Monday, April 29, 2013

Juxtapositions: Archilochus, Gustave le Gray, and Adrienne Rich

Gustave le Gray: "La grande vague" (1856/58)
A fragment of Archilochus (early 7th century B.C.)

γλαῦχ', ὅρα, βαθὺς γὰρ ἤδη κύμασιν ταράσσεται
πόντος, ἀμφὶ δ' ἄκρα Γυρέων ὀρθὸν ἵσταται νέφος,
σῆμα χειμῶνος· κιχάνει δ' ἐξ ἀελπτίης φόβος 

Greek (transliterated):
glaûch', hóra, bathys gàr édē kúmasin tarássetai
póntos, amphì d' ácra Gyréōn orthòn hístatai néphos,
sêma cheimônos: kichánei d' ex aelptíēs phóbos

grayman, look, for now the deep sea is troubled with waves,
and about the heights of Gyres a cloud looms upright, 
sign of winter—and fear unexpectedly overcomes you 

Storm Warnings (1951)
Adrienne Rich 

The glass has been falling all the afternoon, 

And knowing better than the instrument 

What winds are walking overhead, what zone 

Of grey unrest is moving across the land, 

I leave the book upon a pillowed chair 

And walk from window to closed window, watching 

Boughs strain against the sky

And think again, as often when the air 

Moves inward toward a silent core of waiting, 

How with a single purpose time has traveled

By secret currents of the undiscerned 

Into this polar realm. Weather abroad 

And weather in the heart alike come on 

Regardless of prediction.

Between foreseeing and averting change 

Lies all the mastery of elements 

Which clocks and weatherglasses cannot alter. 

Time in the hand is not control of time, 

Nor shattered fragments of an instrument 

A proof against the wind; the wind will rise, 

We can only close the shutters.

I draw the curtains as the sky goes black 

And set a match to candles sheathed in glass 

Against the keyhole draught, the insistent whine 

Of weather through the unsealed aperture. 

This is our sole defense against the season; 

These are the things we have learned to do 

Who live in troubled regions.

Friday, April 26, 2013

On doing hard things that matter

Lewis Hine: from Workers, Empire State Building (1931)

Graduate school, especially in the humanities, has been receiving very bad press for a long time, but 2013 has already produced a bumper crop of essays about the Ph.D. process. Ron Rosenbaum's Slate essay "Should You Go to Grad School?" decided that you shouldn't ("Please don't waste your life this way"); Rebecca Schuman's "Thesis Hatement," a dispatch from a more recent victim of the institution (which also appeared in Slate), directly analogized life on the academic job market to scenes out of Kafka. Slate editor Katie Roiphe replied with a brief post, "Thesis Defense," defending some of the intellectual aspects of the experience while allaying none of the material precariousness. Since if you're the kind of person looking at grad school in the humanities, you're probably also the kind of person who reads Slate more often than you'd like to admit, these essays made the rounds. Josh Rothman, who is now the archives editor at the New Yorker and was a grad student at Harvard, added this thoughtful essay a couple days ago. (Whether they are on a tenure-track or not, when confused, angry, or pensive, the natural response of the former English Ph.D. candidate is still to write out their troubles.)

And that's just this year. I keep a list of these kinds of pieces, and I can show you the Economist tearing apart graduate school on multiple continents in 2010; the Chronicle of Higher Education's in-house Jeremiah categorically warning away any and all applicants; a blog giving 100 reasons to stay away from any kind of grad school; the Forbes blog position; a book (one of several, actually); even essays from former grad students in lab sciences—and this is only part of the list. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Variations on a fragment of Archilochus

ἐν δορὶ μέν μοι μᾶζα μεμαγμένη, ἐν δορὶ δ' οἶνος
     Ἰσμαρικός, πίνω δ' ἐν δορὶ κεκλιμένος.

In my spear there is baked bread, in my spear there is wine
    from Ismaros, and leaning on my spear I drink.

On my computer, there are mp3s
    of lectures from four years of college;
the major Mozart violin sonatas
    with piano parts in PDF;
JPEGs of the backyard of my parents
    in six successive snowy winters.
On my laptop, there is a hoard of JSTOR
    articles I'll never read,
as well as scans of Foucault's major works
    and Illusions perdues in French.
My fourth-grade essay on Charles Lindbergh's life
    in old .doc format sits subfoldered, as does
a self-instruction manual for Gregg shorthand
    and Bessie Smith singing "That Evening Sun."
I swear that there is no pornography
    (but you probably don't believe me).
On my laptop, there's the worst thing I ever wrote
    and the best thing I ever wrote,
the things I wanted to save and the things I wanted
    to lose, the things that I no longer
need, but which would take much longer
    to delete than keep. (In my laptop,
there are crumbs of cookies I ate while typing,
    and other things that are hard to admit.)
Bank statements, too. I zip it up in a sleeve
    and carry it from place to place. 

