Saturday, October 18, 2008


I am continuing to read and enjoy Jacques Gernet's History of Chinese Civilization, but it is with a palpable sense of the extreme generality needed to cover such a huge subject in a single volume (I started to write "big subject" because the only obvious sign that this text is translated from French is the constant use of the word "big" where most English writers would use "large," "huge" or "enormous.").

The following passage, though, illustrates how even the sweeping generality can arrest one's attention with a hitherto unguessed explanation for a largely unconscious prior impression:

"We can attribute to Buddhism a deep and general transformation of sensibility: the new religion introduced into the Chinese world a taste for ornamentation, for the tireless repetition of the same motifs (a religious practice that was to give birth to wood engraving), a taste for the sumptuous (statues coated with gold, precious cloths, and so on), but also for the gigantic, the colossal. All these tendencies were in opposition to the classical tradition, which aimed at stripping away essentials, at vigorous conciseness, at exactness of line and movement."

This seems exactly right, even if, in fact, it would be surprising if ornament, repetition, and luxury were entirely absent from pre-Buddhist China. Strictly speaking, it might be more accurate to speak of the influence of Indian aesthetics than Buddhist religion. As we know, the beautiful spareness of the tradition will eventually return and itself give birth to the Buddhism of the Chan/Zen schools.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


“A green liqueur flavored with wormwood, anise and other aromatics.”

No, I’ve never tried it, and though I understand that its reputation for deranging the mind and debauching the soul is exaggerated, I don’t intend to.

But I wanted to say a word or two about Nietzsche. I’ve been reading about China lately--spurred by public things, like the Olympics, and the Tibetan situation, and by private things, like an intimate relation being taken off a vital medicine last spring when its Chinese manufacturer was suspected of tainting it to stretch it (shades of The Third Man). But China is a large subject, and its civilization a huge part of the human story, little known to me, so I started reading a history I’ve had on the shelf unread for a few decades, and ordered a book of Chinese poetry for beginners, and was re-dipping a little into Confucius and Lao Tzu.

But last Saturday at the Santa Fe Public Library’s overstock store I came across three volumes of Nietzsche for two bucks each and I couldn’t resist. Nietzsche is one of philosophy’s guilty pleasures, but if Confucius’ words are like a hot cup of black tea, and Lao Tzu’s like a bracing drought from a cold mountain stream, Nietzsche’s are like absinthe. He is radical and disorientating and intoxicating, and thank God almost no one reads him today except scriveners working on dissertations. The madness he names is real, but I wonder whether we might not be better off not trying to comprehend that reality in all its vertigo and bitterness.

But he has his attractions. This, I think, is from a late introduction to his earlier Birth of Tragedy, on madness at the heart of vibrant cultures:

Ist Wahnsinn vielleicht night notwendig das Symptom der entartung, des Niedergangs, der ueberspaeten Kulture? Gibt es vielleicht—eien Frage fuer Irrenaertzte—Neurosen der Gesundheit? Der Volks-Jugend und –Jugendlichkeit? Worauf weist jene Synthesis von Gott and Bock im Satyr?

How many worlds away is the Chinese sage?

“Chi Wen Tzu always thought three times before taking action. When the Master was told of this, he commented, ‘Twice is quite enough.’”

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Dog Days less Doggy, alas

A passing tribute to
Bonny Brown "of Old Town" Allen
A faithful Airedale Terrier of Great Heart
And unsurpassed skills at getting under
any gate made by man.
Survived, inter alia, by the companion of her old age
Oliver Allen,
half poodle, half chihuahua, now stranger than ever.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ora pro nobis

I would be remiss if I did not at least note today's commemoration of my own patron, St. Thomas More, and of St. John Fisher.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Imagining Egypt

This last year I have been on something of an Egyptian kick. This was brought on mostly by two traveling Egyptian shows, an exhibition of objects from the Petrie Museum of Archaeology, at the Museum of Art in Santa Fe, and an almost contemporaneous exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum of Egyptian art from the collection of the British Museum.

