A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Page 2 of 12

Anglo-Saxons Weren’t Cynics

Elaine Treharne of Stanford University did a podcast interview recently. She gives a beautiful reading of the poem that she does not want to call “Wulf and Eadwacer” because it’s not really about those two guys. It’s about the woman who narrates it.

Titles are a problem in other ways, too.  The podcast is unfortunately entitled “Reading After Trump”, as if the current president of the USA were in some way responsible for the thirty-year assault on the humanities, rather than just collecting its foul harvest. But let’s pass that by.

The interviewer asked an interesting question: What have we lost, that the Anglo-Saxons of a thousand years ago knew? Prof. Treharne’s response was “hope”, which I think any scholar of Tolkien would applaud. She contrasts that with the cynicism of our modern age. She finds no trace of anything like it in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. That got me wondering about cynicism. Whence does it come? The Bosworth-Toller dictionary contains nothing about cynics. 

Looking at the reasons for cynicism, it’s easy to see why it’s a relatively recent development. I studied with expert cynics in my youth, who taught me what to look for:

A government official who takes an oath of office, which he immediately abandons in favor of handing out money to his supporters. This doesn’t apply at all.  An Anglo-Saxon expected this of his king. Any king who didn’t do that would get ditched for one who would. They would even flatter a king by calling him goldwine, “gold-friend”. There’s no ground for cynicism here.

A boss who’s several levels of management above me is clueless about what’s really happening, and will make foolish decisions because of his exalted distance. Not generally a factor, because the medieval orders were clearly distinct. The baron to whom I and my ox reported was the highest official who concerned himself with my job. The king was forbidden by custom to care how I did my job, just as I didn’t care how he did his. (Notwithstanding the continental practice of giving Charlemagne credit for figuring out how to grow wine grapes in Germany.) Cynical gossip around the village well wouldn’t happen as a result.

Advertisers who lie to me to get money from me. Not a factor, either. The Anglo-Saxon economy was largely based on gift-exchange. That’s an economics term; it doesn’t mean festive wrapping paper and bows. It means you’re dealing with people you know so they’ll give you seeds in the spring because you will still be around at harvest time to pay them back in the fall. Anglo-Saxon peasants worked that way because they didn’t have much money. (OK, this is disputed, but generally all the cash money got siphoned off as Danegeld.) In fact, one purpose of money is to make it possible to have economic interactions with people whom you do not trust. Kings have to do that all the time, but the general public did not. Money and cynicism go hand in hand. Without the former, it’s not surprising that we don’t see the latter.

People who pretend to love me to get their hands on something of mine. This seems like it should have been possible in a medieval society, even before they had French people running things. In fact, it’s possible that the narrator of “Wulf and Eadwacer” is running a scam like that.  This is the one solid case where I’d expect to see hope failing and cynicism prevailing.

So of the top four reasons to be cynical, I find three that don’t apply to Anglo-Saxon England, but one that definitely does.  The fact that we don’t see a cynical reaction to that last is some pretty solid evidence for Prof. Treharne’s idea.

Skin Color in Roman Britain

There has been quite a stink over the past few weeks about what color skin the Romans in Britain had.  The BBC put a dark-skinned Roman official in a children’s cartoon history program, and the denizens of social media were off to the races. [1] Mary Beard and Neville Morley picked up the standard for the classicists. Among the alt-right antagonists was the pop market-analyst N.N. Taleb, who got famous for coining the term “Black Swan”, but seems not to have the chops to back up his reputation. The noise from the racists got so loud that the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge felt obliged to weigh in. This is kind of amazing to me. I was sure everyone knew that the Roman Empire stretched well into Africa and Asia.  They even had an emperor called “Philip the Arab“, for crying out loud!  When the Roman generals chose troops to occupy a far-flung province, prudence dictated that their preferred troops not have any language in common with the subject population except Latin.  So claiming that the Romans in Britain were all light-skinned seems unsupportable.