To Spring

University Parks, Oxford, England

To Spring
William Blake

O thou with dewy locks, who lookest down
Through the clear windows of the morning, turn
Thine angel eyes upon our western isle,
Which in full choir hails thy approach, O Spring!

The hills tell one another, and the listening
Valleys hear; all our longing eyes are turn'd
Up to thy bright pavilions: issue forth
And let thy holy feet visit our clime!

Come o'er the eastern hills, and let our winds
Kiss they perfumèd garments; let us taste
Thy morn and evening breath; scatter thy pearls
Upon our lovesick land that mourns for thee.

O deck her forth with thy fair fingers; pour
Thy soft kisses on her bosom; and put
They golden crown upon her languish'd head,
Whose modest tresses are bound up for thee. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Prose close reading: Bernard Williams

By the time he died in 2003, the work of the philosopher Bernard Williams had secured his reputation as not only one of the most agile thinkers of the post-WWII era, but also as one of its most graceful writers. Anglo-American philosophical writing in the wake of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein often aspired to technical precision rather than eloquence. It is easy to forget that until the First World War, philosophy was considered an arm of "letters" at large (along with history, poetry, and criticism), and its practitioners were noted not just for the quality of their thought, but for their literary merits. Some writers who would have been recognized as philosophers of the 19th century are now read more as literary figures—Emerson and Kierkegaard, for example. Why not read some of the most gifted philosophical writers among the "modern greats"—say, Isaiah Berlin or Bernard Williams, among others—as prose stylists?
... there are two sides to action, that of deliberation and that of result, and there is a necessary gap between them. Regret must be governed, in good part, by results that go beyond intention. Sometimes regret can focus simply on the outside circumstances that made the action go wrong, and the thought is: I acted and deliberated as well as I could, and it is sad that it turned out that way. But regret cannot always be held at that distance, and then it moves back to the moments of deliberation and action, and you regret acting as you did. This still need not imply that you deliberated carelessly; you may have deliberated as well as you could, but you still deeply regret that that was how the deliberation went, and that this was what you did. This is not just a regret about what happened, such as a spectator might have. It is an agent's regret, and it is in the nature of action that such regrets cannot be eliminated, that one's life could not be partitioned into some things that one does intentionally and other things that merely happen to one.
—Bernard Williams, "Recognising Responsibility" in Shame and Necessity (69-70) 
It is one of the unwritten constitutional principles of prose writing after Flaubert that repetition ought to be avoided. The precision demanded by philosophical discourse cannot allow this. Certain key terms must be defined and adhered to, without deviation. We can easily pick them out here: act/action/agent, deliberate/deliberation, regret, intend/intention. It is interesting that all these words have both noun and verb forms. There is also a small set of normally inconspicuous verbs that do a lot of philosophical heavy lifting: is, must, can, need, imply.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Commonplace book #1: Roger Fry on style

I keep a (digital) commonplace book, too. Every once in a while, I'll also post things from there. 

"Real style is, I take it, the perfect adaptation of the means of expression to the idea. It results from ease of expression."
Roger Fry, "Architectural Heresies of a Painter" (1921) 

Roger Fry: design with peacocks for a shawl (1913)

Unusual Word #1: inconcinnity

For a long time, I've kept a list of words I haven't seen before, along with their definition, etymology, and the context in which I first read them. Every now and then, I'll post a word from the list. 

Want of concinnity, congruousness, or proportion; inelegance, awkwardness; impropriety, unsuitableness. (OED)

Etymology: < Latin inconcinnitās inelegance, impropriety, < inconcinnus

"The edges of the space are the edges of the things you love, whose inconcinnities make your mind move."—Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet 

Monday, April 15, 2013

We're back!

With a post on Chersonesus and a bit of a redesign (excuse me while I fiddle around with the look). Welcome back!


If you can indulge me while I turn travel blogger on you, I would like to talk briefly about the place I was last Tuesday: Chersonesus.

It is easy to forget that Greek culture spread far beyond any area we would now recognize as "Greece."  But after the reign of Alexander the Great, Greek settlements stretched from Kabul to Marseilles. This resulted in some fantastic historical intersections, like Greco-Buddhist art, or the double-attestation of the reign of Chandragupta Maurya in both Greek and Sanskrit sources. (The Greeks Hellenized his name to "Sandrokottos.")

The ruins of Chersonesus (outside Sevastopol', Ukraine)
Chersonesus was a Hellenistic city on the Crimean Peninsula in present-day Ukraine, at the far edge of the Black Sea from Greece and Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The name means "peninsula" in Greek, from the words khersos (χέρσος), "dry," and nēsos (νῆσος), "island." (Similar to the word "peninsula" itself, which comes from Latin paene insula, "almost an island.")

Monday, April 1, 2013


Back in the (former) U.S.S.R.
I'm leaving to visit my friend Talia in Ukraine for the next couple of weeks, and won't be back until April 14—so this blog will lie dormant until then. But I'll look forward to seeing you on the other side!