VERMONT ESSAYS: Volume Three
Treading cautiously over the light snowfall, the black cat trails around west corner of the house, settling into a basement window recess to catch the last warmth of slowly disappearing sun. Soon it is night and she is gone to some home in some far stable's warmth, while we read the news after dinner until it is chilly, then turning out lights we go to bed. Crash of falling glass in the dark. We sit up shocked in an anxious flash sweating. Next morning it was water dripped ice on the lilac branches beside the window, which froze itself off the bark for us to find in surprise as sheared crystals next morning when by thin sunlight the black cat returning here ceremonially sees the morning up.
Some eager student is always going to ask that old academic question about: "Sir, what is the difference between prose and poetry? I need a definition for my term paper on The Intermedia in the Arts...". Instead of saying something inconclusive, which I will badly overtalk knowing just how inconclusive it really is, I just say: "Go back to the office door and read the (above) page tacked up on the inside. Open the door, go out closing it again. Then read the paper tacked up on the outside of of the in the hall. Yes, you can go now, that's all!"
Treading cautiously over the light snowfall
the black cat trails around west corner of the house
settling into a basement window recess to catch
last warmth of slowly disappearing sun.
Soon it is night and she is gone to some home
in some far stable's warmth, while we read the news
after dinner until it is chilly, then turning out lights
we go to bed. Crash of falling glass in the dark.
We sit up shocked in an anxious flash sweating.
Next morning. It was water dripped on the lilac branches
beside the window which froze itself off the bark,
for us to find in surprise as morning crystals sheared ,
when by thin sunlight the black cat returning here
ceremonially sees the morning up.
It is midwinter, the days are near their shortest, everything is withdrawing back into itself. The piano has shrunk back from the cold and dropped its pitch a noticeable part of a tone, while the viola finds its fingerboard leaning a fraction of an inch toward the spruce belly plate. Some of the windows are so firmly locked in position that I know they won't open until the warm aura of April beckons them to let some air pass through. Places in my study which were firm and silent all through the summer now creak in protest at my footstep. In the cellar workshop which was dry even to start the season off, the shop door protests when I go down to work. I have to put the handle back on a chisel with a mallet blow before I can start work, and all the hammers wag their heads a trifle before aiming for the head of a nail.
Outside it is much the same. The pine needles have waxed themselves to prevent further drying out, while maples creaking their branches against each other as if to rub off a little warmth, have thrown up their arms in despair and let the leaves go to the reckless winds. Under the big boulder near the back door the frog who once croaked periodically is now quietly asleep. No crickets whirr outside but a sole mosquito as last survivor of his kind has discovered the questionable warmth of my bedroom and will dive at my ear every once in a while until I give him his last slap farewell. Winter winds talk to each other in sighs all thorough the night, as snow blankets the world into a winter solitude.
Keep near the wood stove where split logs crackle in their heat as passing wind sucks puffs of smoke from the chimney down across the yard. This is a time when dogs let out come back to scratch the door quickly to lie behind the stove, when barn cats lose their ears and some their tails to frost. In the old days men could hang themselves on a rope in the barn some midwinter evening rather than wait anxiously for the time of spring, while now they go to the doctor with their depressions and get a tranquilizing pill. Everything is waiting to breathe moist air and expand again, but it is still midwinter and there are many weeks til the days lengthen and the sun lingers longer in the south windows warming the room.
There is a purpose to all of this. We learn to wait in an age when everything is moving fast, where the polls of politics oscillate weekly and the stock prices daily. The blue light of evening TV flickers with thirty second ads themselves packed with two second shots. Each day brings a moment of news from a far distant war with a few more soldiers dead, before switching brashly to the last days of a car sale with a thousand dollars in the glove compartment if you hurry to the phone and act now. In the cities it is different, all busy hustle to the jingle of Christmas tunes, everybody going somewhere to buy something or greet someone before the old year runs out. But here in the deep countryside it is cold and quiet, because we are somehow drawn into ourselves just as the world around us contracts against the cold. The world outside is waiting for the springtime ritual of rebirth, and sitting this cold evening by the dying warmth of the black woodstove, I find I am in much the same frame of mind. I too am playing a waiting game.
Being in control is a basic instinct in human life, one which extends to almost every aspect of our being. Learning a musical instrument we practice scale and arpeggio endlessly in an effort to get control of the instrument; learning to ski we start from easy to harder exercises to control our bodies moving at speed; walking in a rocky area we carry a staff for security. In the dangerous business of driving a car at high speed on a two way road, the first rule will be staying in control of the vehicle. Brush your teeth to control placque, get a hold of yourself to control your anger, control your weight and be sure to control your drinking ---- the litany goes on forever. Our military forces control attacks from foreign terrorist just as our white blood cells control internal invaders. It might seem that our whole lives are centered about an effort to stay in control, one way or another.
Of course there will be a cost for all this. We become stiff in our gait, authoritarian in our family relations and uptight in our personality. Later becoming victims of a peculiar kind of emotional claustrophobia, we reach for a gasp of fresh air any way we can get it, some through drink or drugs, others through a mid-life crisis or an impulsive divorce. Overcrowded by the press of bills, responsibilities and duties, we freak out and leave our well arranged world to go on the road, to follow the lead of a dream or try to create another persona hoping that he will be free and joyful and comfortably irresponsible. We want to leave the hole in the roof open to let the rain in.
For some of us it ends in defeat and we never really face loosening up or changing the ruts in which our wheels have been spinning for half a lifetime. For others there may be not so much a loss of attention as a firm dis-attention to the constraints which have kept us in control for all those years. No wonder many of us get forgetful as we age, finally forgetting where we are going and even who we are, as a gentle way of dropping the reins and letting the horse go where he will. It is a revolt of the cerebral neurons which have got tired keeping it all together, holding on to everything and maintaining a housekeeping order for us.
The same struggle between order and disorder goes on in the society. We build with great care and energy a civilization designed to cover our needs, but it will continue to grow on its own impetus shooting out new branches in the sciences and the arts, with inventions beyond the scope of our wildest imagination, at the same time keeping all in order with a sense of overall purpose and design. A body of statute and regulation keeps all in control and we maintain with firm intent a kind of social homeostasis. Being successful in every venture we find we had created surpluses, which we could use to provide everything our citizens need, from education to health care to a proper debt-free funeral. They did this in Sweden and we were about to start it with the Great Society, believing that there was a responsibility of the state to take care of its people. But that was all premised on the assumption that we were in control.
Then things began to change. We began to wonder what would happen if things started to go haywire, if we found after putting it all together so carefully, the whole shebang was getting out of control? What if our national savings turned into a logarithmically expanding national debt? What if we took the military might we had prepared to defend ourselves, and losing control and sight of its purpose, we decided to use it for foreign attack and invasion? Finding ourselves converting our ploughshares into swords, our ammonium nitrate fertilizer into pipe bombs, our vials of biological agents into plagues, wouldn't we finally have to admit that we had forgotten the business of assembling a working society? Was there any aim in the new ideology which was enticing us into the idea of running the world on our terms? Or was it just that we had forgotten our mandate and along with all the imperial disasters which history has handed down to us, we were simply spinning out of control?
The Last Year of the Great Tetrade had come and, in manner dating from time immemorial, the people had spoken about their pleasure concerning the role of the Grand Leader and his Cabinet of the Interior. At last all the packets of yarrow straw with the red tip of approval had been gathered and tied in bundles with two knots of the official yellow string, they had been counted and tallied in the appointed centers and finally registered as the official word of the nation indicating that the moiety of the people were pleased with the work of the Leader in the distant war against the Sons of Evil and wished him to continue in office for the oncoming Tetrade of the Great People.
The Leader smiled as he walked with a springing step into the Hall of State and proceeded with the actions of the new era. First he removed the heads of groups speaking against him, appointing a new cabinet of friends from his home province, reaffirming close connections with those who had given gold bars for his election. The platinum pen used for signing official documents he raised in official approval, touching the shoulders of those he wished to mark for signal honor, sending them to far countries to represent the Nation. Judges ready to confirm laws touching matters of morality were appointed, and a new program for ensuring security, peace and prosperity was announced.
But there was great lamentation in the streets and gnashing of teeth as opponents of the Grand Leader recognized their failure. They were less grieved by the fraud by which the Leader had attained office in the previous Tetrade, than this willing vote which came with the blessings of the Moral Majority. Those who pointed to the rule for separation of church and state were informed that the original intent was to keep the State from invading the province of the Church, and the Rule was to be interpreted in this fashion. Large numbers of the disaffected were gathered at the frontiers ready to emigrate to the neighboring kingdom, while officials examined their papers to detain those evading conscription into the thinned ranks of the army.
For those who stayed life continued as normal although taxes were raised to protect the country against terror from foreign sources. The people were happy with their Senate's firm resolve to uproot national and international evil, and hailed the Grand Leader with cries of approval at his increasingly frequent public appearances. This was the beginning of the First Year of the New Tetrade.
Do you feel like some TV tonight, Dear? Might be something fun, Friday evening is often pretty good.
Sure, Jim, that will be nice and relaxing. It was a long day at the office and I'd like to simmer down before we go to sleep. Let's check the descriptions first so we get something we like, OK?
Cold Case File: A detective has worked for two decades on three fingerprints, which are now backed up by DNA testing, and hopes to find the group-sex rapists in downtown Sunnyvale
Maybe we've had enough of those crime scenes, Jim... ?
Docu Comedy in New Work 1930's as an out of work alcoholic leading lady fights depression and poverty, in vain
Musical revival of "Oklahoma" with new cast and newly composed score, in Spanish with upcoming Latino artists.
Maybe we should let that pass, dear. You know the original and this might be sort of a disappointment
Shopping on-line has a unique selection of cultured freshwater pearl in a double string, and we include a pair of white gold cufflinks with brilliant cut half carat diamonds, at $99.99 for both, a buy you can't resists. CALL NOW
Everybody Loves Armand: A new episode when Auntie Noodle comes to visit for two weeks before Thanksgiving.
That sounds more like it, Jim. Those family sitcoms are so natural, real people just like us and they are so funny. Let's watch that one.
( POP up )
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Jim, might as well turn it off, some stuff at the bottom of the screen coming on. Can't follow the story with that stuff on.
FIGHTING CONTINUING AROUND RAMUJAH SIXTEEN MARINES KILLED IN CAR BOMB EXPLOSION TWO THOUSAND OR MORE INSURGENTS KILLED AND THE AREA IS DECLARED UNDER CONTROL
That new mattress sounds like something we should consider, Jennie. They say that a good night's sleep is really necessary for emotional health and sex drive, not that we have anything wrong, you know. Did you get (yawn.....yawn) that number.... ? Here's a pencil.
...and so to bed and a good night's sleep....
This afternoon we were starting the fall ritual of cleaning up the yard and getting the house ready for winter. It is amazing how much leaves three grown maples can produce annually, but not more amazing than the new crop which in just ten days will emerge from bare branches the following spring. Down to details of form and veining, each leaf is a perfect copy of a pattern stored somewhere in the DNA of the tree complex; I had almost said in its brain but remembered that we and trees have very different ways of doing things. As a boy in the outskirts of an old town I helped pile the lawn leaves in the roadway next the curb, just as the neighbors did all the way down the avenue. Lighting the piles one, the whole neighborhood stood rake in hand talking about the weather, town politics and Roosevelt's New Deal. The acrid smoke which clouded the air got in our hair and burned our eyes, but we thought this was a time honored ritual for initiating the Fall season, ignorant of pollution and the now revived garden art of composting.
After raking the leaves one thinks of putting the yard tools and the garage in order, some things going to corners and shelves and others to the dump. Once winter comes with its first blanket of snow everything gets fixed in place, so we were hastening to do the cleanup work now, when I found myself humming the words "bestelle dein Haus..." from one of the Bach cantatas. Yes, "putting the house in order..." is good advice and gives a good feeling, although it was only later in the evening that I remembered the following words: " denn du wirst sterben " (for you must die) with a feeling of regret. In the old Lutheran theology of Bach's Germany Death was an ever-present reminder and finally a joyful celebration. This is something quite different from my pleasure in literally putting my house in order for the purpose of continued living and enjoying my earned bonus of additional years.
Hard pressed by the squirrel's instinct for saving what you think you will be needing later, as against the need for clearing out and throwing away, I am always in a slight quandary. Is it really necessary to keep old parts for a long deceased lawnmower in case I have a similar model down the road of life? Must the half filled cans of paint take up space on a crowded shelf for some future project, to be opened finding it has all gone hard? Am I the custodian of a collections of supplies, tools, supernumerary furniture and assorted junk, forever re-arranging and re-archiving as a condition of my existence? Some time after my Dad died unexpectedly at age of ninety three, I received the sum of his earthly possessions in two large suitcases. He certainly knew how to get rid of things, an art which I have never managed to attain. We each of us go our own way by our own nature, and I would feel naked leaving this mortal world without my myriad diversity of possessions. I do know "you can't take it with you", but that is a needless piece of moralistic advice which is no more real to me than Bach's reminder right after his cleanup instructions, that I "...must die in order to become wise".
It is now midnight and I have just found the source of my German wording in Bach's Cantata "Actus Tragicus" BWV 106 which establishes the date in scholarly detail at 1707. I suspect that I will be raking leaves again in 2007 and humming the same words to Bach's melodic line. And if my memory fails to bring up this short article, I may lucubrate again about the leaves and putting the house in order, and again consider whether the process is organized as a prelude for Death or as a sensible cleanup for a snug and immobile winter when the snow packs down and we sit close to the woodstove again. Different as Dad and I were, neither of us had any leaning to thoughts about Death, which does not in fact need a welcome before the front door is opened. The Greek story about Tithonus who had infinite life but forgot to ask for youth to go with the package, tells the truth about things wearing down and finally wearing out. The American account of the One Horse Shay which lasted a hundred years until one day it fell completely apart, is a good paradigm for those of us today who have plans for being centenarians. We find nothing works as well as we grow old, and at the end there is always a pile of broken parts to be carted away. This is the final yard cleanup of myself and all my possessions, but one which I can cheerfully relegate to other persons to perform. In the meantime I rake leaves and cart to the dump, glad to be enjoying the fresh fall air after a sweaty summer and before the winter crispness in the air. There is a comforting rhythm to the words "Bestelle dein Haus..." and I just will go on raking.