But let’s see what they’re saying.  As nearly as the the alt-right are willing to be understood, they’re basing their objections on a map of genetic markers in the current British population.  A 2015 study of the fine-scale genetic structure of the UK doesn’t show much sign of African genes.  They think this “hard science” is much more important evidence than squishy, historically-based evidence, even when the historians have eyewitness accounts.  The Guardian article I linked at the top lists some good reasons why genetic surveys might not be the best evidence for claims about ethnicity 2,000 years ago.

I’d like to add another reason:  There resemblance between the genetic survey’s clusters and the patterns of family names in the UK is not strong. Leslie et al. tracked autosomal DNA, not mitochondrial, so there should be strong parallels.  Surnames and genes are inherited from the same ancestors, after all. A map from the Nature article looks like this:

Leslie et al. map of clusters

Clusters of genetic similarity.

In the course of tracking down hobbits, I found the work of James Cheshire and his collaborators,  which shows a strong relationship  between clusters of family names in the UK and the cultural/administrative regions of the country.  Here’s a map published by Cheshire, Longley, and Singleton in 2010.

Clusters of family names

There are some general resemblances. The big homogeneous blob in the East and South East is there, though family names don’t let it extend all the way to Northumberland.  I can see hints in the light-blue smear in the North West and the purple smear in the southern West Midlands. Below the coarsest level, though, the two distributions do not resemble each other very well.  In particular, the genetics suggests that the people of Pembrokeshire (the southern peninsula of Wales) are affiliated with the Scotch-Irish borderlanders.  Family names suggest they’re more like the West Midlanders.  And if there’s a family resemblance between Yorkshiremen and Cornishmen, it doesn’t show up in their names.

The conclusion I draw from this is that the genetics is pointing us in a common direction with external markers of family ties. There really is something there, and a salute to the geneticists who have managed to tease it out. However, the signals are accompanied by a lot of noise.  We can’t yet use genetic evidence with any precision.  When we have a person standing next to an Ethiopian legionary on Hadrian’s Wall and writing about it, it would be foolish to try to contradict him with our rudimentary genetic surveys.

Post-scriptum: I really enjoyed the line, “History is written by the winners; genetics is written by the masses.”

[1] Sorry.

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.

Anne Dufourmantelle

Discovering an interesting philosopher by reading her obituary is a definitive case of mixed feelings.  That’s where I am now with Anne Dufourmantelle, psychologist, theologian, and philosopher.Anne Dufourmantelle portrait  Lately it seems that many projects in which I am interested are hobbled by an imbalanced perception of risk.  All activities involve a tradeoff between the risks involved and the good that can be achieved, but lately safety and security have been elevated to pre-eminence over all other possible goods.  This seems like a recipe for stagnation.  I was pleased to learn that people are doing the intellectual heavy lifting to support or refute that apparent situation.  Alas, the reason I heard about her in English-language media is that she lived up to her philosophical understanding of risk, and suffered a heart attack while rescuing two children caught in a rip tide.

Here’s what she said in an article in Libération, about her book In Praise of Risk.  Interview by Anastasia Vécrin, 14 September 2015


In the face of the terrorist threat and the migrant crisis, how can we continue to live without giving way to a security panic? Some want to close the borders, others advocate an increased armed presence on public transportation. But do these proposals reassure us? Or rather, do they remind us of imminent danger? The philosopher and psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle, author of Eloge du risque (Payot 2011), explains that living necessarily involves taking risks. And today it is the migrants, victims of the wars in the Middle East, who need protection more than we do.

Q: In the context of permanent terrorist threat, must we over-protect ourselves?

AD: First, terrorist threats are always a political weapon for the control of individual freedom. Any security response is already political. The question is always phrased as “how, in addition to protecting people and preventing an attack, can we reinforce the means of control and make them more efficient?” Remember: all totalitarians end up using the terrorist threat to liquidate alternatives.