Seeing these prompted me to finish Alan Gardiner's "Egypt of the Pharaohs," which has been on the shelf for about eight years, and, at a time I have been trying to pare my library rather than augment it, to purchase two books on hieroglyphics.

One of the things that so distances the Egyptians from us is the scarcity of an engaging literature. There is nothing comparable to the history, drama, or poetry that we have from the Greeks, Romans or Hebrews. There is a rich store of mythological writing, some chronicles, and some reflective literature we would readily see as parallel to what one would find in, say, Proverbs. And there are texts like the Pyramid Texts, or the Book of Going Forth by Day. But the most popular of the Egyptian myths, for example, the story of Isis and Osiris, comes to us through Plutarch.

For me, in trying to imagine life in ancient Egypt, it is their visual art that predominates. Within the confines of the strange conventions of representation--the body straight on with the head in profile, the smoothly harmonious abstraction of natural objects,--there is a distant and distinctive beauty about it. Whether the funereal aspect was always pervasive, or only a consequence of the perdominanat survival of objects in tombs, there is a great melancholy about it, as well as that sense of vanished grandeur: "I am Ozimadius the Great; Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair."

There is also the sheer impressiveness of age. At the Petrie show there was a small relief, of great delicacy, dated at roughly 2500 BC. Perhaps it's only because I'm cleaning out my garage today, but there is something awesome about anything, not only lasting 4500 years, but retaining its form and beauty over such a span of time.

Because, as noted above, I was also reading Mommsen's History of Rome this last year, I was much taken, in the Petrie show, with a small Hellentistic carved head, identified as Caesarian, the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. I don't think the boy survived his childhood, and, I assume he remained entirely unaware of and indifferent to the rather massive role his parents played in the history of the West.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Understanding and Retention

Surely one of the uses of a private library is to preserve what one once knew and can't retain.

I am no mathematician, but was curious about Goedel's proof, and so read a few years back a book taking the non-mathematician through an outline of the ideas and the course of the proof. I remember having a great deal of difficulty, but also, toward the end, grasping, to some limited extent, the idea. But I haven't retained that momentary sense of understanding, and the book still sits on the shelf as a reminder of what I once knew.

Mathematics is perhaps the field in which this happens most obviously. When my son was taking high school calculus I pulled out my old high school calculus textbook, and found folded inside it a piece of paper, with my name on it, and in my old handwriting, covered with symbols I didn't understand. I struck me as very strange that here I was looking at my own work--even something as simple as a randomly preserved set of math exercises--and I did not understand it.

Don Novello's Father Guido Sarducci does a little routine (it's easy enough to find on You Tube) called the five-minute university, based on the idea that, in five minutes, you can teach, not everything you learned in four years of college, but everything you will remember from college five years after graduating. Two years of college Spanish? "Como esta Usted?" "Muy bien." That's it.

It's funny, but there's some truth behind it. And it's not just facts, but insights and intuitions and perceived connections that will fade with time, leaving some faint but inexplicable sense that something may well be the case without the confidence that I can explain or even know exactly why.

The medieval philosophers, if I remember correctly, identified the three faculties of the soul as memory, intelligence, and will. Is memory inevitably so mutable? Is some sort of re-charge or repetition necessary? And is that why I keep that silly book about Goedel's proof on the shelf?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Cinco de Mayo Atrasado

Cinco de Mayo originally commemorated the Mexican victory over French expeditionary forces at Puebla on May 5, 1862. In the United States it's come to have as little to do with the victory over the French as St. Patrick's day has to do with the missionary bishop, having morphed into a celebration of a particular ethnicity, for everybody, with emphasis on food, drink, and music.

Still, alongside the welcome excuse for breaking out guacamole and Dos Equis, I've now for some fifteen years, every Cinco de Mayo, revisited a chapter from Sybille Bedford's A Visit to Don Otavio, "The Emperor Maximillian at Queretaro."

