A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Author: Joe (Page 1 of 9)


Thomas Cahill relates (p. 160) that the account of the “Cattle Raid of Cooley in the Book of Leinster is followed by a scribal addition in Latin, which is one of the finest texts it has been my privilege to encounter.

I who have copied down this story, or more accurately fantasy, do not credit the details of the story or fantasy. Some things in it are devilish lies, and some are poetical figments; some seem possible and others not; some are for the delectation of idiots.

My boss won’t let me put that on any of my technical reports, so I am adopting it here as the official disclaimer of Idiosophy.

Works Consulted

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. Anchor Books, 1995.

A Narrow Escape from Theory

An interesting convergence of material in the Tolkien blogosphere lately.

Stephen Winter started us off with an excellent trio of posts about the scent of athelas in the Houses of Healing:
Tom Hillman collected these three posts with approbation.
Olga added a guest post at Stephen’s joint:

Shawn Marchese at “The Prancing Pony” ponders what elves must smell like
And last, my little squib , which is high enough to be visible only because all those other weightier essays were sitting on the other end of the see-saw, so my end rose. [1]

Because I have just survived a course on literary theory, I can see that the world has been spared from an outbreak of Newest Criticism by sheer luck. After all, the world has endured (says Wikipedia) historical and and biographical criticism, New Criticism, formalism, Russian formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, normal feminism and French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism. To which our lecturers added performance theory, queer theory, native-american theory, and even oceanic theory.

None of us is (currently) a college professor, else we’d have beefed up our essays with citations, peer-reviewed each others’ work and approved it for publication, and now we’d be the founders of Olfactory Theory.

Works cited

[1] Nabokov, Vladimir. Bend Sinister, 1947. Idiosophers can pad reference lists as well as anyone.

RIP Harry Mathews

While I was checking references for my previous post, I discovered that Harry Mathews, “the first American member of Oulipo after Marcel Duchamp,” died in January at the age of 86. In memoriam, one of his limericks from “The Poet’s Eye”. The ends of the lines are supposed to look like rhymes, but not actually be rhymes. It’s harder than it looks. Sounds. Whichever.

“Bastille Day”
For this best of all army parades
I obtained a seat in the façades
And the tears brought an ache
To my graying moustache
As I heard the tanks rumbling in Hades.

Was C. S. Lewis the Father of Potential Literature?

Oulipo is the “Workshop of Potential Literature”, a group of French (with usually one token American) writers and mathematicians who experiment with new ways to write. Their most famous examples are when they set themselves seemingly arbitrary constraints, as in Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de Style, where he tells the same dumb story 100 different ways, or Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, a 300-page novel written without using the letter “e”. (The English translation doesn’t use “e” either, which is just as remarkable, especially when I noticed that one of the characters is Jewish.) Book cover Oulipo LaboratoryIt seems like pointless whimsy, until the readers realize that they’re now pondering why sonnets have fourteen lines, and then notice that all literature has apparently arbitrary constraints in it.  I’ve been a fan of Oulipo ever since Michael Dirda tipped me off to their existence in a review in the Washington Post  (reprinted here).

So it hit me with a small shock (as if I’d forgotten to open the circuit breaker before replacing an outlet) when I read, “Whatever the value of literature may be, it is actual only when and where good readers read. Books on a shelf are only potential literature.” in C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. That book’s as old as I am; I’d never seen the phrase “potential literature” so long ago. Did CSL coin it? Better yet, it’s at the beginning of Chapter XI, which is entitled “The Experiment”.  There is nothing more Oulipian than a literary experiment.  (In fact, it’s a great disappointment to me that literary theory has nothing to do with literary experiment.  Shouldn’t one validate the other?)

The English phrase “potential literature” isn’t used enough to register on Google N-grams, but the French “littérature potentielle” is.  The N-gram frequency chart jumps off of zero in 1964: just the right amount of time for Lewis’s book to make it across the Channel, sink into people’s memories, and re-emerge in publication in France.

