is known today, was first printed in Paris in 1500 and became an instant bestseller. This first edition contained only eight-hundred proverbs, but Erasmus continued to add to subsequent editions for the next thirty years, and by the time of his death it would total some four thousand entries. That’s some food for thought!

The following are just a few of the sayings we can trace directly back to his work:

To start from scratch.

A flash in the pan.

No sooner said than done.

Can't live with them, can't live without them.

Spoon-feeding.

Eyes in the back of his head.

Crocodile tears.

One hand washes the other.

You're on entirely the wrong track.

Can't teach an old dog new tricks.

Friday, July 11, 2008

In Praise of Bookishness

When I have a little money I buy books, and if any is left over I buy food and clothing.” —Desiderius Erasmus

We are constantly reminded that Americans don’t read books, that vaunted best-seller, the Bible, notwithstanding. From childhood on we are repeatedly told about the virtues of reading, with little explanation as to how or why it’s so. Thankfully, opinion mattered little to the forming of my tastes, and I read for pleasure alone. Yet, the more I read the more I hear the great voices of the past cry out from their pages to put them down. Is reading all that fine a thing after all?

Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, was perhaps among the first, certainly the most prestigious, to doubt the virtues of reading and writing. To him they were a corruption of the arts of memory. Once something is written the need to develop our memories quickly declines, he argued. We can forgive him his shortsightedness, he was a thinker after all, not a prophet, and could never have predicted the vast storehouses of knowledge humankind would collect. If anything we need a good memory now more than ever, if only to remember what we have read and where we read it.

Michel de Montaigne admitted to being a lazy reader who, was “not prepared to bash” his “brains for anything, not even for learning.” We can only assume the man with a library of over a thousand volumes was talking tongue in cheek. Friedrich Nietzsche howled from his mountaintop that to read a book in the light of dawn was a “vicious” thing. However, I expect for a man with such poor sight any prolonged reading becomes vicious, especially in the bright glare of morning.

Experience is to be preferred to a life among the dust and cobwebs and the gloom of the aisles, they tell us, as though to open a book is to turn our faces from the light. (I myself find it difficult to read in the dark.) Those who spend too much time in reflection on their thoughts, or those of others, are perceived to be letting the “real” world pass them by, that somehow they are missing out. I argue the reverse; the “real” world is about us at every moment, and a good portion of our lives are hardly ours to enjoy if we must work to live (and aren’t fortunate enough to truly enjoy our jobs). Further, not all things are open to experience in the flesh. How are we to understand history but from the pages of a book? Even to visit a ruin is an empty act without a knowledge of its context.

I always smile when I read Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s Discourses—not that I read them often—and his rant against the evils of printing. Here’s a man who was one of the finest stylists and most universally read authors of his age. Did he not see the irony, or was he as oblivious to it as to the cries of the children he left on the steps of the foundling hospital? Through his books much of the bloodshed of the French Revolution could be laid at his feet. Doubtless, that irony too would have escaped him. Despite his sentimental longing for the good life without shoes, that “dreadful art”—for good or ill—brought down despots and quenched the fires of hell.

The image of the harmless bookworm is due to the ease and comfort of a free society that has made profit the sole good. It’s no exaggeration that reading was a dangerous, subversive activity in the past. Even in the great centers of learning, scholars and philosophers were always aware of just how far they could peer into the heart of things. We take it for granted that even the most unpopular concepts are shared openly. At the height of the Reformation in England, however, the hottest piece of contraband wasn’t French wine or dirty pictures, but the Bible in English—a far more hazardous weapon to church and state than all the gunpowder of foiled Guy Fawkes. And I weep to think there was an age when a diminutive philosopher on his deathbed could launch an armada of priests in the canals of Amsterdam. Was there truly a time when ideas were so important? Perhaps, like Rousseau, I cry for the moon.

The best periods of my life have been defined by books. I never recollect my past without some reference to what I was reading at the time. Meanwhile my bookcases stand as bulwarks against despair, their sheer weight anchoring me to sanity. And out in the world I’m rarely without a few close at hand. In a long and proud tradition following in the stacks of Edward Gibbon and Montaigne, I invented my own traveling library for the purpose, something I call a capsa, after the leather buckets used in antiquity to carry scrolls. It is little more than a soft cooler, and I have several of different sizes to accommodate even the largest octavo. Several standard paperbacks can fit very neatly, and the outer pockets are perfect for storing highlighters, pencils, pens, and all the accessories of annotation.

You may fairly accuse me of melodrama, but the lame aren’t asked to put down their crutches, nor the blind their canes. Please understand my condition, and pity me if you must, but I have reading to do.

