Saturday, January 5, 2008

Fourth Impressions of Toronto: Inscrutable Grates and Giant Snowballs. Uncut, Unedited, and Imperfectly Spell-checked!

Hello everyone, nippers and scholars and hardy pensioners and handsome middle-aged people,

I write from my little bit of warmth in the fridge of Toronto. As of fourteen minutes ago, it was three degrees celsius at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, according to a reputable-looking website (ie. one without those insane flickering ads that have led to many psychedelic deaths among the epileptic and the elderly, and much psychedelic cursing among everyone else). Not very impressive, I know. But mark! Three days ago the said source said that, at the said location, it was -11 degrees celsius, excluding the wind-chill, which was -16! Mark! This is only two degrees higher than the safe temperature of your average home freezer, according to HRDS recommendations! What's this like to live in? Well, I have to say that I was a bit disappointed. Walking around in that weather* is not really that much more punishing than biking to the University of Canterbury on a frosty Christchurch morning in June**, or climbing Mount Roy on a cool day in Wanaka .***

Notwithstanding all of the above and more besides, it is easy to be caught out by freezer-weather, which is why I have barely left my room for the last two days, suffering as I am from three different kinds of head-cold and an internal thermostat that is broken but still very lively, making sudden shifts and spasms every so often. This is not helped at all by the temperature in my room, which is governed by the Inscrutable Grate in the Ceiling. The Inscrutable Grate is a very fickle Grate, by turns breathing fire and breathing nothing. If only it would average itself out, then I would be perfectly cosy and fine. But it is Inscrutable, you see, and no amount of love or persuasion will change its ways. As it is, the changes in room temperature are perfectly modulated so as to set up a kind of resonance pattern with my internal temperature, so that the superposition of the two is more vicious and variable than you would imagine, if you took each one on its own.

However, I have company. I have a snowdrift of tissues, Schubert in my laptop, and a book called Trilby by someone called du Maurier. The first thing is good for resting upon, the second is restful, and the third is also restful, but in a charming and invigorating way. (It's all about love and artists, and has just the right amount of levity for those topics – not so much as to demean them, but not so little as to take the fun out of them). Trilby is partly for fun, but partly for scholarship. (By contrast, Silas Marner was entirely for scholarship). You see, I have this thing called a semester. It starts on Monday and inside it there's a whole bunch of "papers." One of them is called "The Victorian Unconscious", and du Maurier is on the reading list. This may seem a weird course for a student of the History and Philosophy of Science. But it is perfectly normal for a weird student of History and Philosophy of Science, so everything's OK. My positive reason for going into this subject (yes, there were negative ones as well) was that I intended to "engage, broadly speaking, in an investigation of the connections between science and literature" (paraphrased from my statement of purpose, written almost exactly a year ago – ah, those innocent, broadly-speaking days!). And what better way of approaching this topic than through a study of Victorian ideas about the unconscious mind, as articulated in the novels of the time? Is that a rhetorical question? Does it matter? Regress threatens. Was that meant to be funny? QED?

Believe it or not, graduate studies are designed to train the student in the clear articulation of complex ideas, and I was asked to do some of that last semester. However, much of my training was in other skills. In History of Physics, I worked on my ability to skim-read enormous and complicated books and try to review them in a way that was not only succinct but also did not betray my superficial understanding of the subject-matter (hint: when you're stuck, try paraphrasing the introduction of the book). In this course I also made inroads towards a competence in a) improvising answers to difficult questions by twisting the question so that it was relevant to things that I could talk about without embarrassment b) developing a proper reverence for the work of historians of physics (such precision, such clarity, such mastery of two difficult and widely parted disciplines!). In History of Psychology I learnt a bit about how to write academic articles. I also learnt a bit about giving an oral presentation without boring everyone (hint: be a facilitator ie. let the others do the thinking and talking, and listen to them in a posture of earnest puzzlement – even if they find it boring, they've only got themselves to blame, clearly). In Philosophy of Science I transferred my earnest puzzlement to another area of academia where that posture gets you a long way. What else did I learn in Philosophy of Science? Um. That I'll never make a career out of the subject, and maybe not even a hobby. Does that count? Probably not, if it's based on a single course in the topic.

My main impression of last semester was one of permanent tiredness. Not weariness, you understand; not apathy, not dreary insomnia. But tiredness all the same – lots to do and not much time for bed.**** And at the end of it, a fever of drop-boxes and footnotes and printers that don't print and bad undergraduate essays about the "it could be 10 000 to 100 0000 years in Darwin's only Diagram in the origin of geology, it does'nt matter", and bits of refill with badly-written notes on them (mine). A scholar's paradise! I will remember it as the semester that I discovered procrastination. Have you tried it? I find that it works best with a fast internet connection and a relatively up-to-date graphics card, in which case Youtube is only a couple of clicks away, and Fry and Laurie are not much further. I found that if you watch this skit enough times in a three-day period, it actually ceases to be funny! (But I just discovered that this remarkable effect tends to disappear after a week or so. "hey sesame, the cigar is intact! Now explain that!" Good work Dr. House! It's almost as amusing as a Masters student trying to say something new and perceptive about the logic of scientific discovery).

