A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: squibs & crackers (Page 1 of 2)

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.

Computer Paleography

Olga has posted the second part of her exploration of the Sea, written with her usual élan.  I particularly liked the phrase “novel knowledge”. Invisible alliteration!

A word that jumped out at me was “sea-loathing”. I’ve never needed an antonym for “sea-longing” before, but if I need one in the future, I know now what to say.  Then I got to wondering if anyone has ever used that word before, so I asked my research assistant in Mountain View, CA.  The response was entertaining.

  • From the entry on St. Andrews in the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1888: “The golf links, which are considered the best in Scotland, and sealoathing attract many residents and visitors.”
  • From 1801, a book entitled Hints Designed to Promote Beneficence, Temperance, & Medical Science by John Coakley Lettsom, teaches us that “The great and opulent continually acknowledge the efficacy of Sea loathing.”

Umm, what?  Here’s the snippet from the Encyclopedia:

Mystery solved! Scanning those old books, sometimes a “b” looks like an “lo”.  Have pity on the poor scholar who one day tries to get that one straight in her head.

Let us close out this scholarly excursion with this thought from Lewis Carroll:

[The Snark has a] fondness for loathing machines,
Which it constantly carries about,
And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes —
A sentiment open to doubt.

Poetry is a conversation across the centuries

We begin with the famous line from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

That to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

To which A.E. Housman replied, in A Shropshire Lad [1]:

And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.

Apropos of a situation in which snark was required, Colin tweeted out a gender-neutral version of Milton’s line. I replied with a couplet of which I am inordinately proud:

You’d need a vat of malt, enough to swim in,
To justify the ways of God to women.

Yes, I did just put myself in that list.  Seriously, though, you have to click that link for Paradise Lost – it’s an e-book version created to look as much like a Renaissance English text as possible, and it is delightful.

[1] Housman, A.E., A Shropshire Lad, 1896.[back]

Minas Tirith as a Study in Military Science

The Angry Staff Officer wrote a post that I’ve been thinking of for a long time.  It’s better that he did, because he knows much more about military science than I do.  (ROTC was a looong time ago.)

The Battle of the Pellenor Fields is a good example of several points of military science.  It uses a lot of jargon, but it gives me a chance to ask a question I’ve wanted to ask for a long time.

And if the Rohirrim at their onset were thrice outnumbered by the Haradrim alone, soon their case became worse; for new strength came now streaming to the field out of Osgiliath. There they had been mustered for the sack of the City and the rape of Gondor, waiting on the call of their Captain. He now was destroyed; but Gothmog the lieutenant of Morgul had flung them into the fray; Easterlings with axes, and Variags of Khand, Southrons in scarlet, and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues.


Here’s what I want to know about the internal structure of the armies of Mordor:  what do you have to kiss, how many times, before you get assigned to sit in Osgiliath during the fighting and only come out when it’s time for pillage and rapine?

Fun with Botany

In which, once again, Olga does all the work and I riff off of her creativity.

Olga’s post is about the lights that shone on Arda before the Sun and Moon. Light is where my branch of physics originated, so off we go. I’m primarily interested in the Lamps, and the paradox they seem to contain, which is where she starts.  Chapter 1 of The Silmarillion, “Of the Beginning of Days” is her text.

Varda filled the lamps and Manwe hallowed them, and the Valar set them upon high pillars, more lofty far than are any mountains of the later days… all was lit as it were in a changeless day.

Then the seeds that Yavanna had sown began swiftly to sprout and to burgeon, and there arose a multitude of growing things great and small, mosses and grasses and great ferns, and trees whose tops were crowned with cloud as they were living mountains, but whose feet were wrapped in a green twilight. And beasts came forth and dwelt in the grassy plains, or in the rivers and the lakes, or walked in the shadows of the woods.

Silmarillion, Ch. 1, “Of the Beginning of Days”

My quotation overlaps with Olga’s by the first sentence.  I continue to quote because that’s where it gets really interesting.  As I mentioned in my comment on that post, “changeless day” isn’t good for plant growth.  Plants store up energy during the sunlit hours, and then generate new tissue at night.  Mess with that diurnal cycle, and they don’t grow well at all. Prof. Tolkien knew this, of course. He spent lots of time on farms, and kept vegetable gardens.

Tolkien in his vegetable garden

Garden excerpt from Humphrey Carpenter’s biography via Google Books

Constant brilliant light creates a desert.  So where did that multitude of growing things come from? That’s the brilliant part:  Get those enormous trees going, and all the rest follows.  JRRT is describing a cloud forest. The only ones I’ve seen are on the sides of mountains – the most extraordinary was in Kohala, on the big island of Hawai’i. If you don’t have a mountain handy, but you do have a Vala, you just make the trees that high.  Then the moisture transpired from the leaves condenses into a cloud, the leaves of the trees would hold the clouds in place, and there would be a moist, shady area between the tree trunks where “mosses and grasses and great ferns grow.”

Ted Naismith’s painting is designed to look pleasing to European eyes, which it does very well. But a more accurate rendering of Tolkien’s vision might look like this.  Once you get out from under the trees, there’s always a rainbow up there, in case it matters.

I also wonder now if Treebeard, when he remembers the “great trees” of his youth, might not be thinking of these mountain-high specimens.


But enough serious discussion.  I have to point out a bunch of things now.

  1. The Valar live on an island far to the west.
  2. Valinor is a paradise that Men and Elves yearn for.
  3. Halfway to that island in the west (measuring from England), the Valar put a land of Men who had the most powerful navy ever seen. Masters of technology, rulers of the world, stupendous egotists, these guys.
  4. Before Melkor messed everything up, the island was a cloud forest.
  5. “When the lamps were spilled, destroying flame was poured out over the earth.” (ibid.)  Mauna Kea is an active volcano, from which destroying flame pours out daily.