Published in The Humanist July/August 2008.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hegel, I Hardly Knew Ye

Hegel4

For most students of philosophy in English, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is a stern figure, as imposing as his name. Just to mention him calls to mind the cliché of the droning professor declaiming at his podium, indifferent to the students around.

From the little I had read of him up till now, my prejudices seemed confirmed. His lifeless academic prose, littered with uncommonly grotesque adjectives, was not the cheerful read I had been looking for. Nevertheless, something in the man's ideas kept me returning. Here was the intellectual father of Marx, and through him, much of the modern world. Here was the foe of Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, the butt of their jokes and the bane of their envy. But, what was it that they envied?

For Schopenhauer it was certainly Hegel's overweening popularity. When the two were both lecturing in Berlin, Schopenhauer, the "philosopher of pessimism", set his hours at the same time as his rival, supremely self-confidant he would steal the spotlight. He repeatedly found himself in an empty lecture room and never tired of jabbing Hegel's corpse, who conveniently died soon after, his just complaint of Hegel's apotheosis to official state-philosopher notwithstanding.

Kierkegaard seems never to have read Hegel himself, but attacked him due to impressions gained from secondary reading. Though a master of irony, he failed to see any from his approach. Had he actually read Hegel, he would have found a writer every bit as comical and masterfully ironic as himself.

My guide through this metaphysical hell, the Virgil to my Dante if you will, was Walter Kaufmann in his wonderful, though now out of print book, “Hegel: A Reinterpretation”.

Kaufmann is best known today as the reviver and vindicator of Friedrich Nietzsche, and I must admit, this was not my first encounter with his work. However, Kaufmann, though a brilliant mind, left no immortal work behind him in and of its self, though a great illuminator of the immortal works of others. Did he agree with Nietzsche's comment on the “ant-like industry” of scholars? Did he see the irony in his own efforts? Or was he, like Kierkegaard, afflicted with the same myopia?

But of course that is not why one writes. Posterity is covetous of her opinion's, and we cannot put pen to paper with such a burden attending the composition of every sentence. One writes because one loves, and the speaking of that love is not enough, the world must hear of it and if not now then hereafter. The printed page is man's greatest testament to his loneliness.

A book may lay dormant for decades on a library shelf, its author of uncertain glory, its content even more uncertain, until a single soul snatches it out of purgatory and brings it into the light. Then, by that magic it takes hold of our imagination and introduces us to a larger universe. No book exists in isolation, all are in continuous conversation, a dialog of the mighty dead in endless concert like the invisible music of the spheres above. Sadly, there seems little music among the living for there is nothing that a human being might do that he will not be attacked for it. Should you suddenly shit gold there are those who will complain it lacks luster.

To write, or participate in any solitary creative endeavor, one must almost put on blinkers to keep out the invective of the critics. And if that is not bad enough, one must constantly struggle with that greatest of critics---the one inside your head.

Recently I had the unpleasant experience of posting to a forum, one that gave the appearance of a place of friendly debate. I was swiftly reminded that the bucolic ideal of Cicero's dialogs are about as far from reality as can be imagined. Since the days of the schools of classical Athens right through the middle ages and the University of Paris, arguments were rarely discussed calmly but in the pages of a book. Students often rose to such a clamor they took to the streets in gang warfare over the most trivial differences of opinion, and nothing short of the threat of military intervention could calm them down.

What a contrast with Professor Hegel one at first might think, but then I look again. “Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.” That was the surprising verdict of the cold dialectician I discovered in Kaufmann's book.

My heart warmed to him at once, and also at once I understood why Schopenhauer lectured to the walls alone.

Published in The Cheers, July 2008

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Tabloid Tyrant

Death of Nero

What do Elvis Presley and the emperor Nero have in common?  Despite both being musicians, overweight, and a shared taste for flamboyant dress, they were also believed to be alive and well long after their officially reported deaths.

Contrary to the myth, Nero was very popular among the poor, who loved a ruler that could enjoy the vulgar pleasures of the arena and racetrack like a regular Joe.  Statues of him were sold in Rome long after his reign, and his tomb was often decorated with flowers.  Of course, only the wealthy and educated could write the histories, and they were not happy to have an emperor with the common touch.

After committing suicide in 69 A.D., there were rumors for many years after of a conspiracy.  It was believed Nero had been taken away to some remote part of the east to await the day when he would come again and deal justice to his enemies.  To the early Christians who had suffered greatly during his rule, he became a boogieman, the first Antichrist.  And the possibility of his return served a more pessimistic purpose of warning, as some believe he is the beast mentioned in the Book of Revelation.

These rumors were given such wide credibility that several pretenders came forward at various times to threaten the stability of the empire. 

