Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rewriting the Constitution, Introduction

I take it for granted that our political institutions need reforming, and I think I can summarize the reason for it in one word: plutocracy. None of our most important government offices can be attained without the expenditure of vast amounts of money. If you aspire to office, you either have to have a great deal of it yourself, or you have to go hat-in-hand to those who do.

We see it most blatantly in the non-stop fundraising done by presidents and presidential candidates. This year I was an enthusiastic supporter of Senator Obama, but I was taken aback by the enormous amounts of money he raised, and even more concerned at the apparent correlation between campaign financial strength and standing in the polls. Just as God is said to favor the side with the larger army, the electorate undoubtedly responds to the candidate with the fattest campaign chest. This year I thought the money was on the side of the angels. But what about next year?

This problem is so pervasive I don’t think we see it anymore. It’s not bribery in the criminal sense. It’s an accepted way of purchasing access, influence, a friendly ear. We allow it, at worst, as a necessary evil. But is it really necessary? I have wondered whether there may be a way to re-organize our political institutions to prevent their being more or less for sale. This is how I might do it.

Rewriting the Constitution, Part 1: The House of Representatives

What is a legislature for? To frame laws. Who should have that responsibility? Most of us accept that political sovereignty lies in the people as a whole, and that the people as a whole therefore has the primary right to legislate. How then are we to express our collective will?

There is first, democracy. We citizens sit in a room or assemble in a field and consider questions and vote on them and thereby promulgate laws. There is a practical problem with that. There are about three hundred million of us. We obviously can't fit in a hall or sit down on the side of a hill. Even with our cyber resources an assembly of the whole citizenry would be impracticably unwieldy. So we go next to the representative principle.

How do we choose representatives? Some few with time and influence and resources put themselves forward in one of two stereotyped parties, in oddly-shaped districts, spending most of the enormous amounts of money they must raise on advertising. We don't know them, and learn very little about them. Most of us don't vote. And, once in, our representatives develop a remarkable talent for re-election, based, not skill at framing laws, but in two primary areas: "bringing home the bacon" and constituent service. The first is the counterpart of the role of private money: here federal money is brought back into play in the district, to the benefit of those who invested in the candidate. The second seems innocent enough, helping citizens with the intricacies and occasional stupidities of the bureaucracy--but such help is obviously not equally available to all. And why, after all, should such help be such a major function of a legislator?

How might we set up a representative assembly differently? I would suggest using an ancient device now much neglected (except with jury service): the lottery. Why not simply choose at random our House of Representatives from the people at large? It seems to me that there would be many advantages to such a system.

First, the assembly would be a real demographic picture of the population as a whole, roughly half women and half men, reflecting our ethnic make-up, our social and economic classes, our regional differences and concentrations, our professions and problems.

At first I had thought that, well, of course, there must be conditions. Surely our representatives must understand English. But then I reflected, why should our non-English speaking population be unrepresented? We have translators at the UN; what's the big deal about having then in our House?

Then I thought, OK, but surely there must be some educational minimum, at least literacy. If X% of our population is illiterate, then X% of our assembly will be as well. But again, how better to raise our educational problems, and who better to demand that they be addressed, than a minority of our assembly who suffer the consequences of our neglect?

The assembly, in short, would be representative. It would contain the poor as well as the rich, the foreclosed-on as well as the bankers, the failures as well as the successes, the day-laborers as well as the lawyers

.Nevertheless, if the lottery is truly representative, there will undoubtedly be some incarcerated felons in our House. There we may perhaps make an exception to our demand for pure representation, not as a rule excluding all felons or all the incarcerated (guards can be supplied as well as translators and readers), but as a House committee constituted to determine on a case-by-case whether persons falling in such category should be passed over. Past felony convictions, for example, should not absolutely disquality; our drug laws have ensured that many more people than we imagine have such records, and I don't see why such persons should, for that reason alone, be disqualified--for they too are representative. Of course our population has its share of vicious, pathological souls who should certainly be excluded, and I don't think their being singled out and excluded should be too very controversial.