The book itself was published in the early 1950's, an account, possibly much fictionalized, of the German-born author and her friend "E" traversing the Mexican Republic among stoic "Indios," non-helpful guides, chivilrous retired generals, ruined Creole aristocrats, daft British ex-pats, roads to nowhere and two-story hotels lacking staircases. Naturally she is drawn to the strange tale of Maximillian, which she first broaches in a chapter on Cuernavaca:

Why is it so fascinating?...There was not an event in the 1850's and 60's that did not help to shape the Mexican Empire; not a power, a faction, a person in a privileged position, an interest vested or on the make, that did not have a finger and a stake in that particular pie. Ambitious mothers, a soured brother, a prudent father-in-law and indifferent cousins; Austrian policy in Italy, French policy in Austria, the vacancy of the throne of Greece, Bonaparte insecurity and Coburg consolidation, the Mexican debt in England and the Mexican debt in Spain, the fear of Bismarck in many quarters and the American Civil War. Pio Nono, Napoleon III, the Emperor Franz-Joseph. The Archduchess Sophie of Austria, the Empress Eugenie, Louise-Phillippe's widow, Queen Marie-Amelie who shrieked on her deathbed, "Les pauvres enfants, ils seront assasines!" Lincoln, Don Pedro of Brazil, white Mexicans in Paris; French militarism and French radicalism; King Leopold of the Belgians, Victor Hugo, and the shades of l'Aiglon.

Few of these persons were dunces. A number of them were astute, at least three were brilliant. The men knew their statecraft and their world. All calculated; some meant well. Not one of them knew the first thing about Mexico.

It is an account I can only recommend here--if the book is indeed still in print. After one of those old-fashioned mottos at the beginning of the chapter (Presque toute l'histoire n'est qu'une suite d'horreurs--Chamfort), she begins:

Maximillian of Habsburg was sentended to death by court martial at Queretaro on June 15th, 1867, and shot four days later on a hill outside that town. He was not the first man to die through violence in that vicinity, though during those four days many people tried to save his life.

After a long catalog of the heads of state and literary figures who asked for clemency, and a brief summary of President Juarez's long and desparate fight against the French occupiers, she continues,

He had been in the wilderness a very long time. There had been death and death again. And now he was asked to spare the life of one man. The moral pressure put on Juarez was great; perhaps it was too much, perhaps it came from the wrong quarters. He did not like Europe, and he was most self-consciously not a respecter of persons. He sent a telegram to Queretaro confirming the death sentence the day after it had been pronounced.

She then recounts in some detail the parallel stories of the incorruptable Indian Liberal and the well-intentioned Austrian Habsburg--the outbreak of the Reform wars, the intervention of rapacious European creditors, the plebecite that "did not bear looking too closely into," the reproduction of Austrian court etiquette for the "Crown of Montezuma," the emptying treasury, the wavering of the French, the advances, the retreats, the madness of the Empress Carlotta in the Vatican, and the final decision to set out for the indefensible Queretaro. For me it is almost local history, but aside from that it is beautifully written, and worth the occasion afforded by our annual south-looking fiesta.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Pagans and Christians

Christian writers have, from the beginning, displayed an ambivalence toward paganism. On the one hand it was obviously, in the the early years of the faith, one of the chief rivals for allegiance, and the occasion for polemical and apologetic works contra gentiles.

On the other hand, there was always some appreciation for the noblest of the pagans--Plato, Aristotle, Cicero--and a conception of paganism as a preparatio evangelium, analogous if not comparable to the more direct foundation of the Torah and prophets of Israel.

I came across what I think an intersting example of the contrast, contained in a single document, in Pius XI's 1937 encyclical "Mit Brennender Sorge."

On the one hand the faithful priests and laity are commended for their steadfastness in the face of an aggressive and anti-Christian "new paganism" of the National Socialist regime:

Wir danken Euch, Ehrwürdige Brüder, Euren Priestern und all den Gläubigen, die in der Verteidigung der Majestätsrechte Gottes gegen ein angrifflüsternes, von einflußreicher Seite leider vielfach begünstigtes Neuheidentum ihre Christenpflicht erfüllt haben und erfüllen.