One of the first of these imposters was a nameless slave whose origins were murky.  He sang and played the lyre, and his resemblance to the dead emperor was striking. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, he gathered about him followers composed mostly of the poor and deserters from the legions.  Taking to sea intending to sail for Rome, they encountered some inclement weather and were forced to make landfall on an island shortly after embarking.  Here, the counterfeit Nero created a short-lived pirate kingdom, praying on passing ships.  He was made short work of by the provincial governor, who raided his ship and sent his severed head on a tour of the provinces before ending in the capital.  Truly a rock star death.

Perhaps the most famous pseudo-Nero was Terentius Maximus, who arose many years later in Asia.  He also attracted a great following but took refuge in the kingdom of Parthia.  At last, his identity discovered, he was put to death.

Sightings and rumors of sightings were to continue for many decades thereafter.  It just goes to show, the gossip column and the conspiracy theory are nothing new.

Sources:

Grant, Michael. Nero, Emperor In Revolt. New York, New York: American Heritage Press, 1970

Augustine, Saint. The City of God. 2008. New Advent. 23 March 2008 http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120120.htm.

Suetonius, Tranquillus. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Trans. J. C. Rolfe. 1914. LacusCurtius. 23 March 2008http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Nero*.html.

Tacitus, Publius C. The History. New York: Random House, 1942. The Perseus Digital Library. 23 March 2008http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0080;query=chapter%3D%2398;layout=;loc=2.7.

Dio, Cassius. The Roman History. Trans. Earnest Cary. Harvard University Press, 1927. LacusCurtius. 23 March 2008 http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/66*.html.

Chrysostom, Dio. The Twenty-first Discourse: On Beauty. Trans. J. W. Cohoon. Harvard University Press, 1939. LacusCurtius. 23 March 2008http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dio_Chrysostom/Discourses/21*.html.

Published May 22 in About.com Ancient/Classical History.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Hitchens Hypothesis

Hitchens attempting to clean his conscience. I am predisposed to like Christopher Hitchens. He is a witty and erudite writer. His view's on everything from Orwell to religion are often perfectly in tune with my own (though his ignorance of Nietzsche is unforgivable). It is because of these great correspondences that his advocacy of the war in Iraq is all the more painful and baffling.

However, more than his tortured logic of using violence to stop violence, is his generalization of Pacifists and Pacifism as a whole. Those on the left who opposed and oppose the war are being somehow disingenuous he believes. We are using the word peace as a smokescreen for hidden bigotry. Perhaps he is right, but if true, Mr. Hitchens is privy to information denied to the rest of us.

As a pacifist myself, I know one need not be a Quaker to see the folly in war. I have no qualms regarding self-defense when the need arises. However, War with a capital W, is a military institution, and institutions have their own bigotries and agendas. The Military-industrial complex that Eisenhower (finally) warned us about so long ago has failed to make much of an impression upon the, as always, temperamentally bellicose American people. The concept that the military is just a department in the government and not a full partner does not seem to cross the mind of men and women inculcated since birth with the propaganda of God, Country and Guns. Not necessarily in that order.

We must also forgive Mr. Hitchens blindness due to his other handicap. Coming from a privileged background, and educated in quality private schools in a foreign land, he may be unable to see that it is always the poor who fight the wars and the rich who prosper from the loss. As someone who has studied Marx it is all the more astonishing that this should not smack him in the eye. Perhaps as a recently anointed citizen, like all converts since Saint Augustine, he can find little to fault in his new faith.

In an article published in 2001 on the invasion of Afghanistan, he had the following errors to relate:

"Well, ha ha ha, and yah, boo. It was obvious from the very start that the United States had no alternative but to do what it has done. It was also obvious that defeat was impossible. The Taliban will soon be history. Al-Qaida will take longer. There will be other mutants to fight. But if, as the peaceniks like to moan, more Bin Ladens will spring up to take his place, I can offer this assurance: should that be the case, there are many many more who will also spring up to kill him all over again. And there are more of us and we are both smarter and nicer, as well as surprisingly insistent that our culture demands respect, too."

"Ha ha ha to the pacifists", The Guardian, Wednesday November 14, 2001.

The Taliban appears now resurgent, Bin Laden is apparently alive and well, and as for being smarter and nicer, is it nice to bomb civilians and call them "collateral damage", or smart to believe that violence ever brought an end to violence?

To paraphrase that old saw of Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to stop thinking."