Moreover, in a more banal sense, “security” generates fear more than it assuages it. Under the media-pushed threat of random violence, the population becomes paranoid, even to the point of denouncing others to the authorities. Every terrorist act emphasizes a little more the idea of continuous danger. An opportunity for abuse of power exercised this way rests on the potentiality of a dangerous, even mortal, intrusion that can only be thwarted by maintaining a perpetual state of alert.

When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive, for example during the Blitz in London, there is a strong incentive for action, dedication, and becoming part of something larger than oneself. That doesn’t happen in the current case. In my opinion, if the threat of the attacks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre had lasted months, another relationship to the threat would have grown in the population, beyond any directives from the state. We’d have seen a form of active solidarity.

Faced with an external reality of anarchy and horror, people reorganize their lives, invents small rituals, tiny actions, magic words to protect a space of humanity. In a way, anxiety loses ground because people have recourse to an alternative. On the contrary, to imagine an enemy ready to attack from time to time induces a state of paralysis, a feeling of impotence which calls for a maternal body, supposedly all protective. “Big Brother” turns into “Big Mother” as the psychoanalyst Michel Schneider put it. Today, we desire this overprotection and are encouraged to remain in a condition of voluntary servitude.

Q: Nevertheless, the desire for security can’t be completely satisfied, because there’s always some risk…

AD: The idea of absolute security – “zero risk” – is a fantasy. It appeals to an archaic sense of impotence and the desire for remedies attached to it. You have to be wary of someone who offers you total security, because the shelter often works in a perverse way. The price of protection quickly becomes very high, as we see in mafia protection rackets. When we start from infantilization, we put ourselves under guardianship. Except that when you see police patrolling, it is more worrying than reassuring. Paradoxically, the signs of protection reactivate the feeling of insecurity. Security laws provoke transgressions that will themselves justify new security rules. It is a vicious circle. True protection includes confidence in the capacity that someone does or doesn’t have to experience their freedom. To live is to take risks by definition. A person with autonomy is less easy to influence than one who is governed by fear.

Faced with an unpredictable danger, the fear that overwhelms us is all the stronger because it traps us in the impossibility of anticipating and anticipating. We are paralyzed in the face of senseless cataclysm. To be a victim of a terrorist attack is to be a “generic” victim, that is to say, they have been targeted not individually but because they belong to a sex, a culture, a religion, or a function in society. Or they could just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This fatal absurdity is unbearable in our modern age, where “destiny” has given way to everyday life, and where we’ve tried to make “chance” an endangered species.

Q: To refuse risk is to refuse to live?

AD: The usual expression is to say, “I risk my life”, but perhaps one should say, “I risk life”. To be entirely alive is a risk, and few people are. There are many zombies, undead, lives attenuated by the “disease of death” as Kierkegaard called it. This risk is what another philosopher who disappeared under torture, Jan Patocka, called “life in amplitude”.

Q: Why such a search for protection?

AD: One of the things that characterizes the human being is this first breath of a newborn baby. It is a suffering, and it can also be an ecstasy. In either case, it is a radical passage. Life is metamorphosis; it begins with this first risk. Man is neotenous, an unfinished being who needs to be protected for survival, unlike other animal species. If, initially, he is not surrounded by care and protection, he is in danger of death. These early stages of our being are marked by this association “ life = survival”, which are anchored in our memory, then repressed. When one invokes threat and fear, I believe that part of us regresses to this first period of life, to its fundamental vulnerability.

Q: How can we get free of this feeling of fear?

AD: I do not have a universal answer. From an analytical point of view, it may be possible to tame fear by welcoming it. When one admits his fear, his finitude, a confidence can be reborn from this vulnerability. If we make fear into something negative, we lock it in place. Like the mechanisms of anxiety or neurosis, fear is formed by one’s past, so we understand the future by means of that experience. Neurosis has a horror of the new. We can disarm fear if we identify this mechanism of referral to the past, of systematic repetition. Sometimes it is necessary to refuse a security initiative. Let there be a call to vigilance, fine, but let us still keep up our confidence. People who are not going to give up going about their business, even though there are bombs exploding on way, are people who are placing a heavy stone on the pan of the balance against terror.

