Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Description of the World - Part 61


The Stack Behind the Chair

Orrin W. Robinson, Old English and Its Closest Relatives: a Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages (I’d like to believe that sentences can soldier on alone like the knee in the Christian Morgenstern poem (“Ein Knie geht einsam durch die Welt./Es ist ein Knie, sonst nichts!”) I’ve tried to invent Kugels├Ątze for many years, but that effort is perhaps as contrived as Kugelsatz, a word I just made up only to discover there’s actually a such a word and also a mathematical theorem called the Kugelsatz, though in mathematics Kugelsatz means ball set, not bullet sentence. Robinson’s book contains a veritable Kugelsatz, one which has survived since the not only without a context but without any company in its own language—it’s the only remaining fragment of Old West Franconian: “hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic enda thu wat unbidan we nu.” Which means, “all the birds have begun nests except for you and me—what are we waiting for?”)


Petrarch, Canzoniere trans. Mark Musa (I was using an old deposit slip as a bookmark so I know that I got to Sonnet 123 some time after the fifth of August in 2003. As a kid, I read Petrarch’s poems in a Victorian translation, but after I acquired the Musa version I gave the old book, with its charming tinted picture of Laura, to an airplane stewardess who, as it happened, was named Laura. She had never heard of Petrarch. Well, I used to do jobs for a British engineer named Skelton who’d never heard of John Skelton, the immortal author of the Tunning of Elenor Rumming. Come to think of it, I also worked for an Irish engineer named Dooley, who’d never heard of Mr. Dooley—you probably haven’t either, though this creation of Finley Peter Dunne was frequently quoted at Teddy Roosevelt’s cabinet meetings as Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert might be at Obama’s. Of course a lot of what was once familiar richly deserves to become unfamiliar, but it still saddens me a tad that I can’t use my perfectly good W.C. Fields impersonation without causing bewilderment if not alarm in twenty-something baristas. Anyhow Mr. Dooley really was funny and so was Skelton. For that matter, Petrarch had his moments, though I doubt if the contemporary Laura ever got very far through that 19th Century translation—Victorian translators made ever poet sound like very other poet.)

John F. Collins, A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin (I got this to help me during a period when I was reading the Vulgate. Maybe it’s my imagination, but Medieval Latin is a lot easier to read than the classical variety.)

Pius II, Commentaries, Volume One (I think I already commented on the second volume of this memoir of the 15th Century humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, aka Pius II. This volume contains a memorable account of his election. Speaking about easy Latin: “Convenere apud latrinas plerique cardinales.” Well, they met in the toilet to plot to elect a rich Frenchman pope, but it didn’t work, and Aeneas was acclaimed.)

San Francisco, an Eyewitness Travel Guide (These DK books don’t list an author. I used to get a new San Francisco guidebook every couple of years, but now that I’ve run out of relatives to show around town, I’ve lost interest, which is a shame, really, because I’m well aware that I haven’t explored all of this Disneyland for adults myself.)

Barry Cunliffe, Facing the Ocean: the Atlantic and its Peoples (Cunliffe takes the Atlantic face of Europe as distinct zone with its own history. Since his timeframe is 10,000 years long, his approach is largely archaeological. That gives the book a geographical flavor, which of course pleases me since I’m a fan of places and maps. Anyhow, I like edges; and the Galatians, Celts, and Bretons lived on a ragged edge.)

What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text, & Commentary, edited with translations by Ibn Warraq (I’ve been pointing out for many years now that it was philology not natural science that did the most damage to religious orthodoxy, at least in Europe. Nothing comparable to the higher criticism roiled Islam until recently. The works of the aggressive apostate Ibn Warraq are an exception. For the most part, Western scholars have been willing to go along with the Muslim version of the early history of the faith. Of course the Koran is a much more homogenous text than the Jewish or Christian Bibles so there’s no question of teasing out separate strands. It’s presumably all Muhammad (or Gabriel), though some of it may be modeled on or lifted from Syriac Christian sources. Trying to figure out the context of particular passages is another matter. When you read translations of the Koran, particular Suras are identified as having been received at Mecca or Medina, but this information is something added to the text and reflects the traditional version of Islamic history that was codified a century or so after Muhammad. The context matters, especially if you’re interpreting crucial texts like Sura IX.29, which became the canonical justification of the poll tax on non-Muslims—what could such a tax have meant before the Arabs established dominion outside of the peninsula? Several of the articles in this anthology chew over this issue. Muslims sometimes brag that their religion, unlike others, was, as it were, conceived with the lights on; but I think it more likely that their history seems unambiguous now mostly because the perpetrators got together later and agreed on a story.)