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Demon Doubt

Undoubtedly my obsessive compulsive side has been among the greatest hindrances to my creativity. Some time ago I came to the conclusion that for the foreseeable future, and perhaps for the remainder of my life, I may never write a "major" work. This was actually a liberating thought for once. This was reinforced by an essay I read by Samuel Johnson. It was the first number of the Rambler, in which he addresses the reader and asks that he be patient with him. If he is not pleasing, at least he will not take much of the reader's time or, sentiments to that effect. He is more detailed about the benefits of the short form than I allude to above.
Similar sentiments struck me with joy while reading a piece by Alexander Smith. It will be necessary to give a lengthy extract as it is too good to quote only in part:

"It is frequently said that periodical writing fritters away a man’s intellectual energy; that, instead of concentrating himself on some congenial task, devoting a whole lifetime to it, and leaving it as a permanent possession of the race, a man is tempted to write hastily, and without sufficient meditation; that, in fact, we have articles now, more or less brilliant, whereas, under different circumstances, we might have had books. All this kind of conjecture is exceedingly unprofitable. Doubtless, under different circumstances, the results of a man’s working would have been different more or less; but it does not of necessity follow that the results would have been more valuable. A man’s power in literature, as in everything else, is best measured by his accomplishment, just as his stature is best measured by his coffin. The man who can beat his fellows in a ten-mile race, is likely to maintain his superiority in a race for a shorter distance. It is a mistake to suppose that a man’s largest work, or the work on which he has expended the greatest labour, is on that account his best. Literary history is full of instances to the contrary. When mental powers are equal, that is surest of immortality which occupies the least space; scattered forces are then concentrated, like garden roses gathered into one bouquet, or English beauty in the boxes at the opera. Leisure and life-long devotion to a task have often resulted in tediousness. Large works are often too heavy for posterity to carry. We have too many “Canterbury Tales.” The “Faery Queen” would be more frequently read if it consisted of only one book, and Spenser’s fame would stand quite as high as it does. Milton’s poetical genius is as apparent in “Comus” and “Lycidas” as in his great Epic, which most people have thought too long. Addison’s “Essay in Westminster Abbey” is more valuable than his tragedy. Macaulay’s Essays on Clive and Warren Hastings are as brilliant, powerful, and instructive as any single chapter of his “History”—with the additional advantage that they can be read at a sitting. Certain readers have been found to admire Wordsworth’s “We are Seven” more than the “Excursion.” Coleridge talked of spending fifteen years on the construction of a great poem; had he done so, it is doubtful whether his reader would have preferred it to the “Ancient Mariner.” From all this, it may be inferred that, if writers, instead of “frittering themselves away” in periodicals, had devoted themselves to the production of important works, the world would not have been much the wiser, and their reputations not one whit higher. Besides, there are many men more brilliant than profound—who have more élan than persistence—who gain their victories, like the Zouaves, by a rapid dash;—and these do their best in periodicals. These the immediate presence of the reader excites, as the audience the orator, the crowded pit the actor. Jerrold sparkles like a fire-fly through the tropic night; Hood, in that tragic subject which his serious fancy loved, emits, like the glow-worm a melancholy ray. But they could not shine for any continuous period, and had the wisdom not to attempt it. Are they to blame that they did not write long books to prove themselves dull fellows? It is of no use to cry out against the present state of things in literature. The magazines are here, and they have been produced by a great variety of causes. They demand certain kinds of literary ware; but whether the wares are valuable or the reverse, depends entirely upon the various workmen. It is to be hoped, if magazine writers possess a specialty, that they will stick to their specialty, and work it out faithfully—that no one will go out of his way, like Mr Dickens, when he wrote “The Child’s History of England,” or Mr Ruskin, when he addressed himself to the discussion of questions in political economy.
To the young writer, the magazine or review has distinct advantages. In many instances he can serve in the house of a literary noble, as the squire in the fourteenth century served in the house and under the eye of the territorial noble. He may model himself on an excellent pattern, and receive knighthood from his master as the reward of good conduct. If otherwise circumstanced,—if, following no special banner, he writes under the cover of the anonymous, and is unsuccessful,—he may retire without being put to public shame. In the arena of the magazines he can try his strength, pit himself against his fellows, find out his intellectual weight and power, gradually acquire confidence in himself, or arrive at the knowledge of his weakness—a result not less valuable if more rarely attained. If he is overthrown in the lists, no one but himself is the worse; if he distinguishes himself, it is a little unreasonable to expect him to keep his visor down when roses are showering upon him from applauding balconies. A man eminently successful in the magazines may fairly be forgiven for rushing to a reprint. Actors who make a hit at Drury Lane, almost immediately make a tour of the provinces. A reprint is to the author what a provincial tour is to the actor. If he is an amusing writer, people welcome him in his new shape with the gratitude which people always entertain for those who have amused them; if he is a great writer, people desire to shake hands with him, as the elector is proud to shake hands with the candidate whom he has elected as his representative. And, indeed, the magazinists may fairly be compared to the House of Commons—a mixed audience, representing every class—stormy, tumultuous, where great questions are being continually discussed; an assembly wherein men rise to be leaders of parties; out of which men are selected to rule distant provinces; out of which, also, every now and again, a member is translated to the Upper House, where he takes his seat among his peers, in a serener atmosphere, and among loftier traditions."