Q: How to explain this paradox: that people want more security while wanting to preserve their freedoms?

This is not so much paradoxical as it is infantile. It brings us back to that age of life that wants both a protective cocoon and the thrill of transgressive experiences. The taste for freedom is widespread but the strength to bear the risk, much less so.

There is also an indirect answer to your question: those who really need protection are the victims of these unjust wars that have set fire to the Middle East, for which we are collectively responsible. We usually call them “migrants” (a term that leaves them perpetually wandering). The terrorist threat they live under is not fabricated by governments for control. They survive under terror, and try to escape from it. It is our duty to open our borders, for the law of unconditional hospitality is the first humanizing rule of a civilization. Let us not forget that one day it will be our turn to be the migrants, and we will be begging for hospitality and protection. What security procedures will be arrayed against us then?

Tales from the Attic

There was an Old-Testament-grade thunderstorm this week. My shingles are apparently not among the righteous; the roof sprang a leak. We caught it before it could do any serious damage but I’ve been up in the attic this weekend, carrying boxes out to sit in the sunshine and replacing damp insulation.

One of the boxes contained a first edition of Unfinished Tales, purchased at the remainder price of $2.98. The glue on the fold-out map has come loose, but it’s otherwise in good condition. I’ve never seen it before. It must be part of my first wife’s estate, purchased before I met her. (That price is compatible with our net worth in those days.)

I was debating whether to purchase a copy of the book. Now I have my answer.

Tales from the Attic

Saruman 15-love

Gandalf probably has the most dedicated fan club of any character in LotR. But to an idiosopher, he has one moment of complete catastrophe. This is from Gandalf’s report to the Council of Elrond about his confrontation with Saruman:

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

LotR, II, ii.

I’ve talked about this passage before, working from the possibility that Saruman was playing a clever joke. Lots of people, many of whom know more than I do, take that last sentence as a statement of JRR Tolkien’s own beliefs. Malcolm Guite‘s Signum Sessions lecture is an excellent example:

But there’s a problem with that: I agree with Saruman.  First, dyeing white cloth.  JRRT frequently mentions colors, and uses them as important signifiers in his texts.  Hobbits like to dress “in bright colours, being notably fond of yellow and green” (LotR, Prologue).  Bombadil’s jacket is bright blue (I, viii). Gandalf wears blue and grey. The dwarves in The Hobbit are even distinguished by the color of their hoods (I, i). Surely if wearing cloth of other colors than white were morally dubious, it would have been mentioned. If Gandalf is going to disagree with this, he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do.  JRRT provides no explanation.

Second, the white page can be overwritten. If it weren’t, a philologist would have nothing to do.  A twentieth-century author would not publish any books.  Writing on white pages can’t be a bad thing to Tolkien.  Something is going seriously wrong with the wise-Gandalf interpretation.

Third, breaking things to find out what they are is an essential part of learning.  In the specific case in the text, a group of photons that would have been annihilated in the electric field of earthly matter in a few nanoseconds was divided up to show its component colors and confirm the wave theory of light.  Lots of learning for no loss.  Here’s a sampling of other ways that life would be lessened, had we stayed on this so-called “path of wisdom”:

  • No one would ever have eaten an oyster or a walnut;
  • Musical harmonies might never have been discovered;
  • Doctors wouldn’t know about the circulation of the blood;
  • The beauty of the crystals that form inside geodes would never be seen.


(The dwarves of the Glittering Caves will back me up on the importance of that last one.)  None of these things is bad.  Gandalf is just wrong.

