Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123

Memorization has its advantages and disadvantages.  On the one hand it gives me something to think about in odd moments and sometimes rewards me with a sudden insight; on the other, I think I miss out on the context that comes from a straight reading.  The other day I realized I don’t really get Sonnet 123.

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change.
Thy pyramids, built up with newer might,
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange.
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy, 
Not wond’ring at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow, and this shall ever be,
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

As I recall, I was attracted to this sonnet for two reasons.  One was the obvious echo of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”  I think this reaches for or implies something else I was thinking about at the time, from Lao Tsu, “Without going outside, you may know the whole world.”*  The second reason was that I thought it might be the inspiration of one of will-o’-the-wisps of meaning glimpsed in the random pages of Borges’ Library of Babel, the phrase “O Time thy pyramids”.

What’s odd about this sonnet?  It’s one of those I’ve remarked on before, that has little conspicuously attractive imagery.  Then, between body and couplet (often an interesting transition), the poem switches from largely impersonal (the speaker may start out “I” but comes back to “we”) theorizing on history to strident declaration.  Time in this sonnet is not just the ragged hand of winter defacing the poet’s love (Sonnet 6), but a subtler problem.  In fact, I really think this poem is about something like what I have called “historical imagination”, the way knowledge of history informs our everyday thinking.  I’d like to think that, but I just don’t know what it’s really saying.  Some foolish people see a thing for the first time and think it’s the first time it’s ever happened.  They must not be students of history.  The speaker is too wise for that.  That’s the second quatrain.  But then he would also defy history’s lying records.  So where does that leave him?  With just that bold vow, I suppose.  Is it a convincing renunciation?

There are other sonnets on time, of course, though none quite like this one.  I thought of “When in the chronicle of wasted time,” (106) with which I am familiar enough, but realized on looking back over the sonnets that I had totally forgotten about the one right after 123 that starts

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfathered…
It’s tremendous.  I still have a lot to think about.

* Tao Te Ching 47, trs. Feng & English

The Most Interesting Word in the World

Not just according to my old tutor, Eva Brann, but according to the thing itself, the most interesting word in Western philosophy is logos.  I’ve just read Brann’s book The Logos of Heraclitus: The First Philosopher of the West on its Most Interesting Term.  The Ancient Greek “pre Socratic” philosopher Heraclitus may be best known for saying that you can’t set foot in the same river twice.  Among other things, Brann makes the case that to remember him for this doctrine that “everything flows” is to misunderstand him.

I feel I should make the probably unhelpful confession that I am not quite on board with metaphysics.  That is, I feel a restlessness come over me when I am faced with a statement like “all is one”, or an argument in favor of accepting paradox.  Great, you might say, why should I hear your thoughts on this book when you admit you’re prejudiced against it?  Well, this isn’t a deliberate position of mine, but a vague state of mind that troubled me as I read.  I think it’s to Brann’s credit that no sooner had I begun to fret over this than I was drawn in by some striking arguments.

What if, for example, the usual translation of hen panta, all is one, misses the mark somewhat?  Brann’s contention, well within the realm of grammatical possibility, is that Heraclitus intended something more like “one: everything”, the colon being the same notation used to denote mathematical ratios, or in Greek, logoi.  I find it much more plausible that Heraclitus is drawing our attention to the relationship, whatever it may be, between one and many, than that he is simply identifying them.  Brann draws our attention to two examples of relations, ratios, or logoi: that which obtains between numbers, and that which makes a poetic metaphor.  They seem to be of two different sorts, but where is the boundary?  Is it always easy to say where that boundary lies in science, or rhetoric, or law?  Is one sort more fundamental to our thinking?

There’s a lot to the book I haven’t said much about.  Does Heraclitus somehow think the world is made of fire?  Why is War king of all?  I could easily stand to read it again, and follow up with the rest of the pre Socratics, Plato, Euclid, maybe even Aristotle.  It’s worth thinking about.

One last thought: Is logos really an English word?  Should it be?  And how?

My Take on Umberto Eco

I’ve read all six of Umberto Eco’s novels.  I guess this qualifies me as a fan and I should say something about them.

I read Foucault’s Pendulum first, and was sucked in immediately by his description of the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris.  It’s a tour de force.  The museum where the titular pendulum resides is a menacing mechanical phantasmagoria that overwhelmed whatever very important symbolism I’m sure it possessed.  I was crushed to find that the museum today bears no resemblance what Eco described.  After that I read The Name of the Rose.  I love libraries, which is a reason this is probably my favorite, although seldom does one feel so incapable of forming a competent opinion of a novel.  A while later I read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I found on remainder.  I would say it was middling if it weren’t for one surprising, heart pounding thrill, and, of course, the illustrations.

That’s it for what I refer to as Eco’s three good novels.  I wonder if anyone else has observed that they are also narrated in the first person, and I wonder whether any other writer’s oeuvre seems to break up this way.  Until I went back and checked, I had convinced myself that The Prague Cemetery was written in the third person, as Baudolino and The Island of the Day Before actually are.  In any case, I doubt I’ll spend much more time with those three.  They had their good points, but I found them devoid of narrative drive.  Something else that strikes me is that after The Name of the Rose, Eco’s best have prominent autobiographical themes: Aging and memories of wartime Italy in Loana, intellectual life and radical politics in (I think) sixties Italy in Foucault.

So that’s my take on Eco.  It seems odd to me that while Eco does strike me as a novelist of ideas, it is his more personal writing that I actually like.  Any thoughts?