His reference to Macaulay reminded me of something that master stylist said about the state of history: "Good histories, in the proper sense of the word, we have not. (What of Gibbon?) But we have good historical romances, and good historical essays." Good historical essays. He was quite right, and there is no shame if one might one day be lucky enough to count himself among their number. It is every author's secret dread that he be found out to be seeking fame. But it is perhaps good policy to keep it from one's thoughts. You can hardly write well or for long with posterity looking over your shoulder.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lowbrow and Loving It

The term “popularizer” is the anathema of academia, both in history and philosophy. The thought that these disciplines can be explained to the uninitiated, and in a pleasing fashion, is blasphemy. This is not a new complaint (Gore Vidal discusses it delightfully, of course) but an article I read recently by Alain de Botton put me into ecstasy. His words have reinforced for me my choice of vocation.

Although I have written much in the personal/philosophical essay, and shall continue to do so, this is not very marketable material. In future, along with my less salable work I must try seriously for publication and payment. Of course, I have already unconsciously gone down that road with my historical researches. In William Craig Rice’s essay “Who Killed History? An Academic Autopsy”, he makes the point that academic historians are obliged to be technical and obscure to impress their colleagues and hope to kiss the golden ring of tenure.

Rice argues that the independent popular historians are popular for just that reason, independence. They can afford to take chances and follow their deepest inclinations, the pleasure from which all great writing flows. He ends the essay with the following quote: “Voltaire once said that history can only be written well in a free society. His dictum is borne out today by our better writers of history, who are also our freest. Perhaps it follows from Voltaire that if history is not written well, its writers are not free.”

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Show and Tell

H. P. Lovecraft
That we wear many masks is not a new observation, but not all the masks we wear represent what we would like to be, but instead, actually reflect who we truly are in spirit. I have always felt in deep sympathy with the character of an Eighteenth-Century English gentleman of leisure; in a word, an aristocrat. This is not hubris, but who I truly feel myself to be. The question why this is so is better left to psychology. Perhaps I saw in this image all that was best and highest in human nature. It represented an ideal of what I longed to become, the nobleman.

This trait is perhaps surprisingly not unusual. The great horror writer H. P. Lovecraft fitted very much into this mold, though his reasons, I suspect, are more vague. His short story "A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson" shows Lovecraft making fun of these pretension's, so he was obviously well aware of his affectation’s, and could joke at his own expense.

The American astronomer Edwin Hubble, for whom the Hubble telescope is named, spent three years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and, to his colleague’s eternal irritation, the accent and mode of dress never afterward left him.

Lastly, I should not omit the poet T. S. Eliot. Rarely has a man's character been written so plainly on his face. Though born and raised in St. Louis Missouri, he eventually became more English than the English. During his early years in that country, his desire to be so was looked on curiously by the natives. Obviously, something in the quality of "Englishness", if such a thing exists, resonated deeply with Eliot's conservative values. He came from a wealthy American family and aristocracy is aristocracy wherever it may reside.

What an irony that the desire to emulate an age and a nation, so often tied to reason and sensibility, should be derided as irrational.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Printer's Devil