On the other hand, the setting aside of simple morality on the basis of the will of "das Volk" is condemned, not only on Christian principles, but even in light of "the old paganism" and its high morality (I think that it's Cicero who's here being cited):

Mit diesem Maßstab muß auch der Grundsatz: „Recht ist, was dem Volke nützt“, gemessen werden, wenn man unterstellt, daß sittlich Unerlaubtes nie dem wahren Wohle des Volkes zu dienen vermag. Indes hat schon das alte Heidentum erkannt, daß der Satz, um völlig richtig zu sein, eigentlich umgekehrt werden und lauten muß: „Nie ist etwas nützlich, wenn es nicht gleichzeitig sittlich gut ist. Und nicht weil nützlich, ist es sittlich gut, sondern weil sittlich gut, ist es auch nützlich.“ Von dieser Sittenregel losgelöst, würde jener Grundsatz im zwischenstaatlichen Leben den ewigen Kriegszustand zwischen den verschiedenen Nationen bedeuten.

Its unusual to see these contrasting characterizations in the same document, but there's no real anamoly in light of the attitude enunciated at Vatican II governing relations with other world religions:

Ecclesia catholica nihil eorum, quae in his religionibus vera et sancta sunt, reicit. Sincera cum observantia considerat illos modos agendi et vivendi, illa praecepta et doctrinas, quae, quamvis ab iis quae ipsa tenet et proponit in multis discrepent, haud raro referunt tamen radium illius Veritatis, quae illuminat omnes homines.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


I am coming to the end of Mommsen's History of Rome and am increasingly puzzled by his judgments on the the individuals who play out the ruin of the Republic and the foundation of what he calls the military monarchy.

Mommsen seems to value men and events by their success in founding what we would call "states." He gives an almost normative significance to the "unification of Italy," seeing that as the great achievement of the Republic, and the acquisition of the provinces as almost accidental. In this he seems to reflects the values of the century that saw the unification of both Italy and his own Germany, and their acquisition of dependent colonies in what Eric Hobsbawm has called the Age of Empire.

I suppose that accounts for his worshipful treatment of Gaius Julius Caesar:

Of mighty creative power and yet at the same time of the most penetrating judgment; no longer a youth and not yet an old man; of the highest energy of will and the highest capacity of execution; filled with republican ideals and at the same time born to be a king; a Roman in the deepest essence of his nature, and yet called to reconcile and combine in himself as well as in the outer world the Roman and the Hellenic types of culture--Caesar was the entire and perfect man.

This is quite remarkable language for one whose primary achievement seems to me to have been the final annihilation of the Republic. And while the virtues of the Republic even at its best were far from those later espoused by Christendom, its final century was admittedly one of such chaos and violence that it is understandable that there should be a certain relief in the recognition of its ultimate failure and return to monarchical rule.

Nevertheless, what still surprises is that Mommsen retains something of the moralistic outlook in his treatment of the last of the party of the senate, Cato the Younger. In the narrative that precedes his suicide before Caesar's advancing armies, Cato is ridiculed mercilessly, leaving us unprepared for the encomium Mommsen supplies him on his death:

The constitutional struggle was at an end; and that it was so, was proclaimed by Marcus Cato when he fell on his sword at Utica. For many years he had been the foremost man in the struggle of the legitimate republic against its oppressors; he had continued it, long after he had ceased to cherish any hope of victory. But now the struggle itself had become impossible; the republic which Marcus Brutus had founded was dead and never to be revived....There was more nobility, and above all more judgment, in the death of Cato than there had been in his life. Cato was anything but a great man; but with all that short-sightedness, that perversity, that dry prolixity, and those spurious phrases which have stamped him, for his own and for all time, as the ideal of unreflecting republicanism and the favourite of all who make it their hobby, he was yet the only man who honourably and courageously championed in the last struggle the great system doomed to destruction.