What’s going on, here?  It’s the power of the Voice of Saruman.  Even through the filter of Gandalf’s re-telling, the effect is still there.  Gandalf sounds like a fool.  Saruman’s voice has tricked him into a ridiculous position. JRRT has shown the effect, not just told us about it, by having it affect the reader as well.  As Théoden found out, “When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast…” (III,x.)

No worries, Grey Wanderer — it can happen to anyone.

Signed Graphs and Interesting Stories

Of all the types of graphs, signed graphs are probably the most interesting for looking at interactions among groups of people. Definition: a signed graph is a collection of nodes and links between them, just like a regular graph, but each link is flagged with a positive or negative sign. When we’re using the graph to describe a social network, those might be “loves” and “hates”, “admires” and “sneers at”, or any other dichotomy that comes to mind.

Some graphs have closed paths in them. Mathematicians call a closed path a “cycle”. If you go around a cycle and encounter an even number of negative signs, it’s a balanced cycle. A graph that contains only balanced cycles is a balanced graph. These are the simplest cycles:
three-node signed graphsHere’s where things get interesting: signed graphs apparently figure into human sociology. If a network of relationships forms a balanced graph, it’s a stable structure. Relationships that fall into unbalanced graphs aren’t stable, and lead to drama. (That last word can be taken either literally, or in the euphemistic sense that people give it these days.) I don’t think anybody knows why such a simple mathematical condition seems to be true; that’s just the kind of thing mathematics does every now and then. Some brilliant psychologist will figure it out someday.

In the unbalanced graph “a”, I colored the vertices pink and blue because my wife watches soap operas, and nearly as I can tell, there’s a cycle like that at the heart of every one of them. It never ends well, because it’s unbalanced. The balanced graph “b”, by contrast, is “you and me against the world”, which is a stable configuration. The all-negative graph “c” can go one of two ways. If the vertices represent people, two of them just go away and the network disintegrates. If the vertices represent countries, or something else that’s forced into interaction because it can’t quit the game, the network changes when two of the nodes look for an advantage by conspiring against the third. The fourth possibility, “d”, is that all the links are positive. It is balanced and kind of boring in its dramatic implications.

There’s a perfect example of three-party instability in Book IV of LotR among Frodo, Sam, and Gollum.  From the time they meet up, it’s graph “a”: Sam loves Frodo, Sméagol loves Frodo, Sam doesn’t like Sméagol.  Type “a” is unstable, so something’s got to give. The crisis comes in  Chapter 8, when Sméagol (possibly) tries to turn the graph into a stable all-positive triangle, but Sam intrudes, the opportunity is lost, and Gollum plots with Shelob to turn the graph into type “b”.

Of course, three-person networks are easy to understand without graph theory. The real advantage of mathematics is that it becomes possible to handle any size network. There’s a theorem about graph balance that applies in general: Any balanced graph can be re-drawn in a simple form. (Can I say “isomorphic”? Sure I can. Y’all are tough enough.) All balanced graphs are isomorphic to a graph that’s split into two parts, where there are only positive links within each part, and all the links between the parts are negative.  That’s called the Cartwright-Harary Theorem. Prof. Harary says that the theorem is unexpected and counter-intuitive, which I am half in agreement. The positive interpretation is easy to accept:  if the world consists of two parties, and every member of a party agrees with each other, and every member of each party disagrees with all members of the other party, the situation is stable.  (Then Romeo meets Juliet, and the stability is history.)  The counter-intuitive part is that this is the only way for a graph to be stable.  That’s it – the one way you can build a stable social system is for everybody on your side to agree and to hate the other side, and contrariwise on the other side.  In practice, I suppose you could allow disagreement on issues that were irrelevant to the structure, and thereby outside the graph model. But on any important issue, perfect party unity and perfect hatred of the other side is your only chance.

Interesting stories, whether they’re fictional or meta-fictional, don’t have balanced graphs.  One of the most intriguing things I scribbled down during Sørina’s lecture was that we might be able to define a new subset of graphs under the rubric of “interestingly-unbalanced”.