Dear reader, the evidence is clear.  Valinor is Hawai’i.  Yavanna wears a lei and a grass skirt.  Aule and Tulkas, “clad in the raiment of the World”, are wearing loud tropical-print shirts. All you working on the Silmarillion “film” project, take note.


I can’t believe I just noticed this: Hobbits don’t like boats, right? The Shire is a fictional version of the West Midlands, right?

regions of England

Administrative Regions of England

Of the nine regions of England, eight are on the coast. I’d expect that from a country that’s (a) an island and (b) a maritime power. One of the regions doesn’t touch the sea. It’s only natural that, compared to the others, West Midlanders would get a reputation as incompetent mariners.

So is this the origin of the sidelong remarks in The Lord of the Rings about how incompetent hobbits are on the water? Even if it’s not, I’m perfectly happy to find another reason that the Brandybucks belong in the “liminal” category.

Next question – is this why mariners are exotic heroes from far away in LotR and The Silmarillion?

One More Forest

Tom Hillman points out an embarrassing omission in the post about forests:

Of course, I left out the Forest of Drúadan.  It’s unique in LotR, in that trees are the only species Tolkien mentions there.  (Not counting the grass in the Woses’ skirts.)  It’s just a place where things happen.  The other forests Olga and I talked about are much more than that.  They’re practically characters in the story. Drúadan seems more like the old-growth American forests that we saw in The Last of the Mohicans: Large trees, well spaced, with not much undergrowth.

So there’s another question for me to think about:  Is the Forest of Drúadan so bland because JRRT has a battle to get to, and has no time for dawdling?  Or is the forest really a tamed human habitation, between being used as a quarry by the Men of Gondor, and continuously inhabited by Woses?

Middle-Earth’s Forests

Olga has a nice essay at her blog entitled “In the shadows of dark forests”.  She’s all about the “dark, enchanted, haunted woods”: Mirkwood, Taur-nu-Fuin, and the Old Forest. Reading it, I was struck by two absences[1]:  Fangorn and Lothlórien.  Let’s see what their absence might imply.

Fangorn Forest looks at first like another of those magical places, but that changes quickly.  In two pages, the narrator slides his description from”dark and tangled” and “a queer stifling feeling” through “untidy” and “shabby and grey” to “gleam[ing] with rich browns, and with the smooth black-greys of bark like polished leather.” (LotR III,iv) The reader starts out expecting a traditional entry point to Faërie, but then is gradually pulled via domestic, human-centered terms into a comfortable feeling that Meriadoc and Peregrin share.

The Forest of Lothlórien doesn’t have any negative connotations in its description.  “In the dim light of the stars their stems were grey, and their quivering limbs a hint of fallow gold.” (LotR II,vi)  Grey is a friendly color in Middle Earth, gold is pleasing to Man and Dwarf alike, and JRRT even includes the stars as a sort of benevolent framing device.  Boromir expresses reluctance to enter, but both Aragorn and the narrator make it clear that he’s working from bad intelligence.  Lothlórien seems like it ought to be Faërie, but it’s clear that we’re not invited to think of it that way.

Why don’t these two forests fit into Olga’s frightening group?  Because someone is in charge.  Real forests are complicated ecosystems, a huge network of cooperative and competitive relationships between individuals of a myriad of species.  Haldir describes Southern Mirkwood as “a forest of dark fir, where the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither.”  Competition apparently isn’t a good thing to Haldir. (or JRRT?)  Much better if someone has everything organized, knows the name of each tree, makes sure that each is in its proper place and everybody has enough water and sunlight. Then you have a “good” forest, one which even the Entwives might appreciate.  But the workload — “That would indeed be a burden!” as Goldberry put it. (LotR I,vii)

And now I understand something I didn’t when I started writing this post. The Old Forest looks like it doesn’t fit. When I put Fangorn and Lothlórien on one side, and Mirkwood and Taur-nu-Fuin on the other, they look like the classic dichotomy of Law and Chaos.  For example, from Three Hearts and Three Lions:

This business of Chaos versus Law, for example, turned out to be more than religious dogma. It was a practical fact of existence, here. He was reminded of the second law of thermodynamics, the tendency of the physical universe toward disorder and level entropy. Perhaps here, that tendency found a more animistic expression…

Poul Anderson

What, then, do we do with the Old Forest?  It looks to the hobbits like Chaos, but Bombadil is there in the middle of it. Why isn’t it a forest of Law? As Goldberry says, “…all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master.”  I never understood the distinction she’s trying to convey.

Dark Forest

This forest belongs to me, but I am not its Master.

There must be some difference between what Galadriel (for example) does and what Tom does. The word “master” comes from Old English mægester, “one having control or authority”. The Old English word comes from the Latin magister, meaning “the one who is greater”.  Tom doesn’t control things, exactly, though he does seem to have authority.  Like a fencing master!  I don’t have to do what our fencing master says – she’s not the owner of the salle, nor is she the Queen – but if I know what’s good for me I’ll do what she says.  She has authority because she knows more about fencing than I do. And now I know what Tom Bombadil’s role in the Old Forest is.  Because he knows more songs, or his songs are closer to the actual Music, even Old Man Willow does what he says.

[1] There is no way to spell “absences” that will ever look right to this Idiosopher. [back]


Several people were live-tweeting the proceedings at the C.S. Lewis & Friends Colloquium, and from them I learned that Sørina Higgins had described Lewis’s poetry as “metrically competent”. Sick burns from faint praise, all in a spirit of good fellowship.  Well, I know a double dactyl when I see one, which led to this.

Higgledy piggledy
Metrically competent
C.S. “Jack” Lewis sat
Down with his pen.

“Time to get on with it,”
Counting on fingers, he’s
Writing again

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