Once we choose and seat our representative House, there appear some interesting consequences. This House will of course need to be organized, and will, like the present one, elect a Speaker. But there will be no need of majority and minority leaders, as the process of choosing Representatives makes parties superfluous. Our first representatives under this scheme might indeed still think of themselves as Republicans or Democrats, but they will not be expected to adhere to any party line, or be subject to party discipline.

One of the great illusions of our current system is that all political ideas fall on either a "liberal" or "conservative" side, and that one who is "liberal" on, say, foreign policy, will also be liberal on the minimum wage, education, national defense, etc. Our current party platforms define reasonably accurately how one is to think on most issues, if one is to be a loyal Democrat or Republican, and, if our leading politicians seem to accept the stereotyped positions of their parties, it's easy enough to explain: they could not succeed without doing so.

An example: Suppose one opposes abortion and the death penalty. The first position would prevent going very far in the Democratic Party (the late Pennsylvania governor is perhaps the exception that proves the rule). Similarly, so far as I know, no ambitious Republican has ever dared breathe a word against capital punishment; it would be the kiss of death in any primary. In other words, on this issue, the "issue alignment" of the parties freezes out anyone holding opinions consistent with what has been called the "seamless garment." And why should that be?In an assembly put together by lot, each issue stands on its own. No representative has a platform to conform to, a "constituancy" to answer to, or a backer to repay. That's not to say that factions won't form--but they will be shorter term than our present parties. And that's not to say that needed, costly projects won't result in "horsetrading." But surely the distribution of federal largess can in this context be addressed more dispassionately than under the present system.

What about the chosen but unwilling? No one, I think, should serve in this capacity involuntarily. So the lottery would need to have alternatives in the wing. In order to encourage those of modest means to serve, there should be a decent, but not excessive salary, and free housing in Washington so that they may keep their current homes or apartments, to return to at the end of their term. Needless to say, there must be no trading on the position, no gifts, no speaking fees, no other income. Perhaps there can be some limited protection of existing jobs, like we do for state militias, to disrupt ordinary people's lives as little as possible.

But is this really possible? Can ordinary people really legislate? It's a fair question. And part of the answer is that some experience can be built in with staggered terms. Suppose each representative chosen served a single three year term. By staggering terms, one third of the House at the beginning of each term would be new to the job, one-third would have a year's experience, and one-third would have two year's experience.

But the larger answer to this question lies in the fact that our legislative branch, the Congress of the United States, consists, not in a single House, but in two. And it is in the Senate, I would suggest, that political experience counterweigh the popular and amateur character of our reconstituted House of Representatives.

Rewriting the Constitution, Part 2: The Senate

The Senate as now constituted is both redundant and unrepresentative. Insofar as its "districts" are the States, the cost of running makes pursuing a place in the House look almost a bargain. It is, as we should expect, largely a millionaire's club.

How could things be different? We can take our clue from the name given the upper house by the constitution: the senate. In ancient Rome the senate was the assembly of former magistrates, whose constitutional position unhappily remained ambiguous. That uncertainty became a constant source of political mischief, and the Roman senate's alignment with patricians, then optimates, then emperors, kept it always chained to the interest of the few. But its strength, and utility, always lay in its being the permanent repository of political experience in the state.

Despite its dangers, I don't think an "upper house" necessarily dangerous when, as in our Constitution, it is conceived as a partner with the representative assembly, with all legislation requiring the concurrence of both. The ancient Roman senate had too much dominance of affairs as they went before the popular assemblies, and the institution of the tribunate, as a stopgap way of redressing the balance, became a source of serious conflict for centuries.But I think the conception of the upper chamber as balancing the inexperience of the representative assembly has much merit. The trick is to define which former magistrates shall serve in the Senate, and under what conditions.