I also spent long hours gazing out the window of our third-floor common room, admiring the snow. In Toronto, you can tell a New Zealander or a Jamaican by the way they actually enjoy the snow; indeed, by the way they become increasingly sappy and childish in proportion to the growing anger and bitterness and grumpiness and tendency-towards-muttered-imprecations of the local people. But I stopped doing this after one day I stared for an especially long time and the next day there was a large sculpted penis in the courtyard below Victoria College, made entirely of snow (yes, it really existed – I checked with others). However, this did not stop me from contemplating the snowy vista in my long-cultivated attitude of profound idiocy. And the day after that, the large penis had been replaced by its female equivalent. So I stopped gazing after that, afraid of what might happen next.

But the snow! In December we got the biggest fall since 1990, and it really was an impressive dump. It fell like a dream on the sleeping earth! (I'm pretty sure someone has said that before, but but.) They are good at getting rid of it over here. If the same thing happened in Christchurch then I think the city would be paralyzed for a week. In Toronto they start clearing the roads pretty much as soon as it stops falling, and they're clear by the next morning. There's still big piles of the stuff on the side walks, though, which is insanely fun. And the parks are all white as well, pristine and wet-looking and just crying out to be run across in tramping boots (thanks dad).

Other things I've done are. Going to nightclubs and dancing (the cold does strange things to your head). Met up with a couple of New Zealanders (Uschi and Kyi Kyi, no less). Tried to have fun at TRANZAC, the Toronto Australian and New Zealand Club (for a while I called it the TNZC, but I relented when people starting make rude remarks about my spittle). This club is on a street just off the main drag in Toronto (called Bloor Street, for some reason). But when you go and look at the place it might as well be just off SH6, somewhere between Hokitika and Houhou.***** Uschi and I agreed that it looks like a rural RSA, but we couldn't say whether this effect was deliberate or not. Unfortunately it was 4:30, and it opened at 5 o'clock, and there are many more evenings in which to explore the bars and tables and floors of this place, sticky with beer and home-sickness. So we hung a left off Highway Six and ended up in the Annex, whose unique hue and flavour is instantly recognizable by the signs on the lamp-posts, which say "The Annex."

More things are. I saw "I Am Legend," which is a bad advertisement for all sorts of things, including religion, Bob Marley, zombie movies, and (of course) Will Smith. The only virtue of this dreary film is that it shows how lucky we were to get "28 Days Later." I saw various other memorable movies, which I've forgotten. I looked forward to the arrival in cinemas of "I'm Not Here," the film where Kate Blanchett plays Bob Dyan and where the trailer makes rash statements about Dylan's abilities and historical importance. But it hasn't turned up yet, despite various sources suggesting otherwise. Is this just Toronto cinemas being behind the times? Or is the whole "movie" just a huge ironic joke devised by a few newspaper reviewers, cinema owners, Dylan publicists, and youtube whizzes? Is this the true significance of the "film's" title? Mysteries abound. Expect updates.

In other news, I bookmarked "The Press", in the hope that I would learn about more earth-shaking events in New Zealand. I was instantly rewarded when I found a lead article featuring Simon Power and the Corrections Department, in which the former expressed deep concern about the worrying tendency of the latter to dress up as famous inmates at office parties. In my remote opinion, there's only one thing worse than the phrase "political correctness gone mad," and it is the readiness of political leaders to pursue spurious political gains by putting out pointless press statements that rely for their success on nothing more than the righteousness and gullibility of a outspoken minority, and are of interest to no-one except the ardent supporters of the said political leader, who rally around this tiny ignorant cause, and the ardent opponents of the said political leader, who rally around a cause that is just as tiny and ignorant, namely the opposite cause, and to neutral commentators, who decry this fresh outbreak of "political correctness gone mad," and to Murray Deaker (is he still alive, by the way? I miss him, in a strange, insane sort of way.)

But that's bye the bye, and to be fair I have only looked at The Press on one occasion since I got up my dinky bookmark. Well that's all for now methinks. Did I miss anything? A few bits, let's be honest, but nothing that won't come to light in Amnesty International's upcoming report on the subject. Enjoy the footnotes, such as they are.******


*in six thermal layers and scarf (a scarf? Yes, lads and gents, I have worn a scarf. I have charmed the woolly snake. I have enveloped my virgin neck. Yes, I have sucked the warm fluff! Well, it seemed quite important to me – I used to think that they were worn only by females and Art Garfunkel (but wait, what's that on the cover of Blonde on Blonde? A woolly tie?)