Old and New
At the start of the Renaissance the abbot and occultist, Johannes Trithemius, wrote a book entitled In Praise of Scribes. In it, he attacked the recent invention of printing and celebrates the superior qualities of the pen. How did he get the word out? In print of course. Even Trithemius could see the writing uh, printing, on the wall.
Trithemius also wrote another book, this one about the use of spirits to communicate over long distances. He would have been amazed by the magic of the Internet. Like Gutenberg preceding it, the Internet threatens the previous technology just as startlingly as the press did the scribe, and just like the press it came seemingly out of the air to change everything that came before. This very abruptness has caught so many off guard it is no wonder the eBook is under a hail of derision.
To the unconverted let me remind you, the book is an ongoing project, a largely technology driven enterprise. If the medium in which it has evolved has remained relatively static for the past five centuries, it is not for lack of trying. Gutenberg had applied the available equipment of his age so well there would be no real advancements in printing until the Industrial Revolution and the power of the steam engine.
Unlike Antony, I come not to bury the eBook, but to praise it, and I say this with all the passion of a true book lover. Confirmed bibliophiles will raise their hand’s in unison when asked what part of the book stands out the most---the smell. The olfactory experience of a library is like that of incense in a sacred space. Beyond its tactile properties, the scent of a favorite title can instantly launch one into the time and place it was first read. Of lazy summer days by the pool, or quiet winter evenings in an armchair. This, for lack of a better word, “presence” of a book is the first thing the true bibliophile loses when the beloved is consigned to the digital world. Yet, this heavenly scent, so tied to our conception of the traditional book, is relatively recent.
Before the Civil War, books were printed with the higher quality, thus more costly, rag paper as it had been for centuries. It is due to its higher quality and durability that the government still uses it to print money.
Few of us have been privileged to take in the atmosphere of the Bodleian in Oxford, or to taste with Poggio the treasures of St. Gall. And no man lives that has stood among the numberless scrolls of fabled Alexandria. We can only guess what delicious bouquet a million volumes of papyrus, coated with cedar oil, may have consisted of. And so the familiar friend in the guise of bound paper and ink is not as eternal and unchanging as we might wish to think.
However, we must not forget the first task of a book, to convey knowledge, and to do so as conveniently as possible. For those who have been paying attention, it is obvious how convenient obtaining information is online compared with a trudge to the local library. The supremacy of the computer is testified to by the role those public libraries are taking in computer training and literacy. What library still uses that arcane relic, the card catalog?
Many book lovers are fearful of hypertext, the idea of embedding links in the text to related information and perhaps even changing the text its self. For a world so long accustomed to the seeming permanence of print, we have forgotten the age before it when all books were handwritten. It was common to include glosses on words that were unusual and annotations or alternative readings in the margins that, sometimes, in later copying were incorporated into the body of the text as though it had been there all along. This occurred in stunning and unexpected ways. Those familiar with biblical scholarship are well aware of the variant readings of the New Testament that would shock many of those who believe the Bible was delivered from Heaven as an uncorrupted vessel of God’s word.
Even print has not been totally immune from these practices. The footnote and endnote are less personal yet similar attempts to squeeze the most out of a text for the benefit of the reader. Hypertext is the next logical step beyond the limitations of the page.
However, as with most new tools, the world is often slow to adapt. A paperback can be bought for pennies, the eBook technology is still cost prohibitive. Much like Gutenberg’s bibles, they are not for a mass audience. The market and technology has still to develop and find its way but, as the computer has become as ubiquitous as air, so its companion the eBook will doubtless compose much of the atmosphere of this new world.
The eBook is awkward, ugly and plain. Four centuries ago the same was said of print. Duke Federico da Montefeltro, who had assembled one of the finest manuscript libraries of the Renaissance, was heard to remark he would have been ashamed to own a printed book. In the end, we got used to the aesthetics in exchange for convenience. Unlike the Duke, I am fond of that old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover”.

Published at Teleread.org.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Terence and the Barbarians

give us your support and a fair hearing.
---Prologue to The Girl From Andros

A dark hansom young man was ushered into the atrium of the home of Scipio Aemilianus. His eyes appeared downcast, as though he were mulling over some troubling thought. When he saw Scipio, he suddenly seemed to brighten for a moment and clasped the older man’s hands.

In a gesture of consolation, Scipio patted him on the back and walked him inside the villa.

“I am through with the people of Rome,” said an agitated Terence. “Don’t they see I am bringing them something new? Something great?”

Scipio smiled at the young man’s cocksureness.

“You ask too much Terence. The people bore easily, it is hard for them to keep pace with plots so elaborate when the simple enticements of the circus are so near at hand, and speak so less eloquently to their hearts than your lovers do.”

“I am a stranger to Rome, and Rome is a stranger to me.” Replied the poet. “Perhaps---perhaps it is time to go east and find the sun again.”

Scipio did his best to dissuade his friend from such a dangerous trip, but finally was made to relent. He could not break the will of youth.

It was several months later when news reached the great city of the brash upstart. He had died in the heart of Greece of a broken heart after hearing his plays, sent before him, were lost to shipwreck. When the story was told in the forum, those who had not known him furrowed their brows and went on with the business of business. The young dark-skinned man who looked like a savage, had died for art. The people of Rome truly could not understand why.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who's Who?



It has been fashionable lately to make comparisons between America and the Roman Empire. Thinking about this I simply could not miss the fun. If George W. Bush were an emperor, which emperor would he be? Ruminating upon the many tyrants I might choose from, one name stood out from all the rest--Commodus.

From Cassius Dio’s The Roman History, Book LXXIII, paragraph one, we have the following description:

This man was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless (read stupid) as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions (Cheney?)….”

Like Bush, Commodus never actually fought in a battle, but enjoyed playing the part of a soldier. And like Bush, he felt himself to be divine, seeing himself as the new Hercules. Bush appears to believe himself on some sort of holy mission and hears the voice of God. Such are a few of the more notable comparisons.

Just to be fair and not play favorites, whom might Clinton resemble? The younger Gordian was among my first thoughts, but Bill lasted just a bit too long and was too successful for a satisfying comparison.