Our current tradition is to release our former presidents to play golf and increase their personal wealth with lucrative speaking fees to industry groups. We've grown used to the idea that it's somehow beneath the dignity of former presidents to continue to serve their country in lesser capacities. But in fact it's a terrible waste of experience.

So I would populate the Senate with former presidents, former vice-presidents (if we decide to keep that office), former Speakers of the House, former Supreme Court justices. These, I think, could be allowed to serve for life, with the most senior former president presiding. Who else?

I think it would also be a good idea to include former governors. That would allow the Senate to retain its current character as the unique national legislative locus of specifically State concerns. But because there are obviously so many of them, life terms for former governors would swell the Senate's size too greatly. So each governor would serve only until another former governor from his own particular State went out of office. Thus, for example, New Mexico would currently be represented in the Senate by Gary Johnson, who would serve until Bill Richardson gave up the governorship and moved into the Senate.

It might also be wise to allow certain former cabinet secretaries limited terms after their service--State, Treasury and Defense, for example.None of these magistrates could be compelled to serve. They would certainly be allowed to play golf and rake in the speaking fees if they so chose. But that choice would be irrevocable--if, after leaving a qualifying office, they refused service in the Senate, they would thereafter be ineligible to serve. And I think, given this structure in place, it would eventually become a firm social expectation that those to whom authority has been given should continue to serve in this capacity. As currently, all new legislation would therefore have to pass in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. We might have a legitimate concern that the ordinary citizens of the lower house might be a little overawed by the "names" in the upper. But as a co-equal partner in the framing of laws one would hope that their representative character would give them the courage to bring their distinctive perspective to the legislative process, tempered by the senators' experience of actually governing.

The Senate would also retain its current "advise and consent" function for ambassadors, cabinet officers, federal judges, and treaties. One would hope that this membership for the Senate might make it less likely to be overawed by the sitting executive, and perhaps less deferential.

And so on now to the selection of the chief magistrate of the nation.....

Rewriting the Constitution, Part 3: The Chief Executive

Our manner of picking a president suffers from all the problems associated with any elective office when the electorate is so enormous: the cost of being heard is incalculable, and only those who are extremely rich, or who can raise funds in the tens of millions of dollars, have any chance of even being considered. During campaigns there is as much fundraising as campaigning. And if the candidate is elected to office, it sometimes seems as if the officeholder spends as much time fundraising as governing. And the strange thing about all this is that we accept it as normal, that our candidates and presidents, who themselves are invariably wealthy, are nevertheless continually begging for money, and incurring the occult obligations that go with that.

So I would propose a radical reform to eliminate at least some of that. It is, I know, a new approach. But I even came up with a name for the body that would choose the president. I call it "the electoral college."

OK, I know, that's who now elects the president, and who is invariably the subject, every four years, of cries that the electoral college must be abolished, insofar as it can thwart the general will, as it did most recently in 2000. But over the years--actually, almost from the beginning--the electoral college has become (with a few exceptions) simply a conduit for tallying winner-take-all elections, state by state.

It is instructive to contrast this with what the Founders thought they were doing in setting up the electoral college in the first place:

"It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.

"It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations."

This is Hamilton, from Federalist No. 68. The idea is that the people choose a body for the special purpose of choosing a president. That the electoral college never became a deliberative body is a consequence of the constitution's prohibition of its actually meeting; the electors now meet in their states, separately, and now only pass on, imperfectly, the results of the popular vote.

It seems to me that there is much to say about picking a president with a special elective assembly. For starters, the electors would not be constrained to pick only those who are running for office. Arguably, on only one occasion, did the electoral college function as intended by the founders: when it picked the reluctant George Washington for president.The electors would themselves be chosen in local elections. They themselves would be ineligible for the office. Once chosen they would be free to consider, not only the obvious candidates, those who put themselves forward, but other men and women of achievement, in government, business, education, the military, law, medicine--wherever--who might show promise. They could interview them, investigate them, hold hearings--in short, do whatever anyone else would do in considering anyone for an important position. And added advantage would be the consequence for party affiliation: it would become irrelevant.

