Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘literature’

The people let down the NHS

I saw this headline in the Daily Mail yesterday:

Pity the poor NHS. Doing its job perfectly, but being cruelly let down by the shiftless population. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, perhaps it would be better were the NHS to carry out a root-and-branch reform of the British public. Eliminate waste. Get rid of the dead wood.

Destroy the monsters!

I think often of a lecture I heard many years ago by the late Richard Marius at Harvard, on Shakespeare’s Richard II. He made the point, novel to me, that the inviolability of kingly rule demanded that critics of the monarch direct their wrath ostensibly at the king’s advisers: The king is not unfit to rule, he is only being misled or corrupted. Compare:

Several politicians told the Guardian that Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who act as the prime minister’s joint chiefs of staff in Downing Street, must take responsibility for the poor result, which saw the Tories lose their majority. The pair were at the centre of recriminations flying back and forth between MPs on WhatsApp groups and even resulted in one cabinet minister branding the pair as “monsters who propped her up and sunk our party”.

Yes, those monsters! May should be furious at how badly they performed in the election campaign. I suspect that they are also the people — wasn’t one of them Home Secretary or something? — who were responsible for the “tolerance of extremism” and failed anti-terror policies of the past seven years that May rightly excoriated when she laid out her detailed new “Things need to change” policy.

It’s a good thing that she’s now formed an alliance with a party famous for lacking all tolerance (for terrorism).

Petard erection

A NY Times report on Trump’s first 100 days quotes senior Obama aide Ronald Klain

If Trump finds himself hoisted on the 100-day test, it is a petard that he erected for himself.

Does one erect a petard? I think not. Really, is it too much to ask, that a flack decorating his political bromides with Shakespeareana actually know what the words mean?

Das ist bei uns nicht möglich

I happen to have just noticed that there is a new German edition of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. I wonder what motivated it?

I was struck again, in reading Amos Oz’s account of his childhood and family history, how his aunt told of welcoming the prospect of German conquest of her Lithuanian homeland: The Germans wouldn’t tolerate the sort of barbaric chaos that the Jews were subject to. The Germans might be antisemitic, but they had always proved themselves to be civilised and orderly.

Too many people lazily learn the wrong lesson from the inability of Jews and others to recognise the full dimensions of the Nazi menace. The problem, they suggest, often in cheap jokes, is the failure to recognise the profound taint of the German soul. The real lesson should be, it seems to me, you never can tell. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as they like to say in finance. The Germans descended into the most horrible racist violence in the 1930s and 1940s. Their children and grandchildren have built one of the most securely democratic and humane nations in the world. Britain pioneered annihilationist antisemitism in the Middle Ages, then moved on to a more benign view of Jews as being almost white people, potential allies in subjugating the genuinely inferior races.

Is there anything in the British soul that will make them resist when the EU offends their amour propre and the Daily Mail is baying for mass expulsions? The question answers itself. 

Montaigne on random controlled experiments

In the past I’ve read a few individual individual essays by Montaigne, but lately I’ve been really enjoying reading them systematically — partly listening to the English-language audiobook, partly reading the lovely annotated French edition by Jean Céard et al. It’s fascinating to see the blend of inaccessibly foreign worldview with ideas that seem at times astoundingly modern. For example, in the essay titled “On the resemblence of children to their fathers” (which seems to have almost nothing at all to say about the resemblence of children to their fathers), in the course of disparaging contemporary medicine Montaigne suddenly anticipates the need for random controlled trials — while at the same time despairing of such a daunting intellectual project. After acknowledging a few minor cases in which physicians seem to have learned something from experience he continues

Mais en la plus part des autres experiences, à quoy ils disent avoir esté conduis par la fortune, et n’avoir eu autre guide que le hazard, je trouve le progrez de cette information incroyable. J’imagine l’homme, regardant au tour de luy le nombre infiny des choses, plantes, animaux, metaulx. Je ne sçay par où luy faire commencer son essay : et quand sa premiere fantasie se jettera sur la corne d’un elan, à quoy il faut prester une creance bien molle et aisée : il se trouve encore autant empesché en sa seconde operation. Il luy est proposé tant de maladies, et tant de circonstances, qu’avant qu’il soit venu à la certitude de ce poinct, où doit joindre la perfection de son experience, le sens humain y perd son Latin : et avant qu’il ait trouvé parmy cette infinité de choses, que c’est cette corne : parmy cette infinité de maladies, l’epilepsie : tant de complexions, au melancholique : tant de saisons, en hyver : tant de nations, au François : tant d’aages, en la vieillesse : tant de mutations celestes, en la conjonction de Venus et de Saturne : tant de parties du corps au doigt. A tout cela n’estant guidé ny d’argument, ny de conjecture, ny d’exemple, ny d’inspiration divine, ains du seul mouvement de la fortune, il faudroit que ce fust par une fortune, parfaictement artificielle, reglée et methodique Et puis, quand la guerison fut faicte, comment se peut il asseurer, que ce ne fust, que le mal estoit arrivé à sa periode ; ou un effect du hazard ? ou l’operation de quelque autre chose, qu’il eust ou mangé, ou beu, ou touché ce jour là ? ou le merite des prieres de sa mere-grand ? Davantage, quand cette preuve auroit esté parfaicte, combien de fois fut elle reiterée ? et cette longue cordée de fortunes et de rencontres, r’enfilée, pour en conclure une regle.

