Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Description of the World - Part 41

Third shelf

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 14th edition (An entertaining compendium of cultural detritus that was my go-to bathroom reading in the constipated 90s. Where else would you learn about the Limbus Fatuorum where the souls of those too stupid to blame and yet an embarrassment to heaven are stored after death. “All these, upwhirled aloft,/Fly o’er the backside of the world far-off/Into a Limbo large and broad, once called/the Paradise of Fools.” [Milton]*  I also particularly enjoyed the proverb “Great cry and little wool, as the Devil said when he sheared the hogs.” Pretty well describes the results of trolling the commentators on the National Review website.

*Question for class discussion. When I was 14, I got the measles and was seriously ill for weeks, indeed, I was delirious with fever for several days. Since I couldn’t sleep, the radio was left on beside my bed and I had to listen to the Battle of New Orleans Song—“In 1814 we took a little trip/Along with Gen’ral Jackson/Down the mighty Mississip’”—over and over again. When that wasn’t going on, my mother read to me. In fact she read me Paradise Lost in its entirely, more because she actually liked Milton a lot than because it was an obvious therapeutic choice. So here’s my question. If you seriously believe that everything you experience leaves a memory, albeit one you can’t retrieve by normal recollection, does that mean that I read the passage about the Paradise of Fools differently when I encountered it in Brewer’s than I would have had I never heard it before? Really?)

Mario Rabinowitz, “Weighing the Universe and its Smallest Constituents,” a paper from the IEEE Engineering review, November 1990 (I did some work for Dr. Rabinowitz in the 90s—as I see from the inscription, he gave me this offprint in ’92. He calculates the mass the the universe at approximately 1054 kilograms. It should be remembered that this was the weight a quarter of a century ago. The universe should report any unexplained weight loss that occurred since that time to its physicist.)

John Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization (Assmann is an egyptologist from Heidelberg University; but his ideas about the nature of social memory, the role of literary canons, and the origins of history are not the work of a narrow specialist—the chart on page 257 reflects an extraordinary level of theoretical ambition. Assmann never discusses the Axial Age concept, but his work reminded me of Jaspers nonetheless, not in its conclusions but in its scope. In the years after World War II, German thinkers were under a cloud for obvious reasons; and, with the exception of Heidegger and some of the Frankfort school people, the foreign intellectuals who agitated Americans were mostly French. For the last couple of decades, I’ve found myself reading Germans more and swiping their ideas. The notion that I’ve appropriate most shamelessly from Assmann is his distinction between the long-term memory of societies, which can span centuries or millennia, and the living memory of people, which is barely 80 years or so. Actually, Assmann’s system is three-fold because long-term memory is typically divided between the memory of origins, which is typically vivid and mythologized, celebrated in ritual and solemnly recounted in canonical writings, and the stuff that happened between the founders and your grandparents, i.e., the stuff that only professional historians give a damn about.)

Valorie Hutt, The Aquarian: 1995-1997 (This is a bound copy of the astrology magazine my sister published and mostly wrote for a couple of years. It’s a meaningful memento to me because of her even though nothing is more alien to my way of thinking than astrology. I used to tell my sister and her compatriots that she had to forgive my skepticism.—“You know how us Geminis are!”—but I’m not exactly a skeptic on this topic.  My antipathy towards astrology isn’t fundamentally because of its obvious shortcomings as an explanation of anything, however. Being wrong’s OK—I’m probably wrong about everything I think and that doesn’t make me nervous or and it certainly doesn’t shut me up. I also collect and cherish the improbably theories of others. I just don’t like astrology aesthetically. It’s right up there with Kern Country, raspberry ribbon candy, and the shape of Scotland in the list of things for which I feel an inexplicable dislike. Val had a better sense of humor about all this than I do. She even reprinted in her magazine a nonsense poem I sent her in a letter:

As Good as it Gets

All on a hot and wintry day,
Right here, which is to say,
Very far away,

I came to like a catastrophe,
My rusty eyes
Focusing on the pimple-spangled fundament 
of a departing dream,
Obscure astrology.
Then, for the first time in my life,
As I often do,
I blessed the children and the animals
Just in case I’m God almighty and forgot.
If the sigh I heard were my own,
I would have been alone,
But as it was
There was nobody there but me.)

R.J.W.Evans, Rudolf II and His World: A Study in Intellectual History 1576-1612 (I’ve long had a certain affection for Rudolf, perhaps because he looked a little like my Uncle Ralph if you judge by his bust and not by Archimboldo’s portrait of him as the God Vertumnus. He had some other things going for him: he was a notable patron of the arts, the employer of Kepler and host to Tycho Brahe, and a keeper of the peace as the Holy Roman Emperor. On the other hand, he was also a devotee of the occult, at the end a weak and indecisive leader, and perhaps frankly mad. He belonged to a sliver of time between the dying Renaissance and the early Baroque, the same time as Shakespeare and Cervantes. After his brother Matthias deposed him and the Hapsburgs reverted to their role as active defenders of the Roman faith, the stage was set for the Defenestration of Prague and the catastrophe of the Thirty Years War that followed it. The Evans book focuses on the intellectual and artistic side of a great historical transition, but it’s perhaps more about an ending than a beginning.)

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