Illiterate Coda

Maintaining stable structures without fomenting partisan warfare is critically important in a society as complex as ours.  But math is math. So how do we handle the dilemma of the Cartwright-Harary Theorem?  We go around the horns. Almost every organization chart you’ll ever see has the same basic structure:  No cycles, so the theorem doesn’t apply.  That type of graph is called a tree.  It’s useful in all sorts of contexts, but until now it had never occurred to me that it means that management never has to choose between polarization and instability.

Graphing the Inklings

Sørina Higgins’s lecture at Mythmoot IV gave us a hint about where she’s going intellectually in the near future. She wants to apply network theory to create “meta-fictional narratives” about the interactions among the Inklings and how it affected their writing, and invited us to do the same.

The coolest figure from “Graph Theory as a Mathematical Model in Social Science”

This seemed like a good time to blow the dust off my command of graph theory. You can figure out lots of cool things from networks, if you know about graphs.   Frank Harary, writing from a period contemporary with The Lord of the Rings until well into this century, pushed the use of mathematical graph theory into the social sciences.  Here’s a short version.  Here’s what I think is his clearest explication of what can be done with graphs in the social sciences (which is what we are doing, now).

For instance, graphs are used a lot in management theory.  The fastest performing network structures were those in which the distance of all nodes from some central person (the “integrator”) was the shortest, say Borgatti, Stephen P., et al. “Network analysis in the social sciences.” science323.5916 (2009): 892-895. Now, if you’re looking for a paradigm of a stable, efficiently operating organization, the Inklings are not an obvious place to start.  I’m pretty sure that C.S. Lewis would turn out to be the integrator, but then what?  Here’s a chart from Borgatti et al. that might clarify the relevance:

Following Sørina’s Ansatz, we might begin with the box on the left to determine our set of writers (nodes). Next, we’d assign a numerical quantity to each node, probably derived from a lexomic analysis.  Then, we’d build links from the two boxes on the right, Interactions and Flows, based on accounts of how the writers interacted, to see how some attribute of the nodes changes over time.

The easiest thing to see would be something like the spread of Theosophy or Anthroposophy. Weird philosophies come with an idiosyncratic jargon that should be trivial to find in the writers’ texts. The mathematical tools we’d need to identify the influence of some *osophy have already been developed to model the spread of infectious disease.

Slightly more difficult would be to track down an agreement between the writers to split things up.  There was the famous wager between Tolkien and C.S. Lewis about writing a time-travel and a space-travel story, respectively.  We’d look for some lexemes they shared equally, which then split up mitotically into space on Lewis’s side and time on Tolkien’s. But a difficulty presents itself. It might be possible to find lexemes in Tolkien that correlate well with space travel, but I can’t think of them.  We’d have to find them via statistical correlations, which tend to make the final result less credible.  A better choice might be King Arthur.  In an old lecture on Youtube, Sørina mentions that Tolkien may have given up work on Arthurian legends because Charles Williams was doing so much in that area. It should be easy to find convincing Arthurian terms whose frequency evolves over time.

Caveat:  Sørina drops a hint that she’s dealing with a large network, which the Inklings are not.  We’ll have to wait and see.


Trying to love Modernism

Sørina Higgins’s plenary talk at Mythmoot IV, and the reaction it got from the high-octane scholars in the room, convinced me I should try to engage idiosophically with Modernism instead of treating all the Inklings’ works separately from it. But here’s the first hurdle: Modernism doesn’t appeal to me. What do I gain by putting my favorite book in a set with a lot of books I don’t like? How do I get over my distaste for most early-Twentieth-Century literature?

Maybe by skipping media. If I zoom ‘way out, I can find another modernist work I love. It’s a musical composition, not a book. “The Planets” by Gustav Holst might be the only “popular” piece in all of Modernist music. It’s older than all but the earliest things JRRT put on paper.

