NOTEBOOK for ideas, notions....

Riddle of the Sphinx
Academic Perversity
While speaking of Vergil
John Donne
Julius Caesar
a burrowing bee
pius Aeneas
American Machinist (journal)

(.....or simply stroll through with a scroll.....)


Theophrastus would have described Bibliomania as "An overdeveloped passion for the collections of books as beloved possessions, rather than tools for thought and information, and the bibliomaniac is one who will be seen at church sales and the back corners of barnsales peering shortsightedly into boxes which were just now assembled for the recycling bin, his eyes strained and his countenance aglow with anticipation of finding one more item to crowd, to his wife's dispair, on the overloaded and never to be dusted shelves in his study.......".

I am one who has run the course. As a lad I was a true lover of books, my first rare volume was a copy of Sir Walter Raleigh's "Historie of the Woorlde" in the l634 edition (l612 orig.) in disrepair for five dollars, which I learned to resew, rebound and had in my office as college professor for fifty years. Hundreds and thousands of books clung to me in my teaching years, but as time went along I began to distrust this quagmire of printed paper into which one can dive never to return.

Back when I was about twenty eight years old, I was gathering armfuls of ten cent books in the dark rear of Ferney's bookstore in Walla Walla WA, when I looked out into the sunlight past the bookshelves into the street where people were passing, nodding to each other and smilingly sauntering along. I dropped the books, went out into the light and although a great deal of my life was spent with books and their contents, from that moment on I knew that books were tools for use in my trade, but not a good substitute for life.

Retiring from teaching, I sold my books to people who could use them, avoiding when possible collectors who wanted the rare item as part of a collection never to be read. Just this month I sold to a historian colleague a set of Clarendon's History of the Rebellion, 6 vols 1702 1 ed., which I rebacked in brown glove leather (yes, I can still rebind...), and was pleased that he called and told me that on the first page he found that the printed editions of this important document had an error which completely changed the meaning of the original. THIS is in my mind what books are for, for information, for authenticness, for something important in someone's work or thinking.

Everyone complains that the boob-tube is wiping out our minds, we are becoming silent fools forever watching someone else's messages. They note that TV is not like life, which is interactive. But what can be less interactive than a book? As with TV, you sit silent and watch for hours, absorbed and absorbing, you are a cerebral sponge. I knew a scholar who said he knew Cicero from his ten volumes of Latin writings better than anyone else in the world, but soon after he gave up on marriage and his children and did not live long thereafter. Dust unto dust!

Clearing out most of the books except a few which are still alive for me, like Finnegans Wake and Moby Dick, I tend to think a great deal more, and have time now for planning out the books I am involved in writing. I suppose the main question about books is this: How much do you want to take directions and instructions from other people, and how much of your life do you want to use planning your own thinking, from the inside out?

Riddle of the Sphinx

Often old bad solutions to outstanding problems are more comfortable to deal with than new good ones, and I don't expect anyone to believe that I have solved the Riddle of the Sphinx. But let me proceed with a new view:
1) There is little question that the name of the Sphinx is associated with the Greek verbal stem "sphi(n)g-" meaning "tie fast, bind, choke off".
2) The Sphinx is always described as of Egyptian provenance, an import and not a native Hellenic item.
3) The standard answer to the riddle is "child, man, old-man", that is it includes all age groups gathered together as a social group.

Now if we put these three things together, we spell out clearly the well-known disease Diphtheria, which arriving from Egypt found the Greeks without protective immunity. It killed by developing a leather-like membrane (diphthera) which choked off the air supply to the lungs, and was equally likely to affect all members of Greek society from children to the aged. So there is my Solution to the Riddle, based on documentable data and not desiccated mythology or transcendental guesswork. The traditional explanation which the Greek subscribed to is without point, my view may seem "modern", but the Greeks were early into medical thinking, and fine clinical reporters as in the Hippocratic corpus. But if the argument needs further substantiation, note that Sphinx figures, either in relief or carved in the round, are found on many funerary stone, presumably marked death by diphtheria.

pius Aeneas...

It is always one of those problems which have to be explained when you translate Vergil's 'pius Aeneas' as Pious Aeneas! Yes, he is proper in relation to his deity, to his ancestors, obedient to Fate as Ordained....but a heel who loves and leaves lovely and generous Dido. So is there a better translation?
There is a standard formula for the name of a king, as Harold the Bold, Peter the Great, Richard the Lionhearted, and a century and a half ago the Classical scholar Conington saw that this fits Aeneas exactly: Aeneas the Good. No further words are needed, since GOOD is such a multifarious word, and can even have a touch of light disbelief attached. Thomas Hardy saw further uses for this titling, his warrior against l9th c. uptight conventions is named Jude the Obscure with a sense of sadnesses and irony. And Fitzgerald knew he had to do something striking with his Jewish millionaire-for-a-moment Katz whom he refashioned as Gatsby (Danish -by means 'farm', a mark of the ancient Danish invasions of England), and then titled this book "The Great Gatsby", as if Gatsby the Great was in his thoughts but a little too royal for the crass American scene on the Long Island Sound.