Is Lewis the founder of Potential Literature?  It’s certainly possible.  The literary experimenters who make up Oulipo are fond of science fiction.  (Hari Seldon is a saint on the ‘pataphysical calendar.)  It strains credibility to think that none of this group who are so interested in literary experiments read a book with that title.

I can’t find any overt admission of the link.  I did, however, find a literary blogger who wrote about C.S. Lewis and Oulipo on successive days, which convinced Google that I wanted to know about it. (I did. Thanks, Larry & Sergei!)

Works Cited

Lewis, C. S., An Experiment in Criticism. Oxford University Press, 1961. Electronic edition via iBooks.

Perec, Georges, A Void. Gilbert Adair, trans., London: Harvill Press, 1995.

Perec, Georges, La Disparition.  Paris: Editions Denoël, 1969.

Queneau, Raymond, Exercices de style. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1947.

The meaning of “Hwæt”

Elaine Treharne from Stanford is tweeting The Dream of the Rood, because that is the kind of thing she does.  I thought I’d better find out something about the poem, so I headed over to the Fount of All Knowledge to read up.

Hwaet from "Dream of the Rood"There, at the beginning of the poem, is the familiar “hwæt”, and with the the clarity that comes from being at the bottom of my first mug of tea, I suddenly knew how to translate that word.  It means:

<!DOCTYPE html-ms>
<HTML lang="ang">

This seems like an obvious web-nerd concept, but the three biggest search engines agree that they can’t find it out there, so I’m writing it down here. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that  there’s an ISO-639 language code for Anglo-Saxon. (Middle English is “enm”.) No one has established an SGML document type definition for parchment manuscripts, perhaps due to the shortage of monks, so I had to invent that one.

Gargantua on Drinking

Doré's Gargantua

Gargantua, by Gustave Doré

Today is Whanne that Aprille Day on Twitter, when we celebrate old languages.

Here’s my contribution, from Gargantua, Book 1, Chapter 5, by François Rabelais.

An almost-Socratic dialogue on drinking, law, mortality, and sports physiology.  Or maybe it’s more of a symposium.


— Qui feut premier, soif ou beuverye?
— Soif. Car qui eust beu sans soif durant le temps d’innocence?
— Beuverye. Car privatio praesupponit habitum. Je suis Clerc. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum!
— Nous aultres innocens ne beuvons que trop sans soif.
— Non moy, pecheur, sans soif. Et si non presente, pour le moins future, la prevenent comme entendez. Je boy pour la soif advenir. Je boy eternellemeut, ce m’est eternité de beuverye, et beuverye de éternité.
— Chantons, beuvons un motet.
— Entonnons!
— Où est mon entonnoir?
— Quoy ! Je ne boy que par procuration !
— Mouillez-vous pour seicher, ou vous seichez pour mouiller?
— Je n’entens poinct la theoricque; de la praticque je me ayde quelque peu.
— Haste!
— Je mouille, je humecte, je boy. Et tout de peur de mourir.
— Beuvez toujours, vous ne mourrez jamais.
— Si je ne boy, je suys à sec. Me voylà mort.

I own a strange old volume of Rabelais in English translation, which seems to be samizdat to get around the old Comstock laws. It translates that passage this way:

Which was first, thirst or drinking?  Thirst, for who in the time of innocence would have drunk without being athirst?  Nay, sir, it was drinking, for privatio presupponit habitum. I am learned, you see. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum! We poor innocents* drink but too much without thirst. Not I, truly, who am a sinner, for I never drink without thirst, either present of future, to prevent it (as you know) I drink for the thirst to come; I drink eternally, this is to me an eternity of drinking and drinking of an eternity. Let us sing, let us drink, now for a catch, dust it away, where is my nogging? What, it seems I do not drink but by proxy. Do you wet yourself to dry, or do you dry to wet yourself? Pish, I understand not the rhetoric, (the theoric I should say), but I help my self somewhat by the practice.
Enough! I sup, I wet, I humect, I moisten my gullet, I drink and all for fear of dying. Drink always, and you shall never die. If I drink not, I run aground, and I die.

