Sunday, 28 April 2013

Santa and the damage done

Santa comes down the chimney bearing gifts and emerging into the room places them under the tree. Anyone who doesn’t get the catenary of symbolism there from the gross Freudian and the breathy chanteuse “ hurry down the chimney tonight” to the gift and the gift bearer under the evergreen never dying tree needs to turn over a new leaf. Our daughter placed in my wife’s arms for the first time drew from her the words of wonder - “She’s so beautiful”. Unto us a child is given and we emulate that great truth with a myth evoking wonder in the form it can be experienced by the child. It is a balance of gifts which is the source of the need to sacrifice expressed in both the ancient and modern forms of religion.

We philosophers, we worry you know.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Apology of Socrates

Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot? asks Yeats. To which we reply, ‘well no Willie’ not really and we break into the great lines of Auden:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
(In Memory of W.B. Yeats)

Prose, plain and fancy, can make things happen and the words that call words into question have wrought mischief. Philosophers seek to interpret the world and so on and so on. If anyone was wordy it was Socrates, the word on the street of Ancient Athens. That word seemed a token that we might spend in our own talking shops here:
- Can I have a kg. of imponderables, and a definition? That one should be cheap, it’s bruised but good enough. Throw it in as a tilly.

Last week I bought second hand, €2, a Socrates source book compiled by John Ferguson put out by the Open University (1970), a cheap production, shoddy cover, shoddy paper with that unmistakable whiff. It is like something you might find in a pile on the pavement of a book bazaar in Bombay and the seller saying as he dusted it with strips of cloth attached to a cane:
- Socrates, aatcha, philosopher wallah, like Gandhi, satyagraha.

All the ancient authors that had some observations on the man are included and they do what Socrates himself would have approved of - they disabuse us of simplisms and received opinion. Diogenes Laertius, Xenophon, Libanius etc. Ferguson includes citations from a great many Christian writers who are in general approving of Socrates as a pagan who strove against the fog of error and depreciated the gods.

In that particular approach they are being misled by Plato’s Apology which stresses the dissing the gods part of the indictment. What is elided in that selective document is the corruption of youth not in the sense that some of the Christian authors took it but as understood by the Athenians of the day. Boys were initiated into political and cultural life by older free men of their own upper class. Sex, generally non penetrative, was possibly part of ritual humiliation, to put you in your place and make you receptive. It is difficult to understand from our perspective but this mentoring had a moral dimension to it. One was responsible for one’s youths, they reflected your influence. Critias and Alcibiades had both been ‘influenced’ by Socrates and therefore their doings were damming. There was no point trying to get out of that so the best strategy was to divert the jury by lopping off one limb of the charge and indicating that he was no creature of the tyrants or Critias in order to cast doubt on the corruption of youth which was the gravamen. It was a close majority verdict and that explains why he did not use the public exposure that the trial gave him to give a speech from the dock in the Wolfe Tone manner. He might have got off. Once condemned however he became insolent in order to make his mark. Make no mistake about it, Socrates was an anti-democratic figure and used his death to say for all time - this is judicial murder, this is what your fine demos gets up to, and my accuser Anytus a tanner, really. His son was a spirited boy though.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Motive for Metaphor by Wallace Stevens/Denis Donoghue/ W.B. Yeats

You will have heard that expression of stoic realism, it is what it is. I'm saying, it is what it isn't. The world is not a cave really nor is it a well furnished lab and we clothed in the alb of investiture, the white coat. The first is the Platonic metaphor and the second is a confection of mine own, compounded of many simples. What you have there are two examples of a series of similes that are condensed into a single metaphor. This is a common strategy of mental economy and it is operative in poetic language in which meaning is typically compressed. To dispense with metaphor is to perhaps dispense with language itself.

The most conspicuous point of contact between meaning and poetry is metaphor....... If we trace the meanings of a great many words - or those of the elements of which they are composed – about as far back as etymology can take us, we are at once made to realize that an overwhelming proportion, if not all, of them referred in earlier days to one of these two things – a solid, sensible object, or some animal (probably human) activity.
(From the chapter on Metaphor in Poetic Diction by Owen Barfield.)

Displacement or replacement is what Wallace Stevens accuses himself of. He does not face up to the given in all spiritual seasons.

The Motive for Metaphor

You like it under the trees in autumn,
Because everything is half dead.
The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves
And repeats words without meaning.
In the same way, you were happy in spring,
With the half colors of quarter-things,
The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,
The single bird, the obscure moon—
The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself
And did not want nor have to be,
Desiring the exhilarations of changes:
The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
The weight of primary noon,
The A B C of being,
The ruddy temper, the hammer
Of red and blue, the hard sound—
Steel against intimation—the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

He is, as it were, happier with glimpsing things in half light and not primary noon which is altogether too clear for his evasions. How much better it would be if he forged the smithywork of his soul using the plain indications of correct temperature namely cherry red and peacock's eye in a downright way. Forgive the twee 'smithywork' but it seems to go with a poem which finally for me does not give pleasure. Non placet then. The metaphor of the final stanza does not go on all fours when one considers that a smithy is always kept in low light the better to gauge the annealing and quenching colours.

Compare this to Yeats finding metaphors for poetry in Georgie's scribbles.

On the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences.  ‘No,’ was the answer, ‘we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.’
How invidious is that.

Denis Donoghue does his best, his almighty best, with the poem but I sense the reservations from a man that bleeds Yeats:
Hudson Review

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

De Raeymaeker and Shankaracarya on Possibility

Louis De Raeymaeker in his book The Philosophy of Being (pub. 1946) refers to Shankaracarya in a footnote on page 147 in the chapter on the static order of being.

The Indian school of Avaita (Shankaracarya, circ. 788 - 820) which allies itself to Brahmanism, maintains likewise that the world is real only because it is identified with the absolute, Brahma. Limitation and multiplicity derive from a potency, Maya, the great sorceress, who dwells in the heart of reality. They are only an illusion, an effect of ignorance, of imperfect knowledge, Avidya. Whoever places himself at the true point of view of the absolute, Brahma, enters into possession of the full wisdom, Vidya, which makes Maya and Avidya disappear and this man enjoys the beatific vision of all things in the perfect simplicity of Brahma.

The Brahmanism referred to here is related to the ancient Vedic religion and its practices such as the Fire Ceremony (Agnihotra) and its philosophic foundations in ancient Upanishads such as the Brhadaranayka and Chandogya, both of which have commentaries written by Shankaracarya. Avaita (commonly written Advaita) in its modern form stresses the philosophical rather than the ritual. Vidya and Avidya are simply knowledge and ignorance. The world is unreal only when it is taken to be a free-standing, self sufficient entity. It is real as manifestation. This is the usual formula given to allow a bearing to be established on the problem of creation, it is not a closely argued final position. The Real in Advaita is that which is changeless and necessary, the unreal is changeful and contingent. The well known argument from illusion as operative in Western philosophy is not an issue in this connection.

De Raeymaeker is accurate on this point though he succumbs to the fanciful allegoricisation that poetic Hindu texts go in for. In any case it is just a remark in passing, his chief focus is on Spinoza who offers an analogous account of ultimate absorption into unity of being.

The modes (of finite being) are founded on, and every distinction is effaced in, infinite Nature; the opposition between possibility and reality , between essence and existence, disappears in the fundamental unity of pure Being.

Interestingly De Raeymaeker in his discussion of The Possible, The Problem of the Foundation of Intrinsic Possibility and The Problem of the Relation of Extrinsic and Intrinsic Possibility covers in his closely argued methodical way the grounds for the more compressed insights of Shankaracarya on the issue of the Buddhist Idealist claim that a thing’s existence is based on whether it can be known or not. If it cannot be known as per the standard idealist view we are only acquainted with the contents of a mental experience, then the existence of a thing as possible or impossible cannot be determined. Shankaracarya’s counter is that it is the application of valid means of knowledge (pramanas) that determines whether a thing is impossible or not.

What is known through any one of the means of knowledge, such as direct perception etc., is possible, and what cannot be known through any one of these means of knowledge is impossible. In the case under discussion, the external things are known individually by the respective means of knowledge;...
(B.S.B. II.ii.28)

Denying the possibility of your empirical acquaintance with something says nothing about whether it is possible or not and in fact makes it impossible to say whether or not it is an existent.

De Raeymaeker (pg.91):
It is not the abstract, as such, which can exist, but the concrete individual; it is not the abstract essence “man” which is possible, it is this or that man, Socrates or Plato.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

A Shepherd's Life by William Henry Hudson

One thing Hemingway and Ford did agree on was the writing of William Henry Hudson. Hemingway had 14 books of his and Ford several times states that he thought Hudson to be the finest living writer of English prose. This, from a man who knew all the modern masters, is an extraordinary encomium. There is a good selection of his works on the Gutenberg Project. The extract I have chosen is from A Shepherd’s Life published in 1910. There’s a sketch of his life and works on Wikipedia:
William Henry Hudson


To the dwellers on the Plain, Salisbury itself is an exceedingly important place—the most important in the world. For if they have seen a greater—London, let us say—it has left but a confused, a phantasmagoric image on the mind, an impression of endless thoroughfares and of innumerable people all apparently in a desperate hurry to do something, yet doing nothing; a labyrinth of streets and wilderness of houses, swarming with beings who have no definite object and no more to do with realities than so many lunatics, and are unconfined because they are so numerous that all the asylums in the world could not contain them. But of Salisbury they have a very clear image: inexpressibly rich as it is in sights, in wonders, full of people—hundreds of people in the streets and market-place—they can take it all in and know its meaning. Every man and woman, of all classes, in all that concourse, is there for some definite purpose which they can guess and understand; and the busy street and market, and red houses and soaring spire, are all one, and part and parcel too of their own lives in their own distant little village by the Avon or Wylye, or anywhere on the Plain. And that soaring spire which, rising so high above the red town, first catches the eye, the one object which gives unity and distinction to the whole picture, is not more distinct in the mind than the entire Salisbury with its manifold interests and activities.
There is nothing in the architecture of England more beautiful than that same spire. I have seen it many times, far and near, from all points of view, and am never in or near the place but I go to some spot where I look at and enjoy the sight; but I will speak here of the two best points of view.
The nearest, which is the artist's favourite point, is from the meadows; there, from the waterside, you have the cathedral not too far away nor too near for a picture, whether on canvas or in the mind, standing amidst its great old trees, with nothing but the moist green meadows and the river between. One evening, during the late summer of this wettest season, when the rain was beginning to cease, I went out this way for my stroll, the pleasantest if not the only "walk" there is in Salisbury. It is true, there are two others: one to Wilton by its long, shady avenue; the other to Old Sarum; but these are now motor-roads, and until the loathed hooting and dusting engines are thrust away into roads of their own there is little pleasure in them for the man on foot. The rain ceased, but the sky was still stormy, with a great blackness beyond the cathedral and still other black clouds coming up from the west behind me. Then the sun, near its setting, broke out, sending a flame of orange colour through the dark masses around it, and at the same time flinging a magnificent rainbow on that black cloud against which the immense spire stood wet with rain and flushed with light, so that it looked like a spire built of a stone impregnated with silver. Never had Nature so glorified man's work! It was indeed a marvellous thing to see, an effect so rare that in all the years I had known Salisbury, and the many times I had taken that stroll in all weathers, it was my first experience of such a thing. How lucky, then, was Constable to have seen it, when he set himself to paint his famous picture! And how brave he was and even wise to have attempted such a subject, one which, I am informed by artists with the brush, only a madman would undertake, however great a genius he might be. It was impossible, we know, even to a Constable, but we admire his failure nevertheless, even as we admire Turner's many failures; but when we go back to Nature we are only too glad to forget all about the picture.

Friday, 12 April 2013

In Mem. W.S.

In Mem. W.S.

Wallace, you’re all washed up,
There’s a bow on the top of your head,
Like an Easter egg.
No more will your jaw drop at the effrontery
of life’s claims.
Weeping minions are shredding flimsies
And the dead eyes of box files
gaze implacably down.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013


- Bless me Father for I have sinned...
- Hold it there son, don’t be so hard on yourself, things were cognitively different then.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

More on Ernest Hemingway and Fort Madox Ford

Previously on the Hem Fordie row: This means war

It becomes clearer as if it were ever that obscure that Hemingway is having his leg pulled by Ford. First of all he knew Belloc well and could pretend that a stranger was him for cutting purposes. In the Bodley Head Ford Madox Ford, Vol.Five, Memories and Impressions he relates how he often dined with him, knew him well and took material from him for The English Review

This ‘cutting’ business was a characteristic joke of his, playing the Tory toff. He is talking about the founding of The Transatlantic Review and tells how at the time that he had met his brother in Paris by chance he had not seen him since 1916.

Then one day, crossing the Boulevard St.Michel up near the Luxembourg Gardens, I met my brother. I had not seen him for a great number of years. The last time had been in 1916 when I had passed his rather bulky form, in uniform, in New Oxford Street. He had been wounded and I failed to recognise him, khaki making everyone look alike. My companion on that day said I exclaimed - it was during the period when my memory was still very weak: ((due to concussion from being blown up))
‘Good God: that was my brother Oliver, I have cut my brother Oliver.... One should not cut one’s brother!......... It isn’t done.

I do not remember to have uttered those words but I can still hear the ringing laughter that saluted whatever I did say.

In the Hemingway Library
Hemingway Library
there are several books of Ford’s including reminiscences. Whether they contain the material that is in the selection made by Michael Killigrew for Bodley Head I do not know but if they do there is much there to offend E.H. His tauromachy, his shadow boxing, his attempt to hijack the contents of the magazine when Ford was away are all related with a sort of affable slighting tone.

On most Thursdays Mr. Hemingway shadow boxed at Mr.Bird’s press, at the files of unsold reviews and at my nose; shot tree-leopards that twined through the rails of the editorial gallery and told magnificent tales of the boundless prairies of his birth. I actually preferred his stories of his Italian campaign. They were less familiar.........Mr. Hemingway had, I think, been a cowboy before he became a tauromachic expert

Friday, 5 April 2013

Sex and the Single Chick,Brain Voodoo, Rhetoric,

I browsed in David Eagleman’s book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and read about the strange training of chicken sexers in Japan. According to him the masters of this ‘do’ do not know how they do it, the visual clues are too subtle to be described. All they do is examine the vent of the chick and they know. The novice then guesses what sex the chick is and this guess is confirmed or denied by the master. After a good deal of training the novice becomes a master and can do 800 to 1000 chicks per hour. That is 12 plus a minute picked up, examined and placed in a bin as male or female which is dexterous one has to admit but is it true that there are no visual clues that can be discriminated in a slow scan of the vent. Here I learn that there are:
chicks wiki
So is the ‘do’ of chicken sexing a cognitive science myth and brain magic voodoo? My illative antennae tell me that it is a likely story. I don’t know how I do it, really.

What I was going to do before I did a little research, very little research, was draw a parallel with Rhetoric and Composition training and M.F.A. training in the writer’s craft. Can it be done? Maybe is the definite answer to that. Clearly you are better off having a teacher that is a practitioner with good taste. You also need to examine the vent of many good examples, negative and positive. And then you have to be prepared to murder your darlings or put them in the dog food bin.

There are sample and pattern books that emanate from the U.S. and end in Byrne’s bins for ein Euro bitte generally. I have a few here beside me. Using Prose: Readings for College Composition (Lee & Moynihan eds. pub.1961) Ableism forbids any remark on that title. Within there are section with such bolster banging heads as Reading, Writing, and Thinking, The Meaning of America. There’s a nice essay on Making Coeducation Co- by Lynn (he) White Jr. (born 1907) He tells me:

Most women’s colleges keep a considerable number of men on their faculties, on the ground that it is important for their students to know how men’s minds work.

That can only be a good thing, say I, and I trust they are exercised regularly. ‘Look at me Lynn, look at me, are you being ironic with me? Ok, ok, calm down I believe you’.

Lynn is a liberal sort of man:
One hesitates in the United States to cite Russian precedent; but even the most ardent red-baiters seldom accuse the Communists of stupidity.

Simpler times.

Next on the stool before me is Literature. Structure, Sound, and Sense ed.Laurence Perrine. pub.S.M.U. in 1956. reprinted several times up to 1970 and likely beyond. An excellent collection of short stories, poetry, and several plays running to 1425 pages. Naturally there are questions for the guidance of the academic helots who gave these courses. To torment the shade of Flannery O’Connor the first question after her story Greenleaf which comes in the section on symbol and irony is:

The characters and events of the story are seen as reflected through Mrs. May’s mind. How objective are her evaluations? How far are they reliable testimony and how far only an index of her own mind.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Professor Jennifer Faust on Religious Arguments

This morning I read for the first time Professor Jennifer Faust’s paper on doxastic question begging:
question beggingIt’s a very clear exposition of certain lines of thought which I have posted on in a lighter form. I find that I am in agreement with her if that isn’t too bumptious a claim.

As a slight data element I considered also the case of philosophers who might be considered in general more likely to be led by argument. I was chiefly considering the path from atheism to theism and based my reflections on sketchy biographical information. The indication seems to be that a surprising number of philosophers did not go the rational route of persuasive arguments.
rational conversion
epistemic duty

The illative sense as developed by Newman plays a part in what Faust calls doxastic question begging. What rings true for me may be sheer folly for you. She explains all this in a very clear and cogent manner and does not flinch from stating that the atheist is playing the same game. However and this is a well observed phenomenon, faith is more easily lost as a result of hearkening to arguments that undercut its rational pretensions. She stresses also that theological arguments are as much a meditation as persuasion for the faithful.

She note: Faust uses ‘he’ as the unmarked pronoun at first, then switches to ‘she’ and then back again to ‘he’ later. There might be a method or many editors making ‘she’ work.

Siris at
question begging
gives his views on Professor Faust’s paper. His is a more general classical discussion of the role of argument whereas Faust’s is a more focused one on the very contentious metaphysical debates e.g. the existence of God, the external world. She is looking at argument from a forensic point of view, pro and con the motion, that sort of dialogue. Arguments with the intent of persuasion do not work in the very contentious debates. It is only one’s prior commitment that makes them seem to be ‘persuasive’. Siris identifies this prior commitment according to the classic account of rhetoric as the force of pathos and ethos. It is not just logos that is operative.

That is a sketch of Siris’s explication which I found informative and lucid.