We are all familiar with Greenspan's Law to adjust interest rates up or down in order to avoid inflation or stimulate business, which sounds perceptive and modern. In l8th c. England, interest ran close to four percent, lowering it always accompanied a surge in new business, when it went higher things became static. In the Roman world interest could be as low as six perc. for special uses, it was normally twelve but could rise to eighteen or twenty-four for short term or risky loans, so it is remarkably similar to our scale. It may come as a surprise that in 111-112 AD, Pliny, then in charge of the Treasury in Asia Minor, discusses with the emperor Trajan the idea of lowering interest rates on accrued treasury funds which were standing idle, so as to stimulate investments, the interest from which would in return show a profit to the Treasury. (He even suggests forcing municipalities to take out loans, a poor idea which Trajan scotches immediately.) The interesting thing is that whereas we have huge government deficits and pay interest on government borrowed money, the Romans found they had a large Treasury surplus in Trajan's time. In other words Roman government was in the tax and interest business, very profitably. Expanding empire meant more taxes and profit, so long as you didn't invest much in the new provinces beyond administrative supervision and the military. The USSR did much the same thing, squeezing funds back to the central Treasury and returning as little as possible. ----- We deplore our over-spending, but it may be that a democratic government which is directed to spend by representatives of a population which intends to live in the pursuit of happiness, will normally put out more than it takes in. The only question is how far the overspending should go, without a return to near par every little once in a while.

Academic Perversity

: Let me give you a well entrenched example. Vergil is regularly called a Stoic, because he favors the image of Aeneas who is in a way stoical in parting from the hedonistic, Epicurean Dido at Carthage. This has been maintained for a century, is in all the books. But Donatus notes that Vergil planned after finishing the Aeneid, to devote the rest of his life to Epicurean philosophy, furthermore there are traces of Vergil's close reading of Epicurean Lucretius throughout his work, and he came to manhood on the very day that Lucretius died, an important date to note apparently. For comparison: Would anyone try to maintain that Catholic raised Scott Fitzgerald was Jewish? He did in fact favor Gatsby in the novel, Gatsby who was born Jewish as Katz. Would anyone try this? NO. So why the other one? As I said at the beginning: Academic Perversity.

Speaking of Vergil

Let me try something which would be called outlandish, but has a base in some facts: Vergil's mother Polla Magia was daughter of one Magus, whose name is clearly not Roman and most likely Carthaginian/Semitic. Now Vergil was described in the Vita as being 'aquilus' or dark-complexioned, which suits the mixed Roman-Semitic population of Sicily even at the present time. So I could reverse the Stoic argument above, and note that in actual writing, the picture of Dido is far more sympathetic than that of Aeneas who is a tight-assed Roman through and through. WE feel this pretty clearly, he is an Empire Builder with all the coldness that goes into that profession. But Dido is lovely....Could Vergil be divided between being a Roman poet proud of history, but secretly a descendent of a Carthaginian deserter who settled in the north of Italy after Hannibal's troops passed through?

John Donne

John Donne is probably best known for this short paragraph of elegant prose, often mistakenly taken as a poem:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

What is not generally recognized is that Donne when a young man accompanied Essex's naval attack on Cadiz in Spain, that Cadiz is on a promonitory stretching to seawards, that the bombardment was done in nighttime and the city bells tolled the warning. Even as late at l900 Cadiz was known as having a low-lying, unhealthy climate, and since Donne through later life had a chronic ailment which was probably malaria, it may be assumed that he contracted it then at Cadiz. The chronicle of his sickness from which this quotation comes appears to be in a malarial attack, with fever and hallucination, calling to mind the bells of decades earlier when the cannon fired on the city. Note that the unpoetical word feaver occurs four times in Donne poems. Walton's l640 biography of Donne gives the historical facts, the malarial attacks cannot be documented now but sound medically real. The interesting thing to me is the way sickness can provide the thrust for artistic creativity, much like coffee in the l7th c., alcohol since the early l9th c., drugs in the 20 th c., more drugs since l950, and in a different way, meditation throughout the ages. Sickness can provide the same stepping away from one's habitual mind, and open the gates of the creative processes. --- More can be researched in this aspect of Donne's life and work, I pass the leads to any PhD candidate for study, specifically in the area of The Creativity of Disease.