Since the leadership of the Senate is in the hands of a former president, the question comes to mind of whether a vice-president is really needed. On reflection I think the office is a useful one--given the president's importance, it would be good to have someone in the wings in the event of a death, resignation, or removal. But the vice-president would be chosen in the same manner as the president, by the free selection of the electoral college. He would in no sense be a "running mate." Furthermore, he would not necessarily complete any unexpired term. On his taking office the first act of the vice-president should be to call for the election of a new electoral college, to choose a new president; he or she would merely be a caretaker until a new president was chosen. The electoral college could, of course, choose the vice-president for president. But it would be unconstrained in that choice.

One of the weaknesses of our current system is that there is no provision for removal of a president for incompetence or for political reasons. Currently only "high crimes and misdemeanors" will do it. But, as recent experience has surely suggested, there is a need in the American government for some equivalent of the "vote of no confidence" in the Congress. I would recommend that if two-thirds of each house votes for the removal of the president, removal should follow, and a new electoral college be chosen to pick a new president.

A president so removed would still have the right to serve in the Senate (as opposed to one convicted of crimes under the current impeachment procedure, which should continue in effect, unchanged). The current four years terms, with a possibility of one re-election, seem to strike a good balance between the need to have sufficient time to enact a president's plans and the need to limit the exercise of power by a single individual.

On a minor note, I would also get rid of that provision barring the foreign-born from the presidency. I am no great fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I don't see why his foreign birth should disqualify him for office. Surely a reasonable terms of citizenship beforehand--twenty years, perhaps--should suffice. I wonder if our current provision had something to do with lingering resentment over the accession of the Hanoverians to the English monarchy.

Rewriting the Constitution, Part 4: The Supreme Court

With the judicial branch I honestly have must less to suggest. The Court is an appellate tribunal; even with those few matters falling within its original jurisdiction, such as suits between states, it really acts as an appellate court reviewing the conclusions of a Special Master.

I would retain the present method of appointing justices, though I would hope that the Senate as reconstituted would perhaps more aggressively exercise its prerogative of advice and consent.

The great issue with the justices is keeping the judicial function to the judicial function. Constitutional and statutory review necessarily implicate policy choices. All justices, in one way or another, eschew the notion that they are engaged as a sort of super-legislator. But all, at one time or another, give in to the temptation--even if we can't always agree when they have.I know of no way to solve that problem (not, I would hasten to add, a problem on the scale of money-talking that got me started, but, while I'm solving the nation's problem, why not?). But one approach is to give the justices a legislative future, i.e. limit their terms to, say, ten years, and then have them rotate into the Senate, like other magistrates.

This would not of course guarantee that they wouldn't stray into the legislative function. But it might give them a sharper sense of the distinction, in a personal way. And they would have a distinctive experience to bring to the Senate, both in crafting legislation with judicial review in mind, and in passing on presidential nominees.

One other point, perhaps not so minor. I would have at least a third of the Court positions filled by non-lawyers.I know, we typically no longer allow non-lawyers to preside over even municipal courts. But there is a narrowness to the legal profession (I'm a lawyer myself) that could use some tempering in the highest tribunal. It's a difficult point to make, exactly, but it's based on a recognition that if, as observed above, there is invariably a non-technical, political aspect to judging, then there is a place on the bench--in the minority, importantly--for judges guided by something else than professional expertise and the received traditions of the bar. It's not that they would be expected to ignore the law, but rather that their very amateurism might prompt fresh questions and novel approaches outside of the tunnel vision sometimes characteristic of certain types of professional experience and training.

