Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Formal address, from Proust to K-Pop

Can you say "Proustian moment" in Korean? (Image from Wikipedia.)
Unlike many languages, English doesn't have a way of designating formal or polite address with grammar. Imagine what it would be like—a special pronoun, or maybe an entire class or verbs, reserved for your elders and betters? In French, when the situation requires respect or politeness, you use the (normally plural) second-person pronoun vous rather than the singular tu. (German and Italian do something similar with the special pronouns Sie and lei.) There are even verbs that mean "to address someone as vous" and "to address someone as tu": vouvoyer and tutoyer. It might be hard for an English speaker to imagine. There are some difficult-to-translate scenes in French literature involving the moment when one person receives permission to address the other as tu, like this moment in Proust's The Guermantes Way when the protagonist asks his friend Robert de Saint-Loup how they stand:
"Would it bother you (vous) if we used tu to address each other?" 
"How would it bother me? Come on! Joy! Tears of joy! Unknown happiness!
"I thank you (vous) so much... [I mean,] thank you (te) so much. As soon as you start! It'll bring me so much pleasure that you don't have to do anything about Madame de Guermantes if you want; the using tu (le tutoiement) is enough for me." 
"We'll both do it, then."
The wordplay is pretty hard to capture in English, the way the protagonist stumbles from "vous" to "tu." The sense of formality in French culture around pronouns has changed substantially over the past hundred years. In Maupassant and earlier, married couples address each other as vous; now, that would seem laughably cold. Likewise, if two young friends of the same age—like Proust and Saint-Loup—were still calling each other vous after having known each other for months, my impression is that in the present day, it would be hard to call them friends at all. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

How do you say "wimpy" in Latin?

invenit novum amicum Greg Heffley—aut inimicum?
(From the wikia for Diary of a Wimpy Kid.)
The children's book Diary of a Wimpy Kid has now received the treatment of The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh, The Cat in the Hat, and the first two Harry Potter books: it has been translated into Latin by Monsignor Daniel Gallagher, who is in the Latin Section of the Vatican Secretariat of State. (Basically, he takes care of Latin things for the Pope.) Translating great children's literature into Latin is an old tradition, but it puzzles a lot of non-classicists. Why translate children's books into a language that no children read?*

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Adoption and moral motives in Larissa MacFarquhar's New Yorker profile of the Badeaus

The Badeau family. (
Larissa MacFarquhar's essay on Hector and Sue Badeau, a Philadelphia couple with a family of twenty-two children, twenty of whom were adopted, attracted a lot of attention when it was published in the August 3rd issue of the New Yorker. MacFarquhar is one of my favorite journalists, so I was excited to see her brush on the topic of adoption. She has been working on a book about "extreme ethics—about "people who have a very demanding sense of moral duty and live their lives accordingly," as she articulated her project in a 2013 interview for the Boston Review.

But what I liked most about MacFarquhar's profile of the Badeaus, and what I think it gets most right about the spirit of the most successful adoptions I have known, is the repeated insistence of both Hector and Sue that they were not acting out of a particularly demanding sense of moral duty at all. Indeed, in their own words, duty had very little to do with it. Instead, what created this sense of compulsion to adopt their children was, on their account, love. About adopting four siblings at a point when they already had five children and three foster children, the Badeaus say:
HECTOR: It’s hard to explain. It was like instant love.
SUE: It was as if they already were our kids, but they were somehow not with us and we had to go get them.
The Badeaus talk at length about the role of Christianity in shaping their beliefs and actions, and of praying for guidance. MacFarquhar, in her characteristic use of free indirect speech to render her subjects' thoughts, ascribes to them the belief that God intended them to adopt certain children, and the conviction that "they were doing God's work." But at no point do the Badeaus say that they felt obligated by their faith to adopt. MacFarquhar interprets their motivations as a kind of altruism fueled not by duty, but rather emotion:
To many people, the love of a parent for his child should be urgent, primal, beneath thought. That love should come from longing; from a selfish clutching for happiness, not from an altruistic promise to help. It was not just that altruism was not enough; altruism seemed antithetical to what a parent’s love should be. A parent might sacrifice himself for a child, but because he was driven to do it, not out of duty. The love of a parent must be selfish or it was worthless. 
To Sue and Hector, self-sacrifice came easily. To live a moral life in the usual way, resisting temptation and embracing righteous difficulty, was not hard. But they knew that what was required of them was more complicated than asceticism. To sacrifice pleasure for duty’s sake was to get everything wrong. To fulfill their parental promise they must feel delight; they must take pleasure in their children or their efforts would be useless.
While I think that MacFarquhar's understanding of the Badeaus is admiring, and admirable in its own right, I find it is slightly at odds with their own words. They claim that they were acting out of a kind of "urgent, primal [love] beneath thought": it was not their choice; it was more emotional than deliberative; it would have caused them pain not to adopt, in a way that is, MacFarquhar and the ethicists might say (without blame), "selfish." The pleasure is there at the inception of the relationship, and—ideally—grows throughout, just as with any kind of parenthood.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Stargazing Journal: Light in August

The binary star Capella in the constellation Auriga.
Every year, the Perseid meteor shower falls roughly August 11-14: Earth returns to the trail of rocks left in space by Comet Swift-Tuttle, an extremely large and relatively fast comet, creating several nights of shooting stars that seem to flow out of the constellation Perseus. Delightfully for me, the Perseids begin on my birthday, giving me a kind of cosmic birthday present. It doesn't work out every year: clouds, full moons, and city lights can all interfere. But when the stars align (erm. Sorry), it makes for a beautiful night.

I watched last night and also early this morning; viewing is generally held to be best in the hour or two before dawn (which makes sense if you think about direction that the Earth rotates, I suppose). It was a perfect night here in west Michigan: cloudless, dry, a nearly new moon that was below the horizon all night anyway, and little enough light pollution to let the Milky Way emerge after your eyes adjusted to the dark. By 10:30, the Summer Triangle was high overhead, and you could actually see the Dolphin glowing faintly beneath Aquila. It's late enough in the summer that Arcturus and the Big Dipper had almost entirely sunk below the tree line around my parents' house—a sign I've come to associate with the advent of the school year. (The trees cover a good 25-30ยบ of the sky above the horizon, though we are on a slight hill.) Even then, a few meteors were blazing across the sky. They don't last long—and they don't compete well with the glow of a city night—but they're hard to mistake.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Escape + Return + Shift

Bringing you the choicest random facts from all over time and space.
It has been a long break for this blog: the last post I wrote was a little more than five months ago, mainly to sign off before diving into a two-month period of studying for two weeks of 12 exams. I'd imagined that I would come back to blogging after that. But—maybe unsurprisingly—by the time I actually finished all those tests, I was too exhausted to just fire the engines up again. (It turns out that spending 28 hours writing essays by hand in which you regurgitate as many facts as you can does not incline you to write new posts for your trivia blog.)

So I decided to take the summer off and recover. It has been good to avoid the compulsion to write for any reason other than my own desire to do so; good to learn how to read books for fun again; good to figure out how to relax and even how to waste time, things I think I'd forgotten how to do.