Julius Caesar and the Commentaries.

In the history of American education, where Latin was the core and virtual body of study from the 17th c. on to the l920's, the war Commentaries of Julius Caesar were the standard fare for reading after mastering the basic grammar ---but only in this country. Caesar's dry, compressed military style is a hard start for young students, it is only later when you can read him quickly that you can enjoy the flavor of his clean Atticistic style, as against the Ciceronian verbosity. Europeans have never used Caesar for beginners, and one might ask why he became to be universally used in this country.

I believe the l8th c. Colonials saw the civilized and well armed Romans who were destined to subdue to uncivilized Gaulish tribes as a paradigm for their own situation. The European settlers adopted a parallel attitude toward to late palaeolithic Indians, and reinforced their role as carriers of destiny by making sure that every boy who would go out and lead a platoon of soldiers in the Indian Wars would have seen in his formative years how the Romans dealt with the Gaulish natives. Caesar became propaganda for war and domination, and the lesson was so well learned and reinforced that it was still operative well into the twentieth century.

This is a large and important area of study, I can only outline it here, and suggest that a serious examination of the role of Roman/Gaul as preface to European American/Native American should yield new, interesting and probably somewhat shocking results. It may seem odd that a Latin textbook became propaganda for the domination and control of the native American population, but what better way to get an evil message across than propagate it in the school system?

Hesiod and the Greek Farmer's Calendar

Hesiod's instructions to his errant brother about the proper way of conducting his life are tight, tough and smallminded. But that was in the 8th c. B.C. long before the lush days of Greek social and economic development, and certainly suited the hard farmland of Hesiod time. But in Theophrastus' tenth Character, we find The Penurious Man doing much the same thing, pinching pennies and a slave to his savings. But now this is humorous, in fact that Character is one of the most amusing. Why such a different treatment of the same theme? Simply put, we have here a clear index of four centuries of fast economic development in Greece, based on Athenian manufacturing and merchandizing, extensive shipping and trade, mining silver at Laurium and the widespread use of currency leading to banking. A parallel may be seen in the pinchpenny advice of Colonial American almanac wisdom of the l8th century, as compared with our current doctrine of entitlement to the goods things of life, made viable by bank loans and Credit Card overspending. We too have come the route from the hard land of New England farming society by the way of accelerated manufacturing and world-trading, leading to a world as rich as that of 5/4th c. Athens. But we did it in a century and a half!

The Bee and the Cactus.

In the Sonoma desert there lives a burrowing bee which gathers pollen from the very short flowering season of certain cacti, storing it away in a foot deep tunnel dug in the arid earth as nest and food for its eggs. It mates with a male in the usual way, and seems a world apart from the highly developed bee-world as we know it. Most bees have established virtual factories for processing nectar-sugar from the flowering Compositae. Their hexagonal chambers of manufactured wax, their overwhelming sense of rigid social order, and above all their changes in the reproductive process, which outlaw Evolution by cloning all the working females as sisters from a single Queen, while males become the useless unemployed........this highly developed system has always seemed amazing to us as humans. ------Against this backdrop, where do we stand? Some of us are as solitary as the burrowing bee, the hermits, the unsocial scholars, while others work in thousands in towering office buildings devoted to one Insurance Company, or in an automobile assembly plant which can use tens of thousands of workers doing exact jobs forever.-------Now that biological cloning has come up as a possibility, one which frightens or repels many people, one might ask how we arrange such complex worker situations out of Individuals who insist strongly on their personal individuality.------ We do it by Social Cloning, the mimetic practice of in a sense becoming each other, so we can fit into organized spaces in a world as highly organized as a bee hive. There are costs, loss of individuality of course, coupled with gains in productivity. But there is choice, and I can write this at my computer terminal as a completely individual individual, while tuning into the world wide web, a structure of communications beginning to be as complex as anything in the biological world.

