Thursday, December 17, 2015

Description of the World – Part 28

Nancy Olmsted, To Walk with a Quiet Mind: Hikes in the Woodlands, Parks and Beaches of the San Francisco Bay Area (I got this little book when I first moved to the Bay area some thirty-five years ago. In the first few years here I walked most of the trails it describes. It saddens me to think how long it’s been since I was an active hiker.)

Joseph W. Moser, 2,001 Most Useful German Words (I suppose Internet apps are making little books like this obsolete.)

Baroque Personae, ed. Rosario Villari (Essays by very good historians on key social roles: statesman, soldier, financier, etc. I’ve been stealing from Daniel Dessert’s piece on financial experts for decades. In his essay on the Baroque secretary, Salvatore Nigro’s quotes one Michele Benvenge’s 1689 book Proteo segretatio describing the job of the ghost writer as he assumes the interests of his patron: “With his varying perspectives he flatters resemblances and puts spine back into the spineless. With his fecundity, he holds the negotiations to one consonant voice, and inflating it without adding to it quantitatively, he makes of it a miracle without a miracle.” Sound familiar to me, though I’ve mostly had to trick out the discourse of Taiwanese statisticians rather than Italian Dukes. Same challenge, but the money isn’t as good.)

Jon R. Stone, Latin for the Illiterati (Despite the cute title, this is a very useful little reference book. It translates the words and brief phrases that show up in older books or serve as mottos of schools and businesses. Latin, presumably, is classier than English. I once tried to sell the publishing company I worked for on replacing its boring motto Education for Truth (or some such) with ex pedantibus pecunia, an apt mission statement for a textbook outfit. Glancing through this book I came upon a sentence that exemplifies the creativity of the theological imagination: videt et erubit lympha pudica Deum—the modest water saw God and blushed. The text explains that the line refers to Christ turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. The notion that water is bashful shows up elsewhere. Sir Thomas Browne wrote about the old idea that female corpses floated face down because the water wants to preserve their modesty. Presumably men float face up, which doesn’t seem particularly decorous, especially if rigor mortis provides the cadaver with a mast.)

Merritt Ruhlen, The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue (The great discovery of historical linguistics was the discovery of the kinship of the various Indo-European languages; but once you define Proto-Indo-European [PIE], the next obvious question is how PIE relates to Proto-Semitic or Proto-Uralic and all the rest. Which eventually raises a methodological question. Almost everybody thinks that the existing human languages are related, but how far back can you reasonably trace them? Ruhlen and his associate Joseph Greenberg think you can very far back indeed on the basis of similarities between basic vocabulary words, a technique that almost guarantees hallucination will set in because of the human propensity to find analogies when you go looking for ‘em. Of course there are other possible lines of evidence—archaeology, genetic affinities, etc.—but things quickly get dicey as you go back in time. What interests me more than the meta question of methodology is the meta, meta question of why the tracing of genealogies is so fascinating. It’s not as if proto-World was the language of the angels. Almost everything changes in known sequences of languages; and, so far as I know, universal trends are few and far between. Languages don’t keep getting simpler in point of syntax or phonology, for example. Greek has more complicated conjugations than Vedic Sanskrit. Fashions in linguistics also change. Tracing affinities was an obsession of the 19th Century while the structural linguistics of the 20th Century, which focuses on how languages work in the here and now, has (or had) more prestige afterwards. Even the historical linguists became more interested in how languages change than in how they have changed. More recently, the phylogeny of language has seemingly made a comeback. Something similar seems to have occurred in anthropology. Circa 1960, I was taught to think that concern about how customs and inventions diffused was rather old fashioned because knowing the origin of something—a myth, a style, a technique of basket weaving—doesn’t really tell you all that much and, in any case, parallel invention is commonplace. Old ethnography joke: an extreme diffusionist is somebody who believes that self abuse was only invented once. In lieu of looking for culture heroes, one was advised to find commonalities that defined human nature—structures, not origins. Yet everything has a history whether or not we know it.)

Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (There are many Muslim narratives of pilgrimages to Mecca. Ibn Battuta travelled a great deal farther than that, although Dunn is skeptical about his purported visit to China. This book isn’t a translation, but it quotes ibn Battuta at length. Travel writers don’t change all that much. Ibn Battuta was a legal scholar and thought of himself as something of an intellectual, but he comes across as a shallow but agreeable man. He would have made an excellent textbook salesman. What you look for when you hire for that position are people of unquenchable curiosity who never actually learn anything—if they start to actually know what they’re talking about, it will irritate the customers.)

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower (With the exception of a Distant Mirror, Tuchman’s books have never made a lasting impression on me. Of course there are an enormous number of books about the run up to World War I, not to mention the BBC serials that always seem to start a few years before the war and involve family members lost on the Titanic. That makes it very hard to remember where you read what. Reading about familiar events is not useless, however, since you have to keep relearning if you want to keep knowing. It’s like plate spinning at the circus where the clowns run ragged trying to keep the plates from falling off the poles.)

S.N. Agnihotri, PhD., Sanskrit without Tears (You have to have a sense of humor to name a book Sanskrit without Tears, especially if you expect anybody to believe they’ll learn Sanskrit from a 76-page spiral bound booklet. I picked this item up because it does provide a reasonable introduction to the Devanagari writing system. Speaking of plates on poles: that plate hit the ground a while ago.)

Francois Ponge, The Nature of Things, translation by Lee Fahnestock (This little collection of poems was called Le parti pris de choses in French. The title has been translated elsewhere as Taking the Side of Things, which seems closer to the intent of the original since Ponge is partial to things, i.e., exhibits partiality on their behalf. Like Gaston Bachelard, whose philosophical books are poetic and gratifying in a similar way, Ponge lovingly contemplates material objects and substances and often achieves an effect by simple description. Of course the literal is more poetic than the figurative—not that Ponge doesn’t cheat like everybody else. A random sample that accidentally continues an earlier idea referenced in these pages:

“Water is colorless and glistening, formless and cool, passive and determined in its single vice: gravity. With exceptional means at its disposal to gratify the vice: circumvention, perforation, infiltration, erosion. The vice plays an inner role as well: water endlessly ravels in upon itself, constantly refuses to assume any form, tends only to self-humiliation, prostrating itself, all but a corpse, like the monks of some orders. Forever lower: that seems to be its motto‚ the very opposite of reaching for the heavens.”)

Theodore C. Burgess and Robert J. Bonner, Elementary Greek (My sister gave me this book as a birthday present. It’s inscribed, “To Jimmy—it’s all Greek to me!” I think I must have been 13 or 14. I wish I could say that I mastered this little text like a less precocious version of John Stuart Mill. In fact I only learned the alphabet and few other things that came in handy when I got to college: the five pages taken up by the paradigm of the regular verb luo (I loosen) were probably enough to discourage me, especially when I realized that luo is just about the only regular verb in the ancient language. All of the rest of ‘em are irregular in some way. Greek has a pataphysical grammar almost entirely made up of exceptions.)

No comments: