Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Spook Stories by E.F. Benson

Would you like to read some ghost stories by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate resting on the hob? Try the Spook Stories by E.F. Benson available at
Spook Stories
They are nicely written with careful characterisation as you would expect from one of the Benson boys. Take this introduction to Naboth’s Vineyard

Ralph Hatchard had for the last twenty years been making a very good income at the Bar; no one could marshal facts so tellingly as he, no one could present a case to a jury in so persuasive and convincing a way, nor make them see the situation he pictured to them with so sympathetic an eye. He disdained to awaken sentiment by moving appeals to humanity, for he had not, either in his private or his public life, any use for mercy, but demanded mere justice for his client. Many were the cases in which, not by distorting facts, but merely by focusing them for the twelve intelligent men whom he addressed, he had succeeded in making them look through the telescope of his mind, and see at the end of it precisely what he wished them to see. But if he had been asked of which out of all his advocacies he was most intellectually proud, he would probably have mentioned one in which that advocacy had not been successful. This was in the famous Wraxton case of seven years ago, in which he had defended a certain solicitor, Thomas Wraxton, on a charge of embezzlement and conversion to his own use of the money of a client.

There’s a certain sort of diction that goes with a good ghost story. It’s slightly elevated, superior and authoritative. Individuals are encountered, not met.

Hatchard was a bachelor; he had little opinion of women as companions, and it was enough for him in town when his day's work was over to take his dinner at the club, and after a stern rubber or two at bridge, to retire to his flat, and more often than not work at some case in which he was engaged till the small hours.

small hours begs for single quotes as an advertent lapse into the demotic.. His ghouls are not commonplace creatures.

Monday, 24 November 2014

I Was Doncing by Edwin O'Connor

How did it happen that a talented writer like Edwin O’Connor could drop into the slough of ‘who’? He won a Pulitzer prize in 1962 for the novel The Edge of Sadness which it was felt was really for The Last Hurrah from 1956 which was made into a film starring Spencer Tracey and brought O’Connor a fortune. His book I was Dancing showed that riches hadn’t curdled his powers though fairy gold tends to be misspent. What does a bachelor want with an 11,000 sq.ft. house in a prime location in Boston recently on offer for a final reduction of 10 mil?

‘Hurrah’ (pub.’61) and ‘Dancing’ (pub.’64) are the only two of his books that I’ve read and they are both excellent. I would regard the latter as the more finished and sustained fiction that gives full expression to his fine sense of humour. Daniel Consadine a ex-vaudeville performer with his dancing comedy act. ‘Waltzing Daniel Consadine has at the age of 77, a serious climateric, turned up at the house of his son Tom. When the story opens he has now been there for a year and feels that this ought to be his final berth though it is 20 years since he last saw his son. He was a good provider sustaining the family and putting Tom through college and law school by touring incessantly. He was an absent father but is making up for it with a pervasive and invasive presence that is driving Tom’s wife frantic. The novel opens with his daily stunt of waking at 7A.M. moving around, singing, tap dancing but not rising until noon:

The truth was that his father lived in a nest of small and maddening mysteries. Tom knew, for instance, that very soon now the soft tapping would stop, it would be succeeded by footsteps, lightly padding across the floor. Then would follow the other sounds: a window closing, water running, a snatch of song. A shoe would drop, a toilet flush. All normal morning sounds, all sounds of someone getting up for the day. Only — his father was not getting up for the day. His father was not getting up at all: whatever the day, he did not rise until noon. So then, why this fake rising? This false start, day after day, which meant nothing and accomplished nothing — except, of course, to snatch the sleeping from their sleep?

It is of course the demand for an audience that he regards as his due that has worn down his welcome to a nub of tolerance. The charm and the quiver of stories have faded into the light of a common daily trial. With encouragement from the wife, Tom a month previously extracted a promise that Daniel would leave for an Old Folks Home - Smiling Valley. This he plans to frustrate and precisely how his entourage are left wondering. He has a number of visitors, eccentrics all, who gain entry to his room which he never leaves by using a special knock. There’s Billy Ryan, homeopath quack, Father Frank Feeley, retired priest and devotee of the track and old time fan Gottlieb:

And he had, for now there was a knock on the door. It was a soft, apologetic knock; it was also the code knock.
"What the hell did I tell you?" Daniel said triumphantly. "That'll be Gottheb."
He went quickly to the door and opened it. Standing there, looking at him, was a small, elderly bald man. He was carefully and expensively dressed; he was unmistakably Jewish; there was about him an air of ahnost radiant dejection. His hands hung down by his sides; as the door opened, he raised his right hand an inch or so in greeting.

Fr. Feeley is a misanthrope of exceptional capacity. He advises young priests how to keep away pious bothersome ladies. He is also a fan:

"Well, I was your fan for an entirely different reason," Father Feeley said. "I liked you: I never liked vaudeville. By and large it seemed to me a collection of absurd people: middle-aged idiots with dyed hair singing love songs, Chinese laundrymen throwing Indian clubs at each other, malformed women doing indecent gymnastics. Farcical nonentities, all of them. You were an exception, Daniel. It always seemed to me that your performance was a marvelous burlesque of your co-workers. Consciously or unconsciously, you were indicating contempt for the whole imbecilic milieu. It was the kind of performance a sane man could enjoy."

