Thursday, February 11, 2016

Description of the World - Part 52

Joseph T. Shipley, The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Into-European Roots (Shipley, who had a PhD in comparative literature, was not exactly Isidore of Seville, but I wouldn’t necessarily put too much weight on his etymologies. That may be unfair of me, though I found several errors and Shipley reports as fact any story he likes. In other words, he writes like a Greek. Whatever the soundness of his scholarship, an account of the English lexicon that takes off from the PIE roots is bound to produce a delirious effect. The book is essentially a non-fiction Finnegan’s Wake. Hegel called the shared intelligible structure of the human world objective reason, but our minds are also embedded in a matrix of accumulated nonsense; and our conscious thoughts spring up like tiny mushrooms from an immense mycelium of associations and half forgotten memories. Nietzsche spoke of the “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation and decoration.” I usually prefer the formulation of an American novelist who spoke less grandly of the “shitty run of category mistakes and non sequiturs” or invoke Pace’s notion of neocarolinian associationism. Charles Sanders Pierce called it the sea of musement. There’s a private as well as a public version of this linguistic/cultural mass/mess satura/satire. In fact it’s hard to draw the line between the bits and pieces stored locally and the communal treasury (or junk yard) since the monads are joined below. Freud explained a case of contagious amnesia by invoking his version of the collective unconscious. A young woman told a group of her young male admirers that she had much enjoyed the novel by the American Lew Wallace, but for some reason couldn’t remember the title.* The men found they couldn’t remember it either, which was odd because the book was a best seller at the time. Freud’s explanation was that they all repressed the title, Ben Hur, because in German “Hur” means whore, not the sort of thing proper young men want to bring up with a debutant (precisely because it’s exactly the sort of thing they want to associate with her).** Shipley’s book is part of the proximal region of objective delirium for me. I haven’t given the book a thought for a couple of decades, but the marginalia show that I read it with close attention and checking out the underlinings, I realized that I’ve put some of the material to use. I was a little surprised at what I had forgotten, though, for example, the derivation of words for blindness from kaiko as in Latin caecum and the saying, made famous by Erasmus in his Adagia, “In regione cacorum, rex est luscus: In the realm of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” I though I’d remember that because I’ve been correcting the saying for years. As experience teaches us, in the realm of the blind, the one-eyed man is under arrest. 

*I note in passing that if had Lew Wallace been a transexual, he would have written Been Him. These things have to be accounted for in a philosophy like mine that includes the things that aren’t as well as those that are. In the human world, at least, there are infinitely more possibilities than actualities, and the counterfactuals matter. It’s also true that since the late 60’s I’ve tried live by the zeroth commandment: Remember the object language and keep it holy. That rule doesn’t cover everything, however. Physics may be trumps, but it doesn’t win every trick.

**Shipley derives whore from ka as in Sanskrit kama. He gets charity out of ka but also “By a downgrading twist, L. cara, Gc huore: sweetheart, turned out as English whore.” These reversals are business as usual in the history of language. You may not be able to get something for nothing, but you can get nothing [rien] for something [res], at least in French and, for that matter, in the beginning of Hegel’s Logic where non being is deduced from being since the perfectly indeterminate something is pretty much the same as nothing.) 
Gordon W. Prange, Miracle at Midway (Prange was a famed historical researcher who could never quite get around to finishing his books. This effort, like his first and more famous book, At Dawn We Slept, was actually turned into a book by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. I knew Goldstein back in the late 70s when he was working on the Prange books. A bluff and hearty man with a military background, he was an admirably loyal and unassuming friend to Prange, at least as far as I can tell. I suspect there’s more Goldstein than Prange in the final product, though I never met Dillon who, for all I know, made the largest contribution of all to these extremely successful books—At Dawn We Slept won a Pulitzer.)

Herwig Wolfam, History of the Goths (That nationalities are largely fictive is a commonplace of modern historiography, though old fictions become real enough eventually. Projecting ethnicity backwards and thinking that the labelled arrows in maps of the V√∂lkerwanderung era identify distinct peoples with ancient roots is rather like imagining that time out of mind there really was a Scotland with beefy men running around in plaid kilts. The Romans were more forthright about their own origins as a conglomeration of horse thieves and juvenile delinquents that fetched up on the Tiber short. The various barbarian “tribes” that eventually took down the empire were similarly gangs improvised by their rather entrepreneurial leaders. I leave it to the kitschy side of Heidegger to imagine that the German language (aka Gothic) was an an originary tongue, the oracle of Being, and not the lingua franca of a bunch of refugees and camp followers.)

David Pace and Sharon L. Pugh, Studying for History (David Pace has been trying to teach college professors how to teach history for many years now. In this little book, he and his co-author attempted the much easier task of helping college students learn something despite their professors. He sent me a copy, probably hoping that I’d get the hint—one section of the book is titled “How Jim Unintentionally Committed Plagiarism,” which is pretty much equivalent to “How David Telegraphed a Punch.” Or maybe he was just getting even with me for persuading him to write his doctoral dissertation about Levi-Strauss.)