But in most other experiences, where they claim to have been led by accidents, having no other guide than chance, I find the progress of this information hard to believe. I imagine a man looking about him at the infinite number of things, plants, animals, metals. I don’t where he would start. And when his first whim took him to an elk horn, which might be easy to believe in, he would find his second step blocked: There are so many diseases, so many individual circumstances, that before he could arrive at any certainty on this point, he will have arrived at the end of human sense: before he could find, among this infinity of things, that it is this horn; among the infinity of diseases, epilepsy; among the individual conditions, the melancholic temperament; among all the ages, the elderly; among all the astrological conditions, the conjunction of Venus and Saturn; among all the parts of the body, the finger. And all of this, being led by no argument, by no prior examples, by no divine inspiration, but purely by chance, it must be achieved by the most completely artificial, methodical and regulated turn of chance. And suppose the cure has been accomplished, how could you tell whether the disease might not have simply run its course, or the improvement occurred purely by chance? Or if it might not have been the effect of some other factor, something he ate, or drank, or touched on that day? Or the merit of his grandmother’s prayers? And if you could provide complete proof in one case, how many times would you need to repeat the trial, and this long series of random encounters, before you could conclusively determine the rule.

Trump: The new Caesar?

From Montaigne’s “The story of Spurina”:

Caton mesme avoit accoustumé de dire de [Caesar], que c’estoit le premier homme sobre, qui se fust acheminé a la ruyne de son pays.

Cato himself liked to say that Caesar was the first sober man who ever set out to ruin his country.

16th century rape culture

I was reading Montaigne’s essay “De l’inconstance de nos actions” (On the inconsistency of our actions). As a particularly piquant example of inconsistent behaviour Montaigne tells this tale:

Pendant les débauches de nostre pauvre estat, on me rapporta, qu’une fille de bien pres de là où j’estoy, s’estoit precipitée du haut d’une fenestre, pour éviter la force d’un belitre de soldat son hoste : elle ne s’estoit pas tuée à la cheute, et pour redoubler son entreprise, s’estoit voulu donner d’un cousteau par la gorge, mais on l’en avoit empeschée : toutefois apres s’y estre bien fort blessée, elle mesme confessoit que le soldat ne l’avoit encore pressée que de requestes, sollicitations, et presens, mais qu’elle avoit eu peur, qu’en fin il en vinst à la contrainte : et là dessus les parolles, la contenance, et ce sang tesmoing de sa vertu, à la vraye façon d’une autre Lucrece. Or j’ay sçeu à la verité, qu’avant et depuis ell’ avoit esté garse de non si difficile composition.

During the disorders of our poor country I heard of a young woman very close to where I was staying, who had thrown herself out a window to escape the advances of a piggish soldier who was quartered in her home. Not being killed by the fall, and to complete her task, she tried to cut her own throat with a knife, but was restrained, succeeding only in wounding herself grievously. She admitted that the soldier had imposed himself only by pleas, attentions, and presents, but said she feared he would force her by violence. We see here the words, the demeanour, and the blood all bearing witness to her virtue, a veritable modern-day Lucretia. And yet, I have it on good authority that before and after this event she was a slut who was by no means so difficult.

He goes on to warn his (male) readers not to take any evidence in one circumstance for proof of their mistress’s fidelity in general.

Here we see in pure form the mindset that still exists — perhaps is even still prevalent — and still even pokes out occasionally from judges in rape cases: Chastity is acceptable, even commendable, but it is the only plausible reason for a woman to refuse sex. Once she has given up the claim to refuse all sexual contact, to refuse any particular partner seems like pure tergiversation. Even if it looks like violence it’s not really, since to this way of thinking what looks like violence is really just helping her to overcome an atavistic need to make a public show of chastity. (One is reminded of American officials who claimed that they tortured Muslim prisoners to “help them” fulfill their need to make a show of resistance before they could square talking to the enemy with their religious obligation.)