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Celoron at the Scioto


Sometimes, it is not hard to imagine the Ohio River Valley of two centuries past. Brush the buildings from your sight, banish all modern sounds from your thoughts, and the great primeval hills emulate a crater on the dark side of the moon. It becomes a place where the word ‘wilderness’ engenders all the mystery and danger with which that word is pregnant.

In August of 1749, Captain Pierre-Joseph Celoron de Blainville’s flotilla of canoes was filthy and worn. A sharp contrast to the miniature armada that had set out from Quebec only a few months prior. Then they had been decked with colorful banners, his soldiers in their best parade uniforms, shouts of ‘bon voyage’ and coquettish smiles from the fine ladies of La Chine to see them off.

Despite appearances, in a moment of danger Celoron knew only about fifty of his men could be counted upon for action. The remainder were composed of raw recruits, shiny and new like the leaves of spring. Very quickly they found themselves beyond the aid of the refined society into which they had been born, when, not long after their departure the rapids caught a canoe and drowned one of the men on board. This bad omen might presage the future ill fortune to come.

In just five years the whole region would drown in a deluge of blood with the commencement of the French and Indian War. The great forests of the valley would become even more treacherous, as a stage for guerilla tactics and sudden ambushes from the cover the great trees would provide. At that time, the primeval forest must have appeared to the French, as the dense oaks of barbarian Germany did to the Romans when first they crossed the Rhine.

Celoron was charged with an expedition to the Ohio or, “Beautiful River--so little known to the French, and, unfortunately, too well known to the English” as Father Bonnecamp, the Jesuit priest who accompanied them put it. At the main tributaries they would land and place lead markers. These markers were an ancient and dramatic gesture meant to symbolize France’s repossession of the territory.

The planting of a plate was an occasion for that cliché of French exhibitionism that remains a national trait to this day. Gathering his officers about him, the plate was buried and an iron sheet bearing the King’s arms was nailed to a nearby tree . A copy of the plate’s inscription was then signed by the officers and dated, followed, we may assume, by a shout of ‘vive le Roy!’ and a volley of musket fire. For some time the English had been slowly encroaching upon French lands, winning the Indians to their will with the quality and quantity of English goods. This was perhaps the last chance France had to reassert her claim, and such bold declarations, repeated again and again, made an excellent advertisement. [1]


After nearly two months of hard travel, during which they were often obliged to carry their canoes overland where the water was too shallow, or too treacherous; after the various tribes had either fled at word of their coming, or gave them reason to feel uncomfortable, the tiny fleet encountered an Indian hunting party that had recently come from Lower Shawnee Town, their next objective. They warned Celoron of the danger he and his men might face at the mouth of the Scioto, should they arrive without warning. Celoron took this advice to heart, and sent Joncaire with a small party ahead to calm their fears. This Joncaire was one of two brothers[2] on the expedition, born to a French officer and a Seneca woman, and invaluable as mediators.[3]

Celoron was right to be cautious. No sooner did Joncaire’s group step upon the bank, then the Shawnee opened fire upon them. The white flag of France was shot through in three places, and the men were quickly subdued and brought to the council-cabin. A Pawnee, as a mouthpiece for the English, denounced them as soon as they began to speak, accusing the French of treachery and deceit. The youth of the tribe were for their instant immolation, and had it not been for the voice of reason from an old Iroquois chief, they might in short order have been roasted to death. This same Iroquois accompanied them to meet the convoy when it was but a brief distance from the village.

Composed of around eighty to one-hundred cabins, it was certainly one of the largest native settlements they had encountered so far, and must have been in appearance hardly what the word village would imply. It was also on the very fringe of known civilization and, therefore, aid, should they require it. A nexus of Indian and English trade, Celoron may rightly have thought, if he failed there all their travails may have been for nothing.

As the French approached, they were alarmed by the sound of native war cries as the Indians came to the shore in force to display their numbers. Some thousand shots were fired in the air in quick succession, ostensibly as a friendly salute, but Celoron knew it was a warning in disguise, courtesy of the English in the town who had supplied the Indians plentifully with powder and ball.

Keeping his head, he made landfall opposite[4] the village. They returned the salute, and quickly set about building a rude fort for their defense. The chiefs were not long in coming with the pipes of peace and perhaps a worried gleam in their eyes. As if to confirm the native’s worries, some eighty warriors crossed soon after and, with loaded muskets stood only a short distance from the assembled party, giving what must have been the impression of hungry hawks along a hedgerow.

This was far from comfortable. He ordered the chiefs to send them off before he had recourse to shoot them. The Indians defended their actions as an innocent gesture to show them honor but, when they saw that Celoron was in no mood for such a tribute, the chiefs waived off the braves with all due haste.