William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill Visions of Glory 1874-1932. (Like countless other middle class kids of my vintage I grew up in a household with a copy of the Book of the Month Club edition of Churchill’s six volume history of World War II. I can’t remember not knowing rather a lot about him, albeit much of his image had obviously been carefully constructed, something I recognized even as a child. Even so, he was a natural role model for a young teen, the original male Mary Sue: prime minister, cavalry officer, escapee from a prisoner of war camp, pilot, inventor of the tank, founder of the RAF, author, painter, polo champ, etc. He even won a Nobel Prize for a book he hadn’t actually written. Watching his elaborate funeral, which Churchill himself had carefully choreographed, I couldn’t help but think that if it were logically possible to enjoy your own burial, Winston figured out how to do it. The ceremonies were simultaneously genuinely grand and undeniably cheesy, rather as the man had been. I became less of a fan later, more aware of Churchill’s imperialism, absurd sentimentality about the monarchy, and crank economic ideas—he may have been an indispensable war lord, but he was a terrible Chancellor of the Exchequer. I never blamed him for Gallipoli, though. A Nelson would have choked Turkey out of the war, but not even half Nelsons were available.)

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Too Long for Twitter, Too Short for a Blog

The perennial bleat about how this candidate or that is fighting the establishment isn’t just boring. It simply doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Unless you buy into some romantic theory of perpetual revolution, isn’t the whole point of political action to replace the current establishment or, more realistically, to change some of its personnel while altering the outlook of the rest? My bitch with the elite is that it’s not very goddam elite, that it’s doing a rotten job of leading the country, dealing with real problems, and maintaining our basic values. I want a better establishment, not the elimination of establishments.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Description of the World- Part 51

Richard Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence (The old rhetoricians treated invention as belonging to memory whereas we seem to assume that in imagination we possess a magical, if not divine creative power. I’ve been a skeptic about that since I was tasked to write a one-act play about the assassination of Lincoln and suddenly realized how blank a sheet of white paper can be. I don’t remember how far I got with it, but my attempt began with John Wilkes Booth delivering a drunken soliloquy in his hotel room. If I were writing it now, I’d have his demented reverie interrupted by a knock on the door; and Booth would prove himself a competent actor, if not a competent conspirator, by snapping into character as a born leader, convincing his accomplices to fall in line with a display of steely resolve® and thus moving the action on to the next plot point. At the time, I hadn’t read or seen enough plays to figure out what to do next, and I had to beg off the assignment. Miss Tinkle, the American history teacher—I don’t remember her real name—was visibly disappointed. The episode made me understand that a play is not just any collection of actors doing and saying things on a stage and, more generally, that genre rules, though they can certainly impede creativity, make it possible in the first place. The need for structure is just as great in ordinary life, though we are so accustomed to the roles, scripts, and rituals that we are ordinarily unconscious of how many of our choices have been made in advance. That doesn’t mean that we’re mindless jute boxes, just that we normally express our creativity by the way we play covers. Trexler’s book is about the rituals of public life in Florence. He’s like a historical Irving Goffman. I especially appreciated his treatment of the various ways that Florentines made a virtue out of acting naturally, much in the same way that our ads for mass produced cars endlessly extol individuality. A contemporary commented: “I don’t want to say that they do bad who tell you they don’t want you to use ceremony with them. Indeed I praise it. Because to say this is another type of ceremony and breeding, with which one suppresses ambition.” Sometimes Trexler violates the rule that learned people must present themselves as just plain folks as when he wrote the phrase “Cleisthnian disregard for chthonic solidarities.” I kinda like that one.)

Piero Camporesi, Bread of Dreams (Those who don’t have nouns, have adjectives, which accounts for the luxuriant verbal creativity of inner-city America. Or, in the Italian case:  “Many people, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, were reduced to living mainly on beau langage and feasting on names instead of tasting things.” Camporesi doesn’t leave it at verbal delirium. It’s his thesis that hunger, adulterated food, low-level infections, and dubious medicines combined to create a peasant class that lived in a more or less permanent hallucination. Most of the evidence is indirect as is the usual situation when anybody tries to discover or even simply imagine what was going on in the dark matter of human history. Camporesi relies on records and literary echoes about life in what were then the Papal States. That struck me as a little ironic since Pellegrino Artusi, author of the first great Italian cookbook came from this same hungry neck of the woods.)

C.W.C.Oman, The Art of War in the Middle Ages (When I cared about such things, I’d pick up books like this because I liked their maps.)

John Ellis, The Social History of the Machine Gun (The machine gun, which was originally a symbol of the triumph of technology over courage, became democratized. One of my favorite illustrations in this little book is an ad for a Thompson machine gun that shows a cowboy using a tommy gun to fend off attacking Indians. Ellis’ book was written too early to    witness the later stages of this story in the long era of the AK-47, but he saw it coming: “The machine gun has now become personalised, itself the means by which men desperately try to make their mark on a world in which they feel increasingly powerless. In the fantasy world at least technology is turned against itself.” In the fantasy world and also in Eastern Oregon.)
Alvin D. Coox, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939, two volumes (These books were designed by a friend of mine, Lisa Mirski, who gave them to me. The topic is esoteric, but not insignificant, a unofficial border fight between the Soviets and the Japanese in Eastern Mongolia. Led by general Zhukov, who was to become much more famous in the upcoming European war, the Reds crushed the Kwantung Army and gave the Japanese a lesson they took to heart. Nomonhan was in the background of the Japanese decision not to attack the USSR in ’41. The book provides a wonderful display of the mindlessness of military nationalism.)