* These words bear allusion to what is said of some innocent people who are tortured with water forced down their throats to make them confess.

Here is my translation:
— Which came first, drinking or thirst?
— Thirst, for back in the days of innocence, who’d have drunk without being thirsty?
— Drinking, because privatio presupponit habitum. Arguments in Latin always win. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum!
— We innocents never drink too much, unless we are thirsty.
— Not me either, and I’m a sinner. Maybe I don’t have a thirst right now, but I drink as a preventative. I drink against the thirst to come. I drink eternally, because through an eternity of drinking, I drink in all eternity.
— Let’s sing and drink a motet!
— Let’s intone in tons!
— Where’s my ton-kard?
— What are you talking about? I only drink by proxy.
— Do you wet yourself to dry out, or dry yourself out to get wet?
— I don’t understand anything about theory, and I don’t have much use for practice.
— Enough!
— I wet, I humidify, I drink, and all from fear of dying.
— Well, keep drinking forever, and you’ll never die.
— If I stop drinking, I’ll be all tapped out.* And that’s as good as dead.

creepy figure

Why sports physiology?  Because the sinner’s philosophy is what all coaches say now – start drinking before you get thirsty.  Renaissance French rules, avant la lettre, if you will.

* A regret: English doesn’t have a slang term for “broke” that overlaps with slang for “sober”, so I couldn’t translate that last pun correctly.  This is a shameful lacuna in my mother tongue.

Works Cited

Rabelais, F., La vie treshorrificque du grand Gargantua. Françoise Joukovsky, ed.  Paris, Flammarion, 1993.

Rabelais, F.,  The Works of Rabelais, faithfully translated from the French, with variorum notes, and numerous illustrations. Privately printed, who knows when or where.

How to Catch a Baggins

I’m almost caught up with the Mythgard Academy class on Return of the Shadow.  This morning I finished Class #12.

There was quite a bit of discussion of Gildor’s comment that the other hobbits will mess up the ability of the Black Riders to track Bingo by smell. How did they do that?  Here’s (half of) the slide that was on screen at the time.

I think it likely that your three companions have already helped you to escape: the Riders did not know that they were with you, and their presence has for the time being confused the scent.

Return of the Shadow, p. 282

Well, let’s back up a step and ask a more basic question: Why did Sauron send creatures to look for Bagginses who can’t see very well, but can smell? As Corey Olsen said, it’s wrong to think of Black Riders acting like bloodhounds. They do not have superhuman olfactory organs.  They can’t detect the differences between hobbits by scent. After all, they’d never met a hobbit until they got to the Shire. They didn’t know what hobbits smell like, any more than Smaug did. They had to be searching for a smell that they hadn’t experienced personally, but had been described to them.  It would have to be a very strong smell for that to succeed.

The Black Riders were tracking the smell of tobacco smoke.

In the published Fellowship of the Ring, we hear about “sniffing” in Chapter 3, when the hobbits are out on the road. We don’t hear Gaffer Gamgee mention it.

Ceci n'est pas une bague.

In our war against the West, this has always been our greatest foe.

Out on the road, sniffing works. In Hobbiton, where lots of people smoke, Black Riders were at a loss.  They couldn’t find Baggins because everyone in Hobbiton smells like that.  And since they don’t know anything else about hobbits, smell is all they’ve got to go on.  Without smell, they have to ask nicely, and perhaps bribe if asking doesn’t work.

This clears up something I’d wondered about in the published Fellowship of the Ring.  Gandalf is rather pleased with his cleverness in getting half of the Black Riders to follow him away from Weathertop.

“I hoped to draw some of them off, and yet reach Rivendell ahead of you and send out help. Four Riders did indeed follow me, but they turned back after a while and made for the Ford, it seems. That helped a little, for there were only five, not nine, when your camp was attacked.”