Can non-lawyers make good judges? Of course they can. For about six years I practiced as a member of the Navajo Nation Bar Association. In the Navajo court system some, but not all, of the judges had law degrees. I could never really tell which did and which didn't. We argued to them, and briefed issues, as if they were lawyers, and the remarkable thing is, if a brief is done well, and clearly, it will be as intelligible to a layman as a lawyer. We are not dealing in matters arcane, like, say, quantum mechanics, but the everyday stuff of human interaction--the known and assumed rules of conduct, local custom, fairness, the need to restore harmony after certain balances are thrown off. Of course non-lawyers can make such judgments, and would give precedents and authorities the weight they deserve as a matter of fairness and respect for community standards. But they would also see things through their "lay eyes" that we with a particular type of training might miss. So, I would say, put 'em on (but no more than a third).

There is one other consideration. Maybe it's not so important that it goes in a re-written constitution, but there is something a little unseemly about Supreme Court judges hobnobbing with other high government officials whose actions they will undoubtedly have occasion to review. I don't think I'd cloister them, but I think it makes sense to to limit those kind of contacts, as we now forbid ex parte communications. The judges, after all, once were clerics, and a little more propriety, a little more independence, a few fewer duck hunting expeditions, would in all likelihood increase the respect for opinions rendered.

Conclusion: Dude, Where’s My Vote?

Yes, it is largely gone, because the lottery has taken over the job of finding representatives. It remains for choosing those with the job of electing the president, and presumably remains in State elections unless they too choose to overhaul the works.

It is a loss to be considered, but not without reflection on what a vote is for, and how often we cast it for less-than-creditable reasons, or in ignorance, or based on mere party enthusiasm, or in thrall to a carefully crafted advertising campaign.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Don's Lenses

"...y como a nuestro aventurero todo cuanto pensaba, veia o imiginaba le parecia ser hecho y pasar al mode de lo que habia leido, luego que vio la venta se le represento que era castillo con sus cuatro torres y chapiteles de reluciente plata, sin faltarle su puete levadiza y honda cava, con todos aquellos adherentes que semejantes castillos se pintan."

This is I suppose the central recurring joke of Don Quijote, and part of its claim to greatness. All that our hero thinks, sees, or imagines appears in the light of what he has read. He doesn't see the world straight on, and his taking a common inn for a castle introduces the first of an endless series of comic set pieces.

But do we see the world straight on, either? How has what we have read made us take inns for castles?

If I read the book of Genesis, and, in looking at my fellow human beings thereafter, see them as created in the image and likeness of God, am I seeing castles rather than inns?

And if I see the world in the light of reading Don Quijote de la Mancha, how do I think, see, or imagine the world differently?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Welcome, Cosette

Those following the "dog thread" may recall the sad notice of the passing of the airedale Bonnie Brown of Old Town about a year and a half ago.

I am happy to report that, after a few visits to the local humane society, young Oliver, our surviving poodle/chihuahua, has joined us in welcoming Cosette, a similarly-marked, similarly-sized, same-aged poodle mix of some odd sort. Oliver has now survived the "shelter cold" Cosette brought home with her, and she, not so very long ago a stray and orphan of the storm, is now eating like a horse and generally dominating the poor fellow.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Les Miserables

For the better part of the last decade I have been reading, on and off, Hugo’s Les Miserables, in French. Last month, with mixed emotions, I came to the end.

Such a huge, sprawling mess of a book, with its melodrama, its labyrinthine plotting, its stupefying coincidences, its insane digressions. But it really is a wonder, both as an entry into a particular, spectacularly-detailed and long-gone Paris, and as a passionate affirmation of a series of simple and essentially Christian themes—redemption, forgiveness, self-sacrifice.

In this there is an interesting contrast to the other huge book I’ve read in French, Dumas’ Le Compte de Monte Cristo. There also, at least toward the very end, as one of the villains is literally driven mad with grief, the protagonist comes to realize the terrible inhumanity of vengeance—but this is only after we’ve been enjoying it royally for more than a thousand pages. The tale of revenge carries a deep satisfaction, but the tale of redemption is much harder to carry off.