They soon after returned to the village to await the morning, and their next audience with the French. If there were any doubt as to the peril the French felt themselves to be in, guards were posted, and the native threat was kept in check under their watch by firelight.

When dawn broke, Celoron once again sent his man, Joncaire, into the dangerous embrace of the Shawnee, and requested their appearance at the camp. The Indians made the seemingly innocent request that the French cross over and enjoy the comforts of the council-cabin. This would not be prudent. Once cut off from the bulk of his men and the stout bulwarks of their defenses, the natives could do with them as they wished and, a fine wig, however well groomed, was of little protection against the tomahawk. Instead, it was argued that, as Onontio (the governor of New France) was their self-admitted father, it was only right the children should come to where the father lit his fire. Seeing it was hopeless to squabble further, the Shawnee relented.

They were quick to make amends for the poor reception he and his men had received the previous day. Giving him a chance to save face, he admonished their change from a “French heart” to an English one. Ten years before they had welcomed one of their countrymen with open arms, but now they were met with suspicion and dread. The English, he told them, were the cause of the rift and would be their ruin should they not have a change of heart once again. He read to them a letter from the governor repeating these warnings with greater authority, and gave them, in the governor’s name, belts of wampum.

To further underline his resolve in the matter, Celoron called all the English in the village to come before him and chastised them for breaking the bonds of peace with their presence on French lands. He made it known that he was in his rights to take them captive and burn the town for the aid the natives had rendered them, but graciously declined to do so as a gesture of goodwill. For reasons already stated, Celoron was well aware that such an act would have been a death sentence for himself and his men. It is likely the English knew this and had a good chuckle under their breath, pretending to listen earnestly to his advice and promise to do as he bid, but as Father Bonnecamp put it: “firmly resolved, doubtless, to do nothing of the kind, as soon as our backs were turned.”

When letters arrived soon after, informing Celoron that his Indian reinforcements from Detroit would not be coming, it was the signal for departure. According to his Journal, the party left on August 26 after about a week of seemingly wasted words. Passing before the village, the Shawnee once again fired a salute. This time the French did not respond in kind. One can imagine, their hearts too heavy for the effort, perhaps with a new understanding of how hearts can change.

Endnotes

1. Though it is believed otherwise, there is evidence to support a plate being buried at the Scioto. The original map of Father Bonnecamp disappeared a century ago; only a copy now remains. All plate locations on the copy are written in English, not French. Bonnecamp was not very accurate in his calculations, as he admits himself, saying that his compass was bad, and the rocking of the boat did not help either. “Can I dare say that my estimates are correct? In truth, this would be very rash.” There is no proof that the Scioto plate was stolen by the Indians and taken to Circleville, as is traditionally told. It appears next in only two letters of New York Governor George Clinton, who claimed it was stolen on the way to the Ohio, not on it, and this from a third party who did not witness the events. Likewise, many discrepancies in the accounts taint their total credibility. Bonnecamp does not mention the burial of one of the plates, and Celoron does not mention the celebration of the feast of St. Louis on the Scioto, whereas Bonnecamp does. Bonnecamp mentions only two men who went ahead to Lower Shawnee Town, yet Celoron outlines a large group that was impossible to overlook. Lastly, it strains credulity to believe a man of Celoron’s character would not bury a plate at the Scioto of all places, especially having sworn to undertake this task in the king’s name.

2. Neither account is specific.

3. Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe (New York: Library of America, 1983), p. 875.

4. The exact location of Celoron’s camp is not known for certain. It was either in Kentucky or on the east bank of the Scioto River, about one mile west of the current bank.

Selected Bibliography

Bannon, Henry Towne. Scioto Sketches. Chicago: McClurg, 1920.

Bannon, Henry Towne. Stories Old and Often Told. Baltimore: Waverly, 1927.

Dean, Tanya, and W. David Speas. Along the Ohio Trail. Ed. George W. Knepper. Columbus: Auditor of
State, 2001.

Bonnecamps. "Account of the Voyage on the Beautiful River." Ohio History 29: 397-423. Rpt. in
Online Collection Catalog. Columbus: Ohio Historical Society. Ohio History. 2 Mar. 2008.

Blainville, Celoron De. "CELORON'S JOURNAL." Ohio History 29: 335-96. Rpt. in Online Collection
Catalog. Columbus: Ohio Historical Society. Ohio History. 2 Mar. 2008.

Parkman, Francis. France and England in North America. Vol. 2. The Library of America. New York:
Library of America, 1983. 875.

Roseboom, Eugene Holloway, and Francis P. Weisenburger. A History of Ohio. Ed. James H. Rodabaugh.
Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1967.

The History of the State of Ohio. Vol. 1. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical
Society, n.d. Rpt. in The History of the State of Ohio. Ed. Carl Frederick Wittke. Columbus:
Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1941-44.