Aaron Haspel – Page 3 – God of the Machine

Aaron Haspel

Aug 142006


Idly browsing in the bookstore one day, I found this, carefully wrapped in onionskin and folded into an old edition of Hardy’s Collected Poems. The road to ignorance may be paved with good editions, as Bernard Shaw remarked, but its byways are littered with interesting ephemera.

Dear Mr. Smyth,

The assignment is all of the “Collected Poems” of Hardy. But I asked the class to give particular attention to those on pp. 7, 15, 58, 83, 99, 112, 124, 152, 161, 194, 222, 234, 248, 255, 269, 271, 288, 297, 325, 328, 369, 387, 390, 391-8, 409, 412, 439, 456, 505, 566, 598, 648, 658, 685, 710, 799.

I hope you recover quickly.


The signature is Mark Van Doren’s. Van Doren taught English at Columbia, including a legendary “Introduction to Poetry” course, for almost forty years. The tone of this note aligns with his reputation for brooking no nonsense, regularly tossing students out of class for failing to read the assignment. In his autobiography Van Doren claims (though I find this hard to credit) that a student once attempted to excuse a late term paper on the grounds of being in love. “Then you don’t love her very much,” Van Doren said. “How can you say that?” asked the student indignantly. “You won’t sacrifice a mark for her.”

He was also an excellent poet and critic, who wrote brief and readable books about Shakespeare, Dryden, and E.A. Robinson, among other subjects. The selections available on the web do not do his poetry justice, but this conveys some of the flavor.

Mark Van Doren is remembered only as the father of game-show cheat Charles Van Doren, and then only because of the hit movie made about the scandal, Quiz Show, in which he is played by Paul Scofield, with twinkly donnishness, as the soul of upright virtue — which, by all accounts, he was.

The hapless Mr. Smyth, it appears, was too ill to attend class and had to receive his assignment in writing. He must have quailed when he read it. All of the collected poems? All of them? They run to 800 pages of small print. I have read Hardy, quite assiduously, for years, and have not got round to nearly all of them. Nor do I expect to.

Unfortunately the poems Van Doren singles out for “particular attention” have more pedagogical than poetic interest. They include the Satires of Circumstance, which date badly; one or two philosophical colloquies that neatly clarify Hardy’s views on God and pessimism; and a few anthology favorites. They exclude all of his best poems.

Still, three generations of students found Van Doren inspiring. Even Smyth, once recovered, seems to have bestirred himself sufficiently to make an abortive start on the assignment. The table of contents shows the first six poems dutifully ticked off, and then nothing. One wonders how many times he was thrown out of class. However many it was, he kept the book, at least for a while, and took some pains to keep the note. Something probably got through.

Aug 122006

The idea that aesthetics has a lot to do with self-similarity occurred to Benoit Mandelbrot thirty or so years before it occured to me, although if you ask Mandelbrot there are vanishingly few ideas that didn’t occur to him first. It’s Newton, Einstein, Archimedes, and Mandelbrot, not necessarily in that order.

So it isn’t original, which doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Mandelbrot’s The Fractal Geometry of Nature is one of the best-selling books on mathematics of all time, mostly because it has a lot of pretty pictures. Fractals are fun to look at. Little copies of the whole structure are buried everywhere within it. Zoom in to 10 angstroms, or out to 10,000 feet: in any part of the picture the same intricate patterns appear.

In self-similarity the part resembles the whole. Symmetry, a different affair, describes a relation between parts. Self-similarity implies some form of symmetry. If A and B are both part of C, and both resemble C, then A will also resemble B, in some sense. But the converse is false. Parts A and B may resemble each other without either resembling the whole, C, in the slightest. One tends to think of self-similarity (and symmetry) as visual, but the principle is structural. The play-within-a-play and the colloquy of the gravediggers in Hamlet are instances of self-similarity. For symmetry, take a lesser play, say Noel Coward’s Nude with Violin, in which a famous modern artist resembling Picasso dies and turns out to have hired a different person to produce the work for each of his “periods.” Each act, in which one of the period painters shows up to claim a share of the estate, resembles the others, but none especially resembles the whole. The play is symmetrical but not self-similar.

Christopher Alexander, in The Nature of Order, gives fifteen principles for “living” architecture, at least six of which can be subsumed under self-similarity. “Local symmetries,” “deep interlock and ambiguity,” “echoes,” “positive space,” “good shape,” and “gradients” are all aspects of what I’m talking about. And a lucky thing too, as one of my principles is that no list of principles should reach double digits.

Alexander also includes “roughness” in his list, which is very much to the point. Fractals fall into two categories: exact and approximate. The first known fractal (arguably), the famous Koch curve, a mathematical monstrosity with unbounded perimeter but finite area, is exact. It is also boring. When you’ve seen one level you’ve seen it all. Everyone likes to look at baby animals. What makes them “cute” is that they are copies of their parents, but inexact ones. They belong to category two.

Self-similarity is a deeply ingrained way for people to see the world. All pre-scientific theories of genesis involve self-similarity. Embryos were first thought to be full-grown animals in miniature, with tiny heads and limbs. It sounds absurd now, but if you knew nothing of cell division and had no microscope handy you might make the same guess. Lamarck precedes Darwin because he assumes that all traits are inherited, that is, that self-similarity applies in full.

If art, as is commonly alleged, speaks to our deepest selves, one would expect it to show self-similarity everywhere, and sure enough it does. Pictures, like Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” which Mandelbrot reproduces in his book, are the first place to look. Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are fractal. Music, to my untutored ear, is replete with structures that repeat approximately on different scales, such as leitmotifs taken up first by the winds, then the strings, the brass, and eventually the whole orchestra. I will leave this speculation to those who know, as I do not.

Poetry, however, I do know something about, and perfectly symmetrical verse forms have never gained much traction in English. The sonnet has fourteen lines, and in neither of its standard forms do these lines divide into identical groups. The Petrarchan version has its octet and sextet, and the Elizabethan its three quatrains, along with that last awkward couplet that Shakespeare could never quite figure out what to do with. The villanelle, with its six triplets and 19th line, exhibits the same sort of approximate symmetry. Then there’s the Spenserian stanza, eight lines of pentameter with an alexandrine tacked on to the end. A while back I remarked the stupor produced by extended passages of Pope, in reams of closed, perfectly balanced heroic couplets. Neatness is not all your second-grade teacher cracked it up to be.

Great poems exhibit symmetry and, especially, self-similarity in a high degree, though this may not be obvious to the casual reader. Consider Ben Jonson’s To Heaven:

1 Good and great God, can I not think of Thee,
2 But it must, straight, my melancholy be?
3 Is it interpreted in me disease,
4 That, laden with my sins, I seek for ease?
5 O be Thou witness, that the reins dost know
6 And hearts of all, if I be sad for show;
7 And judge me after: if I dare pretend
8 To aught but grace, or aim at other end.
9 As Thou art all, so be Thou all to me,
10 First, midst, and last, converted One and Three,
11 My faith, my hope, my love; and in this state,
12 My judge, my jury, and my advocate.
13 Where have I been this while exiled from Thee,
14 And whither rapt, now Thou but stoop’st to me?
15 Dwell, dwell here still! O, being everywhere,
16 How can I doubt to find Thee ever here?
17 I know my state, both full of shame and scorn,
18 Conceived in sin, and unto labor born,
19 Standing with fear, and must with horror fall,
20 And destined unto judgment after all.
21 I feel my griefs too, and there scarce is ground
22 Upon my flesh t’inflict another wound.
23 Yet dare I not complain or wish for death,
24 With holy Paul, lest it be thought the breath
25 Of discontent; or that these prayers be
26 For weariness of life, not love of Thee.

Jonson longs for death while rejecting that longing intellectually. To understand this you must enter partly into the Christian experience. If you refuse, then a large portion of great art is partly or wholly closed to you, and the loss is not easily afforded. It may help to remember that you would likely be Christian had you been born in England in the 16th century. Human beings were no different then, you are extremely unlikely to be more intelligent than Ben Jonson was, and the number of atheists in England at the time was an engineering zero.

The poem is a prayer and an apology, and contains, in good fractal style, several prayers and apologies within itself. It is written in heroic couplets, but is 26 lines long, and naturally resists, like most of the classic English verse forms, division into equal parts. There are no enjambments until the very end, in lines 24 and 25. Every full stop ends a line. Yet the movement escapes Pope’s monotony because the argument moves forward and the syntactic unit varies. There are nine sentences (if we count the ejaculation that begins line 15 as part of the question); In line count they run two, two, four, four, two, two, four, two, and four.

The first sixteen lines deal mostly with God, the last ten mostly with man. Both sections are syntactically symmetrical. The first opens with two questions of two lines apiece and closes the same way. The second reverses the procedure, surrounding the short sentence with the two longer ones.

In lines 11 and 12 “faith, hope, and love” are exactly the qualities that a Christian might exhibit toward his “judge, jury, and advocate,” respectively — no other order would do. Jonson’s sleight-of-hand at the end of line 10, where he interposes a reference to the Trinity (“converted One and Three”) to break up his literal trinities, simply beggars praise.

The Elizabethan fondness for wordplay is employed tastefully, for once (cf. “when first your eye I eyed”). “Everywhere” and “ever here,” in lines 15 and 16, are effective; but “disease” and “ease,” in lines 3 and 4, are a masterstroke. “Ease” implies “death,” and sure enough we find “death” at the end of line 23, as distant from the end of the poem as “ease” is from the beginning. “Thee” rhymes with “be” to begin the poem, and “be” with “Thee” to end it. “Me” and “Three” and “Thee” and “me” are rhymed again almost exactly in the middle of the poem, separated by one couplet. “[J]udge me after” in line 7 balances “judgment after all” in line 20. “After all,” a throat-clearing device in most writers, including me, is resurrected here to become living language.

Despite a theme that will not resonate with most modern readers, To Heaven remains one of the most beautiful poems in the language. Can there be any doubt that it is largely the structure — the fractal — that we respond to?

Aug 072006

One problem with blogging is that anyone can read your archives and see what an idiot you were. I will spare you the trouble.

  • I used to be a race skeptic. Eventually a cursory reading of Cavalli-Sforza convinced me how wrong I was. The History and Geography of Human Genes is a careful and scholarly demonstration of what everyone already knows: that humans once wandered the earth in small tribes, that these tribes had distinctive genetic profiles, and that they tended to breed together, increasing their differences from other tribes, which are still plainly visible today. (In a few wealthy places miscegenation has begun to attenuate this process, but Dinesh D’Souza’s wishful thinking notwithstanding, it will not be reversed for a long, long time.) The fact that we cannot say how many races there are does not render the concept invalid; it has fuzzy boundaries, like many concepts. If you need a definition, Steve Sailer’s “an extended family that inbreeds to some extent” covers the territory just fine.

    All of this is doubly embarrassing because I was perfectly willing to treat race as a valid category when it suited my purposes.

  • Deep Throat was “obviously” a composite. Obviously. Good thinking there Cool Breeze.
  • Animal rights. I got in a lather here and here about how moral agency distinguishes humans, who have rights, from animals, who don’t. I must have understood “moral agency” then; I don’t now. Agency and rights, I now believe, are constructs. They come in handy, to be sure. We need good alpha approximations to adjudicate claims that would otherwise be too messy. I still think rights are a fine idea, but I won’t get all ontological about them the way I once did.
  • The war. This is the big one. On the one hand, I write: “Human beings are good at estimating first-order consequences, notoriously poor with second order, and the third order is like the third bottle of wine: all bets are off.” On the other hand, I support a long-term, insanely complicated geopolitical strategy to democratize the Middle East, which entails foreseeing third- and further-order consequences up the wazoo. The U.S. government has not done very well at it. Surprise! But what was I thinking?

    I was thinking, first, that Saddam Hussein was a really bad guy. Knocking over the occasional tinhorn despot, if only to keep the rest of them on their toes, has a superficial appeal. When your target despot rules a slapped-together country encompassing three perpetually warring ethnic groups, any two of which can agree only on the necessity of annihilating the third, then it may not be such a hot idea. Should I have seen what was coming? No. Should I have seen that I could not see? Damn straight.

    There was also a certain haste to blame America in the anti-war arguments that bothered me. I have no desire to discourage self-criticism, least of all in this post. But even Jim Henley, who among the long-time opponents of the war most closely resembles a responsible adult, has not exactly emphasized the horrors of a culture that treats suicide bombers like rock stars and stones homosexuals to death. These very horrors, ironically, undercut the case of the warbloggers, who harp on them. Surely the least likely people to successfully impose your political ideas on are those whose core values are utterly alien to your own. You end up just killing them instead.

    I can also go along only partway with the classically libertarian “health of the state” argument. Yes, “the Pentagon is the Post Office with nuclear weapons.” And yes, war is the health of the state. But the man who said that was a pacifist, and only a pacifist could regard it as dispositive. War in Iraq? Health of the state. World War II? Health of the state — as anyone who has tried to rent an apartment in New York City can tell you. Civil War? Health of the state for sure. Should we not have fought them on that account?

    Of course the current Administration has seen the state flourish. It has attempted to arrogate to itself the power to suspend habeas corpus for U.S. citizens (Padilla) and to deny the presumption of innocence to the accused (Hamdi), with only feeble objections from the judiciary. It has decreed a “War on Terror,” which is in effect a permanent war. Health of the state is one thing, and permanent police-state powers are something else.

    The anti-war people were right, and I was wrong, and I hope my caveats do not sound too churlish.

Update: Will Wilkinson comments.

Aug 022006

This blog used to run on Greymatter, a collection of Perl scripts that its creator stopped supporting about ten minutes after I chose it. Greymatter served me well for years, but modern features that I need, like RSS feeds and comment spam control, are alien to it, and my Perl isn’t good enough to add them. Greymatter also stores posts in flat files, which is OK if you just want to display them, but not so good if you want to search or perform any other batch operations. I program computers by trade and therefore report these matters with some embarrassment.

New software was called for, and a cursory survey of the alternatives led me, on a Wisdom-of-Crowds basis, to WordPress, a collection of PHP scripts. The WordPress slogan is “Code Is Poetry.” I agree; but if code is poetry, WordPress code is doggerel. Here’s a sample from their Greymatter import script:

if ($i<10000000) {
$entryfile .= "0";
if ($i<1000000) {
$entryfile .= "0";
if ($i<100000) {
$entryfile .= "0";
if ($i<10000) {
$entryfile .= "0";
if ($i<1000) {
$entryfile .= "0";
if ($i<100) {
$entryfile .= "0";
if ($i<10) {
$entryfile .= "0";

A non-programmer, being told that Greymatter file names are eight characters long and begin with as many zeros as are required to fill out the number of the blog post (e.g., “00000579.cgi”), can probably figure out what this code snippet does. If you said that it prefixes the appropriate number of zeros to the blog post number, you win. If it occurs to you that there are more concise ways to do this than with seven nested if-statements, you may have a future in the burgeoning software industry.

On the other hand, this code, like WordPress itself, has the great merit of actually working. WordPress has a pretty easy-to-use API as well, so people can, and do, write skins that you can borrow and modify to your taste, and other extensions to its functionality. Its administrative interface is excellent. The documentation is extensive and the forums are helpful. You could do worse.

Several flavors of syndication are now available, at the bottom right. Old posts can be left open for comments thanks to proper spam control. Comments are numbered. Posts are (beginning to be) categorized.

The mini-blog is a transparent effort to raise my marks in Deportment, by allowing me to pretend I’m interested in what the rest of you are writing while I’m off Thinking Big Thoughts. It will also improve my discipline: at one short sentence every other day, I’ll have a finished book after forty years.

A few matters remain. The baseball search engine is busted, thanks to an ill-advised upgrade. A new one will be forthcoming, with better-looking results, more search criteria, and updated statistics. A reorganization of The Gee Chronicles, which can still be found at their old location, in their old format, for the time being. Links to old posts still work, but point to their old versions. URLs will eventually be rewritten to point to the new ones, but the old links will always work because permalinks should be permanent.

The banner and layout are mostly the work of my girlfriend. All complaints should be directed to her.

Jul 312006

The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.
–E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

The modern screenwriting instructor would say that the grief-stricken queen has an arc: she lives, she saddens, she dies. For an arc you need at least three points: with only two you have a straight line. This blog also had an arc. It began uncertainly, thrashing about for topics and style. Gradually it found subject matter, in cultural criticism, and received a bit of notice. It grew, modestly in readers, by leaps and bounds in self-importance. Posts lengthened; intervals between posts lengthened vastly. At last the blog undertook to remake Western philosophy from the ground up, beginning with thermodynamics. This project included formulae and could not be understood without them — a more or less deliberate affront to the blog’s mostly literary readers. Alpha theory was pursued through seven installments, at immense intervals. The rest, inevitably, was silence.

This arc, which one might call Self-Immolation, was traced more impressively by the British band Talk Talk. They began as ordinary synth-poppers: The Party’s Over, their first record, could have been made by Duran Duran (for whom they opened on a 1982 tour) or any of two dozen groups of the period. Their second record, It’s My Life, is great of its kind but is still recognizable as a kind. Their third record, The Colour of Spring, is transitional; about half of it still sounds like rock and it can be enjoyed by people who are not tuned to the band’s precise wavelength. It was a commercial success, produced a hit single, “Life’s What You Make It,” and induced the band’s record company, EMI, to give them an immense budget and plenty of time to make their next record.

Alienating your audience and infuriating your sponsor are the essence of Self-Immolation, and Talk Talk disappointed on neither front. The band disappeared into an abandoned church, spent the budget and then some while refusing to release any advance tapes to the company, and emerged fourteen months later with Spirit of Eden. They proceeded to inform EMI that there would be no singles. No tour either, since the arrangements were too complex to recreate live. EMI nonetheless released “I Believe in You” as a single without permission. The band promptly sued. EMI countersued for breach of contract, on the grounds that this wasn’t the record they were expecting, or everybody has to tour whether he promised to or not, or the band could have made a hit record if they felt like it but they just didn’t feel like it, or something. One outcome of the litigation was that the group was forced to make a “video” for its “single.” By chance, on MTV, I saw what was probably its sole airing. It consisted of Mark Hollis, the singer, sitting on a stool, against a white background, singing and playing guitar, in one, uncut shot, for seven minutes.

Spirit of Eden was an equally spectacular critical success and commercial flop. It does not resemble any other music I know, except the band’s next and last record. I cannot, in words, make it seem palatable, let alone appetizing. (This may be a general problem; music critics seem to write around the music rather than about it.) It sounds, to the unaccustomed ear, like long stretches of whale sounds punctuated by brief outbursts of noisy free jazz. Regardless, listening to it is as close, with music, as I have ever come to the “transcendence” about which George Hunka and AC Douglas have been known to natter on and in which I usually profess not to believe.

After Spirit of Eden the band moved to Verve and made Laughing Stock, the same sort of thing only more so. There was nothing left to do but break up. As Mark Hollis put it in an interview, “When we finished Laughing Stock, there was no way I could get my head around doing another album because what we’d just done was so complete an expression of what I wanted to do, that the idea of writing something different just seemed impossible at the time.” There, in a sentence, is the Self-Immolator’s credo.

Yet it is difficult, without dying, to self-immolate entirely. Time hangs heavily. Talk Talk’s other members went on to form other bands and do other things. Hollis himself released a solo record years later, so ethereal that it is barely there. Although he has not been heard from in nearly a decade I would not be too surprised to see him return again.

In my own far smaller way, I too have decided to spoil my story arc and revive the blog. Partly because I have reached an age where I forget what I don’t write down, and partly because — well, I miss you guys.

Still, Hollis’s philosophy is a bit grandiose for me. I prefer to draw my inspiration from Derek Smalls, Spinal Tap bassist, who tells the band, before their first post-Nigel gig, as it dawns on them that without Nige they have no songs left to play, “You know what that leaves, don’t you? Jazz odyssey.” Welcome, then, to God of the Machine Mach 2. We hope you enjoy our new direction.

Aug 202005

Camille Paglia very likely agrees with Woody Allen that 80% of life is showing up. Author, teacher, scholar, advice columnist, courageous defier of contemporary orthodoxies left and right, tireless propagandist for the rapist within, and so much more, Paglia doesn’t just show up, she never goes away.

As for the nature of this prodigious output, we have Sexual Personae; Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art; Sex, Art and American Culture; Sex in New York City: An Illustrated History; Madonna Megastar; Sex and the Single Professor. Can anyone find the pattern here?

Still, Paglia must weary of a single subject, and in Break, Blow, Burn she has ventured into poetry. The book is a “close reading” of 43 short poems ranging in time from Shakespeare to the present. One might think that so busy a woman as Paglia wouldn’t have time to learn anything about poetry. She doesn’t.

I am prepared to absolve her of much of the criticism of Break, Blow, Burn, which has been directed toward her selection. Supposing that Paglia thought these the greatest 43 poems in English — and she nowhere makes such a claim — her 43 would inevitably differ from yours or mine. Shakespeare, Donne, George Herbert, Dickinson, and Roethke have three poems each; Blake, Wordsworth, Yeats, Stevens, and W.C. Williams two apiece. The warhorses — “The World is Too Much with Us,” “Westminster Bridge,” “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “Song of Myself” — are out in force, but leavened with a few excellent and lesser-known choices, like George Herbert’s “Church Monuments” and Emily Dickinson’s “Safe in their alabaster chambers.” The inclusion of Joni Mitchell’s pallid “Woodstock” has occasioned grumbling, but rock lyrics are what mostly passes for poetry nowadays, and it is by no means the worst poem in the book.

I am willing to overlook her tasteless attempts at relevance and titillation. (I remember reading a passage from Vamps and Tramps in praise of the “Dionysian” Rolling Stones and thinking, Whoa. The Stones. How cool is that?) She wants to use “Leda and the Swan” as an excuse to talk about swan penises? OK. She wants to characterize the worms in “To His Coy Mistress” as “gang rapists,” or the relationship between Hamlet’s father and Claudius as “male-on-male rape”? Fine. She wants to call Sylvia Plath “the first female rocker”? All right. You’ve opened a Paglia book and this is the price of admission.

What I cannot forgive is the violence she does to the poems themselves. Poetry achieves its effects through the relationship between sound and sense, and to elucidate them requires technical analysis. You have to read carefully and you have to know something. Zero for two, you may want to consider another line of work.

On Herbert’s “Church Monuments” she essays this remarkable passage:

The memento mori takes the form of an hourglass with the curvilinear silhouette of the human body: “That flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust / That measures all our time; which also shall / Be crumbled into dust.” As the sands flow through the hourglass, Herbert makes us hear and feel faint, regular pulses (like a water clock) on the words “flesh,” “glasse,” “dust,” and “time.” Then, with the end of time, the hourglass wobbles and tumbles off the end of one line onto the next, where it smashes to powder.

….The poem is in fact structured like a fall — a formal cascade like Baroque fountain: Herbert ignores the stanza breaks and lets his sentences spill over the gap. The effect is refreshing, like soft rain dribbling off a roof. The poem’s playful, soothing rhythms distance its unsettling imagery of death and decay.

From the top: the body as an hourglass is a commonplace of the English Renaissance. It is not intended to be visualized; such resemblance as exists applies only to women, in the best case, and is irrelevant in this poem. The quoted lines sound nothing like a water clock (in part because water clocks don’t make noise). They derive their effect from variation: the heavy accents on “glasse,” “dust,” “time,” and “dust” again, come after six syllables, then four, then six, and finally ten. The famous last line of Greville’s elegy on Sidney produces a similar effect: “Salute the stones, that keep the limbs, that held so good a mind.”

Assuming the hourglass were involved, “smash” would be a singularly inappropriate verb for a poem about dissolution. But the antecedent of “which also shall be crumbled into dust” is “all our time,” not the hourglass. The thought of time itself dissolving gives this passage much of its concentration and power.

It would be difficult for a poet to “ignore” his own stanza breaks, but in any case Herbert published the poem without them; later editors added them to clarify the rhyme scheme. Yes, the stanzas are all enjambed, but the most violent enjambment of all, on which Paglia does not see fit to comment, comes mid-stanza, in the very passage she quotes, between “shall” and “be,” which splits a verb phrase and emphasizes the utter finality of the end of all things.

The rhythms in this passage, and throughout the poem, are as far from “refreshing” or “playful” or “soothing” as can be imagined, as any moderately sensitive reader can hear for himself. (Not that rain dribbling off a roof is too refreshing either, unless you’re thirsty.) Herbert does not try to “distance” his reader from death and decay; quite the contrary. His rhythms emphasize the grimness of his subject in the most effective possible way.

Donne’s “Holy Sonnet I,” though a fine poem, is metrically undistinguished in every respect. Of line 13:

Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art

Paglia writes: “Rapid, darting rhythms capture the dove’s flight as it swoops in to ‘wing’ the poet’s soul to safety.” Never mind that she invents the dove: Donne is rarely rapid, and never darting, and this line is among the statelier in the history of English literature. In each of the first three feet the unaccented syllable is longer than the accented, which slows and flattens the line. The awkward juxtaposition of a dental and a glottal in the second and third feet slows it further. How much of this is accidental, Donne being Donne, is a nice question. For “darting rhythms” try his contemporaries Campion or Greene or Peele. They are all inferior to Donne as poets but incomparably superior as metrists.

W.C. Williams, a master of tiny sound effects, she simply does not understand. The miracle of “The Red Wheelbarrow” has nothing to do with the fact that the stanzas look like wheelbarrows, though I suppose they do. It is the contrast between the red of the beginning and the white of the end, and the echoing vowel sounds, long long short, in the lines “glazed with rain / water” and “beside the white / chickens”. Paglia proceeds to claim that “This Is Just to Say” resembles an icebox, crossing over from irrelevance into absurdity. The rhythms of the poem are not “halting”; the feet vary widely, and often inversely, in length and speed, which is essential in good free verse. You can hear it especially in the two lines “they were delicious / so sweet”, where the two-syllable foot is slower than the five-syllable one.

The narrator of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” according to Paglia, “shares [Blake’s chimney] sweep’s dangerous naivete: both are cheerful, chatty innocents who meet but never comprehend the dark forces at work in the world.” There is nothing “chatty” or “sing-song” about the first stanza; its diction is exact, and “kindly,” on which she places so much emphasis, is intended ironically. The narrator shows the same intelligence from beginning to end. It is not the “Or rather” at the beginning of the fourth stanza that provokes “the hesitation or stutter”; it is the fact that Dickinson inverts her usual hymn meter of four feet followed by three to three followed by four. The line “the dews grew quivering and chill” does not involve metonymy, which is not adequately defined as “rhetorical displacement.” Paglia’s aside about “Dickinson’s archaic, Anglo-Saxon capitalizations (which were condescendingly ‘corrected’ and removed in the first posthumous collections of her work)” is a slur on Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Bianchi, who displayed more sensibility in editing her poems than her later editor Johnson did and far more than Paglia does in explicating them. (One of Todd’s greatest sins as an editor, as Paglia fails to note, was to omit the fourth stanza of this very poem. The stanza itself is bad, but integral, and it is a close judgment whether the poem is better without it.)

Wallace Stevens bears most of the brunt of her frequent abuse of biography. Often she confuses the narrator with the poet, in the traditional freshman manner. Paglia lets drop that Stevens’ wife appears in “Sunday Morning,” from which I have been unable to discern, after several dozen readings, that the man was even married. Of Williams’ “This Is Just to Say” she remarks: “The note was evidently written overnight, while the rest of the family was asleep.” Evidently: and “My Last Duchess” was evidently written by a murdering medieval duke, A.E. Housman evidently survived countless suicides to become a famous classics scholar in middle age, and as for “Piazza Piece,” I bet you had no idea that Death writes poetry and wears dustcoats. One might excuse Paglia on the grounds that the “note” that the poem purports to be is not the same as the poem itself. Unfortunately she adopts a similar technique throughout, reproducing, for instance, a speech from Hamlet’s father’s ghost as a self-contained poem and discussing it as if it were in Shakespeare’s person.

Arriving at “Anecdote of the Jar,” Paglia takes flight:

In style, the jar more resembles an earthenware pot than a polished vase on a pedestal. It rejects the elite standards of uniqueness and perfection of the European “masterpiece.” Stevens was born and raised in Reading in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where home produce was “put up” in ceramic crocks or glass canning jars and where farmers’ markets still abound. The region borders on West Virginia, just over the Mason-Dixon Line, through which the Appalachian mountain chain drops to Kentucky and Tennessee. Hence Stevens’s Tennessee jar, with its dollops of canned or sampled nature, may also be a jug for moonshine (fiery corn whiskey), that staple of the Southern underground economy… Behind his respectable facade in Hartford, perhaps Stevens in his secluded hours of poetry thought of himself as running a secret still on his own mount of the Muses.

Obliged though I am to Paglia for the definition of “moonshine,” that’s only one kind. This passage is another. It is known, in the argot of literary criticism, as making shit up. The reader may be pardoned for having forgotten in all the hubbub that all we know about the jar is that it’s “round upon the ground,” “gray and bare,” and “tall and of a port in air.” About the “secret still” the less said the better.

Everything Paglia writes about “Anecdote of the Jar” is wrong, including “and” and “the.” “This cryptic poem is about art making,” she says. It is not. It is about Stevens’ single subject, the sterility of the human intellect, represented by the jar, and the consequent necessity of hedonism. This might have occurred to her had she spent more time reading his poetry and less fantasizing about his private life. “Without human framing nature remains ‘a slovenly wilderness,’ a primeval chaos.” No again, as lines 3 (“It [the jar] made the slovenly wilderness”) and 6 (“It [the wilderness] sprawled around, no longer wild.”) make clear. (Italics mine.) Anyone who has come upon a wild scene that looks pristine at first and then spotted a piece of trash will appreciate what Stevens means. The jar makes the mess, which is why it is “gray and bare” and “did not give of bird or bush.” These details are indeed “inscrutable and intractable” when you have the poem backwards from the get-go. It is only fair to point out that most of the Stevens specialists don’t understand it either.

Blake’s “London” she treats as a catalog of the evils of the Industrial Revolution, which makes a hash of “in every ban/ The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” and which would have outraged its author. To interpret the “marriage hearse” as the spread of venereal disease is not only contrary to the author’s intent but illogical. Syphilitic prostitutes may blight marriages with plagues, but why “the marriage hearse”? Blake is pleading, as usual, in favor of anarchy and against law and civil society in every form. This is the man who wrote “damn braces, bless relaxes.”

I will not revisit my little dust-up about “Ozymandias” here. Suffice it to say that my severest critics and I would agree that, whatever the merits of the poem, it decidedly does not “wipe out history and humanity in a godless apocalypse that prefigures modern nihilism.” Shelley was as firm a believer in human progress as anyone this side of Robert Wright. In “Ozymandias” it is the tyrants who perish. This is a good thing.

I think I’ll buy a copy of Madonna Megastar. I hear it’s a picture book.

Jul 192005

Brian: I’m not the messiah.
Acolyte: Only the true messiah would deny that he was the messiah!
Brian: OK. I’m the messiah.
Mob: He’s the messiah! He’s the messiah!
Life of Brian

Guy’s out walking in Manhattan when he sees a street vendor selling unmarked aerosol cans. He’s curious and asks what’s in them, and the vendor says, “Tiger repellent.” The guy points out that there are no tigers in New York City, and the vendor replies, “See how well it works?”

Certain ideas enter the world, like Athena, fully armed. Most of these are disreputable. Conspiracy theorists frequently insist that the absence of evidence for their theory constitutes proof of the power of the conspiracy; otherwise how could they cover it all up? Child “therapists” invoke the absence of any memory of sexual abuse as proof of the same; the horrific experience has been repressed. As Renee Fredrickson puts it, with all seriousness, in Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse, “The existence of profound disbelief is an indication that the memories are real.” The major religions, of course, are the greatest tiger repellent of all. Good is proof of God’s wisdom and mercy; evil of his subtlety and inscrutability. Throw in a sacred text that it is blasphemy even to translate, and a standing order to slaughter the infidels, and you’ve really built something to last.

Tiger repellent also insinuates itself into more respectable precincts. In 1903 a well-known French physicist named Rene Blondlot announced the discovery of N-rays. Over the next three years more than 300 papers, published by 120 different scientists, enumerated some of the remarkable properties of these rays. They passed through platinum but not rock, dry cigarette paper but not wet. Rabbits and frogs emitted them. They could be conducted along wires. They strengthened faint luminosity, with the aid of a steel file.

N-rays, however, turned out to be highly temperamental. You could produce only so much of them, no matter how many rabbits or frogs you lined up. Noise would spoil their effect. Your instruments had to be tuned just so. Blondlot gave complex instructions for observing them, and still numerous physicists failed, for the excellent reason that N-rays do not exist. The American prankster physicist Robert Wood finally settled the matter by visiting Blondlot’s lab in 1906 and playing several cruel tricks on him. Wood surreptitiously removed the dispersing prism that was supposed to be indispensable to the observation of the rays. Blondlot claimed to see them anyway, and when he died thirty years later he was still firmly convinced of their existence.

It is easy to laugh at Blondlot from a century’s distance. But he was not dishonest, and many of the scientists who replicated his results were highly competent. N-rays were, on the face of it, no more improbable than X-rays, discovered a few years earlier. But a phenomenon so faint, so susceptible to external conditions, so difficult to reproduce, is tiger repellent.

All of this struck Karl Popper with such force that he attempted to erect an entire philosophy of science upon it. One sympathizes. Popper began to formulate his philosophy in the 1920s, when psychology, the largest tiger repellent manufacturer of the 20th century, was coming of age. Popper also, unlike most of his colleagues, does not give the impression of squinting at his subject through binoculars from a distant hill. He knows something of math and science and incorporates examples from them liberally. It is no surprise that of all philosophers of science only Popper, Kuhn possibly excepted, has a significant following among actual scientists.

For Popper a scientific theory must be falsifiable, by which he means that one could imagine an experimental result that would refute it. Scientific theories, it follows, are not verifiable either. No matter how many times a theory has been confirmed, no matter what its explanatory or predictive value, it is on probation, permanently. The very next experiment may blow it all to pieces.