It has to be said, I think, that Jean Valjean an impossible character. Such selflessness surely can’t reside in a real self. And yet, partly, I suppose, through the length of our association with him, he becomes flesh and blood, struggling against a social condemnation wildly out of proportion to his initial fault, carrying a secret, and an inner guilt, which, instead of paralyzing, impels him to extremes of charity and paternal love. We follow him, and we fear for him.

The difficulty of dramatizing this theme is underlined by the difficulty of translating it onto the screen. Reading, except aloud with another, is a solitary act. Wanting to share some of this with my family, as I approached the end, I bought a DVD of the Liam Neeson movie treatment, to watch with them after I had finished to book. I was determined not to watch the movie before finishing because, as a matter of fact, I didn’t know any of the plot before this reading, and I didn’t want the movie to spoil it. As if it might! The movie’s ending was utterly changed, the characters distorted, and the focus of the ending of the film was the death of Inspector Javert, whom Valjean watches die with indifference, and then joy. Not exactly vengeance, but close.

But then the movie treatment made Javert an evil man, and one of the burdens of the novel is to demonstrate that, cold as he was, Javert was not evil, but merely just. He demonstrates the inadequacy of justice, how it invariably turns on you. Indeed, I think Hugo was being consciously ironic when he titles the first book of the first part, “Un Just,” referring to the good bishop whose leading characteristic is, in fact, not justice, but mercy.

There is, of course, a real villain in the wretched Thenardier, but even he is redeemed somewhat by his ragged children, and of course, in the novel’s penultimate scene, his cruel attempt at extortion unwittingly leads to the final scene of tearful reconciliation. His evil is real, but good inexplicably and rather improbably always comes out of it, beginning, fantastically, in his looting the dead at Waterloo.

And I’ll pat myself on the back for reading it in French. It wasn’t easy, and I have to admit that it probably made me miss a lot, even while not knowing I was missing it. The long digression on criminal “argot” was, yes, a long exercise in bleeping over unintelligible sentences. But, still, I think there is an importance in knowing, “These are his words,” even if one doesn’t get them all. The difficulty of the language creates a barrier, but at least it’s a barrier one is aware of, unlike the barrier, too quickly forgotten, erected by the translator.

But even now, it starts to fade. Such is memory. “L’herbe cache et la pluie efface.”

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Postscript on the Long Novel

(herein of definition)

What is the difference between the long novel and the series? The fact of the matter is that enormous numbers of people, including children, have, in the last decade, read a very involved story easily exceeding my twelve-hundred-page definition: the Harry Potter series of books. It raises the question of when a novel is a novel and when it is a chapter.

Remembrance of Things Past is of course divided into seven parts, sometimes called novels, but it is usually characterized as a single novel. Why? Perhaps because the divisions between the parts are rather arbitrary. (Perhaps because no one really knows where The Fugitive ended and The Past Recaptured begins). With our Harry Potter books we have, in each, a beginning and an end which, arguably, give to each of the seven parts a certain unity.

Or take another popular series, the Aubrey/Maturin sea tales of Patrick O'Brien. There are, I think, 21 novels in the series. They tell a connected story. I've read five or six of them, but I've met more than one person who's read the whole series. Is it one long novel, or is it a series of separate novels?

I know, it's kind of a silly question, in the end, because the effect of these series is like that of the long novels I described in the last post, with the possible exception of the fact that the unity of an episode may make it more memorable.

Also less daunting. I have always said that my kids had the advantage over contemporary children when deciding to begin the Harry Potter series. They faced, every year or so, a new book with a setting or characters they loved and were already familiar with. Today's children face a formidable set of seven volumes. Same words, but, unhappily perhaps, a more daunting package.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Long Novel

It appears now that blogs are losing out to twitter, because blogs are too ponderous and wordy. So it got me thinking about "the long novel."

