Idiosophy

A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: squibs & crackers (Page 1 of 2)

Goldberry’s kind gets around

Since my wife is a nutritionist, I got her to look at my “fairy perils” post to make sure I had everything in the diabetes section right. She corrected one point, and then asked, “Who is Goldberry?”

Biographical interruption: English is my wife’s fourth language, so it’s OK that she’s not a Tolkien fan. She comes from a village in the mountains of Algeria; by ethnicity, she’s one of the original inhabitants. They call themselves “Kabyle”, and they’re part of the Amazigh (Berber) people.  (Reading Roman history is weird now that I actually know Numidians, including someone named “Jugurtha”.)  Her grandmother was a sort of village wise-woman. I never got to meet her, alas, but from all the stories, she was basically a short Granny Weatherwax.

I answered that Goldberry was the River-woman’s daughter, and I told the story of  how she and Tom Bombadil met.  Madame replied, “Oh, that happened to my grandfather!  He was walking to the orchard one day, and a blonde-haired, green-eyed woman came up out of the creek.  She had lots of gold and silver jewelry in her hair and around her neck.  She said she wanted my grandfather to marry her. My grandfather turned and ran back home as fast as he could.  My grandmother told him to go to bed and go to sleep.  When he woke up the next day, he had dozens of tiny bleeding wounds all over his face.  They took a week to heal.”

When I started studying fairy-stories, it was with the explicit intention of doing something that had no practical application in everyday life.  I hope that still holds, and that susceptibility to attacks by rusalki is territorial and not transmitted in families.

Rusalka, her prey ensnared

Rusalka, by Mikhail Vrubel

Origami with Quotes

Stephen Winter writes in this week’s blog post:

The one who chooses to be an enemy learns how to  perceive weakness in others and then exploits it. Indeed it seems to be this quality that marks out an enemy above all others. But when we choose to lay down that which we desire then the enemy has nothing more to exploit.

The first and second sentences rang a bell. Peter Westbrook, 13-time US National Champion at Men’s Sabre, wrote a memoir entitled Harnessing Anger: The Inner Discipline of Athletic Excellence. Up front, it contains this statement of the philosophy that made him such a successful fencer:

I have no qualms about preying upon the weaknesses of my enemies until they are no longer a threat to me. To do this in life is a crime, but to do it in the sport of fencing is to create beauty and art. (p.57)

To set next to Stephen’s third sentence, G.K. Chesterton wrote in “The Sword of Wood“:

“A man with no sword,” he said, “can never be beaten in swordsmanship.”

I don’t think there’s any deep enduring point here. I just like it when things fold up into nice neat bundles.

The Song of the Digital Humanists

To the same tune as “Errantry”:

Hazards of French Châteaux

Alan Coren (1938-2007) wrote some of the funniest things I’ve ever read.  I first encountered him when my mother went on vacation to England and brought me back a copy of an issue of Punch as a souvenir.  That magazine is awfully moldy and tattered now, but Coren’s column is still legible.

I’ve bought every book by Alan Coren that I’ve been able to find, over the years.  That includes a copy of Golfing for Cats that was never published in the USA; I found it in an antiques store in Palm Springs.  None of them contains the article that introduced me to Coren.  Some entrepreneurs have acquired the Punch archives, but they’re only interested in selling the cartoons.

So I’ve rescued “And a Gray Dawn Breaking…” here, under the “20th Century Paleography” rubric.

All that is gold does not glitter

Over on Facebook, Arthur Harrow raises a point of logic:

“all that is gold does not glitter” means “nothing that is gold glitters” like the difference between “all refrigerators are not Frigidaires” and “not all refrigerators are Frigidaires.” It seems to me that JRRT would know the proper grammar; do you think there is significance to this?

The common proverb, of course, is “all that glitters is not gold”, which is a useful thing to remember.  Tolkien twists it around for his narrative purposes.  But I have learned that he thought about the roots of words as much as he thought about their current meanings, so I think this is JRRT having some fun with etymology. According to my go-to source on the Web,

c. 1300, glideren (late 14c. as gliteren), from an unrecorded Old English word or from a Scandinavian source such as Old Norse glitra “to glitter,” from Proto-Germanic *glit- “shining, bright” (source also of Old English glitenian “to glitter, shine; be distinguished,” Old High German glizzan, German glitzern, Gothic glitmunjan), from PIE *ghleid- (source also of Greek khlidon, khlidos “ornament”), from root *ghel- (2) “to shine,” with derivatives referring to bright materials and gold. … Other Middle English words for “to glitter” include glasteren and glateren.

Etymologically, everything that is gold glitters, by definition.

gold ring on black background

Does not glitter

But if we look at a modern dictionary, “glitter” means “sparkle”. The stuff that people throw around to celebrate is called glitter because of light sparkling off its cut edges, not because of the metallic sheen of the plastic it’s made from. The old meaning of shining like gold has passed over to “gleam”.

So, apart from its purpose in the story, “all that is gold does not glitter” is using the precise logical meaning that Arthur identified to make a wry comment on a change in the English language.

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.

LotR V.vi

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?

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