Just because the shrewdest lie feels itself inwardly annihilated before the simple truth, and because all the dignity and glory of human nature ultimately depend not on shrewdness but on honesty, Cato has played a greater part in history than many men far superior to him in intellect. It only heightens the deep and tragic significance of his death that he was himself a fool; in truth it is just because Don Quixote is a fool that he is a tragic figure. It is an affecting fact, that on that world-stage, on which so many great and wise men had moved and acted, the fool was destined to give the epilogue. He too died not in vain. It was a fearfully striking protest of the republic against the monarchy, that the last republican went as the first monarch came--a protest which tore asunder like gossamer all that so-called constitutional character with which Caesar invested his monarchy, and exposed in all its hypocritical falsehood the shibboleth of the reconciliation of all parties, under the aegis of which despotism grew up. The unrelenting warfare which the ghost of the legitimate republic waged for centuries, from Cassius and Brutus down to Thrasea and Tacitus, nay, even far later, against the Caesarian monarchy--a warfare of plots and of literature-- was the legacy which the dying Cato bequeathed to his enemies. This republican opposition derived from Cato its whole attitude-- stately, transcendental in its rhetoric, pretentiously rigid, hopeless, and faithful to death; and accordingly it began even immediately after his death to revere as a saint the man who in his lifetime was not unfrequently its laughing-stock and its scandal. But the greatest of these marks of respect was the involuntary homage which Caesar rendered to him, when he made an exception to the contemptuous clemency with which he was wont to treat his opponents, Pompeians as well as republicans, in the case of Cato alone, and pursued him even beyond the grave with that energetic hatred which practical statesmen are wont to feel towards antagonists opposing them from a region of ideas which they regard as equally dangerous and impracticable.

This unexpected and decidely mixed tribute precedes the characterization of Caesar as "the entire and perfect man"--surely still an extreme judgment, even from countryman and near-contemporary of Marx and Nietzsche.

Mommsen's regard for Julius Caesar was such that he seems not to have been able to bear to bring his narrative to his death, and the final chapter (which I have not yet completed) details and credits him with the creation of the Principate, which I would have thought more properly attributable to Octavius. Both Caesars, however, were surprisingly careful to avoid the title of "king," and grasped how the retention of form could satisfy republican scruples. Thus only could Octavius have caused to be inscribed across the Roman world the great lie of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti:

Ín consulátú sexto et septimo, bella ubi civilia exstinxeram per consénsum úniversórum potitus rerum omnium, rem publicam ex meá potestáte in senátus populique Romani arbitrium transtulí. Quó pro merito meó senatus consulto Augustus appellátus sum.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Three sentences for Holy Saturday

The first is the beginning of the well-known ancient, anonymous homily from today's Office of Readings:

"Quid istud rei est? Hódie siléntium magnum in terra; siléntium magnum, et solitúdo deínceps; siléntium magnum, quóniam Rex dormit; terra tímuit et quiévit, quóniam Deus in carne obdormívit, et a sæculo dormiéntes excitávit. Deus in carne mórtuus est, et inférnum concitávit."

The second is from Psalm 51, a line I've always found both distressing and comforting:

זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה
לֵב-נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה-- אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תִבְזֶה

The third is from the essays of Francis Bacon:

"THE joys of parents are secret; and so are their griefs and fears. They cannot utter the one; nor they will not utter the other. Children sweeten labors; but they make misfortunes more bitter. They increase the cares of life; but they mitigate the remembrance of death."

Friday, March 14, 2008

More Folly

The following from Utopia is of course to some extent a platitude--but would that we could even live out our platitudes.

More has suggested that his friend, with all his experience, should be counseling princes. Hythlodaeus thinks such attempts futile, and expands on the blindness of princes in desiring power abroad when they are incapable of caring for their own subjects at home.

(If it's not obvious, the Latin is followed by an English translation.)

Hic, inquam, in tanto rerum molimine, tot egregijs uiris ad bellum sua certatim consilia conferentibus, si ego homuncio surgam, ac uerti iubeam uela, omittendam Italiam censeam & domi dicam esse manendum, unum Galliae regnum fere maius esse, quam ut commode possit ab uno administrari, ne sibi putet rex de alijs adijciendis esse cogitandum.