My admittedly arbitrary definition is simple: a novel longer than twelve hundred pages. Looking back, I can identify five of them read in the last thirty-five years: Don Quixote, War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, Le Compte de Monte Cristo, and Clarissa.

Dr. Johnson, on being told that Richardson was "tedious," replied that "If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment."

The contrast between story and sentiment is a good one. Some novels are long because they tell a long story. The Count of Monte Cristo certainly has sentiment--romance and vengence, primarily. But it is a great story of a vendetta, a complex story with many characters over many years, touching, true, at last, on the terrible interior toll, but the novel's focus is the plot, the rule undertaken, the trap, the execution, the satisfaction of an awful justice overtaking the wicked. One does not fret for the lack of a storyline.

By contrast, there is Proust's book. It's not quite true that nothing happens. But almost nothing, and three thousand pages is a lot of almost nothing. It is all surface, which is to say, all interior. It is the play of impressions, the minute observation of the overlooked, the exquisite analysis of motivation and judgement. It took me quite a few years to read, reading one of the seven parts once a year, happy to begin each, but happy to put each aside as completed, ready to substitute something with a commoplace plot.

But what to say about all of them? They slip out of the memory. They are too big to leave a single impression, like, say, Heart of Darkness. While being read they constitute something like a second life, presenting a complex of names and places and actions remote in time and place, with enough detail to feed the imagination, and with enough length to engage, like one's life, without any prospect or fear of termination anytime soon. But when I re-open them, I don't remember having been there.

Does what we don't remember change us? Surely it must. We don't remember very early childhood, but surely it changed us, made us. Does the experience of having read Don Quixote change one, even if the details are forgotten, the inns and roads, the absurd exchanges, fade beyond recall? How much of the vision remains, the detailed experience, of the insatiable knight, of the implacable count, of the virtuous and abandoned young woman, of the delicate socialite who, after a thousand pages, casually lets slip his first name?

So now, if you've paid any attention to what went before, I'm about four fifth of the way through Les Miserable, reading Hugo as I read Dumas, in French, something of a struggle for me. But it is a way to travel for one who, for various reasons, hasn't been able to travel, to see up close in this detail and that the great, pre-Haussman metropolis. Afterwards I hope to return to the first of the long novels, first read long ago, next, I hope, in the original Castellian, El ingenioso hidalgo, Don Quijote de la Mancha. Why read it again? Because that original impression, I suppose, never went away, and it's something worth renewing. Part of it is a simple desire to work on the Spanish language, but if that's all it is, surely it is arguable that one doesn't begin with the language as constituted in the seventeenth century.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Philosophy, physics and personality

Though he truly would not have gotten where he did had he not stood on the shoulders of giants, Isaac Newton has as good a claim as any to have begotten a new era.

I came to the Principia Mathematica, in part, through frustration at trying to comprehend Einstein. Einstein's work itself takes much too much advanced mathematices for me to ever hope to get it from the root. But even his little book on Relativity, intended for a lay audience, baffles me after a pair of readings. I think each take, alternating with different popular treatments, becomes clearer. But there is still that sense of a veil I'll never overcome.

So, I thought, if the mathematics of the 20th century is incomprehensible, maybe that of the seventeenth isn't. The Principia is daunting, to look at, but maybe, in small bites, it might yield to understanding--especially since the University of California published a new English translation a few years back.

Now let me make clear I haven't yet spent enough time yet with the thing to know if I will make any headway. But I was given to a new train of thought in learning (through introductory material) that a great deal of the second of the three parts is given to refuting Descartes' "Principles of Philosophy," and its attempts to explain celestial mechanics with a notion of whirling vortici.

