Spring Follows Summer

I’m still around, I haven’t given up books, and I feel a little guilty about not sharing my thoughts recently. I thought I’d pick up again with something light.

I’ve been reading Don Quixote for almost a year now. It’s occurred to me that there are classics everyone gets even if it’s hard to say what they are about. The baggiest Dickens is melodrama with some good characters, some bad, and some ridiculous. Middlemarch is similar. Don Quixote, however, is about a crazy man playing at chivalry, but I don’t understand it. It’s funny when the ingenious gentleman attacks a bad poet, or when Sancho is tied up like a turtle between a pair of shields and trampled. Yet I hear others are appalled by the violence. Is it comedy or tragedy?

At the beginning of Chapter 53 of the second part, Sancho’s governorship is drawing to its close, and we read that “To imagine that things in this life are always to remain as they are is an idle dream… everything moves in a circle: spring follows summer, summer the harvest, harvest autumn, autumn winter, and winter spring…” This is explicitly credited to the fictional narrator Cid Hamete Benengeli in the midst of a flight of mock eastern philosophizing. It’s funny enough for the double take alone. Despite this it has, according to Samuel Putnam, provoked real debate between those who would let it stand and those, including the Spanish Academy, who would emend the text.

I would love to know of similar cases where a passage in the work of a great humorist has given rise to a such a grammatical controversy boiling down to “did he mean it or not?”  I think that even if it is a mistake, it should probably stand.  And what of the end of Sancho’s rule?  His farcical battle is followed by a resignation worthy of Cincinnatus.  Will I ever understand Don Quixote?

Arranging the Imaginary Library

I picked out Behind the Urals at the Boston Athenaeum.  The library of the Athenaeum is, broadly speaking, divided into an old and a new collection.  The old books are those acquired while the library used a classification created by its own librarian, Charles Cutter.  Maybe forty years ago, they switched to the Library of Congress system.  As far as I know, reconciling the Cutter with the LOC would be extremely time consuming and not very helpful, since both are digitized.  The separation is interesting in itself.  For one thing, the old books look spectacular.  I’m not supposed to take photos, but it’s worth a search.  One of my favorite sections is what I think of as the travel section.  It’s located on a glass balcony above the main hall.  It’s where I found The Empty Quarter, about early twentieth century exploration in Arabia.  I had noticed Behind the Urals some time before, and I stopped putting it off and grabbed it a couple of weeks ago in keeping with my “see it, do it” resolution. (Just as I was writing this I put it aside and double checked the affiliation rules for Massachusetts primary elections.)

At school, we were enjoined when reading difficult books to assume good faith and interpret charitably.  I’ll admit that I found this easier for Marx than for some of the others, like Aquinas.  In my last post on Behind the Urals, I was trying to convey what was interesting in John Scott’s report, vis a vis idealism, women’s liberation, and educational reform (not to mention whupping Nazis) without supporting Stalinism, to put it bluntly.  Even that’s dubious if there’s reason to think that an author might not be writing in good faith.

So that brings me to the subject of my post: How do we know what we are reading?  I suppose most readers spend almost as much time thinking about the books they have not read as about the ones they have.  Accordingly, most of us carry with us a sort of vast imaginary library, and where a given book fits in that library tells us something distinct from what we get from actually reading it.  (Among others, Pierre Bayard writes about something like this, but I don’t feel like digging it out, and he of all people is not in a position to complain.)  Lately I’ve been troubled by the problem of arranging the imaginary library.  So while I don’t have any answer as to how we can trust what we are reading, hopefully I can illustrate this feeling.

I might never have run across Behind the Urals or The Empty Quarter outside the Athenaeum, and not solely because the collection runs to older books.  It’s also because the Library of Congress Classification appears to weaken the subject of travel writing (Cutter’s class A is listed as “Description and Travel, Eastern Hemisphere”) in favor of history.  On the LOC website, Behind the Urals is listed under DK, history of Russia, the former USSR, and Poland.  I realize that classification is difficult, and the historical themes of revolution and the buildup to WWII were part of the pleasure of Scott’s story.  More surprisingly, The Empty Quarter, which focuses narrowly on desert exploration, is also listed in world history, subclass DS (Asia).  Finally it turned out that a book about the arctic, Shackleton and the Endurance is in fact listed under class G (Geography, Anthropology, and Recreation).  From a certain point of view it is strange that a book like Behind the Urals could be found near, for example, works based on macroeconomic analyses written decades or more after the fact.  What connections have been made or missed based on the arrangement of a library?  William Goldbloom Bloch does well to push his investigation of the mathematics of the Library of Babel to include not only all possible books but all possible arrangements of the books.