Now when things are in so great a fermentation, and so many gallant men are joining counsels how to carry on the war, if so mean a man as I should stand up and wish them to change all their counsels—to let Italy alone and stay at home, since the kingdom of France was indeed greater than could be well governed by one man; that therefore he ought not to think of adding others to it;

Tum si illis proponerem decreta Achoriorum populi, Utopiensium insulae ad Euronoton oppositi, qui quum olim bellum gessissent, ut regi suo aliud obtinerent regnum, quod affinitatis antiquae causa sibi contendebat haereditate deberi, consequuti tandem id, ubi uiderunt nihilo sibi minus esse molestiae in retinendo, quam in quaerendo pertulerunt, uerum assidua pullulare semina, uel internae rebellionis, uel externae incursionis, in deditos ita semper aut pro illis, aut contra pugnandum, nunquam dari facultatem dimittendi exercitus,

and if, after this, I should propose to them the resolutions of the Achorians, a people that lie on the south-east of Utopia, who long ago engaged in war in order to add to the dominions of their prince another kingdom, to which he had some pretensions by an ancient alliance: this they conquered, but found that the trouble of keeping it was equal to that by which it was gained; that the conquered people were always either in rebellion or exposed to foreign invasions, while they were obliged to be incessantly at war, either for or against them, and consequently could never disband their army;

compilari interim se, efferri foras pecuniam, alienae gloriolae suum impendi sanguinem, pacem nihilo tutiorem, domi corruptos bello mores, imbibitam latrocinandi libidinem, confirmatam caedibus audaciam, leges esse contemptui, quod rex in duorum curam regnorum distractus, minus in utrumuis animum posset intendere.

that in the meantime they were oppressed with taxes, their money went out of the kingdom, their blood was spilt for the glory of their king without procuring the least advantage to the people, who received not the smallest benefit from it even in time of peace; and that, their manners being corrupted by a long war, robbery and murders everywhere abounded, and their laws fell into contempt; while their king, distracted with the care of two kingdoms, was the less able to apply his mind to the interest of either.

Cum uiderent alioqui tantis malis nullum finem fore, inito tandem consilio, regi suo humanissime fecerunt optionem retinendi utrius regni uellet. nam utriusque non fore potestatem, se plures esse, quam qui a dimidiato possint rege gubernari, quum nemo sit libenter admissurus mulionem sibi cum alio communem. Ita coactus est ille bonus princeps, nouo regno cuipiam ex amicis relicto (qui breui etiam post eiectus est) antiquo esse contentus.

When they saw this, and that there would be no end to these evils, they by joint counsels made an humble address to their king, desiring him to choose which of the two kingdoms he had the greatest mind to keep, since he could not hold both; for they were too great a people to be governed by a divided king, since no man would willingly have a groom that should be in common between him and another. Upon which the good prince was forced to quit his new kingdom to one of his friends (who was not long after dethroned), and to be contented with his old one.

Praeterea si ostenderem omnes hos conatus bellorum, quibus tot nationes eius causa tumultuarentur, quum thesauros eius exhausissent, ac destruxissent populum, aliqua tandem fortuna frustra cessuros tamen, proinde auitum regnum coleret, ornaret quantum posset, & faceret quam florentissimum. Amet suos & ametur a suis, cum his una uiuat, imperetque suauiter, atque alia regna ualere sinat, quando id quod nunc ei contigisset, satis amplum superque esset. hanc orationem quibus auribus mi More, putas excipiendam!

To this I would add that after all those warlike attempts, the vast confusions, and the consumption both of treasure and of people that must follow them, perhaps upon some misfortune they might be forced to throw up all at last; therefore it seemed much more eligible that the king should improve his ancient kingdom all he could, and make it flourish as much as possible; that he should love his people, and be beloved of them; that he should live among them, govern them gently and let other kingdoms alone, since that which had fallen to his share was big enough, if not too big, for him:—pray, how do you think would such a speech as this be heard?”