One hears this often from feminists who lived through the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s: While men experienced the relaxation of public sexual mores as a liberation, women had a much more ambivalent experience. The first step, eliminating the respect for chastity, was experienced by many as a loss of autonomy. Seen from the perspective of the 21st century it looks like a necessary step toward reclaiming women’s right to physical integrity and self-determination, but partly because eliminating hypocritical shield of chastity has forced men and women both to come to terms with what has now come to be called “rape culture”.

16th century Sokal hoax

Many of our readers will recall the celebrated hoax perpetrated by mathematical physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 against the humanities journal Social Text. Sokal submitted an article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” for an issue on “Science Wars”. The article strung together buzzwords helter-skelter to conclude with a flattering claim of the importance of social theory for natural science. The fact that it was published is cited even today by supercilious physicists and insecure journalists as conclusive proof that academic jargon in the humanities and social sciences is all fake.

Anyway, I was just reading Montaigne’s essay “Du pedantisme” (On pedantry), and found the following anecdote:

J’ay veu chez moy un mien amy, par maniere de passetemps, ayant affaire à un de ceux-cy, contrefaire un jargon de Galimatias, propos sans suitte, tissu de pieces rapportées, sauf qu’il estoit souvent entrelardé de mots propres à leur dispute, amuser ainsi tout un jour ce sot à debattre, pensant tousjours respondre aux objections qu’on luy faisoit. Et si estoit homme de lettres et de reputation, et qui avoit une belle robbe.

I observed at my home a friend of mine making sport of one of these [pedants] by making up a nonsense jargon, propositions with no succession, a patchwork of pieces that had nothing in common except for some buzzwords  that he stuck in that related to their topic, and he amused himself a whole day with this crazy debate, always managing to think of new answers to the man’s objections. And this was a greatly reputed man of letters.

The smoking gun

US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is all in favour of selective leaks from the FBI about ongoing investigations:

HH: It’s just a practical impossibility. But he might find a smoking gun. If he does, do you think he has an obligation to tell the American people about it?

PR: Yeah, look, I understand why he did what he did, because imagine if he didn’t, and we found out after the fact that he was sitting on this before the election. So I clearly understand why he did what he did. Hillary Clinton has no one to blame but herself, and she and Republicans are saying if you’ve got something you’ve got cleared, put it out there. So yeah, I think if he’s gone through the process that he needs to go through to vet evidence, and he’s got it, he should do it. I do agree with that. More disclosure is better, clearly.

Ordinarily, the crime-fiction term “smoking gun” involves investigation into, you know, a murder, there’s a body, there’s a suspect, and there’s a gun in his/her hand that seems to have just been used. In this case we must imagine a scene like the following:

JW: We see here the smoking gun. What do you make of it, Holmes?

SH: Yes, very odd that this gun has been smoking for the past four years. This is proof that Mrs Clinton is a murderer. It remains only for us to determine who has been murdered.

What is the actual crime that the “smoking gun” is supposed to be incontrovertible proof of? What lurid fantasies do the Republicans and the FBI have of the contents of these missing emails? Contacts with Libyan rebels informing them of the weak points in Benghazi consulate security? The communication that lured Vince Foster into the park? Arrangements to pay a dozen different women to falsely accuse Donald Trump of sexual assault?

Dylan’s Nobel

I was just reading this article by Stephen Metcalf about why Bob Dylan shouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I was surprised at how vehemently I disagreed. Metcalf writes: genius, sure, but not literature.

The distinctive thing about literature is that it involves reading silently to oneself. Silence and solitude are inextricably a part of reading, and reading is the exclusive vehicle for literature.

Ryu Spaeth at The New Republic writes

If the Nobel Prize in Literature wants to recognize a musician, then it should create an award for music.

I’m not sure if the Nobel Prize in Literature has enough of an independent existence that it can create a new award, but I understand the point. I just disagree.

It’s kind of weird the way the Nobel prizes have taken on this aura of pre-eminence, but the Nobel committees havethem have responded to this cultural role by expanding their remit. People win Nobel prizes in medicine for studying worms, in chemistry for things like DNA repair, in physics for solving equations, and in peace for stirring up trouble over human rights (or global warming). If literature is about what people do with words, then it must be about those who have done traditional things exceptionally well (and Winston Churchill must be included in that group) but also those who have expanded the possibilities of literary forms. Jean-Paul Sartre won the prize. So did Elfriede Jelinek and Samuel Beckett.

People complain that he shouldn’t win the prize because his texts aren’t exactly poetry. But maybe that’s the point. He opened up a new way for people to express themselves in language. The fact that the texts work their magic in alliance with music is not a detriment. No one ever said that Harold Pinter didn’t deserve the prize because his texts depend on actors to bring them to life.

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