Delia his sister is a resident of Smiling Valley, the beckoning fate that he refuses to submit to. She is inclined to gloat. What will happen on this day of days? Will he go or will he stay? They have managed to book a corner room for him somehow, the son is going to pay for it. You oscillate between thinking that his limpet like clinging to his rock is unjustified and considering the son Tom and Ellen his wife cold deniers of the demand of blood ties. This is a jewel.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Analogy as Approximation

As, when a drum is beaten, one cannot distinguish its various notes, but they are included in the general note of the drum or in the general sound produced by the different kinds of strokes.
(Madhvananda Swami trans)

Explication of the text as given by Swami Satchidanandendra in Method of Vedanta :
On this subject we have the Vedic text: “One cannot hear the individual sounds when a tatoo is beaten on a drum. One can only hear the sound of the drum, or of the beating of the drum’. This is the meaning. One can only hear the sounds that come forth from a drum that is being beaten as ‘the sounds of the drum ‘ - that is, one can only hear them as the universal ‘sound’ in particularised form; particularised here by the blows on the drum. The particular sounds cannot be perceived separate from the universal ‘sound’, as they do not exist independently of it. This principle must be applied in evaluating particulars everywhere. And from this we conclude that no particulars exist independently of the universals to which they belong.........
And we see by analogy that none of the particulars and classes found in the world during its period of manifestation exist independently of the (greatest and all-inclusive) universal called Being.
But how should we understand this term ‘universal’ (if it is to mean being in the profoundest sense?) It cannot be the universal called ‘Being’ as conceived by the Logicians which (is merely the objective universal that) accompanied by ( and dependent on ) the Witness-consciousness which is its own true Self. We know from our own direct experience that the universal called ‘Being’ in this sense has no existence apart from that Consciousness which is its invariable support................

Thus when the texts speak of the existence of universals and particulars, using the example of the drum and the rest, they do not intend to inculcate the idea that the Self is a supreme objective universal. Their purpose, rather, is to direct the mind towards the Self as Consciousness, which is itself neither a universal nor a particular, by teaching that neither universals nor particulars exist independently of Consciousness. Hence it is clear that the reference to universals and particulars is only a phase of the the method of teaching by false attribution followed by denial.

The analogy of drumming as being absorbed back into drum sound or the particular being resorbed by the universal is reminiscent of the well known problem of universals. We recognise something as a something. As the individual sounds of the drum merge into drumming so too individual conscious elements merge into consciousness as such. This is a form of meditation to move us past the fascination of the particular and is the import of the citation previously ascribed to Bhaskara.

Therefore it is correct to say that particulars have no existence as anything other than (massed) Consciousness. (Brh. Bhasya II.iv.7)

Note that this too is a false attribution followed by a retraction/denial. Analogies are suggestive approximations.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Logic and retraction

A question one asks is - How could this be true? That is not a shrug warding off credulity but a genuine one that seeks to find a reason for the truth of something. You are looking for a way to see the truth in it. You trust the proposer but doubt the proposal. In advaita this doubt is amplified because of the S.O.P. of attribution and retraction.

from Method of Vedanta by Swami Satchidanandendra:
No objects are seen in waking and dream in the absence of consciousness. Therefore it is logical to say that without consciousness such objects would not exist.
(Brh.Bh. II.iv.7 ie. Bhaskara’s commentary on the Brahma-Sutra)

This runs counter to the thesis of the unknown object (ajnanatta satta) or the idea that a real object is one which can be unknown. An unreal object only ‘exists’ while it is taken up by the mind and not otherwise. cf. unknown object

The other element which makes one wary is the expression logical. In advaita it is the logical that keeps you pinned to Maya. The logical is about the subject/object dyad and that is what is to be transcended. That theory of knowledge expressed by the citation from Bhaskara is what is to be transcended. An attribution followed by retraction.

It is also the case when I checked on the section pg. 470 ff. on Bhaskara the Swami had much to disagree with and so quoting him may be an ironic nod. But that is to anticipate as I am just now at pg. 99.