Popper’s imaginary experimental result need not exist in our universe — some theories are true — but merely in some other possible universe far, far away. This possible universe may, indeed must, differ from ours in its particulars but may not violate the laws of logic. That 2 + 2 = 4 is necessary, true in all possible universes; that water boils at 100°C at sea level is contingent, true in ours. Science deals only in the contingent.

This distinction is essential to falsifiability. Some imaginary experimental results are valid, some are not, and this is how you tell the difference. In philosophy it has been formally known, since Kant, as the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. Analytic truths are tautologies; they are necessary; all of the information is contained in the premises. The locus classicus of the analytic is mathematics. Following Wittgenstein, Popper views math as “unpacking tautologies,” and therefore excludes it from science. It is, for him, a form of tiger repellent — useful to be sure, but tiger repellent just the same.

Trouble is, there’s no such distinction, at least not as Popper conceives it. Quine’s refutation in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” is decisive. His arguments are well-known, if technical, and I will not recount them here. They amount to the contention that the analytic always bleeds into the synthetic and vice versa. Even mathematics turns out not to be strictly analytic, to Wittgenstein’s chagrin. If, as Gödel demonstrated, there are true statements in any formal system that cannot be reached from its axioms, how do we classify them? Are they analytic, or synthetic, or what? When Popper first published The Logic of Scientific Discovery, in 1934, Gödel was already internationally famous. Its index is replete with the names of contemporary scientists and mathematicians. Gödel’s does not appear.

The analytic/synthetic dichotomy has shown considerable staying power, its flaws notwithstanding, because it resembles the way people really think. Gerald Edelman’s theory of consciousness, for one, with its modes of “logic” and “selectionism,” maps quite well to analytic and synthetic. But the philosopher, in his hubris, elevates ways of thinking to categories of knowledge. Matt McIntosh, a convinced Popperian who rejects the analytic/synthetic dichotomy, has promised to salvage falsifiability notwithstanding. He assures me that this post will be coming, as we say in software, real soon now. (Note to Matt: I haven’t grown a beard while waiting, but I could have. Easily.)

The laws of thermodynamics, science by anyone’s standard, are probabilistic. It is not impossible for a stone to roll uphill, merely so unlikely that the contingency can be safely disregarded. Modern physics is statistical, and was in Popper’s day too. Popper acknowledges that respectable science employs probability statements all the time, which leaves him with two choices. He can admit what inituition would say, and what the Law of Large Numbers does say, that probability statements are falsifiable, to any desired degree of certainty, given sufficient trials. But then he would have to abandon his theory. By this same logic probability statements are also verifiable, and verifiability, in science, is what Popper is concerned to deny.

Hence he takes the opposite view: he denies that probability statements are falsifiable. More precisely, he denies it, and then admits it, and then denies it, and then admits it again. The lengthy section on probability in The Logic of Scientific Discovery twists and turns hideously, finally concluding that probability statements, though not falsifiable themselves, can be used as if they were falsifiable. No, really:

Following [the physicist] I shall disallow the unlimited application of probability hypotheses: I propose that we take the methodological decision never to explain physical effects, i.e. reproducible regularities, as accumulation of accidents. [Sec. 67, italics his.]

In other words, let’s pretend that the obvious — probability statements are falsifiable — is, in fact, true. Well, as long as we’re playing Let’s Pretend, I have a better idea: let’s pretend that Popper’s philosophy is true. We can, and should, admit that “what would prove it wrong?” remains an excellent question for any theory, and credit Popper for insisting so strenuously on it. We can, and should, deny that falsifiability demarcates science from non-science absolutely. Falsifiability is a superb heuristic, which is not be confused with a philosophy.

(Update: Matt came through with his post after all, which is well worth reading, along with the rest of his “Knowledge and Information” series. Billy Beck comments. He seems to think I play on Popper’s team.)

Jul 142005

You will recall from Part 1 that I owned a typescript of two unpublished poems by Yvor Winters and referred to my readers the question of what to do with them. Arguments were offered for selling, publishing, and burning. The arsonists had much the worst of it. Their best point was mine: that publishing them would muddy Winters’ reputation, and the reputations of poets are easily muddied. Still, even Helen Vendler can probably distinguish these juvenilia from such performances as “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight,” “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills,” “Before Disaster,” “To the Holy Spirit,” and “Danse Macabre.” Eddie Thomas suggested that burning them will spare my heirs (my girlfriend) from thinking about what they stand to gain from my death — this typescript, and a stolen eight-ball from the local poolroom. I thank Eddie for making me feel, for a moment, like the billionaire who informs his grasping nephews that everything will go to the dog shelter. Perhaps he will be mollified to know that Lisa was only kidding. You were kidding, right sweetheart?

The historians pointed out a few matters that did not occur to me. We preserve literature for reasons other than strict aesthetic merit. Colby Cosh cites the poetry of Queen Elizabeth, which isn’t much good but which we are happy to have. Colby also reminds me that as an accidental executor my responsibilities may differ from, say, Max Brod’s. Bad poetry, Michael Krantz points out, may shed light on the good, though in my own experience it tends only to obscure it. I agree, however, with George Wallace that I have hedged about them sufficiently that no one will likely take these poems for more than what they are. In short, the historians win.

The mercenaries, led by the terse Paul Frankenstein, may take comfort in the fact that publishing and selling are not mutually exclusive. But I like owning the typescript and I don’t need the money. Certainly I will sell it before I dine on dog food.

Since I’m not going to get rid of them, I see no reason to withhold them. So here they are.

The Hermit

The shaggy old man of the canyons
Was fearful for mortal to see;
But he scattered his crumbs to the song-birds,
And raised the sage flower for the bee.