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Small things

One of the satisfactions of trying to read familiar passages in their original language is the occasional discovery of small intimations that didn't make it through into English.

Here is a sentence from the story of Hagar and Ishmael being driven out from the household of Abraham in the twenty-first chapter of Genesis:
וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת-בֶּן-הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית, אֲשֶׁר-יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם מְצַחֵק.

"Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she bore to Abraham, playing." That last word, "m'tzacheq", the participle, is sometimes also translated "mocking" or "laughing." And it's from the same three letter root from which the name of the son of Abraham by Sara is taken, יִצְחַק, "yitzchaq," our "Isaac." And since the mem at the beginning of the word "m'tzacheq", marking it as a participle, also can function as a prepositional prefix, the suggestion of the word "m'tzacheq" is not only that Ishmael was playing, or even mocking, but that, whatever he was doing, it was "from Isaac," taking something from Isaac.

Understand, it doesn't say that grammatically, but it suggests it with a sort of rough pun on the two uses of the prefix. It's not a large point, or one not made apparent by the whole context in any case. And, as one purely self-taught in this language, I recognize that I may be reading things in that aren't there. No way to really know. A small thing, really.


I have had a lot of time lately with Les Miserables, and have had occasion to think about it in conjunction with Utopia--very different books, very different spiritual and emotional atmospheres, but both concerned very directly with the issue of poverty.

St. Thomas' readers know of the poverty of their countrymen; he doesn't bother to paint a world as Hugo does. More's approach is prescriptive, but very different in Utopia's two parts. In part one he is the reformer, highlighting the inability of savagely disproportionate punishments to deter the theft that seems ubiquitous. He points to a contemporary source of poverty, the enclosure of commons for sheep-herding and wool production, and the consequent impoverishment of those ejected from their livelihoods. And he laments the bad counsel given to princes who waste needed resources for foreign adventures, noting that few can govern well the kingdoms they already possess. In the second part, of course, More more famously portrays the more radical solution, in the Utopian scheme for equality of material possessions.

I'm about half way through Les Miserables. Hugo has taken off into one of his famous digressions at the beginning of Part Four, noting the problem that the creation of great wealth doesn't solve anything if it results only in great disparties of wealth and poverty. He gives contemporary England and the older Venetian Republic as examples of regimes able to prosper, but at the expense of the misery of their poorest citizens. And he reflects on the world's reaction to their inevitable fall, in the sentence that struck me here:

"Et le monde vous laissera mourir et tomber, parce que le monde laisse tomber et mourir tout ce qui n'est que l'egoisme, tout ce que ne represente pas pour le genre humain une vertu ou une idee."

These past three weeks I have mostly been resident in a children's hospital, a terrible place because of the problems being addressed, but a wonderful place because those problems are being addressed, and, because done under the auspices of a large charity, this healing is done gratis for all of us with children in need. I cannot help but think that this is a glimpse of how things can be and ought to be, but I am also brought short by the reality that this place is exceptional, and it ought not to be.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Recalled to Life

Something very serious and considerably more important will occupy me in the next few weeks. So, if any stumble by here, welcome, but expect nothing but silence for a while.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Aspiration and Pretense

I have begun adding some links to the left, and it seems to me one of the positive wonders of the internet that such things are easily available here whch are sometimes unavailable in print, or prohibitively expensive.

That I link to something not in English doesn't necessarily mean that I can read it, or, in some cases, do much more than painfully decipher it, word by word. So at least some of the links should be understood as where I'd like to be able to go, rather than where I am able to go presently.

And I hope they make it easiler to pick up what may be under consideration, say, for example, the following passage from yesterday's reading for the second Sunday of Lent:

וַאֲבָרְכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר

וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה

"And I will bless those blesssing you, and those cursing you, curse, and will be blessed in you all families in the earth ("ha-adamah")."