We are all so familiar with the classic psychology study of Pavlov's dogs and Conditioned Response, that we ignore the psychology of the dogs themselves. Wouldn't it be distracting and confusing to be in the state of one of those experimental canines? Would they wonder why they were salivating with no tasty chunks of meat in sight? Would they wonder about their own sanity in such a situation? We can only speculate on the response, but I can cite a parallel case which may help answer some of these questions.
My wife is a dedicated coupon clipper, she takes this activity very seriously, and depends on the arrival of the Sunday newspaper which contains the coupon clipping section. So each Saturday night she sets out two dollar bills on the counter between the kitchen and the open-style living room, which I dutifully take down to the Mobil station before Sunday morning coffee to claim my copy of the weekly edition. I have been doing this for more years than I can remember, I do it regularly and in a sense automatically, sleepy and hardly thinking about what I am about until the cashier at the counter hands me back a quarter as change. Back home I call up from the workshop in the cellar "Here's the paper!" and fidget with some tools until I am fully awake. I have completed the cycle of my weekly duty and Sunday can now proceed at its own leisurely pace.
Seeing the two dollars for the Sunday newpaper, I picked up the bills and a few minutes later down at the station was staring at the paper which felt unusually thin,the way it does on a holiday weekend when they omit the Sunday coupon section. Glancing at the heading I noticed that it was Saturday's paper. Very curious of them, putting the daily edition in the place where the Sunday should be! When I asked the lady at the counter why they had the Saturday newspaper there, she gave me a strange look which made me feel odd, so I shuffled through the pile and sure enough there was a Sunday edition underneath. But that was not the end of it at all.
"Why in the world did you get last Sunday's newspaper, Bill? " she said.
"'Last Sunday's paper? Don't know why they had it out there, very funny. I'll go back and tell them and get it exchanged."
In the car I thought about it some more and tried to sketch out my explanation for bringing the paper back. "Well, you see, it was like this: I first got the daily Saturday paper, and then put it back and got the Sunday paper but it was from the previous Sunday. So I would like to return this paper and get the new Sunday paper, if you don't mind. My mistake but I really don't know why you left the old paper out there, nobody would want to be reading a newspaper which was seven days old, would they really?"..... I was saying to myself in preparation for the exchange.
I touched the car radio button idly, and got the weather report "...a bright and sunny Saturday morning, with only a very slight change of showers later in the day....". Turning the car around in the driveway I headed home in embarrasment, stood in the shop crumpling sheets of the paper as I inserted them into the glowing fire in the Round Oak wood stove. She said: Did you get your money back? and I replied: No, it got too complicated, and I decided not to. When I came upstairs I saw her silently putting two dollar bills on the counter between the kitchen and the open-style living room as usual for the Sunday newpaper. The next morning on seeing the bills, I went back to my habit fetching the Sunday paper, quietly re-establishing the Conditioned Response.
Fetch the paper, Bill, bring it here. That's a good dog, yes bring it over here. Very good boy, you are very good doggie you are. Great to have such a well trained and reliable dog around the house, now how about a little treat like we always do Sunday morning? Sit up! You want a bit of pancake with maple syrup...?
One of the least likely things to do when you wake up at four in the morning and can't sleep, is to read a chapter or two in a book on murder, but that is exactly what I found myself doing recently with John Douglas's book "Mindhunter" from Scribners 1995. Douglas was a FBI agent who early developed a profiling technique for criminal identification, he has no claim to being a talented writer but the book is interesting in the Sherlock Holmes tradition brought up to date a century later. It seemed to me that sex crimes are a peculiar result of the sexual preoccupation of our times, whether over-tuned from advertising and TV or movies with high sexual content, or as an obsession in people who fail to perform personally and sexually in our complex and confusing society. Sex crimes have the mark of our post-Industrial times , I was thinking.
But a short and quite incidental session with Chance gave me some second thoughts. It was in the 1970's that many of us became interested in the I Ching as a book of personal prophecy, and we spent evenings fiddling with yarrow stalks or pennies to give us numbers to check in the book of a thousand statements. Jung had shown this to be a way of opening the mind to its own inner tracery, and a similar process was historically attested through the Middle Ages with the Sortes Vergilianae to find a key word in the opened pages of Vergil. But chance can occur without this formal paraphernalia and quite by itself.
Reading Douglas one night at my desk, I propped up the book to an angle with the second volume of Jowett's translation of Plato, and when I finished reading and decided to go back to bed, I idly fidgeted with the book and cast my eye on the opened page. It was impossible to miss the meaning of the passage at Stephanus pagination S229:
Phraedrus and Socrates are walking on a summer day along the Ilissus stream, enjoying the gentle breeze and looking for a place to sit and talk in the shade. Phaedrus says: "I would like to know, Socrates, whether the place is not somewhere here at which Boreas is said to have carried off Orithyia from the banks of the Ilissus." Socrates answers: "I believe it is not here but a ways down further, where you cross to the temple of Artemis (the virgin) and there is, I think, a sort of altar of Boreas (Mr. North) at the place." Phaedrus continues: " I have never noticed it, but I beseech you to tell me, Socrates, do you believe this tale?"
As the story unfolds, we see we have an account of an ancient sex crime. Orithyia (marked) was playing with her friend Pharmacia (drug related?) when she fell or was thrown over a cliff to her death. One man was accused, but maintained through the investigation that she was blown off the cliff by the North Wind called Boreas, and the account registered the death as caused by "Boreas". But there was another version of the story that she was kidnapped from the courthouse at the Areopagus, which would seem to infer that a trial took place there and Ilissus was not related to her demise. Socrates continues saying there are many complex stories of this sort verging into allegory or mythology which a person can investigate, but "if he is skeptical about them, and would like to reduce them one after another to the rules of probability, this sort of crude philosophy (investigation) will take up a great deal of time. Now I have no leisure for such enquiries..." and Socrates returns to his own personal investigation of what he can know and knowability.
So I have found, by an odd turn of Chance by opening a page of Plato, that sex crimes are outside our modern date and society, although this one which Plato touches on is not thoroughly investigated by modern standards. Still we have evidence of a sex-crime being committed between the Areopagus and the Ilissus, although the situation has been inaccurately investigated and clouded over by inclusion in the Records Office by Socrates' testimony under the Athenian category of Allegorical Reporterage. But now I wonder if at some time 2500 years from now, a reader in that future world will ponder this page copied from an old electronically coded disc, and find my comment on the detective John Douglas's method and his curious Scientific Profiling of the suspect as UNSUB with his typical MO or Signature, as strange and inconclusive as I find Plato's report of the Ilissus River case of Ms. Orithyia from the 5th century B.C.
It is always interesting and sometimes informative to note how interpretations of similar situations can vary when seen over a wide range of time. What is reasonable and socially acceptable as a statement of absolute Truth in one age, may appear outlandish and unthinkable at another time. We commonly classify many ancient interpretations of curious situations as Myth, while those which are embedded in our own social consciousness are easily accepted as reasonable, factual and provable, without tracing the stages of judgment which went into their formulation. In the following quotation from an arcane Greek source, we see a concatenation of events which was perfectly reasonable to members of that society at a time of great distress and insecurity. Let us read the translation with great care and assiduity:
The King of a great realm was much concerned about the safety of his people because he had received secret messages which he confided only to his close advisers, who agreed that the Despot of a distant country had acquired magic which he was intent on developing and using against members of the King's cities. It was not clear whence he had acquired the magical elements of his art, but it was stated by anonymous sources of great reliability that his intention was indeed evil, and that his formulations were able to wreak havoc on any enemy he chose to attack. Under these conditions the King decided to wage war on the Despot and pursued this design with alacrity, sending a navy of many-oared black ships with spear-carrying soldiers and an army of archers against the foreign enemy. They arrived in the distant land and attacked city after city in a ten years' war which was repeatedly announced as successful until a new outbreak of guerrilla resistance started it up again. By hiding all reports of the war, by means of a committee which was headed by a underling of Ares the Ferocious, nobody became aware of the progress of the campaign, even the almighty Gods who were reclining in festive banqueting night and day in Epicurus' Reformed Theological manner. The King maintained: "The War is an act of Retribution for the evil magic wreaked upon us!"
Now it happened that one messenger commissioned as head of the 'Internal Board of Informants' by Hermes left a papyrus account of the war in an unsecured location, and this was eventually brought to attention of the sea god Poseidon, who was wroth with the insult of a King who had transported a vast army across Poseidon's waters without regard to permission or even consultation. Poseidon thereupon raised a great tumult of the waters and cast a storm against the coast of the King's countryside, scattering trees and houses and chariots to distant locations, flooding the towns with deep inundations, and floating many dead bodies on the face of the waters. But the King said this was not a sign of punishment from the Celestial Deities, it was just another part of the Despot's magic and so he would continue in his plans. The Sea God thereupon threw an even mightier horrible hurricane against the coastal cities, and then another and still another, until the devastation caused the people to be frightened at the force of the Signs. The people knew in their hearts that this sea ravagement was retribution for the King's war.
However the King maintained that his attack on the country of the Despot was just, that the damage of the sea storms was merely a phenomenon of nature, and had nothing to do with his army fighting the evil magic. However many felt he should bend and change his mind in humility and fear before the wrath of the oceans. Some even dared to question whether there was really an Evil Magic at all, and asked how he could be so sure of his judgment when nobody had read the secret messages which he had received and nobody could aver if the magic did indeed exist. To which the King replied that he would continue with his plans of warfare which would rid the far off country of the spell of magic forever and give them the clear daylight of freedom which his people enjoy. Asked to produce evidence, he replied with self-assurance in this manner:
Behold, the evil magic which you ask about is real, we know their intentions and feel an early attack and eradication is always better than wishing we had done so later. And for evidence, I can give you this sure and secure information:
You see the two great Towers in our principal city, now lying crushed in the dust with thousands of our citizens buried. Ask no more questions. That is the evidence for the magic. That is the work of the Despot. If you are loyal to our country, no more questions and with me as Supreme Leader, let the warfare continue.
But such an ancient account, from an early period in the history of Civilization, must be read with an eye to the ubiquitous fear and superstition in which people in that era were living. We can smile at their illogical logic, their confusions over matters of Cause and Effect. We live in an enlightened age in which we are beginning to understand the encoding of Life itself, we know now that we can outlaw lawlessness and soon will be will able to extinguish disease and even study death as an unnecessary termination of human life. But the above quoted story is interesting as a reminder of the primitive logic of a bygone era, although it can still be read with enjoyment under the rubric of Ancient Mythology. But see how far we have managed to go, in just a few millennia of enlightenment and Progress!
Here we are on the evening of the day before the championship fight of our virtual nations, waiting for two men to stand and face each other on this fateful September Thursday and determine in a ritual of combat who is the better man to be King. Is it Hector and Achilles again playing out their contest in mortal combat? Is it a Norman Baron on his accoutered mount with lance in hand who is preparing to vanquish the contestor of his realms? Or Joe Louis against Max Schmelling? The country is watching the bout on fascinated TV. But wait, no! It will be the whole world watching, waiting to see who wins and whether it will be argumentative attrition or the hopeful knockout punch. It will be a great evening's entertainment for sure, each of them playing his role to the limits of his strength and endurance.
There seems to be something in our nature which looks for a Leader, a person at the top of the highest pecking order, a Guide through our troubles and a savior of our fates. For some it is God but he doesn't incline to meddle in our politics, correct imbalances in our capitalism or advise on matters of social egality. In his place we need a man of action, whom we can point to and say "That is the finest of our breed, one we can be proud of, a person of high mind and great character, one who puts truth above all other considerations and hears with attentive ear the wishes and aspirations of his people, all his people." If there is such a man, should we not respect him, even revere him, and hope that in this evening of contest he will be proved to be the best one to lead us in our march into a happier future?
Thursday night will be remembered. But it will not be a duel at High Noon with smoking guns on Main Street, it will not be a contest of flashing wit and incisive thoughts which cut to the core of what is on the nation's mind. It will probably not be more than a tongue tied incumbent repeating the same droning phrases again and again with expectation that we will at last believe what we have become accustomed to hear. This is a good lesson in popular psychology which was used so well to bring down the Weimar Government in Germany; it is so simple that educated people can't believe it is being used here. But the tragedy of the situation is that it works, it really does work.
On the other side is a man who years ago had the balls to attack the President who refused to give up an un-winnable war, who spoke against a military expedition which had few qualms about slaughtering enemy civilians. But now he seems to have lost his tongue, he can't seem to get out the words his supporters are urging him to say: "Sir, I hold you responsible for starting a foreign war, occupying another country by force, deceiving the people by hiding the truth, and leading us from nowhere to nowhere." He must be thinking all this, but the words choke in his throat, and he will try to hold out in the fight by sidestepping and avoiding direct punches. Or will he come out with the spear of anger in his right and attack?
I have no idea who will be the winner, and I have little hope that there will be any sort of a real Victory at the end. Putting too much power in the hands of one man is the danger of our times, something which we should have learned to avoid from a century of evil experiences worldwide. The Senate which represents a country must be in charge by its considered consensus, and it must tell the President and his Administration what the country wants them to do. Having got it backwards, we are now trying to see which leader is less likely to lead, so we can check him off and go back to our One Single Person leadership of state and see if we can live with that concept for another four years.