I suspect that as well as being dispersed physically, the reputation of Cutter’s section A has suffered.  Such works are likely to be colonialist, Orientalist, or just plain too out of date for some people.  When are such generalizations really helpful?  I don’t really want to complain about this so much as about the fact that I simply don’t have much idea what is there.  There is no Oxford Companion to Travel Writing.  In a largish reference collection, the closest thing I found was A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701 to 1800.  There is the Cambridge Companion to Travel Literature, but my slight experience of of the Cambridge Companions involves long, theoretically motivated essays completely inimical to browsing.  This wing of my mental library remains dark.

The more I think about it, the more I am sure that Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, published last spring, is a major event in science fiction.  Together with The Martian it represents a turn to hard science fiction engaged with contemporary issues.  At any rate, I’ve been returning to it again and again, and I usually find something interesting.  Right now I want to know why Rufus MacQuarie, faced with the end of the world, obtained an out of date version of the Encyclopedia Britannica for his underground fastness.  Sonar Taxlaw may be all the justification that exists for this decision, and she is probably sufficient, but it’s provoking nonetheless.  The library for the end of the world is an important sub department of the imaginary library, and you wouldn’t want to go into it with sub par reference works.  The ninth Britannica was famous for its scholarly articles, the eleventh for Americanizing and popularizing the same.  Who knows but that there might be shades of difference regarding the usefulness and accessibility of the technical articles even in the latest editions?  I hope someone out there knows.

Upcoming: my reading of the latest from Umberto Eco, Numero Zero. Lately I’ve picked up Bill Bryson’s favorite travel book and a book about botanizing in Tibet.

Egil’s Poetry

Borges is right to make so much of the Norse poets’ way with metaphor.  I am more firmly convinced of this after reading Egil’s Saga.  Egil has a case for being the quintessential viking.  His father Skallagrim left Norway for Iceland among the earliest settlers, rather than submit to the ascendant King Harald Fairhair.  Like his father, Egil raided and fought as a mercenary before settling down somewhat as a farmer.  On one of his journeys he fought for Aethelstan of England against the Scots.  Years later, he found himself in York, facing execution at the hands his enemy Eirik Blood Axe.  Though Egil was a berserker who killed his first victim when he was seven and sometimes bit his enemies to death, this time he saved himself with poetry, using a night’s reprieve to write an ode to King Eirik.  Afterwards he joked that

Ugly as my head may be,
the cliff my helmet rests upon,
I am not loathe
to accept it from the king.
Where is the man who ever
received a finer gift […]?

Poetry comes naturally among the viking’s exploits.  “The ship raced along, and Egil spoke this verse:

With its chisel of snow, the headwind,
scourge of the mast, mightily
hones its file by the prow
on the path my sea-bull treads.

In his old age, Egil’s spirits were revived by composing laments for the death of his friend Arinbjorn, and for two of his sons, in an episode that might bear comparison with the story of Job.

I have piled a mound
of praise that long
will stand without crumbling
in poetry’s field.
Snorri Sturluson, perhaps the author of Egil's Saga

Snorri Sturluson, perhaps the author of Egil’s Saga

I’ve been reading Bernard Scudder’s translation, in a Viking hardcover copy of The Sagas of Icelanders that is one of my favorite books.  It’s only a selection from a five volume translation of the Icelandic sagas, supposedly complete, that was published in Iceland in 1997.  One day maybe…

Do you need another reason to read the sagas?  The Middle Ages will never seem more immediate or relevant.  Tenth century Europe was a cosmopolitan place, its rulers more like businessmen than national institutions. Eirik Blood Axe was ruling in York because he had extorted it as a kind of compensation from Aethelstan, who helped his brother take over Norway.  He was like a defense contractor that is never out of work, or like Scott Brown maybe.

A New Book from Jorge Luis Borges (sort of)

I’ve been getting drawn into A Course on English Literature in spite of myself.  The book is a transcription of lectures given by Borges in 1966, published in Spanish in 2000, and released in English by New Directions last year.  Borges died in 1986, but I think it will be a long time before readers of English have access to all of his works, or even get a real sense of them.  (I do read Spanish, but I haven’t read Borges much in the original.  In Argentina I was daunted by the many editions of his work and by the appearance of a colossal (Boswellian?) memoir by his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares.)