As I have not yet figured out how to type in a foreign alphbet it may be helpful to be able to lift things from text already any in it.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


I have lately been reading, simultaneously, Theodore Mommsen's History of Rome and the third and last volume of John Julian Norwich's history of Byzantium. In Mommsen I have reached his last section, the imposition of the military monarchy, in Norwich the declining fortunes of the Greek empire during the first century of the crusades.

Mommsen describes what has become a sort of paradigmatic shift for us (embodied lately in "Star Wars," of all places), the collapse of the Republic into the (evil) Empire--except that Mommsen has no sympathy with the democratic tendencies of the "revolutions" of the second century B.C. under the Gracci, and his favorable treatment of the murderous Sulla portends a sympathy with the imposition of the military monarchy that is somewhat averse to our normal American scale of values. At least until the recent present.

Twelve hundred years later the Byzantine emperors are in the midst of another situation well-beloved of our phrase-turners, the Barbarians at the Gate--barbarians including not only the Turks and Syrians, but the Franks, Germans, Venetians, and those perpetual and insatiable warmongers, the Normans. Norwich's Byzantium vacilates between holding the balance as the great center of civilization and plunging into periods of almost unbelievable cruelty and xenophobia. A massacre of Franks under Andronicus doesn't excuse the Fourth Crusade (still far off, as Crusader Jerusalem still stands), but it portends the growing hatred that will be exploited by expansionist powers in the West for short-term plunder and the long-term collapse of Christendom in Asia.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Tribute to a Dog

Amy June, 2000-2008
Mutt, mostly terrier, small dog with Napoleon complex
Killed after digging out under fence and being hit by a car
Survivors include one very broken-hearted teenage girl

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Kaum ein Hauch

So yesterday I read in the on-line version of the New York Review of Books that there are about 100 million blogs. A hundred million and one, now.

This is from a volume of collected poems by Goethe, published by Suhrkapf a few years back.

I have not yet figured out how to do umlauts and the like. So here I just follow the umlauted letter with an "e."

Ueber alle Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In alle Wipfeln
Spuerest du
Kaum ein Hauch;
Die Voegelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

A little piece like this is untranslatable, of course. Interestingly, in this volume, there is not only the translation of the editor, Robt. Middleton, but an additional one by Longfellow.

So I couldn't resist trying my own hand at it:

Over the hilltops
It is still,
Throughout the copse
You can feel
Hardly a breeze.
The birds have ceased their tune.
Be patient. Soon
You too will be at ease.

Monday, February 11, 2008


When, some years ago, I was considering what looked like a retreat into simplicity, I remember thinking much of Yeats' "Lake Isle of Innisfree." The following from Fray Luis de Leon has been occupying my thoughts in a similar way more recently:

Dichose el humilde estado
del sabio que se retira
de aqueste mundo malvado,
y con pobre mesa y casa,
en el campo deleitoso
con solo Dios se compasa,
y a solas su vida pasa,
ni envidiado ni envidioso.

This is from an anthology recently published called "The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance," with parallel English translation by Edith Grossman.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


There is a scene in "The Jerk" in which Steve Martin's character goes into ecstacies when he first finds his name in a phone book: "I'm somebody!" It's a somewhat similar thing with a blog, I think--awfully easy to be fooling around on the net one day, come across an invitation to create one of these things, and then it's done and there you are up in front of the whole world (even if nobody else is there). This, too, may be vanity.

But, what the heck, give it a try. The title is of course Erasmus' "The Praise of Folly," with a pun on the name of his friend Thomas More, and the two exemplify for me a sort of Christian humanism that I take as a personal ideal.

So, should I persevere, I hope to reflect here on some things that interest me--philosophy, religion, literature, history, law and politics. I like to fool around in the other languages I've tried to pick up, but I'm a beginner in all. And I've no intention of getting too very personal, certainly revealing no secrets and making no confessions.

Saturday, February 9, 2008


Vanite de vanites, dit Qohelet;
vanite de vanites, tout est vanite.
Quel profit trouve l'homme a toute la peine
qu'il prend sous le soleil?
Un age va, un age vient,
mais la terre tient toujours.