“The Planets” is a suite of seven movements, one for each planet except Earth. Holst doesn’t give the planets their Greco-Roman mythological significance; the subtitles are Theosophical instead. Though I don’t have any written evidence about JRRT ‘s opinion of Theosophy [1], I feel confident that it rose no higher than slight regard. Therefore, I’m not going to look for any congruence in the meanings of the pieces. I’d rather look at environmental effects. The parallels will more likely appear in the emotional responses the artists invoke, not their content.

“Mars, the Bringer of War” was written before World War I, so its depiction of the horrors of mechanized slaughter isn’t a mirror so much as a prophecy. This is an instantly-recognizable piece all over the world. David Bratman talks about it being echoed by Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld™, and also tosses in an allusion to the early drafts of the Quenta Silmarillion in which the dragons are described as mechanical, like tanks. To which I’d add the blaring trumpets that we hear when the Black Gate opens:

They came within cry of the Morannon, and unfurled the banner, and blew upon their trumpets; and the heralds stood out and sent their voices up over the battlement of Mordor. … even as the Captains were about to turn away, the silence was broken suddenly. There came a long rolling of great drums like thunder in the mountains, and then a braying of horns that shook the very stones and stunned men’s ears. And thereupon the door of the Black Gate was thrown open with a great clang, and out of it there came an embassy from the Dark Tower.

LotR V, x

“Venus, the Bringer of Peace” matches up well with the tone of JRRT’s prose that I hear in elvish lands, once I get past the things that my baroque ears still hear as weird dissonances. Here in Legolas’s speech about mallorn trees in LotR II,vi, the constantly-shifting rhythms match this piece well: “Not till the spring comes and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers, and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.” Actually, now that I think of it, elvish music probably has all kinds of weird dissonances in it, by Western standards. After a thousand years or so, a single mode of composition might sound dull to even the most conservative audiences.

“Mercury, the Messenger” doesn’t have a good match in LotR. Its anti-gravity and velocity have a lot in common with Bilbo’s poem “Errantry”, but that mood is rare in the book proper.

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”, is the most fun, and it has hobbitry all over it. Bratman (op cit.) points out that Holst makes good use of English folk tunes in several of his compositions. [2] The Prancing Pony must have sounded like this in the years after the return of the King.

“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” was supposedly Holst’s favorite movement of the seven. That opinion points toward the reason I generally don’t like Modernism — slow, ponderous works of art are far less interesting to me than the liveliness of Jupiter or even the heavy-metal brutality of Mars. I was taught in English class that the morbid obsessions of the Modernists were a consequence of WWI, but this piece is evidence that they were already intensely focused on mortality before the war. It makes me wonder if we have the causality relationship backwards. I hear the passage through the Dead Marshes in this one.

“Uranus, the Magician” brings us into the full-scale theosophical rewriting of myth. “Magician” is quite a demotion from Uranus’s old job! This is a fun piece to listen to. I don’t quite get the processional feel to the music — what does that have to do with magicians? Perhaps Holst didn’t want me to be able to decide whether he meant a stage magician or Aleister Crowley. In any case, this works. Saruman might have told the musicians to play a piece like this as his army marched out of Isengard to make war on Rohan. He was probably conducting the band himself, using a wand as a baton.

“Neptune, the Mystic” is another Theosophical demotion. Amazing how a bunch of mystics set out to discover the nature of planetary intelligences, and one of the seven just happened to be a mystic. [3] It was almost half a century ago, but I remember the liner notes from my father’s recording saying this was “the pure, disembodied essence of sound.” Why that’s a good thing, the liner-noter didn’t say. They couldn’t have gotten further from my understanding of music if they’d tried. I suspect JRRT might have shared my opinion. His poetry begins with rhythm, and this piece has almost none. So even though it’s not so complimentary to the two artists, there’s a parallel here, too. Confession time: “Ainulindalë” bores me to the edge of coma. That’s not how the universe began; the universe began with a C-Major chord. (Some people say E-flat, but that sort is notoriously unreliable.) Tolkien and Holst made the same conceptual mistake (as I so humbly see it): because matter as we know it didn’t exist in their context, they went for slow, rhythmless modulations to represent something that’s as placid and introspective as the interior of a blast furnace. This is worse than wrong. It is French.