LotR II,i

How did he draw them off?  On the “other side”, where Ringwraiths have frightening forms and Glorfindel shines brightly, Gandalf can hardly be mistaken for a hobbit.  The Ringwraiths know he’s there, and they can’t be very eager to tangle with a Maia when their mission is to capture a Baggins.

Now we know the answer:  Gandalf smokes tobacco, too.  When the Ringwraiths smelled Gandalf, they smelled the smell of their quarry. They knew Gandalf was there, but they couldn’t take the chance that he didn’t have a Baggins with him, so they divided their forces and attacked Frodo’s camp with only half their strength.

Sing along with LotR

Lots of people have been talking about the poems in Tolkien’s works lately.  I think Olga started it, with a characteristically delightful discussion of elf-song in The Hobbit.  Alan of The Prancing Pony Podcast has posted a pondering about “The Road Goes Ever On”.  On Twitter, Olga and I discovered that we both sing the poems, though not out loud if anyone else can hear.

Here are some of the tunes I use, for the sake of provoking argument.  They’re arranged in order of increasing embarrassment at my congenital lack of solemnity.

Hymn to Elbereth: Princess Leia’s Theme

The tempo fits. It doesn’t feel wrong to stretch the name “Elbereth” over half a measure. And I love the idea of elf-voices as french horns.

Bombadil’s Song against the Barrow Wights: Estuans interius

From Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.  Of course everything Tom says can be sung to the same tune, and I love Morwen Thorongil’s composition for when he’s in a good mood.  But when Bombadil is out to destroy, he needs something darker.  Strangely enough, the 12th-Century satirist Walter of Châtillon who wrote “Estuans Interius” was like old Tom, in that he used the same meter for almost everything.

Errantry: Sir Arthur Sullivan’s The Major General’s Aria

from Pirates of Penzance, of course. You can use this for “Earendil was a Mariner” too, with a little twisting, but it doesn’t work so well.

Legolas’s song of Nimrodel: “Nadine”

Corey Olsen likes to take a line from Legolas’s song as an example of a perfect line of iambic meter:

Amroth beheld the fading shore / Now low beyond the swell,
And cursed the faithless ship that bore / Him far from Nimrodel.

Against which I’d put Chuck Berry’s heptameters:

I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
And started walkin’ toward a coffee-colored Cadillac

The worst of all: Namárië

Donald Swann did this as a chant straight out of a medieval cathedral, but my mind runs down different channels.

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen (singin’ ooh wah diddy, diddy dum diddy do)
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron! (ooh wah diddy, diddy dum diddy do)
Yéni ve (yéni ve)
Lintë (lintë)
Yéni ve lintë yuldar avanier

and that’s when the paramedics arrived.

The Ideal Reader

Terry Eagleton doesn’t like his predecessors in the field of literary theory. I suspect this is because the word “theory” has so many definitions that it’s useless in this context, but more about that in a future post.  At the moment, I’d like to call attention to one of the daggers he sticks in the back of the Structuralists.

For the structuralists, the ‘ideal reader’ of a work was someone who would have at his or her disposal all of the codes which would render it exhaustively intelligible. The reader was thus just a kind of mirror—reflection of the work itself — someone who would understand it ‘as it was’. An ideal reader would need to be fully equipped with all the technical knowledge essential for deciphering the work, to be faultless in applying this knowledge, and free of any hampering restrictions. If this model was pressed to an extreme, he or she would have to be stateless, classless, ungendered, free of ethnic characteristics and without limiting cultural assumptions. It is true that one does not tend to meet many readers who fill this bill entirely satisfactorily, but the structuralists conceded that the ideal reader need not do anything so humdrum as actually exist.