CONTEST BETWEEN THE HEROES
in the year 2004
The contest took place at the appointed time and place. As usual in such formal duels, there were clear and exacting specifications laid out as to conduct, deportment, time for statements and replies, and the Rules were followed meticulously. This has been the way things are done in the course of history, with David's stone unexpectedly hitting an oversized Goliath between the eyes as an exception, and looking back, probably something not done in the best taste. There must be a carefully preserved balance before the Contest can begin, all preparatory slings and arrows are now put aside so the duel can proceed from a zero level of advantage on both sides. We are very particular about this formality, which we think has something to do with the justice of the outcome, whatever that may turn out to be.
In contests of this kind, where parties are fairly well matched by their selection, it will usually not be the sheer skill of one contestant that detrmines the outcome, but a slight shift in the balance of the situation which initiates an accumulation of advantage on one side of the equation. When Hector throws his spear and misses, that is the moment when he starts to lose his edge, and his loss is immediately added to Achilles' total of points. The girth strap not pulled tight under the belly of the mount slips and the Knight swings sideways for just a second, and it is at that exact moment that the course of the duel is determined. When Miyamoto Mushashi rushes forth with an oar instead of a sword he adds an unsuspected element of shock from which his opponent can never recover. And just so in a battle of words, when one man hesitates a second time and looks down to his notes a third time in a row, the chunk of energy which he loses is automatically added to the opponent's drive, and from that moment on there is a weighting from the one side to the other. This is the nature of such contests, where the elegance of the performance or the weight of the words is secondary to the speed of the attack and the way the accelerating acceleration continues to pick up speed. If the opponents are perfectly matched, we call it a poor performance, two tired boxers hugging each other while the umpire tries to wedge them apart ---- nobody likes this at all. As it turned out we had a good show this long-expected Thursday night, and although few viewers will be inclined to abandon their political opinion or voting options, we all appreciated the characteristics of a properly maintained heroic contest.
But this is like the elegance of two dress platoons competing for perfection of their drill technique. It is a great Show much applauded by the grandstand of viewers, but it has very little to do with the conduct of the War. When this is all over and we find out who will be giving interviews in the Rose Garden, and we will come back to the daily business of one man appointing at cabinet of directors who will be going to advisory committees and international conferences and drawing information of all varied sorts from sources of all varying reliabilities, while trying to make sense of the imploding data which is flooding their attention. Here is where the work is done, where strands of information are embroidered onto the web of intuition, and a cloth more intricate and more important than any National Flag is being planned and woven. This process is largely invisible to the public, its scale is so overpowering that the only test of its efficacy can come years later in the afterview of history.
In the meantime we want something to look at, something in a scale we can understand, and the two-man Debate is probably just what we need. Trade routes around Troy and cultural confrontations can be thrown to the winds, what we want is Hector and Achilles on the field of battle. Unraveling the politics of a century of feudal Japanese militarism is the work of a specialist scholar, we prefer two men with costume and flashing swords representing in Manichean-style the contest of Good with Evil. So this Thursday evening, now reviewed in the light of a cloudy Friday morning, comes into focus as part of the range of human expectations, the kind of clear and direct confrontation which we are comfortable with. And the only regret a thoughtful person might have is that this Debate was so clear and balanced, and not at all representative of a world in which nothing is well defined and most things hardly comprehended at all. There seems to be no clear and simple course of action which we can possibly take to satisfy the maze of requirements of a world in turmoil on every front. We have not yet been successful outlining a way to put together that ancient dream of the philosophers, which is a humane way of getting along with each other, under the umbrella of what we would like to call "Civilization".
We are hearing too much these elections days about The NRA and Constitutional Right to Bear Arms and everything has got blown completely out of proportion. As to the assault rifle, which can spew out a clip of thirty rounds in a couple of seconds, that is almost the same as the 35 cal. machine gun I remember from WW II which at 600 rounds per minute or ten a second, matching pretty well the assault gun's clip finger-triggered in three seconds. Limiting access to such a weapon has almost nothing to do with the "right to bear arms", which the Constitution remembered was the key to having just won the Revolutionary War against Britain. Without guns and guerrilla warfare we would have remained a set of the King's Colonies, in the same position as the various parts of British India.
But today we are in no mind or position to try an armed revolution against our government, even if it became wicked and dictatorial and corrupt. Those days are long gone and guns are for targets and game and to some slight degree for personal protection, although we will soon have to explain to ourselves our twelve thousand gun deaths a year which are ten times more than most civilized European countries or our gun carrying neighbor Canada. It shouldn't have taken an election year and Michael Moore to warns us about a dangerous trends in our society which hasn't become public knowledge yet. We don't have to watch out for the bad guys half so much as watching out for ourselves.
But the bearing of arms is nothing new to the Western tradition, and in Classical Greece the historian Thucydides Book I, Ch 6, speaks pointedly of the Greek experience with arms-bearing. He calls it "carrying iron" or in Greek quite literally 'sidero-phorein', which is a curiously similar phrase to our "packing a rod" or the "toting iron" of the old Westerns. But Thucydides puts the practice into a proper social context, remarking that iron is still carried in his day in the rural areas far from cities, while in the metropolis it has long since vanished as unsuitable to a civilized city-state way of life.
We might feel that having a gun around the house is understandable if you live in a remote area as protection against a break-in or robbery, but we had far too many shootings of a neighbor in Vermont in the old days when all he wanted was a glass of water or use of the phone. Do you really want to kill someone who is stealing your TV? Wasn't there a someone who talked about turning the other cheek...... telling him to take the silverware too? Must be his followers have lost their Bibles, or take the message in a loose and figurative way.
Target shooting is fun, having a well made and piece of equipment in your hands and using it in a deliberate and controlled manner is an interesting hobby. I have an old Colt single shot Magnum which has a lot of punch for a small gun, with a scope I can get a rabbit in the eye at a hundred yards if he does too much damage in the garden. I enjoy getting it out each spring and thinking of myself as the great hunter of rabbits while I plink targets. But when I see a real live rabbit and think how clever he is surviving a cold winter in his hand dug hole, snug with his family down there and coming up in April to sniff the spring air just as I do, I always put the gun away feeling that I have had my fun, and let him have his. I am, as Thucydides said, a deep countryside inhabitant. I might have to shoot a wounded deer or dog on the highway to save it misery, but that is the sum of it and if I lived in one of the developments in town where there are kids around and bellicose drunks reeling home Saturday nights, I would not have a gun or a machete or a high power bow around at all. It is not a matter of Rights, as I see it. It is simply a matter of Common Sense.
It was a great time to be in New York, and a good place for a young woman just graduated from a traditional New England College, majoring in Art and Music with a few thoughts about new winds stirring in the tress, to head right on to the City downtown and look for a job as a waitress in a far out hip conscious cafe. Jamie was suddenly there, where the action was, with a job waitressing in a place where a pinch was a compliment on her figure, and a proposition a proof of the new morality, where pill and antibiotics reified the idea of the New Freedom. Here was a scene where as it were, everything went....
Jamie had her introductory run of fun, a number of young studs could nod to her in the crowd and say to a friend he knew her pretty well, and she was known more as a broadminded young woman of the new persuasion rather than a sleep-around broad. Later that year she was serving a beer to a gentleman who was different from the rest. He was portly, very well dressed to the point of seeming fastidious, somewhat self conscious and he was black as only an African gentleman knows how to be. He had dinner, came back a few times and finally asked to take Jamie out to dine at a fine place, just as a change of scene from the grub of downtown. She was delighted, he was articulate and worldly, and accompanied her back to her fifth story apartment for an appropriately dark Kahlua nightcap, when he asked her a question:
He had to think a bit before he could get it out, surprising for a man whose words were as clean and measured as his deportment. It finally emerged, with the finality of something long considered but only now dared to be stated:
I would like to ask you one question. Do you have a color preference?
She wasn't surprised, after all her art classes had been founded on a course in Form and Color, and she had always felt that the basics must be established early before you went on to the next stage. Well, earlier she had been entranced by blue in its varying shades, from deep almost-purple to the baby-blue of Cadillac convertibles of the fifties, but that seemed superficial beside the blare of red hues which could be toned down with blue to a mauve which eventually seemed sort of sickly. White was out, too much of that in the pasty white villages of self-conscious New England townships which painted red brick houses white by order of the Community Council. Screw white! Brown like barns suggests manure and the outhouse, so after yellow (which is less a color than a cast of thought despite VanGogh and his oozy tubes of jaune), there is little left to choose from an esthetic point of view.
Yes, I do have a color preference, I really prefer...
There was a long pause in which she thought she had said the right word, while he gathered up his dignity to rise slowly from his sling-chair, find his cane-umbrella and step carefully toward the door, which he opened and closed soundlessly, proceeding down the stairs in a manner which nobody but a tribal Monarch could match for style and perfectly controlled bearing. He never knew what she had meant, and she never understood why he departed so abruptly in the middle of a perfectly polite and civilized conversation.
In a couple of weeks we go into the Vermont foliage season and everyone
rushes up to our country as if leaves didn't go red elsewhere in the same
hue. Of course what it is really is the lack of signs and billboards
which are illegal in this 'country' which only became a state after much
forethought in l791 with the first anti-slavery clause in its
constitution. Yesterday we went over to NY State for dinner, same kind of
countryside but it looked different and coming back we felt a sigh of
relief to see the meadows without "Eat This Hamburger" or "Drink this
Whiskey" in between. End social commentary on a bright Saturday noontime.
There has been much speculation about why Mr. Shakespeare of the Globe Theater, at what seemed the height of his creative powers,left writing and the world of London, retreating to his home town to become an local citizen interested in trade and real estate in a minor way. It is true that writers can become stale, but Shakespeare shows consistent growth and power just before the retreat. Could there be another reason which we have simply missed?
Near our middle forties the eyes go through a stage in which the point of focus changes inconveniently, which we call presbyopia. An modern author at this point gets a pair of reading glasses, and in Shakespeare's time glasses had been available for more than a century and a half. Less convenient and without our ear supports, they would have been a bother but still usable if you were a writer intent on what your pen was scratching out. In short, presbyopia would hardly have incapacitated Shakespeare, but another ailment which can appear as early as a few years later awaits a certain part of the population: I am speaking about Macular Degeneration. Here a tangle of enlarged blood vessels on the retinal surface begins to affect the "point vision" of the macula, which we need to see small objects and to recognize the characters in written or printed text. Macular Degeneration is progressive but clearly recognized when the letters on a page begin to scramble, and I suspect that if Shakespeare suffered this effect, he would have known that sooner or later he would have to give up writing for the theater. But this does not mean blindness, since the larger area of the retina still gets visions back to the brain, although without the point-oriented vision which we need to thread a needle or to read printed characters in a book.
I have noticed that in the chronology of his plays, there are many references to sight in the later plays, with a culmination (quite naturally) in Lear, followed by Macbeth and Hamlet. After his great period, he begins to write plays with collaborators, plays which show less of his mark and temperament. A critical date for change might be around l607 with Timon of Athens as a play with problems of construction so great as to seem to some critics to have been a draft for an intended production, after which Pericles seems clearly not all written by Shakespeare. These plays which are drawn from printed texts may show the crux of his problem, while Winter's Tale of l611 and The Tempest of l613 rely more on imaginative invention than a historical text and could have been composed with the help of an auditory transcriber. The Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII are clearly less and less from the master, with only touches here and there to vivify others' very pedestrian writing.
But macular loss does not normally affect the rest of the retina and a person can get around well enough with vision based on the rest of the retinal apparatus. Living in Stratford Shakespeare could be quite at ease, now a gentleman of the town and no longer a theater based playwright, and this is exactly what his later history does point to. When he was dying the signature to his will is thought to be have been guided by another's hand, which may point to weakness of sight rather than weakness of the body. Of course there is more to be studied carefully before this supposition about Shakespeare's later years can be considered as a reasonable supposition, and I leave the tabulation of sight-words in the Glossary of his writing for someone else to formulate in a dissertation, while retinologists should be able to confirm the progress of the vision loss and see if fits this 16th century author's reconstructed case history.
Academicians can sometimes do the strangest things in the world. For example: Since l800 Latin has ceased to be a serious means of communication in the world, while Greek which has been a language for literary study since the Renaissance, was never used for communication in the Western scholarly world. But both languages have been used for the creation of new terms, often mixing the one classical language with the other to create a curious vocabulary of mongrelized terminology. We can't turn the linguistic clock back at this late date, but can wonder why Lat. bi 'two' and Gr. cyclos 'wheel' were combined to name the Bicycle, while an all Greek Dicycle would have been just as good and woven out of one linguistic fabric. The French did it in all in Latinate style as "veloci-pede" or Velo, which refers to the speed of the pedal action, but oddly omitted the wheels completely. We got the Automobile from the Gr. auto 'self' with 'Lat. mobil- 'moving' , but the Modern Greek word Avtokinetos (autos 'self' with kin- 'move') is perfectly clear with the advantage of being understable to the Greeks, if Greek to the rest of Europe..
There are cases where two cultures met and it was felt advisable to make a two-part combo word which could be read in both languages, like the place name Mongibello which has nothing to do with a pretty mountain, but represents Lat. mont 'mountain' plus Tyrian/Semitic gibel 'mountain' for yjr Roman and Carthaginian populace in ancient Sicily. Just so we have BossyCow as an old kids' word, from Lat. bos 'cow" with Germanic 'cow', and even the Gaulish Latin Silva-buxana which would in French be an unnecessary "sylvain des bois". These "bi-nominal translating compounds" are clumsy yet in a clumsy way they do make sense; but the Vermont roadside warning of a deer-crossing with a picture of a leaping animal (instead of a message in English, French and Algonquin) is much more to the point.
People write to me regularly asking how to put into Latin things like "eye for an eye" and "First Class Dry Cleaning" or "Hit 'em hard" for a soccer team to go on a T shirt. I tell them sometimes that there are things you can't say that in Latin, like our Vermont advice to the tourist that you can't get there from here. But when we turn to science, writing new ideas out of the vocabulary of old Greco-Latin is no problem. Perhaps it even seemed attractive to think that the doctor or researcher knew both Latin and Greek, whereas he probably knew little of either and went to a Professor of the Classics and humbly asked for a neologism to express such-and-such a new Idea. Scientific nomenclature has burgeoned to the extent of requiring specialized Scientific Dictionaries, and will obviously continue to grow with the annual crescendo of new notions.
I always knew that a Pediatrician dealt with children as Gr. paides, although I would have spelled it Paidiatrician, so I was surprised to find, when I went to a specialist for a problem with my foot, that he called himself an Ortho-paedist or "child-straightener". In my ignorance I thought he was an Ortho-pedist (Gr. ortho 'straight' and Latin ped 'foot') meaning "foot straigtener", even if he slid up the leg to the hip and back as his secretary assured me he did. (Note. 1) She said maybe I should go to a Pod-iatrist who at least had an all Greek title, for my foot but remarked he was not licensed for surgery, so I went to my Pharmacy (Gr. pharmakon meaning both "medical drug" and "poison") and got an Anodyne" or NoPainPill deciding to follow the Hippocratic advice to follow the course of the ailment and let the body heal itself, which it promptly did. I found what was wrong with my foot was probably connected with the Navicular bone, which is so named from its boat-shaped form and Latin navis 'boat', but I think my improvement probably stemmed from the change from O.T. to New Terminology when the bone was renamed Scaphoid, after the Gr. word scapha 'boat, skiff'. After that it was all clear sailing.
Note I: Checking with the ultimate authority for words and etymologies, which is the 28 volumes second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, I found that P(a)ediatrics did originally come from the Greek word paid- 'child', and was originally used in the early 19th century for the repair of deformities in children. (Note 2.) First used in France in l741 in Hatzfield-Darmsteder's Dictionary, it is documented as : "orthopædia, f. Gr. - ORTHO- + child, rearing of children. The curing or correcting of deformities in children, or in persons generally; orthopædic surgery. " The 18th and early 19th century interest in correcting problems in children probably is connected on the one hand with the educational speculations of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel who turned public attention with the KinderGarten system to the emotional and learning side of child development. On the other hand physical "child-correction" of posture and deformities with diet, braces and some minor surgery would suit the stage of medical art in a period before the time of serious surgery with the discovery of chloroform in l840 and Pasteur-Lister germ-theory after l860.
Note 2: But there is also an etymoplogically more convincing origin in the OED listing of the word "orthopod" or 'foot-straightener' mentioned as slang (?) in use since 1960. as follows: " R. GORDON Doctor in Clover ix. 76: We were interrupted by the surgeon himself, a big, red-faced, jolly Irishman. Most orthopods are, when you come to think of it. 1966 I. JEFFERIES House-Surgeon vii. 131 We had two male beds and one female, and the orthopods had two spare beds. 1969 D. FRANCIS Enquiry xii. 164, I telephoned to the orthopod who regularly patched me up after falls. 1978 New Yorker 13 Mar. 82 The problem now was to persuade the orthopod to go in and remove the screws". But this is a brand of Orthopedist, not to be confused with a Podiatrist which is a bird of a different parchment.
Since Pediatricians work with the bones of the musculo-skeletal system, why not use the Gr. word osteo 'bone' which seems entirely appropriate, and come up with Osteopathic Surgeon? Well, there is a reason for avoiding that since Osteopathy, Chiropracty and Homeopathy, each with a long history, have been separated from the mainstream of what the A.M.A. considers acceptable modern medine, so the term is simply not available. Could Chiropodist be a useful term, since its 'chiro' goes back to the Greek "hand" which ended up in disguise in English "surgeon", which was earlier "chir-erg-eon"? No again, the word is taken, as documented in 1914: "VON OEFELE in M. J. Lewis Text Book of Chiropody i. 50 "We should prevent the possibility of such a ridiculous misunderstanding by substituting the word Podiatrist (physician of the foot) for the unssupported chiropopdist."
For my personal hyper-tension, which is again a mongrel term, I had a temporary preference for trying another aide via the Greek-based Auto-hypnosis, but it made me sleepy since Gr. hypnos means 'sleep', and then I was advised that Bio-Feedback (Greek plus English, very nice....) would be something to try out; but I found that moderated Hypo-Ventilation was cheaper and no less ineffective. Writing my will I was advised to check a box for Eu-thanasia if I were interested, but refrained since I never thought of Death as nice (Gr. eu) before, and I am not interested in the undertaker's saleman's suggestion of buying a New Orleans type mausoleum a la King Mausolus, or considering a cenotaph or 'empty-burial' since that would seem to be a waste of both space and money. But if Cenotaph came from Gr. kaino 'new' ,which is often transliterated as 'c(a)eno' , then a Caenotaph might mean the "New Funerary Style" of the Romans, which was Cremation ----and that might be the best buy overall.
Homosexual is a most curious word, since it is as ambivalent in its construction as is its meaning in sexual preferences. It is a badly mixed combination of Gr. homo 'same' (not homo 'man') with Lat. sexus, which in Latin refers to a biological state rather than an personal activity. Looking to the current general social scene, there are the familiar Pederasts who are pure Greek at least linguistically if felonious in the modern era, their name coming from paid 'child' and 'Eros 'love'. Why didn't the Romans say this is Latin? Well, the Puritanical Romans used Greek words regularly for topics which their habit of mind didn't want to hear in Latin, so they figured to hide all the deviant words in Greek while pretending strict Roman family values. A Roman could say to the bitter winter wind "laecasin" in Greek , a rare word the meaning of which we don't exactly know, but I assume it is something like Goethe's "leckt mich am Arse". And a Roman poet could remark in mixed Greco-Latin about a fat lady on a hot day who was having trouble extricating undergarments from her sweaty buttocks with the comment "vestes te pedicant", which I will leave you the reader to figure out for yourself.
As I said at the start, we Academicians are some of the oddest people in the world and we leave behind us in the trail of history a curious kind of composite vocabulary which although illogical in its origin and composition, is perfectly at home in the illogical world where we live and somehow manage to conduct our daily business.
Dr. Josephson and Dr. Harris are full up, but you might go upstairs and ask scheduling if Dr. Worthington has any room open, that is one possibility. Or you could consider another area, over there it is sometimes less crowding in September in the annex. Some people find Dr. Tagliabue has a good sense of humor and is easy to relate to, or his assistant Dr Gloria Munday who is new with us but very well qualified. In any case, when we get you settled with a firm schedule and all the required forms filled out, you will feel much better; right now it is a little hectic around here.
You might think you were in a busy city hospital, but it is actually the start of the fall semester in an upcoming Liberal Arts College where everybody has a doctorate in something or other and each faculty member expects to be addressed by his formal and hard-earned title. Once upon a time a Freshman asked the secretary on the second floor for the number of Mr. Worthington's office, to be told in a sharp tone "You must mean Dr. Worthington....... (long pause) In 103 at the end of the corridor!", and the word got around among the students that if you wanted an answer you had better use the right nomenclature. That is the way things are done around here.
A decade or two earlier it would have been different:
Professor Josephson's section of Genetics 195 is signed full up and waiting, but old Dr. Harris usually has room for a few more. But you might phone his wife at home and ask if Doc Worthington has any room open in his seminar, that is one possibility. Or you could consider another area, over there in the Foreign Languages it is sometimes less crowded in September. Some people find Prof. Tagliabue has a good sense of humor and is easy to relate to, or his assistant Ms. Gloria Munday who is new with us but very popular with the students. In any case, when we get you settled with a firm schedule and all the registration forms filled out, you will feel much better, right now it is a little hectic around campus for you Freshmen..
Back then the students always said Professor automatically as if it were a part of the name, slurring the three syllables deftly to get on with their business. When a Prof. was elevated to a position as Dean his title was changed, but when back to teaching he was a Dean forever in the community consciousness. The President, formerly referred to as Prexy behind his back, couldn't be referred to as "Mr. President" again and again, so he got the familiar Dr.(Fn. 1) address like his faculty members, although everyone knew he was of a different breed since he alone could speak with the Trustees, none of whom had more than a B.A. or a stand-off-ish M.B.A.
Fn. 1: The word "Doctor" is worth examining acoustically to see if it has any special sound configurations which might connect with emotional and psycho-acoustic responses in the casual hearer. The initial dental "D-" sets the tone of the word firmly, with a snap of the tongue against the alveolar ridge as a throat voiced micro-growl vanishes in the explosive release of this dental stop-consonant. But the middle of the word contains the secret of it inner message, with unvoiced and very abrupt stop-consonants "-p-" and its associate "-t-" virtually proclaiming: "Business and no fooling around here". The final syllable with its rounded vowel sliding into a possibly resentful "-r-" can be held for a double length duration, with a murmur which makes it clear that this Doctorrrrr is a man not to be trifled with. We may not be conscious of the acoustics of commonly used vocabulary, but with a word of Title and Honor aural sub-meanings are always to be treated with respect. If "Doctor" is to be set beside words of similar acoustic display, it might be acoustically compared to words with internally harsh and jarring sounds, like Procto-scope and Rectum.
There was always one elder and highly respected faculty member who had published more articles in the juried Journals than anyone else, who didn't have a doctorate at all; but he was always referred to as Doc, and the college resident physician was also Doc since he looked like a character from a Norman Rockwell painting. But the title "Prof."(Fn. 2) was much more usual back then since it connoted someone who had something to profess, in other words a teaching-teacher primarily, while "Dr." was a man with his eye on his national reputation at the annual Meetings, and was probably more of a researching-teacher at heart. Formerly it was about even-steven for the doctoral and non-doctoral Profs., but as the M.A. Profs. were replaced by the upgraded versions on a doctoral faculty, the envied title of Doctor came to the fore, and stuck fast.
Fn. 2: There is a soft and gentle sound to the word "Professor", when you examine it in terms of its acoustic characteristics. Starting off with pursed lips around the prefix "pro-", it invites you casually to the airy sound of breath passing between upper teeth and the lower protruded lip, a "f- sound" which when used internally has little ressemblance to the roughtly aggressive initial sounds of the "F-word" which has so recently appeared from nowhere into standard English usage. Further air-sounds of the double "-ss-" on which the words is centered, lead to the thoughtful and ruminative final "-r" with its neutral and inoffensive vowel. All in all the word Professor is a relaxed and inviting word, perhaps even lightly reassuring although a formal title in fact. It has something of the sound of the word "persuasion" if you listen carefully, and the Prof. does work by persuading students rather than forcing them into Wisdom.
It was in the l880's when this country began to send serious scholars to Germany for advanced studies in medicine, physics and various facets of the Humanities, that the Doctorate began to be seen as a requirement for a first rate Professorship. Herbert Weir Smyth's (l857-l937) Greek Dissertation at Gottingen was printed up there hardbound in l895 in English. something the German practice required. Soon he went from Bryn Mawr to Harvard, favored by the degree but rejecting the Germanic title of "Herr Professor Doctor...." in favor of plain U.S.: Mister. Scholars who went to England came back with a better M.A. than our Ph.D. in many cases, but couldn't be called Dr. and were unwilling to be called Master. Harvard's iracund Joshua Whatmough was the best known British teacher of historical linguistics in the States for decades. When questioned by one of his grad students about not having a Doctorate, he tartly answered: "Well, who would there be who could examine me?" Harvard solved the problem of having a Dr. and famous non-Dr. mixed faculty long ago, by referring to everybody as Mr., a genteel and aloof practice which avoided the show-off snobbism of prestigious titling entirely.
From student days I was used to the Harvard manner, and as a teacher I always felt uneasy when a student addressed me as Dr. Harris, which I felt had a tone somewhere between a covert sneer and an ass-kissing smile. I could look annoyed but that didn't effectively change the mode of address; but in the last wave of the social revolution of the 1960's, when everyone who was hip seemed to have no last name at all for social purposes, I decided to be called Bill, probably thinking backward in time to Wild Bill Cody's reputation and unwittingly foreshadowing some of the excesses of Bill Clinton. A colleague asked me in a confidential tone if I didn't think it would be difficult for a student to have respect for me with such a familiar mode of address, but I stuck to my guns and he to his even when a former student asked over a drink shortly after graduation if he could at last call him Harold. The answer was NO!
Bill stuck with me permanently, my son and wife referred to me as Bill, and even the dog called me Bill, as I discovered when my wife said "Bill, take the dog out..." and he appeared right before me with leash in mouth. Rover didn't like the title "Dr.", since when she said "Take him to the Doctor for his shots..." Rover was nowhere to be found.
Appellations downtown were similar to those on the Hill but with a subtle difference. I was a good household carpenter known to the men in the lumberyard, and to mechanics in the shops since I did some of my car repair myself and supervised them familiarly when working for me. There common sense prevailed, everyone knew the Doctor's business was curing people, while mine was probably more in the direction of intentionally confusing them. I used to jest that I didn't cure anything more than a case of bad grammar on occasion, but on the other hand I didn't have to carry malpractice insurance for situations which got out of hand. I often went downtown in jeans and a T shirt, hoping I would be taken as one of the many, in my own mind just Plain Bill, but people knew differently. The man who ran the hardware store always addressed me formally: "Morning Perfess'r, how's the weather up on the Hill?" and when I told him this bothered me and my name was Bill, he would respond automatically: "Sure, no problem, Perfess'r." After I grew a beard one summer and kept it on permanently as a populist mark, the waitress in a restaurant in the next town thought I looked like a Canadian lumberjack and brought me a Quebec newspaper, which pleased me greatly as I read the editorial about secession. But as soon as I opened my mouth, substituting "doesn't" for the socially correct "don't" it was clear I was nothing but an academician, high on false respect in town and low on pay on the premises of the campus on the Hill.
Now a whole generation of people has arisen with no last name at all, just Joe and George and MaryLouise, and asking for a family name is often taken as some sort of insult, or an infringement on the rules of privacy. The Army on its paperwork had a place for the middle name which all Americans were entitled to bear, and when in the service I was listed as "William nmn Harris", when nmn meant No Middle Name. Could someone go further and claim as a legal name something like "Bill nmn nln" for no-last-name, and what would the IRS make of his forms submitted with that signature? Probably someone from South East Asia, a confused operator would tell his Manager; but I would prefer my Army Serial number and be known to the world as Bill 41205584, the way people do with AOL on-line. We have to remember that the world is moving forward, and like the snake get used to shedding unnecessary paraphernalia , to lunge into the future as bare as we came into the present, sans titles, ranks, honors and degrees.
Meanwhile we go to college to add up course credits, accrue vast student loans with far pay-off dates, add "degrees" affixed to our name as we become skilled in one thing or another, and finally come to rest after a protracted period of medically supervised aging with just one title to mark that we have been here at all:
Old Joe Jones, R.I.P
I woke this morning thinking of the 9/11 report which is just out and our world fearing the dangers of foreign terrorists bringing down out skyscrapers, when it occurred to me that Robert Drews' book on the Near Eastern general terroristic "Catastrophe" of the world of 1200 B.C does not fit well with Homer's Trojan War. This was a traditional two-nation struggle for position in the trade route between West and East, and not the kind of "slash-and-burn" terrorist style attack on the cities of the East which Drews' carefully prepared study on "changes in warfare" describes. I therefore suggest that we consider referring the Homeric War back to an earlier position in the 2nd Millennium.. and see if it offer a good historical match with materials which we can document from the records of the Hittite, Assyrian and Egyptian chronologies.
If as we have always thought, Homer's memory can hypothetically stretch back three centuries to 1200 B.C. , it can also reach back a few centuries more. Further research will show if that can be supported and substantiated by cross referencing to the abundant surviving materials from other facets of the Near Eastern Empires. If this seems to fly in the face of established historical tradition, we should remember that the worst kind of scholarship is produced by cleaving to a tradition on the basis of familiarity, while ignoring possibilities which lie in another direction. The art of History is less a summarizing of Facts than a matter of Interpretation, and as such it must be continually re-examined and in some case eventually revised. A longer study on this is also available, but I wanted to suggest the possibility of a misdating here since there is such an interest in the Trojan War at this time.
It was at the end of WW II that I, as a bookish young fellow who had been fascinated by the wit and judgment (viz. Locke) of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, found himself standing on the very parapet between the confluence of the two rivers where Uncle Toby had received his disabling wound in the campaign of l704. Everything was fresh in my mind from perusing the book in the previous year, I had been delighted by the idea of a novel which was not a novel, a story which was not a story, and a line of thinking which went back and forward, up and down, into one mode of speaking and without warning into quite another. And here was I at Namur having just brought a thousand exhausted German prisoners to a POW camp, again soldier in another war in another century.
In the town I was in an empty sparsely furnished beer hall, drinking some of that excellent Belgian beer you find only in small towns from traditional breweries. I asked in my weak school French about the wars in the old days, and the old men nodded and said there were terrible wars with the English who took everything good from the country and left it bare. Walking back to the fortified heights, I mused on this scrap of rummaged history, thought it was all less clear than Uncle Toby's view of Namur, because that was vested in art whereas the old men's memories and the ancient parapets were ordinary since they were just remnant bits of life.
Counting decades on the fingers of one hand, I am reading Sterne over once again, with the same enthusiasm I felt as a lad, but now I have complaints. Looking over the fringes of the vast scholarly literature on Sterne, I see serious studies on influences from Rabelais, from Cervantes, from Locke again and again, and marvel how the university scholars can bore themselves so well with bits and pieces from Sterne's abundant table and never manage to say anything about the actual Words. I revel in those words and the tumble of artfully piled phraseology, the Baroque quality of contrapuntal themes running into and out of each other with repeats and variations, and the constant decorations which do mordants endlessly on little clusters of sounds. Sterne had told us already enough about his influences, but where it all came from is something which came from Mr. Sterne's peculiar cast of life and demoniack way of living with the vanished Skeltonites ---- but even more from something inside his mind which was constantly playing tricks with his tongue. Joyce started off saner, ended up more recondite, but it is that same fast-paced mind-twitching which we find in both of them. Meanwhile the critics look for political influences, for preludes to a growing pre-Romanticism, to the Gothick, to anything on which you can write a dull paper to print in a dull Journal that nobody but colleagues in your field will ever read.
But if we come back to the words and the configurations of the curious phrases which jostle each other into long-line Baroque sentences, we find an undiscovered meadow for probing. I hate to mention something as formal as phonetic analysis, or the complexities of cascading configurations of sentences as they roll off one of the little 12mo pages onto another and expire on the verso. It is the art of words which Sterne professes, it is his ability to string out lines with his customary ------ dashes ------ and (spaces) which make his pages so easy to read even when we are not quite sure what he is talking about. His dear Jenny and Madam are not chauvinist marginal markings waiting for a Feminist Critic to pounce on a few centuries later. His crit on Locke's notion of Wit vs. Judgment has nothing to do with Locke, but a great deal to do with Sterne. But beyond all topics of reference, we have here a remarkable tableau of word-painted images the like of which the passing centuries were not the see for a long time.
One critic said Sterne's language was "conversational" in style, another went a step further and classed it as "conversationalistic". Critics to the Devil! We need time spent in close reading to find ways to read pages aloud with an intonation that suits the page. It may have to be one of those nervous and twitchy Brit accents which go from a musical pitch to the next peak, somehow disappearing as the UK goes flat in its speech patterns following the New World fashion and trans-oceanic commercialism. Becket could have translated some passages into French and read them better there, but Tristram Shandy is still an English language experiment and has to be tested out on whatever English we have in use now. Sioban McKenna read Joyce brilliantly, now we want a reader who can do justice to a few passages of Sterne so we have a proper sound in our ears before we open to book to read on a quiet summer's evening as the sun sets once more on the world of great literature.
There is something lovely about the late afternoon ambiance of a summer's day, that short time which so easily escapes us in the hurry of our dawn to dusk scheduling. The day must be just right for this, warm but not hot with a light haze starting to gather as prelude to an afternoon shower. Walking half mile to the mailbox to exercise my stiff right knee, I am in no rush to get there and back; I can loiter along the yellow flowered road, stopping to see strange leaves not seen before. The forest of flora is a little jungle of activity, a mad competition for another gasp of sunlight warmth before evening lunges and the blossoms close to sleep. In this racing growth I stop and stand for a moment to stare, unnoticed alone because I am a newcomer in this ancient biological world, here for a moment in deep time and soon gone while new experiments in reaping sunlight go through their generations hardly seen. Here in the woods I find an alienation I don't feel at home or in a crowd on a city street, because this is where I came from long ago but have not been back for aeons, until just this moment now.
Morning is time for attending the plans deferred from yesterday, duties like answering mail and writing an unnecessary list of things to do someday, later going to get gas for the lawnmower as promise to cut the overlong grass today, tomorrow perhaps just as well. Another cup of coffee as the medicine for lethargy, I await lunch not because I expect to be hungry, but because it will be lunch time and what do we do then but munch a BLT with slices of garden tomato, which I had best go get now. Tired after all that work, a nap in the hammock under the maple is in order to smooth out the afternoon for action later, since that mowing job is still on my conscience. Then she says: Bill why don't you go and get the mail? and I am walking down the crushed slate road, around the steep bend and out onto what was a generation ago still meadow, now young forest in the making for my older years. I can't walk there anymore in the tangle of grappling branches, but some heir will march through a colonnade of oak and maple avenues in whose shade nothing green grows anymore. Succession of my property is much less imaginative than the on-marching forest succession of the trees.
Walking back home I stop more often, watching for the right kind of a dry bent branch for an ambling cane, or some fallen trees which I just might cut up for a winter fire to warm the parlor. Behind the crawling junipers is a secret place where a rabbit could hide and dig himself in for the wintertime, but this year no rabbits dart out on my daily walks. Last fall there were wails of young fox voices and the rabbits are nomore; but as the fox family moves to better hunting grounds, some new ones will come in to find old burrows and again leap across the road in horror as I advance. I know the opossum is still around but he is cautious unlike the raccoons who raid the corn patch unafraid. Old toad under the big rock at the doorway, snakes in the garden, and so life goes on everywhere at an even rate.
Mail delivered home, I have a habit of sitting in my reserved chair looking out over the trees which are in constant motion like the micro-intonations of a Mozart symphony with more rests than notes, but yet is never still. I wouldn't call this quiet time alone with myself, a meditation which is something you have to stop to do, but rather turning off the clock and letting the second hand rest for a while. All that internal mechanism which is keeping me alive, heart pulsing for blood to flow, a section of my biological computer putting out requests for a little more potassium from lunch, too much salt so get it washed out soon, fix that cut with the chisel from last evening's woodwork job and a few anti-biotics to clean up the mess. I like to let that all continue working on automatic cycle while I just do nothing. A machine works best when you don't interfere.
It darkens and a shower begins to drip tentatively, after a while it's a burst of clean water flushing down dust to dirt and making the world smell like itself again. Birds which have been at their building with twigs and fur all day now make long sweeping flights in the cooling air and soon will settle down on a branch or nest to enjoy the evening air with me under the short life of a rainbow.
An acrid whiff of gasoline brings me back to the world of grass to cut, some weeds to pull here and there, and then it will be supper and whatever people find to do in the long lingering summer evening hours. Turning the lights off at last, I see the glow-bugs finding their way around the yard. Then the slightly rancid smell of deep darkness and at last the day is done. Goo'night all.
If Words are the building blocks out of which strings of sentences are fabricated, then we might like to think of words as verbal molecules holding a handful of related associations. If you were designing a new language that would be the way you would go about it. But as soon as Time enters the process, everything starts to go awry. We find our dictionaries have to be continually revised, brought up to today's date, and enlarged from the handy desk reference book to the twenty eight volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, now in its second edition and planning a third before the second is done. One might think that the OED is the authority which "has the last word", but that is not true at all.
It is not only new words for new items in an expanding world which we have to deal with, but words which have been tampered with and sometimes given entirely new meanings. I always thought of the word Liberal as a good word with a positive meaning. After all aren't the "Liberal Arts" the foundation of our educational system? And wasn't "liberal" coined from the Latin word "liber" referring to a free man who could think for himself, in a society which had slaves denied the luxury of social thought? I think most of us still find "illiberal" an unpleasant term, calling to mind Scrooge or a tight-minded antagonist to new ideas like equality at the polls for blacks and women. So if "Illiberal" is bad, its cousin Liberal should have a pretty clean bill of cultural and social health, or so I would have thought until a recent political party did some cosmetic surgery on it. After 1980 in the new Ronald Reagen vocabulary, "Liberal" was spoken with a sneer, it became attached to pork-barrel easy-spending Democrats who were letting our national wealth slip through greasy fingers in thoughtless handouts. So a new Reaganite pejorative was concocted out of one of the best and most thoughtful terms in the English language.
But this is nothing new. We have been here before, and when such a shift of meaning takes place, it tends to stick. "Bad coin drives out good coin" is a phrase which lost its original meaning centuries ago, but the idea persists in new form. The Spanish "negro" meaning the color black, has little meaning for English speakers, but "nigger" is recognized everywhere as spiteful. We speak respectfully of the Hebraic-Christian tradition, but "Jew!" pronounced hard is hatefully Anti-Semitic, while "faggot" or "fag" is no longer a WW I term for a cigarette or a stick of firewood or the bass woodwind member of an orchestra. And so I can't expect the word "Liberal" to be exorcised or laundered sufficiently to be comfortable again as a good word in a fine free-thinking tradition. Pollution whether verbal or social leaves long lasting stains.
All this switching word meanings might seem......well, sort of.....like.... "heavy" , despite our respect for a politician's "gravity" and the grave guru's deep meditation. So let's look for a moment at a few of the idiomatic phrases which we recognize as giving a certain color or zang to our language, although we may have lost the key to what they originally meant.
What is meant by "backing up the wrong tree"? Asking various educated friends, I find no answer other than the way a cat which has climbed too high on a tree has to back down carefully to reach terra firma. But backing down (ignore other meanings for the moment) is not backing up the tree; so why use a phrase which you don't understand, I ask them.
Answer: We are dealing with a local Eastern MA based phonetic loss of the sound -r-, producing "pack" for the Boston Park, along with a packing ticket for your car near the hydrant. Correcting the sound shift, we get "Barking up the wrong tree", with the angry hunter despairing of his fool dog doing just this, while the raccoon is watching from high in another tree down the road.
Henry is in trouble with his job, his wife and now begins to show obvious signs of deterioration. Someone even remarks that "he is going to the dogs...". Turning into a dog perhaps? Or moving to the matriarchally enforced isolation of the family doghouse? But none of this makes sense, does it really?
This phrase comes from the kitchen and the cook, who has too much food left over after the family dinner. "Eat it now while it's fresh, left over it won't be any good, it'll spoil and end up going to the dogs." The family dogs were better off in the days before airtight plastic containers for the fridge or the freezer; in the old days they waited patiently outside the farm kitchen for a much tastier fare than modern dry dog-food in hundred pound bags.
Then there's the run-down fellow who looks so weak when he totters along that we say that "he's on his last legs". I can picture his uneasy gait without his cane, pathetic old guy ready for the geriatric home. But wait a minute, we are bipedal animals, and there are no front and last legs like Fido's, whose trick of walking on his last or hind legs is a sign of fitness not futility. Whatever can this curiously encrypted phrase possibly mean?
The phrase was used in the old times of hand patched knickers and work pants worn to a frazzle in the days before designer rips and loose threads became a sign of being modern and cool. When the pants were finally really worn-out and ready for a hooked rug or patchwork quilt, Mom might say as Abner put on his patchy pants to go out to the field to mow hay, that "those pants are on their last legs". So we have here not just a question of threadbare pants, but a complete loss of the threads of meaning which once held a proper phrase together.
Most of us have heard about Winston Churchill's famous WW II speeches to the British public, and we all understand what Churchill meant when he said of the Nazis:
"They thought they were going to wring our neck like a chicken. (.......pause......) Some chicken (.......pause......) Some neck "
Over here we might have said "some nerve", but we know what he meant. But "nerve" is not the same figure as "neck" so what did his figure come from?
It was the arrogance of people who walk around with a stiff neck, head up while striding ahead arrogantly, goose-stepping legs with stiff chest marching military style; but it is the uppity-ness of the "neck" which represents that slant and stance of assumed self-importance and social pride. The very "neck" of them....
In the US we have always disliked someone who is "putting on the dog", and we recognize right off the tone on social snobbery which these words mean. But why the dog, perhaps the most agreeable and least snobbish of our animal friends? Well, it means walking around with your nose up in the air, another one of the unpleasant uppity stances of the human animal. And the dog? They walk around less interested in looking than sniffing, nose up; and it is this natural sniffiness in the dog which suggests social sniffiness in his human counterpart. "Putting on..." is an old-fashioned term for adopting or assuming, and together the words define the social snob in action. Koreans have the same thing in mind when they say someone "has a high nose", which doesn't refer to the anatomical bridge of a man's proboscis, but that same dog-like manner of sniffing the environment.
There are more of these arcane idioms by the hundreds. You can find them popping up every once in a while, but why not look for the roots of the wording which surely represent something once common but now vintage rare? If man is above all The Talking Animal, and we live in the web of verbal history, it shouldn't take a word-archaeologist to reconstruct a vanished phrase back into its original setting. Unlike many lessons in History involving nothing more than names and dates, this study of lost meanings is surprising and often enlightening when they are solved. And beside that, it's a lot of fun.
Herodotus, the earliest serious historian in the West, recounts a story which has a peculiar ring today, that I would like to quote from Book II 119 ff. There is a myth abroad that history is especially important as a serious study, since if we pay attention to the facts, we can actually learn from History.
After the abduction of Helen there came a large army of various Greeks to help Menelaos, and when the army had come out of the ships to land and had pitched its camp there, they sent messengers to Troy, with whom went also Menelaos himself. And when these entered within the wall they demanded back Helen and the wealth which Alexander had stolen from Menelaos and they demanded satisfaction for the wrongs done. The Trojans told the same tale then and afterwards, both with oath and without oath, namely that in deed and in truth they had not Helen nor the wealth for which demand was made, but that both were in Egypt, and that they could not justly be compelled to give satisfaction for that which Proteus the king of Egypt had. The Greeks however thought that they were being mocked by them and besieged the city, until at last they took it. When they had taken the wall and did not find Helen, but heard the same story as before, then they believed the former tale and sent Menelaos himself on to Egypt.
My opinions is this: Priam assuredly was not so mad, nor yet the others of his house, that they were desirous to run risk of ruin for themselves and their children and their city, in order that Alexander might have Helen as his wife. And even supposing that at first they had been so inclined, yet when many of the Trojans were losing their lives as often as they fought with the Greeks, and several of the sons of Priam himself were slain when a battle took place (if one may trust at all to the Epic poets), ----- when, I say, things were coming thus to pass, I consider that even if Priam himself had had Helen as his own wife, he would have given her back to the Greeks, if at least by so doing he might be freed from the evils which oppressed him.
In truth however they lacked the power to give Helen back; and the Greeks did not believe them, though they spoke the truth. I declare my opinion, that the Divine Power was purposing to cause them utterly to perish, and so make it evident to men that for great wrongs great also are the calamities which come from the gods. And thus have I delivered my opinion concerning these matters.
There is a well known Greek tradition that Helen went to Egypt, probably the Greek trading port at Naucratis, and was never at Troy at all. Of course Homer did very well with Helen at Troy and the wonderful familial scenes with Hector at the Wall, high points in a literary masterpiece. But the historian Herodotus pointedly notes variations in the story, which explain the above quoted passages. Now consider this same story with a few changes of names, leaving the thrust and intent of Herodotus' words intact.
After the calamity of 9/11 there came a large group of politicians to help the President's "coalition" , and when the army had come out of the ships to land and had placed planes in attack locations, they sent messages to Saddam Hussein, with whom went also representative of the Military Command itself. And when these contacted Saddam Hussein they demanded the " Weapons of Mass Destruction" and the biological warfare factories, which Saddam had got from the international black market, and they demanded satisfaction for his many wrongs done. The Iraqis told the same tale then and afterwards, both with oath and without oath, namely that in deed and in truth they had not WMD nor the rest for which demand was made, but that both were in another country, and that they could not justly be compelled to give satisfaction for that which another government had. The Americans however thought that they were being mocked by them and besieged the country, until at last they took it. When they had taken the defenses and did not find WMD, but heard the same story as before, then they believed the former tale and sent the CIA to search elsewhere........
My opinion is this: Saddam assuredly was not so mad nor yet the others of his house, that they were desirous to run risk of ruin for themselves and their children and their country, in order to retain weapons which did not actually exist. And even supposing that at first they had been so inclined, yet when many of the Iraqis were losing their lives as often as they fought with the Americans, and several of the sons of Saddam himself were slain when an attack took place (if one may trust the reports of the Media), ----- when, I say, things were coming thus to pass, I consider that even if Saddam himself had had some secret weapons stored underground, he would have given them back to the Coalition, if at least by so doing he might be freed from the evils which oppressed him.
In truth however he lacked the power to give them back. And the Bush Administration did not believe him, although he spoke the truth. I declare my opinion: that the spread of Empire was operating to cause the Iraqis utterly to perish, and this makes it evident to men that for great plans for global expansion, there are also great calamities which come from the idea of greed and expansion of Empire. And thus have I delivered my opinion concerning these matters.
When one examines an ancient text from over two millennia away, it is often necessary to add footnotes for details and a general commentary to make the sense of the cited material coherent. In this case I think no comment is required, since the situation speaks for itself, incidentally making it clear that we have not learned much from past events, and probably may never learn much in future ages from the academic pages of History.
It seems that there is a certain stage in which things get smaller to become more efficient. Once it was the giant mastodon turning into its pygmy cousin the African elephant, which somewhere along the line of evolutionary history designed the even smaller Buick sized "Pygmy elephant". An early 20th century typewriter had a cast iron frame and weighed some forty pounds, later miniaturized into the electric portable of eight pounds, then the lighter word-processing typewriter and it finally disappeared into the works of the computer as nothing more than a coded memory of what a typewriter once had been.
We still marvel at what can be put into a chip. Now a mini-chip holds a hundred internal mini-chips and is so small you could never find one if you dropped it on the floor. Imagine dust specs which are actually complex chips relaying information about the heat, humidity, furniture and moving occupants of a room. But these intelligent computer mites will someday be significant contributors to a world of international economic growth. From so little we grow the potential for money, banks, capital venture and the ponderous effect of billions of units of whatever currency our national system uses. In this fantastic new world, we might pause in astonishment and wonder how such a sophisticated future could ever have generated itself out of a raw and uncompressed historical past.
But that would be wrong! Consider the miniaturization or the parts of the bloom of the biological Compositae, which contain microscopic amounts of sugar which the bee searches to carry home mouthful by mouthful and mile by mile of round-trip flight. If you ask what is the size of a droplet of honey, you have to ask next what is the size of a bee's mouth! But then when the flowering season is done, a pound of bees has somehow accumulated a hundred pounds of wealth and stored it in hexagonal bank vaults of perfect apiaric design. Here is miniaturization too, two hundred millions years of it in fact.
We talk with wonder about our robots putting tiny components into electronic circuit boards, working faster and more securely than any human could do, let alone imagine. But what is a Robot when compared with a Bee, which has not only speed, accuracy and the required repeatability, but also onboard intelligence to map out best search patterns, select the best sources of the raw material while in flight, and signify at the terminal depot azimuths and distances as instructions for fellow workers? What Robot has the least intimation of these advanced features, what robot designer can think of robots which clone off new robots with accuracy down to the smallest details?
If there were a competitive comparison between our miniaturization and that of the bees, the little flying fellows would have the victory hands down. But if they themselves could somehow contemplate the circuitry of genes and DNA encodements, wouldn't they pause in winged astonishment and marvel that anything in the world could be so small, in comparison to themselves as virtual monsters in their compact biological world. An idle Worker with his hands in his pockets might ask his comrade: "Honey, do you really think this micro stuff they are discovering these days is what the whole wide world is made up of? Isn't serious reality the basic business of getting the sweet stuff from the flowers into market-value barrels? I think this new talk about pistils and stamens and gametophytes is a lot of air, all theory and no substance. Everything made out of nothing..........? Just a few numbers at the end of it all, and nothing more?"
You might remark that after all it is just a matter of relative scale, what size you are and what your limited view of the world registers as big or small. That would be a reasonable point of view, one which you can learn in school and rest easy with as a working hypothesis for getting along with your life. But we are intellectually tempted into fascination by size. This ranges from the incredibly small new telephones which reach out anywhere in this huge planet, to the emails I get every day telling me that something small which is very important to me can be made larger and better with an all natural pill.
We live in a scale relative to our size, and most of what we deal with in daily intercourse will be of a size which is manageable by our vision, our arm-reach and the nimbleness of our fingers. I cannot help but feeling that the sun rises in the east and that the plowed field to the west of my town are flat. I am nearsighted and cannot see Mars even with a home telescope, so I don't have to worry how many light seconds away it is, and the origin of the so-called Universe is not of close concern to me in establishing my place in this world. So if my engineering friend tells me they are putting whole worlds of data into the new super-chips nowadays, I say I think that's wonderful and intellectually most interesting, but not surprising or new in a world which was originally put together out of just Nothing at all.
In the meantime I am content to live in my own niche of six feet height, having four feet of which I use two to pick up things, with a weight of about four cubit feet of water comprising most of my body mass. I have a cousin who is an ape and some distant green relatives who hop around my garden snatching flies. I can do a few things, some of them fairly well, but I like thinking about all sorts of things which I cannot do and most of which I cannot fairly understand. In this class of considerations I note computer chips, mini-chips, micro-chips and small sizes which I can only consider with mathematical notation. In the meantime I follow the bee, maintaining that accumulated money is less sweet than honey, realizing that my data about life comes more from who I am, than from what I distill from the varied world around me. Our world is always saying "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick......", but Jack had better relax and take it easy for a while. Stop dropping pills for psychological peace, and enjoy living in his own time-frame and body-space, as a reasonable scale for a proper personal sense of reality. My size, standing somewhere intermediate between the big and small, is the right size for me to live in after all.
There seems to be a minor craze these days for translating things into Latin, which is a surprise since it is now some two centuries since Latin served the world community as a lingua franca of international communication. When Isacc Newton put his researches into Latin it was so it could be read outside the narrow range of the British Isles, but when a soccer club in Texas wants something on its T shirts, we must be dealing with something quite different. I get a request to Latinize something every once in a while, but just yesterday checked on a web search for people who have Latinizing services. I was amazed at the display of Classical talent, usually furnished at a robust cost, and my fifty first choices hardly finished the list.
But there are problems! Words in different languages often have different shades of meaning, and words from different dates and cultures often can't be properly translated at all. A current college logo saying VIRTUS ET SCIENTIA will probably be taken to mean: a) Morality (religious, financial, sexual, restrained drinking and no dope) plus b) Science (serious work in the Science Center, career planning). But to the college founders in l800 "Virtus" meant Manly Character from the word for man (vir), and Scientia meant the whole range of knowledge since "Science" in our terms was only beginning to take form. But to a Roman like Caesar around 50 BC. VIRTUS would have meant "courage" pure and simple, while SCIENTIA meant philosophy in the non-hedonistic Epicurean tradition. Caesar's two exemplary soldiers in the Gallic War reporterage showed a style of virtual Courage, while Lucretius the deep thinker on philosophical Scientia died age 44 from a recreational drug overdose, in a very un-Roman and unmanly manner. We might call this mixture of overlapping and under-signifying wordage a linguistic "can of worms", but to a Roman the translated phrase "capula vermium" would have meant nothing at all. Translate or not to translate ---- that is the question!
But there is a special use of classical Latin as "capped quotations", or phrases which any of the few remaining persons who really know their Latin will immediately recognize as coming from an ancient source in a rather special modern light. Anacreon's Greek "O Boy who smiles a girlish smile....." might be used for a transvestite queen or a transsexual, while a professor I knew years ago who was dating a student saved his neck by quoting to the classically trained President four words from a poem of Horace: Integer vitae scelerisque purus.... "he who is pure of life and free from crime...". Capped quotations are a pithy way of sending messages sub rosa. Would an AARP official get the meaning of Horace's famous "Eheu fugaces...." as sadness for the years slipping by inexorably? But we don't cap quotations much anymore because of the extinction of the generation of classically literate readers.
It is amazing how much time and thought it takes to get even a few words properly Latinized. Should it be done in classical Ciceronian wording, or the Neo-Latin style of the great l8th century European writers of literary Latin? Or maybe for a business logo Latin words which just look like their English cognates so a person who knows no Latin at all will get the drift visually? But the overriding consideration to all this transmogrification seems to be a yearning for status, a feeling that something written down in Latin is better than in your native tongue, perhaps closer to Truth or even in the tradition of Christian hymnology, a little "nearer to Thee".
It is always with a certain degree of surprise that I find myself taking down from the shelf a fifty year old textbook by Edmund Sinnott's "BOTANY: Principles and Problems", 5th ed. 1955 and spending a few evenings coursing from the Algae and Bryophytes down to the Gymno- and Angiosperms which dominate the woodland around my house in rural Vermont. All the older and earlier forms of plant life and here too, you just have to look harder and spend more time searching to find them on the cold side of a rock or in a wet marshy tract you might never have noticed. But it is in the company of Sinnott that this becomes interesting, since he has been manicuring and re-editing this book since it first appeared in 1923, as one of the endangered specialists who thinks broadly and writes elegantly clear English while outlining biological minutiae. This book is less a course textbook than a treatise on botanical life, and I am not surprised to find that Edmund Sinnott l888-l968 was an lead man in his field, before his later years as Dean of the Graduate School at Yale.
