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.