Literary Theory, p.105

Submitted for your consideration:  We, here in the World Wide Web, and especially the teachers and students of the Mythgard Academy, are creating J.R.R. Tolkien’s ideal reader. Nowhere was it ever said that the reader had to be one person.  In fact, for most of history, that’s not what reading was.

Going down the list of criteria:

  • Equipped with technical knowledge? Check. At Tolkien conferences, I have met astronomers, botanists, classicists, doctors, economists, physicists (sorry, that’ll have to do for “F”), geographers, historians, idiosophers … And I’d bet a dollar there’s at least one zymurgist among us.
  • Faultless in applying our knowledge? Well, not at the first try, but we’re a group, and we point out faults and mend them together.
  • We are certainly stateless, in that we’ve got people from lots of countries within our ensemble.
  • We’re ungendered.  Groups don’t even have genders, per se.
  • Classless? In a purely Marxist sense, which is appropriate for Eagleton, we come mostly from the bourgeoisie, but I’m of solid proletarian stock. (I can’t be the only student who’s used both a manure fork and GoToWebinar within two hours, but I’m sure not all of us have.) In a more relevant American sense, there are several orders of magnitude of wealth between the students and the doctors and lawyers among us. Subjugation to class interests is not a problem.
  • Free of ethnic characteristics … maybe. I’ve never heard most of us mention their ethnicity. I know of seven or eight ethnicities, depending on whether you count Angles and Saxons as different. Anyway, though we’re reading books written with a specific ethnic purpose, everyone I’ve heard counts new ethnic perspectives as a win.
  • “Without limiting cultural assumptions.” This is one of those things that makes me wish that e-books came with a virtual author I could punch. We are all (1)reading books (2) written in the mid 20th Century (3) in English and (4) discussing them on the Internet. That’s a pretty narrow cultural slice. And the opinions of people who don’t do the first three things aren’t important to understanding the books.

Altogether, it is not true that I haven’t “met many readers who fill this bill.”  All the readers I’ve met, together, fill the bill quite well. So, a fig for the fatuous fulminations of Eagleton, to use George Starbuck’s excellent phrase.  We exist, and the new forms that the Academy are taking in the 21st Century are rendering Eagleton’s assertions obsolete.

Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Anniversary Edition. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

The Defence of Sidney

Last week’s reading assignment for class included an unexpectedly entertaining essay: “The Defense of Poesy” by Sir Philip Sidney.  Sir Philip starts out with a thing that’s certain to win me over:  He runs down a list of the reasons people take up the study of science, music, mathematics, etc. … and he gets them right.  It’s not to be taken for granted that a poet will understand that.  But then we get to the fun parts.

First thing I loved:  Sidney spends a paragraph denouncing people who write with “painted affectation”, among whose sins are using too much alliteration (“coursing of a letter,” he calls it).  And the very next sentence he writes has six “p”-words in it!

But I would this fault were only peculiar to versifiers, and had not as large possession among prose-printers, and, which is to be marveled, among many scholars, and, which is to be pitied, among some preachers.

Second thing: He makes his case, and then finishes up the essay with a curse on anyone who doesn’t believe him.

…if you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry, … thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets:  while you live in love, and never get favor for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.

I think everyone should do this.   A curse on the unconvinced should be a formal part of academic writing, like a warrior’s boast in Anglo-Saxon, or invoking a Muse at the start of classical poems, or mentioning a season in a haiku.

But that’s not what this post is about.  This post is about Oscar Wilde’s famous epigram, “We are all in the gutter; some of us are looking at the stars.”  It turns out that I never understood that line. I was thinking of the gutter as where we habitually spend our time (“get your mind out of the gutter”).  Now I know that Wilde pinched that image from Sir Philip, who wrote, “But when by the balance of experience it was found that the astronomer, looking to the stars, might fall into a ditch …”.   Yeah, I’ve done that.  Of all the images used in Elizabethan literature, this one might have gained the most relevance for the XXI Century.  Were he writing today, Wilde might rather have said,

We are all in the gutter, but most of us were looking at our phones.

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