I recall that my friend George Springer who was Assistant Dean under him for some years before 1960, spoke with reverence of Sinnott's fastidious research into the qualifications of each new appointment to the Graduate School, not only the papers and studies but also the whole field reviewed with ancillary developments in related areas. For weeks he re-examined everything which might be related to the new appointment, and when he finished he was sure he had made the best professional recommendation. Are there still Deans who can take time from desk work to do this kind of research, or does it go to a pile of references to be digested by a committee?
I had perused Sinnott's "Botany..." for some years before I discovered that he was the man my friend spoke of with such respect, and when I looked further into his life's work, I was not surprised to find that in 1950 Sinnott had stated in his book "Cell and Psyche", a surprisingly metaphysical approach to biology, asking what was man's nature, place, and significance in the universe. He attacked the problem of organism as a sum of parts, processes, and history with an integrated wholeness. Matter enters and leaves, but the fundamental organization remains unaltered. Living matter pulls itself together into integrated and organized self-regulating patterns. Let me give a few quotations from the book:.
"The position which I propose to defend--the thesis I am nailing to the cathedral door--is briefly this: that biological organization (concerned with organic development and physiological activity) and psychical activity (concerned with behavior and thus leading to mind) are fundamentally the same thing."........... "Body and mind are simply two aspects of the same biological phenomenon."......"The theme of my argument has been that a continuous progression exists from the biological goals operative in the development and behavior of a living organism to the psychological facts of desire and purpose. What reason is there to exclude from this progression these highest of desires, these most exalted of aspirations?"
"This is the true cause, I believe, of man's upward climb, is his persistent yearning for those values which to him seem higher and more satisfying and to which he instinctively aspires. These emotions must be anchored in the chemistry of protoplasm, the physiology of the nervous system.
"Most biologists will not approve of mixing their science so thoroughly with philosophy, of complicating the discussion of organization and regulation by introducing overtones of psychology and metaphysics"...."The study of life--regulatory, purposeful, ascending--begins with protoplasm in the laboratory, but it can lead us out from thence to high adventure and to 'thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.' In form of leaf and limb and in the beautiful coordination of their powers we see the first steps in that great progression which has long been marching upward from the first bit of living stuff toward some dim final goal, as yet but dreamed of, which the poet sings:
"One God, one law, one element
And one far off divine event
To which the whole creation moves"
"......... as clear a picture as the scientist can draw of God Himself and our relation to Him?"
But it not Sinnott's ultimate thoughts on the meaning of life which drew me to write this out-of-date book-review of a 1955 textbook, but a detail on a now forgotten use of plant cellulose as a common material in the early 20th century. I am speaking of the clear Cellophane wrapping material along with cellulose based Rayon, which have been replaced by cheaper and stronger oil-based "plastic" film and thread. (Botany: p.40)
"What stops the further association of cellulose molecules after the fibrils have reached this (same) diameter and how they become arranged in the woven patterns of the primary and secondary walls are still unsolved problems........The secondary wall is of much economic importance, for it forms most of the fiber produced by plants, such as cotton, flax, hemp, and many others, and it constitutes the bulk of all wood. From it are manufactured rayon, cellophane, nitrocellulose, certain plastics, and many other important materials.
A friend once showed me the handle of a knife which has been in his family for generations, once owned by a grandfather in the l880's, which was made of an archaic ivory-colored material called "Celluloid". You have to be fairly old to remember these once common names, which were the trademarks of major wood and cotton based industries in another generation.
Now we have begun to come full circle as we start thinking and talking about Renewable Resources, at last recognizing that our oil supplies which are being used up globally, can never be replaced. One car company has developed experimentally a car body and interior which are almost entirely based on corn products, and hence will become completely bio-degradable in a known life span, without reprocessing or factory recycling. I think of the now fashionable turn toward renewable resources in a world which has suddenly becomes aware whence our materials come and where eventually they must go. Our present emphasis on "recycling" as a way of re-using materials is important, but not as important as the natural cycling of materials from growing organisms to products and then to be bio-degraded back again to re-fertilize the world of growing things. This kind of recycling is a natural factor in the evolution of the plant and animal world, one on which biological life ultimately depends. Our new dual idea of Recycling is economically based as a way of re-using materials to save part of the cost of processing, as well as getting rid of garbage we don't want to have around.
Each time I struggle to rip open a plastic pouch of some foodstuff, or have to get shears to slice off the resilient plastic cover around a part from the hardware store, I remember how obligingly tear-able the old Cellophane wrapping was. And if I find my neo-plastic shirt stiff even after a no-drip washing, I harbor a secret wish for a shirt of silk or antique-rayon as softer and more conformable. But we are locked into a global market which runs on oil, from our clothes to the fuel for our cars to the plastics which seem intent on replacing steel worldwide. What started a century and a half ago in the discovery of oil oozing from the ground in Pennsylvania was the start of our Oil Based Economy, first using oil for heat, then light, then for motor fuel, then for the macromolecular plastics, and now as an excuse for global domination of the oil fields and a pre-emptive excuse for War.
But the oil will run out one day, and then we will be back to the biological sources for our raw materials, turning away from swords to the world of plowshares with which we institute a new energy-based agriculture for our growing needs. We may not go back to Cellophane as a wrapping material because we can now make something better. But we will have to make it from biologically grown raw materials, and the course of our global societies will have to go in a new set of directions. That will be a good time start thinking about doing our homework on the evolution of the plant world, where the future may well depend on how well we understand the nature of plant protoplasm, the structure of plant cells, chlorophyll and metabolism, before venturing upscale to the algae, fungi and finally the vascular plants which are the base for animal life and human society. When I have read through Sinnott's book once more, I will be ready to study what we have learned in these last fifty years, the new world of DNA and micro-genetics which have ushered in new realms of perception. But the plant morphology of 1950 is still the field-based experience on which new work rests, so I will put Sinnott's "Botany..." back on a shelf where I can find it again next year.
We have a bad habit of selecting as Wonders of the Ancient World things which are large, costly and totally useless. I am thinking of the Colossus of Rhodes which stood for a whole over the harbor, like our Statue of Liberty, until it fell into the water and was cut up for scrap. Or the pyramids of the Egyptian kings which were probably built under the questionable belief of royalty as immortal in another world, a matter which was not testable since the tombs were opened and filched by robbers in just a few centuries. Hanging gardens which no long hang should be less interesting than the sluice ways which washed the manure out of the Augean Stables onto planted fields, but we seem to have followed the Hellenes in their dislike of handwork, crass labor and plumbing. But it is water and the regulation and use of water which was the base on which the Nile civilization of Egypt and the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates was founded, and there is more art and science in the engineering, as well as the social implementation of these achievements than the sixty foot gold and ivory statue of Athena in the Parthenon. Things which spread a better standard of living and resultant wealth to all members of a society are the real wonders of civilization, but since they involve a high degree of social interaction and much political planning, they have a curious way of disintegrating in a time of change and even disappearing from the pages of history.
Among the Wonders which we don't hear of, I would rank the waterworks and irrigation system of ancient Ceylon, now properly named Sri Lanka , as one of the most complex and effective water engineering system every developed. It is especially interesting because there is full archaeological evidence for the giant water retaining tanks, the sluice ways and tunnels which conveyed and distributed water, and it answers the geographical problem of Ceylon which had an abundantly wet side separated by mountainous ridges from the dry side which originally could not support agriculture. Here is a very brief account of the irrigation system condensed from various sources:
In the mid 2nd century B.C. a large part of north Sri Lanka came under the rule of invaders from South India. From the beginning of the Christian era and up to the end of the 4th century A.D. Sri Lanka was governed by an unbroken dynasty called Lambakarna, which concentrated on the development of irrigation. The authentic history of Ceylon, so far as it can be traced, begins with the landing in 543 B.C. of Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhalese dynasty, with a small band of Aryan-speaking followers from the mainland of India. The Sinhalese introduced from the mainland a comparatively high type of civilization, notably agriculture. The earliest of the great irrigation tanks, near Anuradhapura, was opened about 504 B.C, by the successor of Vijaya; and about this time was established that system of village communities which still obtains over a large part of Ceylon.
The native rulers covered the whole face of the country with a network of irrigation reservoirs, by which Ceylon was enabled in ancient times to be the great granary of southern Asia. Wars, and the want of a strong hand to guide the agriculture of the country, led to the decay of these ancient works, and large tracts of land, which were formerly highly productive, became swampy wastes or dense forests. The remains of some of the larger irrigation works are amongst the most interesting of the memorials of Ceylon's former greatness.
This system of irrigation has necessarily involved immense labor. For many miles the water is conducted from the mountains through dense forests, across ravines, round the steep sides of opposing hills, now leaping into a lower valley into a reservoir, from which it is again led through this arduous country until it at length reaches the land which it is destined to render fertile. There has been a degree of engineering skill displayed in forming aqueducts through such formidable obstacles; the hills are lined out in every direction with these proofs of industry, and their winding course can be traced round the grassy sides of the steep mountains, while the paddy-fields are seen miles away in the valleys of Ouva stretched far beneath. At least eight out of ten of these watercourses are dry, and the masonry required in the sudden angles of ravines, has, in most cases, fallen to decay. Even those water-courses still in existence are of the second class; small streams have been conducted from their original course, and these serve for the supply of the present population.
From the remains of deserted water-courses of the first class, it is evident that more than fifty times the volume of water was then required that is in use at present, and in the same ratio must have been the amount of population. In those days rivers were diverted from their natural channels; opposing hills were cut through, and the waters thus were led into another valley to join a stream flowing in, its natural bed, whose course, eventually obstructed by a dam, poured its accumulated waters into canals which branched to various localities. Not a river in those times flowed in vain. The hill-sides were terraced out in beautiful cultivation, which are now waving with wild vegetation and rank lemon grass. The remaining traces of stone walls point out the ancient boundaries far above the secluded valley now in cultivation.The nation has vanished, and with it the industry and perseverance of the era.
There have been many speculations about the deterioration of this remarkable irrigation system, which obvious required a high degree of organization and supervision. Political changes would very naturally involve changes to the system's administration, but Arnold Toynbee suggested that an initial stage of high challenge which produced the irrigation system, was followed by a plateau of success in which Ceylon became the richest food producing county in South East Asia in its time. But the effort of maintaining the system itself, while also administering the trade connections required for dealing with the outside world, and at the same time maintaining control over the internal politics of a country on the absolute razor's edge of continued performance, presented a degree of Challenge which the country could not maintain. In Toynbeean terms Challenge followed by Success can lead to distress if the terms of commitment are too strenuous for endurance, and this may well have been what happened at ancient Ceylon.
Consider the waterworks which feed the giant and growing city of Los Angeles, which is continually demanding more water from the shrinking capabilities of the Colorado river tapped at a great distance. If other stresses should affect the L.A. area, for example a major break of the landmass on a well known fault line, so as to cause major damage to the city as a complex functioning operation, what would be the first area for distress and failure? I suggest the waterworks would be a prime candidate for trouble, and this could make living in the L.A. area untenable for future generations. Unthinkable, you will say, naturally! But consider the documented fate of the opulence of ancient Sri Lanka.
We probably think of serious Recycling as the invention of the modern world, but the Persians had already before 500 B.C. put into practice an international recycling system of remarkable cleverness, not only as a way of re-using expensive containers, but furthermore as an important function of international trade. Herodotus tells the story in his Histories I, 8 as follows:
Throughout the year, not only from Greece but from Phoenicia as well, wine is imported into Egypt in earthenware jars. Yet no a single empty wine jar is to be found in any part of the country. The obvious question is what happens to the jars, which I will explain as follows: The major of each town has orders to collect all the jars and send them to Memphis, and the people there fill them with water and send them to the desert areas of Syria. In this manner each fresh jar of wine imported into Egypt, when emptied of its wine, is filled with water and finds its way to Syria where other water jars are being stored. It was the Persians after their conquest of Egypt who devised this system for storing water in the desert, thus making travel in that area practicable....
On the first level of economics, the ceramic wine jars are expensive to make. Although the base material of ceramic clay is found everywhere, the fire required to bring them to a firing temperature of near 1600 F. with a wood fire is too costly to allow them to be smashed for road fill. We have the same situation with our aluminum cans, which come from a cheap bauxite raw material, but require a large amount of electricity to elicit aluminum metal from the clay base. But in this case, which differs from the case of the Egyptian jars, we melt and reuse the aluminum as material for more cans. Glass bottles might be more analogous to the Egyptian situation, since the better annealed 'bar-bottles' used for beer are recycled for re-filling here and generally in Europe, while cheaper un-annealed bottles are crushed for reuse as raw material, since glass as produced from siliceous sand is costly.
But the idea of refilling a container with another liquid which has an entirely different use and purpose in another country, is far more sophisticated. It would perhaps be like thoroughly washing out our gallon plastic milk containers and refilling them with spring water, which we ship to our military in Iraq where water is in short supply. Whether this would be more expensive in terms of transport costs than converting sea-water to drinkable water on site is another matter which would have to be calculated with a sharp pencil. But the circular trail of wine jars from Greece or the coast of Asia Minor to the table of wine-bibbers in Egypt, then refilled and shipped to depots in the Syrian deserts thus opening caravan trails which had been difficult or impossible, and then shunting the jars again back to the viniferous areas of Greece for filling and shipping to Egypt again ---- this indicates an economic cleverness coupled with secure international trade and shipping which is beyond anything we have in this modern age. So it turns out we not discovered recycling anew, we have just picked up one something which the Persian Empire had done several millennia before, and this may be one of the best reasons for us to continue with the meticulous study of Ancient History.