Henry Kamen, Empire: How Spain Became a World Power (Like everybody else who writes about the subject, Kamen spends more time on the first century of the Spanish empire than on the last, though it is a fascinating question how this ramshackle conglomeration lasted as long as it did. Or maybe in my old age I’m developing a morbid interest on how things end. Some empires persist because of rather in spite of their weakness rather like caterpillars left alive but paralyzed so that the wasp’s offspring can devour ‘em at leisure.)

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Description of the World - Part 60


John S. Robsenow, A Chinese-English Dictionary of Enigmatic Folk Similes (Xieyouyu) (Although it would be hard to devise an excuse for buying this book, especially since it was rather expensive; but few volumes in my library have given me more pleasure. I ran across it in the textbook section of the San Francisco State bookstore where I was supposedly seeing what math texts were on order—I edited math books in those days. The sheer perversity of acquiring a big collection of Chinese folklore probably appealed to me. Or perhaps it was the frontispiece that lured me in, a drawing of a Chinese sage fishing with a barbless, unbaited hook. The picture illustrated the saying “Jiang Tai Gong going fishing—whoever gets hooked does so of his own free will.” That line could serve as an epigraph for inanis et vacua since it perfectly encapsulates my approach to literary self promotion. Many of the similes are drawn from Chinese history or timeless agrarian situations (“killing a rabbit while cutting grass—incidentally”), but there are references to anti-aircraft guns, Mao, and even Elizabeth Taylor, who the Chinese apparently regarded as an overstuffed frump. What I call objective delirium, the shared cultural detritus of a society, is like the unconscious. It is indifferent to contradiction and innocent of chronology. Robsenow’s book was probably used in classes on advanced Chinese. You are hardly fully fluent in a language if you simply understand its grammar and lexicon. That’s perhaps especially true in China. It may not be a case of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, but a great deal goes over your head if you don’t catch allusions. The one drawback of the book is the difficulty of looking anything up in it. I’ve been using one simile for years now but can’t find where I saw it and wonder if I’m quoting it right. “Throwing boiling water on your lice: it won’t kill ‘em but it will scald ‘em.”)

Literary Debate: Texts and Contexts—Postwar French Thought Volume II, ed Denis Hollier and Jeffrey Mehlman (My reading of this very rich anthology has been regrettably selective. I mostly just picked out a few favorite authors—Ponge, Bachelard, Serres—but I did reread Sartre’s writing on political commitment fairly recently and was surprised to find it so cogent. I came into the theater just as Sartre was being hustled out, but perhaps he’s becoming relevant again. Of course he wrote a great many absurd things, but to recognize that is not to set him apart from the rest of us. It’s like discovering that some politician or artist you like behaved badly in a sexual way as if human sexual behavior weren’t generally deplorable.)

Fernand Braudel, The Identity of France: Volume One: History and Environment (I’m a reader of the late works of famous authors, the books everybody ignores—Ovid’s Fasti, the last five cantos or Orlando Furioso, the Cantos on Mutability of Spencer, Hegel’s Larger Logic, the Mythologiques of Levi-Strauss. It’s probably my way of protesting against mortality as it also was for some of the authors. The old guys have to stick together. Braudel has a different take. In at writing at last about his home country, he celebrates a homecoming. “I have saved my white bread until last: there is still some left for my old age.” I don’t know if there is anything in this work that is novel from a historiographical point of view, but looking at France geographically makes sense of much of its history—I certainly wish that other historians would begin their syntheses with a deep description of the landscape of the events they will narrate and explain. Anyhow, I love the idea of pays, i.e., the distinct nooks and crannies of a country.)