The parallels between Holst and Tolkien are there, and easy to see. Tolkien is a Modernist; Sørina isn’t crazy. [4] They have similar (6/7 cases) things in mind that they want their audiences to think about. Time to admit it; my favorite author is right smack in the middle of a bunch of artists I don’t like very much. Perhaps we should define a kind of “pop-modernism”, to go with all the other hyphenations of modernism that critics have created, to encompass those participants in the first half of the twentieth century who don’t owe future generations an apology.

[1] Theosophists have plenty of things to say about JRRT. I do not recommend searching “tolkien theosophy” until they make a search engine that filters out pages predominantly composed of deceased intestinal flora.

[2] Holst even wrote a suite of music for Morris dances. (!) They’re kind of tame. I don’t think they would protect against Elf invasions.

[3] Maybe they were using a reflecting telescope and installed the mirror backwards.

[4] Well, not in this case anyway. Trying to teach Idiosophers to dance weighs rather heavily against this conclusion.

Hail, Caesura

In which the Idiosopher appreciates the poetic value of zeroes of the first time-derivative.

Tom Hillman has written a Mythgard Academy bank-shot post, in which he draws a line from the song-duel between Finrod and Sauron in The Silmarillion, to a poem in Boëthius’s Consolation of Philosophy, to the beach in Long Island.  Tom points out an almost-caesura in J.R.R. Tolkien’s verse:

Softly in the gloom they heard the birds
Singing afar in Nargothrond,
The sighing of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls in Elvenland.

Silmarillion, ch. 19

The alliteration on “s” in lines 3-5 is onomatopoetic to me.  We’re hearing waves on the beach.  The caesura effect comes from the repetition of “beyond” and “on sand”.  The forward progress of the poem glides gently to a halt, then resumes, like a wave losing energy as it climbs the beach, before it returns to the sea. To a first approximation, the distance a wave travels up the slope of the sand is a parabola. We see only the nose of the parabola, because another wave comes along and uses it as a lubricant against friction with the land.   What we see is Figure 1.

Fig. 1. Wave height as a function of time

This is a good time of year to think about that. We’ve just passed the solstice, so the same sort of thing is happening with the sun. The sun has been in the sky perceptibly longer each day; now that’s come to an end like waves running out of energy on the sand.  The actual length of the day is a complicated function of the earth’s axial tilt, the latitude of the observer, the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit, the nutation of the earth’s rotation, and even a little factor due to the Moon.  The Naval Observatory keeps track of all this.  We can use a much simpler approximation, and treat everything as circles.  [geometric derivation with awesome ASCII art]  That yields an equation you can actually read.  The fraction of a day during which the sun is up is

2 acos[sin(λ) tan(τ sin(2πy))],

where λ is the latitude of the observer, τ is the earth’s axial tilt, and y is the number of days since December 21st divided by the length of the year in days.  The approximation is about 10 minutes shorter than the true amount of sunshine at my latitude, as shown in Figure 2.  Not bad, Copernicus!

Fig. 2. Daylight in Virginia

So here we are, just past the noontide of the year.  The vegetable plants have stopped their manic growth phase. (Fortunately, so has the grass.)  The botanical world is in a caesura of its own for a few days.  The beanstalks made it to the tops of their poles just in time.  The squash vines have found every inch of space they can reach.  Now they’re hunkering down to making seeds and fruits.  My job protecting them from skulking vegetarians will begin soon enough, but now is a time to take a breath.

Yes, the camera is at eye level. This year’s experiment is a 15-foot bean trellis.

Page 2 of 12

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén