05 September 2015

The Quality of Silence

[I am clearing out some old files I stored intending to post here and then forgetting about them. This one came from my last stay among the monks on the mountaintop.]

The Quality of Silence

We think of Silence, not being able to talk, as a limitation, but it is not. Consider the impact of the 'silent movie' - the viewer pays attention to the exquisite black and white cinematography, the nuances of tone and color, the action. Above all, they explore the contours of each face with a concentration they wouldn't otherwise have. 

Spending the better part of a week with seven strangers who have agreed not to talk is like that. By the end of the first day you know them. By the end of the last day you think you know them better than if you'd tried speaking to them.

Toynbee the Historian and the Seeker

Toynbee was a seeker of spiritual truth. I am not sure that all historians, the good ones anyway, aren't. We understand the small truth of accuracy and if we admit it we understand that this is our best shot at The Truth. We always fail, but as De Gaulle said while trailing through the ruins of Stalingrad, "The Germans! To have come so far!"

Here is Toynbee claiming that revolutionaries, even the bloodiest of them, may be one step from God.

After 'the City of the Sun' has shown itself to have been a 'City of Destruction', the alien light in which it was momentarily and bewilderingly appareled can still be seen shining above the smoking ruins and the blood-soaked sod; and then at last this glory can be recognized for what it is. It is the celestial light that streams from the mansions of the City of God.
Study of History, 6:241.

Needless to say Toynbee, who saw both the Nazis and the Soviets in full cry, would be appalled by society in the year of our Lord 2011. As would Aristonicus, or Spartacus, or Wat Tyler. Or, for that matter, the Man Jesus.

But I could be wrong.

29 August 2015

Clemens Notebook on Language: The book of the magicians

I am going to keep up a series of quotes from various sources on language and linguistics, just because it interests me. The first one is from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, A Novel, by Susanna Clarke. It is a description of a crazy old lady who was once brilliant with languages.

As a child she had learnt several languages and spoke them all perfectly. There was nothing she could not make herself mistress of if she chose. She learnt for the pleasure of it. At sixteen she spoke - not only French, Italian and German - which are part of any lady's commonplace accomplishments - but all the languages of the civilized (and uncivilized) world. She spoke the language of the Scottish Highlands (which is like singing). She spoke Basque, which is a language which rarely makes any impression upon the brains of any other race, so that a man may hear it as often and as long as he likes, but never afterwards be able to recall a single syllable of it. She even learnt the language of a strange country which, Signor Tosetti had been told, some people believed stilll existed, although no one in the world could say where it was. (The name of the country was Wales.)

[late in life she is forced to seek refuge in the Jewish Ghetto of  Venice where she is completely isolated.]

And a great deal of time went by and she did not speak to a living sourl and a great wind of madness howled through her and overturned all her languages. And she forgot Italian, forgot English, forgot Latin, forgot Basque, forgot Welsh, forgot every thing in the world except Cat - and that, it is said, she spoke marvellously well.


22 August 2015

Southern aristocartic attitudes on Education return to haunt us

Ever wonder why the people of a state, say North Carolina, might turn against public education? We've all been taught, and poor working class southerners once believed, that public education was a good thing, something that would allow their children to have a better life. Well, as someone one said, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Here is an excerpt from Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer (p. 347), a ground breaking study in its time on how the origins and attitudes of the first English settlers to America shaped regional culture and thus, regional history. It is the historian's answer to our question. This is the way the "better" folks of the south did it, and now they are returning to it. North Carolina, in effect, was an offspring of Virginia, the colony of the colony so to speak.

During the eighteenth century, literacy rapidly increased on both sides of the Atlantic. As it did so, differences between people of high and low status tended to diminish in New England and Britain. But in Virginia the opposite was the case. Disparities in literacy between rich and poor actually grew greater. Here was yet another system of inequality in the cultural life of the colony.
As it was with literacy, so also with learning. There was a stiking paradox in attitudes toward schools and schooling in Virginia. The elite was deeply interested in the education of gentlemen. “Better be never born than ill-bred,” wrote William Fitzhugh in 1687. By “ill-bred” in that passage, he meant “unschooled.”
At the same time, visitors and natives both agreed that schools were few and far between, that ignorance was widespread, and that formal education did not flourish in the Chesapeake. This condition was not an accident. It was deliberately contrived by Virginia’s elite, who positively feared learning among the general population. The classic expression of this attitude came from Governor William Berkeley himself. When asked in 1671 by the Lords of Trade about the state of schools in Virginia, he made a famous reply: “I thank God,” he declared, “there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!

29 July 2015

Thomas Friedman and a few facts

I don't always agree with Friedman but this column from today is worth reading for the raw facts it presents. I have never understood why American conservatives and neo-cons, or Americans in general, think Shia Iran is the great enemy.

It is Saudi Arabia. And we fund it.

On Tuesday the Middle East Media Research Institute released a translation of a TV interview by the Saudi author Turki al-Hamad about the extremist discourse prevalent in Saudi Arabia. “Who serves as fuel for ISIS?” he asked. “Our own youth. What drives our youth to join ISIS? The prevailing culture, the culture that is planted in people’s minds. It is our youth who carry out bombings. … You can see (in ISIS videos) the volunteers in Syria ripping up their Saudi passports.”

The Republican Crack Up

The Republican reliance on Tea-Party types to provide the oomph to their electoral efforts while delivering essentially nothing to them has worn thin. The coalition of the cynical and the delusional and angry is beginning to fray. A party representing big business, the Republicans traditional role, does not fit well with a populist common man base.

And so, it goes.

Trump is only one part of this. The Republican party simply can't get anything done one way or another. Other than investigate Benghazi for the what, sixtieth time, or vote to repeal Obamacare one more time. And now they are even trying to fire John Boehner. Even Fox News is appalled. And shocked, shocked, no doubt 

Here is a good explanation of the problem for the remaining sane pragmatists who actually want to govern. If the Grand Old Party were actually an elephant, we'd have to put it down to end its suffering.

27 July 2015

My personal broken record

Since the beginning of this blog it has always been "All our elites have failed."

Still true and getting truer. I think it is a symptom of a civilization struggling to be born on the still warm corpse of the previous civilization.

But here is a good example of what I mean. It's about psychologists. You know. The folks who will use their scientific medical findings to decide when you need to be sent to a nursing home.

20 July 2015

A little history on Greece

Why are the modern Greeks so weird, so anti-American, so hapless?

Interesting question. This may be a partial explanation, or at least an intro to the beginning of a partial explanation.

Greece has a certain sensitivity to foreign ultimatums, etc.

08 July 2015

Clemens' Book Shelf

I have been keeping a running list of things I have read or listened to lately. I'll put them up here, month by month.

March 2015

Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson. audio book. Part of the fine trilogy Atkinson has done on the Americans in World War II in Africa and Europe.

Political order and Political Decay by Francis Fukayama. audio book. Huge, immensely engaging, thought provoking -- and probably a book I need to read the old fashioned way. There is a lot of stimulating theories regarding the development of the modern state and where we are now. Fukayama is careful however to give no advice on what we do now!

April 2015

The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Read. Splendid work by a genius, not always writing as a genius, but never less than interesting. Life on a daily basis for a family of a gifted fellow who was a celebrity of the times. Also his opinions about a great many things he never gets around to in his books, such as how to write an autobiography. A thick read but perfect for daily reading while you wait for your coffee to brew.

The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella by W.H. Prescott. Read on Kindle. Another great classic whose reputation has suffered because he clearly could not be as clever as modern historians. Do not believe that for an instant. Prescott's achievement has not yet been equaled in English and he still has a lot to teach us. Considering that he wrote within a culture deeply vested in believing the Black Legend in which Catholic Spain was evil, "medieval," superstitious and cruel, it is a remarkably balanced account. He makes no bones about his admiration for Isabella. It could take you all summer to read it through.

Crusading Warfare by R.C. Smail. Read. The path-breaking work on medieval warfare in general and Crusading warfare specifically this is still a useful work to read, though dated in many ways. It opens with a good survey of the literature and is based squarely on primary sources. I ordered it for my class on medieval warfare mainly because it is a good starting point for debate and because it is both in print and affordable, not something you can say about many books on this topic.

End: The Defiance and Defeat of Hitler's Germany by Ian Kershaw. An amazing book that throws new light on a period of history one might assume has been covered enough. Kershaw's starting point is that it is unusual, almost unheard of, for an entire society to go down fighting in blood and ruins. Not even the Japanese did it.  Yet the Germans did. Kershaw writes to learn "why?" and that answer is fascinating and disturbing. By the end I came away convinced that if the Germans had not fought on until their society was virtually obliterated the free, democratic, and peaceful Germany we know today would never have seen the light of day.

Gray Lensman. E.E. "Doc" Smith. audio. A brilliantly hammy narrator made a revisit to a classic from my teenage years a delight. Nevertheless I was struck by the fascistic and racial dictatorship of the Patrol (i.e. the space military) and the values its stories must have instilled in legions of addled young men. Like me, say. This is definitely a guilty pleasure and I can't really recommend it for anyone, but I intend to listen to the whole serious. The was an entire Japanese TV anime series based on it, called "Starblazers" in this country.

The Fiery Trail by Eric Foner. audio. A revealing account of Lincoln and his evolving attitude towards both slavery and race. If you have seen the movie "Lincoln" you should read this. In fact, read it anyway for whatever reason. America would be a different place if not for Lincoln. It makes clear that all actors in history are simply humans, subject to the errors and tides of judgement all of us are, but some manage to craft great and good results from it.

The Revenge of Geography by Robert D. Kaplan. Audio. Excellent intro to the concept of "geopolitics" and how it developed. Hitler based much of his idea for germanic expansion on the early works of geopolitics and much of US diplomacy - especially in the Kissinger era - has been based on it. A good place to start I think.

William Marshal: Knight Errant, Baron, Regent by Sydney Painter. Read. Not the version of William Marshal's life I would have picked, especially since I've read it at least twice before, but it is the only decent study in any language still in print. William led an eventful life at the peak of the English military aristocracy spanning a career from landless knight and tournament champion to virtual ruler of England. Painter does him justice, but I would also recommend the biography by David Crouch. There is a new book on the Marshal by Thomas Asbridge that I hope to read soon.

The Old Testament. read on Kindle. Took months, a bit each day, learning something every day, sometimes terrible, sometimes moving and sometimes uplifting. And sometimes you wonder just what the Author had in mind. One of the few books, or collections of books, for which you can honestly say everything you have heard about it is true.

That's it for March and April. More to come. 

What did Jesus want

Well, Paul of Tarsus certainly tried to tell us. Here in 2 Corinthians 8: 7-15.

...but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,
"The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had llittle did not have too little."

Someone probably told Him to stick to religious matters and leave politics out of it.