All folk turned aside when they saw him,
They feared his strange eyes and long hair;
But he played with the fawns in the shadows,
And dug up sweet roots with the bear.

And so when he died no men mourned him,
For he was a stranger to men;
But the fawns stare big-eyed from the shadows,
And the old bear moaned in the glen.

And the birds gave over their singing,
And the canyons were lonely and still;
And the birds dropped leaves over his body,
And the bees hummed his dirge on the hill.

To A Coyote

Gentle pussyfooter of the gulleys,
You of the sleepy slouch,
Of the furtive tail,
And the leering eye,
With your long tongue sliding enviously
Out of one corner of your mouth,
Your coat is moth-eaten,
And your ribs show through it,

But wait,
Where have I seen you before?

–Yvor Winters

Jul 032005

Dear Resentful Intellectual,

Some time ago a few of you complained about the filthy lucre that “Chet” was raking in. “Chet” is supposed to be the prototypical Wall Street guy — tall, handsome, personable, eerily well-adjusted, everything but clever. Of course what you really want to know is not why Chet makes so much money, but why he makes so much more money than you do.

Chet does exist. I’ve worked in finance (the software end), and I’ve met Chet. But I’ve also met any number of brilliant people, as intellectual as you please, and Chet usually works for them instead of the other way around. Of the dozen most intelligent people I have ever known, half of them have spent some time on Wall Street. Is George Soros a Chet? Is Taleb? Is Derman? Brad DeLong, after supplying several more examples of non-Chets on Wall Street, explains matters politely:

Part of the answer is that [Chets] are sitting at a nexus: a huge amount of money blows past Wall Street, and if you can sit in the right place with a large net, unbelievable quantities of money will be trapped by it.

A bigger part of this answer is that there are four relevant human capabilities here: the ability to master details, the ability to quickly grasp what the salient issues are and follow them through to their conclusion, the ability to work like a dog, and the ability to size up people — figure out quickly who will actually produce something useful and who will not, who will hang tough and who will easily bid more, who will soften if wooed and who will stay hard-nosed. Next to nobody has all four or even three of these capabilities in world-class measure. Fewer people than you think have even two. And for someone who has one of the other three — mastery of detail or skill at analysis or the ability to work like a dog for ungodly periods of time — mastery of Chet-hood is a very valuable and lucrative skill.

I will put it less politely: Chet makes a lot more money than you because Chet is worth a lot more money than you. Chet the i-banker regularly spends his weekends drafting prospectuses; Chet the bond salesman often arrives at his office at 3 or 4 AM to trade the foreign markets. What time do you start work? Chet can probably do bond math and explain Black-Scholes. Can you? You have opinions on Wittgenstein, which Chet lacks; are you quite sure the opinions are worth having? Chet is not brilliant, to be sure; neither are you. Brilliant people produce brilliant work. Where’s yours?

The kernel of truth in your complaints is that the regulatory-cash complex protects the incomes of Wall Street, and Chet profits from this. But Chet decided early on that he wanted to trap money with a large net. He majored in economics and went to business school while you were dicking around with philosophy and Russian literature. While you sneered at all of your classmates who wanted to be doctors, lawyers, or investment bankers, Chet signed up for his interview with Morgan Stanley. He may be a welfare queen, and it is irritating that he will rarely recognize the fact; on the other hand, you likely work in academia, which is no stranger to tax dollars. You also, unlike Chet, frequently agitate for still larger subsidies, which annoys Chet as much as he annoys you, although he, unlike you, is probably too tactful to say so.

Yes, the world is full of rank injustices. No, your modest salary is not among them.


Jun 252005

Fifteen years ago I walked into the Phoenix, a poetry bookshop on Jones Street that no longer exists, and asked what they had by Yvor Winters. The proprietor went to the back and returned with several items from the library of Glenway Wescott (1901-1987), a distinguished novelist and a friend and contemporary of Winters. I promptly relieved him of them for more than I could readily afford.

Among the items was a typescript of two poems, “The Hermit” and “To a Coyote,” signed by Winters, with a note by Wescott: “I found this with poems of my own not later than the summer of 1920? (I think)”. To judge by the style he is correct. Winters’ first book of poetry, The Immobile Wind, was published in 1920, and these obviously belong to him, and to that period. They have appeared nowhere in print to my knowledge.

Winters took considerable pains with his literary estate. He issued a Collected Poems in 1952, revised it, adding two later poems, in 1960, and collected his early poetry in 1966. He was very definite about what he wanted to keep, as he was about most matters. In the introduction to The Early Poems of Yvor Winters, 1920-28, he wrote as follows:

I publish this book to provide an authorized edition of my early and “experimental” work. Some one would do this in any event, and probably some one who would sweep all of my uncollected work into a single volume, with no indication of what I had considered my best work at the time I was writing and publishing it. I include three small books [The Immobile Wind, The Magpie’s Shadow, and The Bare Hills], a group of four poems previously uncollected from magazines, and two later groups of some size… Any other uncollected material is rubbish.

Some one else has done this, regardless, although Winters has been fortunate in his editors so far. In 1978 Donald Davie published The Poetry of Yvor Winters, which included everything from Winters’ own two collections and only fifteen additional pages of what he wished to throw away. In 2000 R.L. Barth put out a fine selection of Winters’ verse, along with a well-edited Selected Letters, which are amusing and harrowing by turns.

The Complete Poetry of Yvor Winters, with the usual trappings, critical detritus, and library pricing, is surely in our future. Sooner or later an academic with more diligence than talent will get around to exhuming Winters’ literary remains. He will want to see my typescript.

I will not reproduce “The Hermit” and “To a Coyote” here. They are, in fact, rubbish. The typescript gives me great joy to possess, and I will not let it go until I die. The question is, what then? Should I donate it to a library and put the poems in the public domain? Or should I burn it? You tell me: I honestly don’t know.