I may be giving myself too much credit but I think there is something essentially hard to grasp about Borges’ work.  I began to read the short stories more than ten years ago.  More recently I’ve read a small number of his essays.  Along the way I picked up This Craft of Verse (a series of lectures given at Harvard) and Seven Nights.  Still, every time I pick up one of these books, I find myself lost, apart from a very few really iconic stories: “The Library of Babel”, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, “The Aleph”, “Funes the Memorious”, “Pierre Menard”, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.  The stories, reviews, and essays all blend together.  I actually read a good bit of Seven Nights, a book of interviews, without realizing I had read it years before under a different title.  That may not sound like praise, but it was the book’s evocation of the streets of Buenos Aires, of Borges learning Italian by reading Dante on the streetcars, that sent me to Argentina.

The main reason I was skeptical of A Course on English Literature is that it seemed likely to cover a lot of the same ground as This Craft of Verse.  While it’s true that the section on Anglo Saxon poetry in the new book uses many of the examples already familiar to me (he must have been very fond of “whale road” and maere tungol, “that famous star”), A Course is more thorough and I’m finding a lot that’s worthwhile.  The comparison of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas with Candide is really interesting.  And he’s actually making me want to read Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which is saying something.

I wish, of course, that I could say just what it is that makes Borges’ work at once beguiling and ungraspable.  It has something to do with his way with allusion.  His stories teem with great works and authors.  Certainly his famous self effacement could be a way of handling a technique that usually has the subtlety of a blunderbuss, but it also leaves one wondering what, if anything, has been said.  I still recommend This Craft of Verse and I count Borges as a major, though in some ways dubious intellectual influence.

Memory and Mathematics

I put a weak finish on 2013, reading wise.  I’ve been grinding away at grueling, plotless books for long enough that it’s hard to remember why I started.  I put aside a biography of Borges, in Spanish, that I started a while ago.  I never intended to read it at one go, but it still hangs over me.  Another is the book on Shakespeare’s language: mostly it makes me wish I were reading the plays, though I think it may prove worthwhile.

Finally, there was Philosophies of Mathematics.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  My college math had a foundational, philosophical bent, and since then I’ve continued to dabble in it.  I don’t really sympathize with fretting over whether math is created or discovered, how we apply it to nature and so forth.  I’m more interested in the constructions and the proofs that crop up in these books.  (Incidentally, it’s observed that Borges, while no mathematician, had his own taste in mathematics.  So maybe it’s not as sorry as it sounds.)

I like to believe I’ve learned a few mathematical habits of thinking.  One idea that comes up often is that of one-to-one correspondence of collections of things, or sets.  When two sets can be matched up one-to-one (like having a right shoe to go with every left shoe in your closet and vice versa) you say you have the same number.  That the correspondence exists is more important, maybe, than exactly what number you have.  This idea leads in short order to fascinating demonstrations about the different sizes of infinity.  It also informs my personal notion (I don’t remember if I might have read it somewhere) of what a number is, which I muse on when others seem to get to bogged down in the ontological status of mathematics, or the being of numbers.  Numbers are just meaningless words that we recite when we wish to compare sets of objects.  We learn numbers as children by counting along with others, the same way we learn other songs.  If you remember the song the right way every time, you can establish a meaningful correspondence between sets.  So how do we learn the song?

A couple of years ago I read Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer.  It’s a popular history of mnemonics, with lots of amusing stories about various competitive memorizers, prodigies and a fair amount on their actual techniques.  At least one of them actually worked: By constructing a memory palace based on my old elementary school and an off the cuff list of strange images involving friends and acquaintances, I was able, with a couple hours of practice, to memorize the order of a deck of cards.  Once I got used to it I could do it in a few minutes.

Of course this amazing new skill didn’t turn into much of anything.  I’ve memorized a fair amount of poetry and I’m not bad at geography, either, but I do it by rote, and if there’s much more to it than that, I don’t know what it is.  I certainly helps if what I’m memorizing is beautiful or otherwise interesting.  Maybe when the limitations of my current method become apparent, I’ll turn again to the memory palace.  I’m interested in how other people commit things to memory and otherwise organize their thought.  Has philosophy, or the study of mathematics or some other field, changed the way you think, or do you just bang it out?

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