There are few words which will bring a person up as short as "Mind your own business !", which of course has nothing to do with your own business, but by inference keeping your nose out of my business. This may seem an impolite phrase, but it is a lot nicer than many other things a person seeking privacy might say, ranging from imprecations to the traditional obscenities. In any case, the meaning is pretty clear and generally cuts off further attempts at pressing unwanted advice.
But the same words might be taken in a financial sense, perhaps from the commercial phrase of "Minding the store....", and it wasn't long before some financial adviser turned up with a neat do-it-yourself computer program for managing your monetary affairs, called "Mind Your Own Business". The words seem the same but there is an accent on "own", which changes everything. Now you are a minor league businessman, and you are taking the responsible step of taking control over your costs and earnings. Good for you! And good for the people who wrote the program and good for their sales office. MYOB
But there is another turn to this familiar phrase which has been running through my thoughts as I sit in my living room with a thoughtful drink in my hand this spring evening. All morning I was pruning old growth from the lilacs and pinching off unnecessary buds which would go where I didn't want them to go, and now in this evening hour I am still trying to clip off old growth of thoughts which have turned into tangles in my memory. There are uneasy things which weren't done but should have been, others done and regretted, and above all the little packets of refused advice I had offered friends, along with advice from friends who were not friends at all. Unfortunately my mind doesn't have a receptacle like my computer's "Trash" which can be loaded and later reviewed, then emptied with a keystroke.
No! I don't really want to unload everything and open my eyes tomorrow morning with a clean slate. There are a lot of things I want to have on my mind. My projects and communications and commitments are very important to me. But feeling the exuberance of Spring all around me in this placid evening light, I am reminded of the year's passage with a bleak December at the end of the course. I remember that I have many things to get in order, things which pertain to my personal life as it is running through ifs assigned hours. After sweeping trash out, I realize I have to spend more time minding the store.
This brings me back to considering what is the important business of life. For some of us it is tithes and church services, for others it may be anonymous helping or solacing others, or spinning the threads which hold together friendships or a family. But for each of us there is a private compartment which holds our most personal business, our sense of being put down here for a short time in a very large and impersonal world. We all must reckon with "Our Own Business" at some time and it had be best put in order between April and August, since by the time November announces the dead chill of year's end, it will be too late to do much rearrangement of the columns in the ledger. Doing other peoples' work all our lives to earn a living, we sometime forget that we have our own business to put in order, which brings me back to the start of this train of thought about whose business it is which is to be minded.
A last word and a serious reminder beyond that irate order to keep out of my affairs or the accountant's MYOB, just a quiet warning to find out what the center of our own private and personal business in life actually is. Life can slip by unheeded, so we must be sure to take it seriously and go about minding what is personally important, what really counts. "And just what is this central core of your being ?" you will ask. So I have to tell you once again something which I thought you would have remembered from our previous discussions: Mind your own business !
A few hundred yards down from the house there is a dense thicket in the middle of which stands a tall dead tree so blackened with age that it looks like a flat silhouette against the bright morning sunlight. It looks less like the skeleton of a tree than a cardboard cutout which could be pushed over with a strong thrust of hand or wind. But it has been standing there for years and is favored by a certain tribe of crows which appear each morning. to use the tree for some special purposes which are best understood by authentic Crows, members of the genus Corvidae.
One old feller always takes his perch on the top crinkum-crankum branch, where adjusting himself for best view of the surrounding countryside, he gives forth a few tentative caws. The lesser members of the family move from branch to branch establishing a proper pecking order, then become silent for a minute or two as the full warmth of the sun strikes their shiny black vestiture, before starting the chorus in full swing. Nothing suits a crowd of any animal sort better than hearing how much noise they can generate all together, and they probably know someone in the near vicinity is paying attention to their matutinal reveille, which I probably misinterpret as morning revelry. Cheerful it is and a new kind of atonal music to my ears.
One swoops down over the house to check the kitchen-middens, otherwise known as the family compost pile, for anything worth reporting to the group; soon is back to the perch and with a few insouciant caws seems to signify negative. Another flies high over the yard disturbing a few robins grubbing for worms and the neighbor's white cat stalking the birds, three caws as they flee for cover. Then one by one in some secret sequence the crows fly off to somewhere where they have better business, probably checking the road for car tenderized meat warming in the morning sun, or some other matters we know nothing of. Now they are gone and the black tree stands alone with its bare arms stretched upward waiting for the next morning's conventicle.
I have a habit of cawing to them, I usually get an answer in the same rhythmical format as mine, but then we both introduce variations to test the others' talent with numbers. I can almost hear old patriarch thinking to himself that this large upright animal who has such a bad voice may be able to be count the way we do up to the number five; and we both do small number theory on the other, confident of our own superiority of mind. Is the sequence based on nothing more complex than five fingers or three claws, each gripping his own thoughts firmly?
It was that way for many years, the tree in the thicket and the crows each morning checking the landscape and voicing their opinions, and I came to look each morning out the kitchen window after coffee to see that all was consistent and right in the immediate world, my daily Early Morning Show. But a few years back there was a strong wind one springtime night, and the tree had disappeared into a tangle of broken branches and scattered remnants of rotten wormy bark. After that there were never any crows in my backyard, no chorus of strident voices, no responsive readings from the morning hymnal, no shadow of black forms flitting over the front lawn anymore. Caw as I might, I could never induce any member of the genus Corvidae to frequent my place again. Now it was all still, a threatening silence for me as I put the coffee cup down in the kitchen sink and toted the garbage pail out to the compost. Maybe my uneasiness came from a sudden breaking of a long habit. Maybe it was a slim experiment in cross-species communication which ended up by going nowhere. Maybe it reinforced some inner suspicion in my mind that this was another friendship which had vanished into thin air, leaving me a little more isolated in this grinning and globally engorging universe.
If I think back to the spring of the year 2000 when the economy was booming along with investors expecting a reasonable twelve percent return with the dot-com world of venture capital promising a brave new future, and someone would have told me that a year later the market would have been broken, investments questionable or gone and the future unclear, who would have believed it? Equally unbelievable in the spring of 2001 would have been the September crash of the WTC and declaration of war on Iraq. And many of us certainly didn't believe back in the spring of 2002 that the war was over, a suspicion that the events of 2003 confirmed. Now in 2004 as I write late in the night on the Sabbath between Good Friday and Easter, I see no quiet in sight in Iraq and the possibility that there may be a major uprising against the US occupation of the country, and at last I have something I can assume for the near future. That is something that is believable!
It is the year 1951 and I am working in the basement of a small house in the Pacific Northwest constructing a table for my study. I bought an eight foot long mahogany veneer door stock, cut it down to a seven foot long table top, and have just finished putting a seven degree angled mahogany molding around the edges, attached with hidden screws from pockets in the underside. It was while making the tapers for the four legs that I nipped off the tip of the third finger on my left hand. There was a painful moment while I searched for the missing tissue in the sawdust under the power shaper, but in vain. Yet with a few aspirin and a bandage I went back to the work the next morning, and finished the leg assemblies with their endward lean of five degrees and a front-back tilt of seven degrees, a nice touch of careful design work as I thought when reviewing the completed project that weekend. In finishing the surface I somehow got a stripe of grime worked into the grain in the middle and being unable to get it out without sanding through the veneer, I just went ahead with the amber shellac and wax finish. I figured put a book over that spot and I'll never notice it again. Now, I thought to myself, I am all set in my first college teaching position to do some worthwhile research and writing, with my wall of ancient texts and reference books at my back and my new resplendent table before me as I sit with my pen poised over a sheet of white paper preparing for a long future as academic scholar and thinker.
It is suddenly the year 2004 and I find myself noticing how scratched and darkened with age the surface of my mahogany table has become. I remember with exactitude how pleased I was while making it, how bright and rich the surface had once seemed, spot and all. Closely inspecting that third finger, I feel I have done pretty well with it over the years, I wasn't destined to be a first violinist after all and the finger does its job on the piano without complaint. Yes, I and my finger and my table have survived all these years together, but today is the day to sand down the table top and restore it to its former gleam. I am down in the workshop with a jittery little electric sander in my hand going down through shellac to wood and thinking about the course of all those years. That table accompanied me well when I trucked it with my books to the Great University, and a few years later we went across the country to the small college where I settled in for the duration of my tenure. I had students to dining room dinner over that table, later moved it back to the study where it reminded me every once in a while of the important projects which I had started but never finished.
So many sheets of typed paper in unsorted piles, so much hesitation about which learned Journal to approach as an outsider whose name the jury had never seen, such unwillingness to memorize the twelve pages on the use of the comma in the mandatory Manual of Style. But then the age of the Computer arrived, and everything fell into place as I became my own writer and editor and publisher, with hundreds of pages laid out on the table for proofreading and.html coding on their way to the server for my own global niche on the Web. Yes, old table, you have served me well, and seeing you this afternoon in your glory of wax on classic shellac, I can compliment myself on the two counts of nice craftsmanship and fortunate longevity. At an age when most of my former students have retired, and many have passed on to another world, I must say I am a lucky survivor still able to refinish my ancient table, even grinding out the black spot in the middle, and this time doing it without having to go look for a bandaid.
There was a silly joke which I heard when a boy from an uncle who would have been my age around the beginning of the 20th century, and it went like this:
The Teacher says:
"Can someone give me a sentence using the word "delight"? Yes Sammy.... "
And little Sammy replies:
"Da wind blew in da window and blew out da light."
I remember this being told with the boy's "colored" accent, now called black , and am aware that this story may be criticized as an example of racist humor. Of course it is racist in terms of what we have done to the social and legal consciousness since the days of social and educational segregation in the South, but I suspect in 1905 there would have been little virulence of a racial nature in telling a joke about local pronunciation of the Article "the". After Hans Kurath's mid-century work on the geographical linguistics of the English language in the United States, we find local and social differences in sound and word academically worth tabulating and quite interesting as well. The PA word "toot" for paper bag and MA "tahnic" for mid-Western pop sody are hardly items for opprobrium, but these are all white words. As soon as we cross the pigmentation line we get nervous.
But do black people talk differently? Yes but that is a matter of social class and education, so Sammy would have fallen into a class along with young children and French speakers who find the aspirated "-th-" very difficult to pronounce. And this sound IS difficult to say, it is a rarity in all the languages I can think of at the moment. It goes back to the days of Beowulf in the Germanic level of English but isn't found in any of the other Germanic base tongues. Language naturally gravitates to ease-of-pronunciation, and Sammy was quite right in saying "da" for a pseudo-correct "-th-". Remember that the year 1905 meant segregation. His black teacher in correcting him would have said : "Sammy, it's 'the wind'. No, say it like 'thee wind...' as she hyper-corrects in an effort to reinforce her educated speech.
And there are more details to be drawn from the story. Why does he talk about a wind blowing out the light? I go into a dark room and turn on the light, hardly remembering that button "turning switches" had disappeared some time before 1930. So blowing out the light must refer to candles, since gaslights were found only in cities and kerosene lights had glass shields. Recreating the world of Sammy, I understand that a for him "a light" was candlelight, to be lighted with a match, and not "lit" since that was a was a word reserved for the inebriated.
But when I go to the building supply and ask about a replacement window, the man asks me how many "lights" do I want. He is talking about six lights as against four lights, and I have to translate for myself to see that he is talking about panes of glass. In an earlier world where homes got dark around eveningtime, the window with its glass "lights" was the basic source of illumination. Candles manufactured out of stove ashes cooked down with grease were special and not cheap, or the 18th century naturalist Gilbert White would never have estimated savings from use of grease soaked rushes in place of fancy candles.
A century later many things have changed. A black politician can slip into a dialect for effect, a professor can say "ain't" for emphasis, and mechanics still swear when fooling around with a part that don't fit. But one word which as a boy I could never find in any dictionary large or small, seems to have survived especially in its present participial use, and has finally become so ubiquitous that unless it is replaced by an automatic beep in a TV show, you might never notice it at all. Social and political connections aside, what continues to surprise me is the basic phonetics of the situation. That sound "-th-" which my French colleague still finds hard to pronounce by blowing air past his tongue raised against the row of his upper front teeth while trilling the vocal cords, is not much different in difficulty of articulation from pushing the lower lip against those same frontal teeth while blowing an unvoiced stream of air through. The "-f-" sound as in English "tofu" is unthinkable in most Oriental languages, but there seems to be no problem in English with the "f-word" which is now found in the whole range of English usage from the city street to the evening TV media. If there were to be staged a battle between those who find the "-th-" sound difficult against those who find the "-f-" sound suggestively easy, it might be summarized in the following story:
Some rough looking workingmen are quaffing their mugs of beer in a bar and looking around for some source of amusement, when one of them spies a quiet looking man sipping a small glass of beer at the end of the bar. Asking if he is new around here, and then where you came from, he finally discovers that the quiet man is a member of the Society of Friends.
Always up for a gross laugh, he asks with a sneer:
" OK feller, so you are a Quaker. OK. Say something in Quaker!"
The answer is clear, concise and neatly combines both the "-th-" and "-f-" consonants in the phonetic duality which I have been outlining:
" Fuck thee !"
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 despair, 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?
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.
That peculiar appellation "pius Aeneas..." is always one of those things 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 19th 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.
Sometimes one runs across a prime example of what I would call Academic Perversity in the treatment of literature. 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 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 promontory stretching to seawards, that the bombardment was done in nighttime and the city bells tolled the warning. Even as late at 1900 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 19th c., drugs in the 20th c., more drugs since 1950, 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 War Commentaries have had a solid place in the history of American education, where Latin was the core and virtual body of study from the 17th c. on to the 1920'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 for 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 has a curious connection to the American Farmer's Almanac. Hesiod's instructions to his errant brother about the proper way of conducting his life are tight, tough and small-minded. 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 pinch penny 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 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 may not personally have written the Hippocratic treatise "On Airs, Waters, Places" which has been studied in infinite detail, so 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 19th 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.
A magazine from the 1970'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 power plants 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 19th. 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....
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Prof. Em. Middlebury College