Now, in my head, Newton is a scientist, and Descartes a philosopher--even though Newton called his great work "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy." Part of the reason for that lies in the area of Newton's success and Descartes' failure; it was Newton whose "System of the World" successfully set out the laws that described the elliptical paths of the planets and other celestial objects in a comprehensive theory of gravity, undergirded by abstract notions of mass and force. Descartes is remembered for a more random miscellany of things: his method of doubt, his reworking of the ontological argument from the idea of "perfection," his notion of certainly as a function of clarity, his division of the world into the famous dualism of "thinking stuff" and "extended stuff." He does, granted, have a separate reputation among the mathematicians, and there I am not really ready to go.

But what strikes me as a great difference between Newton's Principia Mathematica and what I have perused of Descartes' Principia Philosophia (in the French translation of the Pleides edition) is the disabling ambition of Descartes. He goes for explaining it all, not just the motion of Jupiter, but the motion of his own hand. The same, it occurs to me, can be said for his contemporary Leibnitz, another universal genius, another master in the history of mathematics (of whom Newton boasted he had "broken his heart" in the controvery over the discovery of the calculus). Leibnitz's ambition toward comprehensiveness led him to an atomism which attempted to incorporate consciousness as a fundamental component of matter. It went nowhere (except, I suppose, into the History of Philosophy textbooks).

Newton's genius is not just his remarkable insight, his mathematical proficiency, his synthetic abilities, his geometrical talent for proof, but also his self-limitation. His "Motion of Bodies" says nothing about the motion of human bodies (except to the extent that we are dead weights when the subject of an outside force). His "System of the World" is really the system of gravitational equilibrium, an important part of the the world, but only a part. He does not lack philosophy, and the various "scholia" throughout the Principia can only be described as philosophical takes on space, time, and, toward the end, God, and something called "spirit," which may be what we call spirit, and which may be what we would call the electro-magnetic force.

Newton's fault, then, isn't so much his own as that of his followers who, dazzled by his successes, fail to see that his success is a result of his reduced scope, and his "system" a system of only part of the world, and by no means necessarily the most important. The failures of Descartes and Leibnitz remind us how far we are from a true "system of the world," when the mysteries of life and consciousness and spirit remain.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Poetry in parts

A post or two back I indicated I had ordered a book of Chinese poetry for beginners--in fact, How to Read Chinese Poetry, a self-styled "guided anthology" edited by Zong-Qi Cai, and published by Columbia.

Chinese poetry is one of those areas in which my ignorance is vast and profound. I had had, some years ago, a copy of a certain Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry, which I enjoyed, but which was physically spoiled, somehow. Dropped in a rain gutter, something like that, and I never got around to replacing it.

Aside from that there was only Ezra Pound's Cathay, with a few pieces anthologized that I came across and always loved, especially "The River-Merchant's Wife," which ends:

If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

But then there were those who said it was Pound and not Li Tai-Po, and how was I to tell?

The fidelity of a translation to the original is determinable only to the extent that you can make something out of the original. How accurate are the corresponding words, how closely is the form and the shape of the original preserved? And how can that be even guessed at with a language you know practically nothing about, like Chinese?

When I think back to my old Columbia Anthology I remember it was straightforward English verse, free verse as far as I remember, with no discernable form. Just Roman letters on the page.

Zong-Qi Cai's anthology provides the novice with a little more. With most poems we get the poem in three forms--the English translation, the original in Chinese characters, and a phonetic Pinyin romanization of the characters. This highlights the easily-overlooked fact that every poem has these three aspects: meaning, appearance, and sound. If I can read, I apprehend the meanings of the words automatically (though I may mistake one significance for another, or fail to grasp the meaning of the whole--see, e.g., Pound, Cantos).

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, and germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

It's hard to imagine how the sound of that passage could ever pass over into another language in substituting non-English words, meaning for meaning. Somehow, there is a sort of constant, a Heisenbergian limiting principle by which, if the meaning is preserved, the sound must fall short. And, short of learning the language, that's part of how I necessarily feel when looking at the dismembered parts of these Chinese poems: meaning, appearance, sound, which, passing from one to the other, I try to blur into a unity.