Pythagoras and Arithmetic

Pythagoras said two and a half millennia ago: First is NUMBER and second putting WORDS on things. In the new world of computer technology and DNA analysis, there is abundant confirmation of his first statement about number, since everything which exists, from the subatomic particles to a complex biological entity like myself is ultimately generated out of number relationships. In this century the solid fabric of our world, which still looks solid, is now known to be sets of numerical relationships. ------What about NAMES? For years I have had trouble remembering people's names, I have a good memory otherwise, it is just the names, and others have admitted the same. I have never tried to identify plants or birds by name, when the tag falls off the new nursery plant, it is still a plant. When I am talking with a fellow whose name I can't recover, we are still talking and making sense. ---- All this leads me to re-consider the names of things and people as mere tags, an abbreviated interface which allows me to deal with much stuff summarily. I say Rose and the snapshot of an elderly aunt flashes up, or a red flower without mentioning sepals, division of flower by five, the family Compositae, nectar or fertilization by bees. Of course this is convenient, but it is also dulling, a way of handling something without knowing much about what you are handling. ---- Education often seems to be a process of assembling lists of names of all sorts. The danger is clear, you may have a full dictionary of name-tags in your head and think you know a lot about the world, but at the end you have only the tags in mind, and have not penetrated deeply into the nature and being of the things to which the name-tags are attached. ----- Now that we live in a computer conscious society, where all the data including the tags and names are assembled in complexes of a very few digits, we might recall Pythagoras' notion: FIRST IS NUMBER.

A Greek Schizoid Hero: Aias

Schizophrenia is something we have had to learn to live with in the twentieth century. The man triggered to shoot half a dozen victims in a subway, the bomber slowly tallying up a series of death-dealing explosions, the guy with a semi-automatic rifle in a schoolyard ---- these are terrifying to the mind, and very puzzling. It would be simplistic to try to attach these criminal actions to specific childhood learning or repression targets. Much more reasonable is to consider them together as evidence of something going very wrong in human minds, something which we cannot really understand at the present time. Best call it schizophrenia, a splitting of some part of the mind from reality, at times surfacing as withdrawal, at times with violence.

This is nothing new in our relatively shallow file of Human History. The Greek Drama, or the little we have left of the hundreds of Hellenic plays, seems to have been fascinated with the edges of normal behavior, the very points at which something went wrong. Take the case of Ajax, great hero of the Trojan Wars, later like many war-heroes a victim not of spear trauma but a psychological casualty. He sits in his old army tent, mulling the dishonors from his leaders, endlessly.....

A trigger often starts off a violent schizophrenic session. Outside the tent sheep are grazing, uttering their traditional "maaaaa....." peacefully. But in the tent, there is another message for muttering Ajax.(A linguistic aside: In Doric dialect which Ajax spoke, "ma" means NO, there may have been a different pitch intonation, but that is not clear, and would have been secondary in Greek.) So he hears outside NO NO NO NO ! ! ! and the trigger reacts: He grabs his sword and slaughters the sheep, mistaking them for the Greeks who had shamed him in public. Schizophrenia is nothing new, the only surprising thing is that generations of Classical Scholars have tried every other way of explaining Ajax's situation, but have not understood schizophrenia triggerable by that critical word NO, which single word probably also has triggered some of our worst, modern chimerical catastrophes.

The Father of Medicine

The Hippocratic treatise On Airs, Waters, Places has been studied in such infinite detail, that it is surprising to find something quite new in that over-worked document. In the discussion of the waters which are healthiest for drinking, it is stated that water, which after being frozen overnight and thawed in the morning, shows an increase in volume, is the most unfit for drinking. Now this is very odd, and I had some advanced students work on it, with no positive results. Certain micro-organisms might release gases, or the cool night air might foster oxygen going into solution --- we tried every impossible thought and came up with nothing. It may be that the increase of the volume of water on freezing was conflated with the idea of a test for purity, but the failed experiment is described very clearly.

On the other hand, I consider this passage very important in the history of science, because it is the first quantitative experiment in antiquity of which we have knowledge. The fact that the experiment does not yield results, is far less important than the fact that for the first time, a quantitative measurement is taken in a physical argument. It would not be until the time of Cavendish and l9th c. science that quantification becomes the critical part of any scientific study. But here is a clear examination of change of volume, as part of a line of pre-scientific reasoning, a very early forerunner of one of our most basic scientific tools.

American Technology

A magazine from the l970's called The American Machinist" is a remarkable source of information for the historian of Technology. It was a weekly news-journal published from right after the Civil War on through the important years in which American machine technology developed the tools on which our later economic expansion depended. Not only does this paper chronicle important events like the introduction of Westinghouse's electric motor, destined to replace the huge and inefficient steam powerplants of the day in a mere decade, but it documents hundreds of machinery designs in first-rate woodcuts of great detail and accuracy. These cuts are works of art in themselves. Moreover there are fascinating stories by unknown writers of the period of early Twain, which should be collected as a l9 th. c social history reader. There are bound collections of these papers in Library of Congress and Smithsonian, here is a mine of materials which few have had the chance to excavate. I spent long evenings with several volumes, neglected buying the whole set which went to a collector somewhere --- my regret. But I do want to pass this along....

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College