Correction 20/11/14: The citation above is not the work of Bhaskara but from the commentary by Sankara on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. The Bh stands for Bhasya. Bh at the front of an abbreviation stands for a work of Bhaskara’s. The Idealist interpretation which I took from it is one which is sometimes offered as Advaitic. The suggestion is there certainly but should I think be resisted. My follow up post on the citation in its true location Analogy as Approximation will deal with its ontological import.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

H.L. Mencken

Over the years I don’t think I’ve ever come across a Mencken book so by the grace and favour of Internet Archive I downloaded Prejudices for a more extensive read than the snippets I’ve encountered. Generally they were rambunctious claymore swings at perennial follies with more exuberance and better writing than most journalism though that bar may be more suitable for limbo dancing. I feel that he’s not as good an essayist as he is claimed to be. There’s a uniformity of tone and volume that is wearing. Tirade fatigue sets in and one begins to notice that beyond the abstractions of ‘big government’ and any religion whatever, his sneers at ‘lintheads’ and ‘southern crackers’ manifest elitist contempt. He was a eugenicist and racial theorist when that was commonplace. He failed to look closely at those dismal examples of progressive thought and missed an opportunity to turn his scorn on them and perhaps make them less fashionable. To be clear, he wasn’t wrong about everything, just the important things.

The great problem ahead of the United States is that of reducing the high differential birthrate of the inferior orders, for example, the hillbillies of Appalachia, the gimme farmers of the Middle West, the lintheads of the South, and the Negroes. The prevailing political mountebanks have sought to put down a discussion of this as immoral: their aim has been to prosper and increase the unfit as much as possible, always at the expense of the fit. But this can’t go on forever, else we’ll have frank ochlocracy in America, and the progress of civilization will be halted altogether.
—Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Sravana, Manana and Nididhyasana (Hearing, Reflection, Meditation)

There are different kinds of teacher. The prolix sort will explain everything down to the last detail with take aways and handouts. That is the classic academic, scholastic. Another works by questions, hints and puzzles that you must work through yourself to get to the point where you inhabit an understanding.. I think here of the koan exercise where you demonstrate an understanding in a way that isn’t a cog. The first is the examined life for examinations, a tourist’s eye view of the country with some beautiful snaps of the main attractions. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but a truly examined life produces aporetic gravidity.

I forget now where I read an account of a guru teaching the Bhagavad Gita. Together they would read a verse and then fall silent to reflect on it. Sravana and Manana. Then after a while the teacher would ask: Have you all understood? Then they moved to the next verse.

Nididhyasana is the third leg of the classic path. It is the meditation on what has been heard and reflected on. It seems to be a non-discursive immersion in an understanding until it is as familiar as your home weather.

Sravana has its own mysteries. As the Vedas have the authority of being a pramana or valid means of knowledge, a true hearing of a Mahavaka or distillation of their purport ought to be immediately grasped. (Tat Tvam Asi - that thou art) The claim is that a student who was sufficiently ripe could realise the truth of the mahavaka simply by hearing it. The tricky part is that a mere intellectual understanding is not sufficient to bring one over the line to realisation because you are already over that line. I could never find out whether anyone had ‘achieved’ enlightenment through sravana.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Catholics R us

It is always instructive and chastening to learn that the great minds of former times were subject to the common prejudices of their day. In 1823 Samuel Taylor Coleridge feeling the backward surge of Catholic Emancipation that came in 1829, could write:

April 29. 1823.
The present adherents of the church of Rome are not, in my judgment, Catholics. We are the Catholics. We can prove that we hold the doctrines of the primitive church for the first three hundred years. The council of Trent made the Papists what they are. [1] A foreign Romish bishop has declared, that the Protestants of his acquaintance were more like what he conceived the enlightened Catholics to have been before the council of Trent, than the best of the latter in his days. Perhaps you will say, this bishop was not a good Catholic.[2] I cannot answer for that. The course of Christianity and the Christian church may not unaptly be likened to a mighty river, which filled a wide channel, and bore along with its waters mud, and gravel, and weeds, till it met a great rock in the middle of its stream. By some means or other, the water flows purely, and separated from the filth, in a deeper and narrower course on one side of the rock, and the refuse of the dirt and troubled water goes off on the other in a broader current, and then cries out, "We are the river!"[Footnote 1: See Aids to Reflection, p. 180. note.][Footnote 2: Mr. Coleridge named him, but the name was strange to me, and I have been unable to recover it—ED.] * * * *

A person said to me lately, "But you will, for civility's sake, call them Catholics, will you not?" I answered, that I would not; for I would not tell a lie upon any, much less upon so solemn an occasion. "The adherents of the church of Rome, I repeat, are not Catholic Christians. If they are, then it follows that we Protestants are heretics and schismatics, as, indeed, the Papists very logically, from their own premisses, call us. And 'Roman Catholics' makes no difference. Catholicism is not capable of degrees or local apportionments. There can be but one body of Catholics, ex vi termini. To talk strictly of Irish or Scotch Roman Catholics is a mere absurdity."
(from Table Talk)

That particular Brand war goes on, with the fervour of our friends, the separated brethren in the ‘wee six’ of NornIrlan, and their Romish and Papist contrasted with the style book correctness that is still maintained, the very one that Coleridge objected to. Another modern result of this term conflict was the taking over of a Church of Ireland cathedral in Dublin some years ago by Afghani asylum seekers. My intuition is that they thought that this was the main church of the populace. After a period of quiet reflection they were evicted by the Guards and mostly deported. The ways of the Ferengi are strange and inscrutable.