**in short shorts and a wind-jacket.

***I've always wanted to do that – but it's more time-consuming than it looks, and I promise not to do it again. PS. look out for the hidden treasures of the full-stop.


*****Yes, you're right, I cheated on the place names. But who needs local knowledge when you've got Google Maps?

******That's all I've got time for, and I suspect that you were thinking the same thing. I hope you had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And if you didn't, I'm glad it's over for you.

*******These emails are mass emails, but they try not to be spam emails. Let me know if you do not want to receive these mass emails in the future. It's easy! Just click on the following link!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

More Pus and Decadence

Nothing Like the Sun is as an autobiography of William Shakespeare, framed as a lecture given by Anthony Burgess (who is the author of the book). And the prose is just as you would expect from a collaboration between Shakespeare and Burgess:dense, witty, powerful, oozing with pus and legs and decadent prose. The easiest way into the book is through the plot, which tells the story of WS's rise to prominence and the loves and troubles he comes across along the way.

There is, firstly, his early gift and thrill with words. “’Water hath a trick of drowning and, at best, is a wetter.’ And then the jingle ruled him, already a word-boy. ‘Water wetter water wetter water wetter.’” Then, his unusual appetite for love, or at least his unusual skill in rendering it. “He heard above the beating of his blood the rustling of linen, a gentle panting at the restraining fingers of tapes and laces that yielded all too slowly...” This is the young domesticated WS, writing a youthful sonnet in the middle of a house-hold night, the slops and greasy broth and father calling for work, a bickering sister.

“And, childish, I am put to school of night
For to seek light beyond the reach of light.”

His father is sympathetic. “I have somewhere a piece of fine parchment. Copy the poem fair.” But the dark women is all bundled up with someone else. WS runs on fire from the happy rogering may-pole pagans, their “buttocks moon-besilvered,” and gets well drunk on sixpence of beer and the brimming talk of country rogues. A gap in the memory, a naked surprise in the morning, an accidental child and an accidental wife.

How doth WS the married man? Well, “he had but half of that bed now, and the familiar rest he sought, in so great need, so worn, was less than one quarter what it had formerly been.” WS the married man goes not very well at all, and with not much hope of getting better. “For one line of verse,” he says to his new wife, “I would trade thirty such scolds as you.”

Off he goes to teach words to little boys, and is fired for making lewd advances on his students. He leaves with his future all broken up, but his word-sense in tact, as ever. “I am going,” said WS. “I feel defiled.” (A good phrase, he saw that: a field defiled.)’ Back to the railing wife and her belly double-pumped with babies.

Things really get going, the WS we know starts to really take over the plot, when he falls in with the Queens Men, who arrive in Stratford just as an old herbalist, “cat-queen, cartomancer”, is driven up the street by a mad cruel mob with their heads full of witchy jeers. There is more madness and cruelty in the book, of nature and of humans; but more on that later.

In WS's adult career there are, on Burgess's account, a few key turning points. One is WS’s response to an attack from a fellow actor, an attack upon his talent and good-will. He is conceited, he is told, an upstart; indeed, he is an “upstart crow.” WS will not stand for this. He has always fancied words. With something to prove, fancy hardens into ambition. He will not sniffle along as a mediocrity, a “play-botcher, an excitor of groundlings, a poor stumbling actor. The time was come to show he was a poet.”

Titus Andronichus
is another key, because it starts a friendship that shapes the life and mind of WS. The play piques an audience of nobles, who call the playwright to dine. Wits parry, eyes discover. WS is commissioned by Essex to write a poem, Southhampton quips and glitters. WS is beguiled, and he knows this in a way you might expect, through speech: “the triple chime of his name’s homonym from that lordly and desirable mouth…the lip’s pout, the red tounge’s lifting lazily.” It is a short step to the beginning of a lush, difficult friendship, one that moves from infatuation to love, teacher to equal, affection to tension to bitterness and split. The career of the friendship helps to define the course of the book and of WS's creative life. WS goes passive and old as his boy-lord grows grows restless and clever, setting one eye on advancement and another on treason. And this is the friendship that inspires the bulk of WS's sonnets: the marriage sonnets come first; later, when the clever Southhampton sees through them, the sonnets of the revival of love; the sonnets of ill-fated lust, when WS's lust turns ill-fated.

There is another turning point when Southhampton takes WS to the public execution of three Spaniards. Here is blood and slaughter in the middle of cushions and fair coaches, and WS is shocked, especially by the response of his noble friend, who is callous and smiling. The hangman’s knife going straight from heart to groin, the fat on the heart, the small girl who leaps and claps when the entrails come out. It is the start of WSs separation from Southampton, but also of his tiredness, his growing age.

Age, however, does not enfeeble his appetites for too long. “Let me take a breath, let me take a swig, for, my heart, she is coming”: separation from Harry coincides with the arrival of a new intimacy, a glittering Negro who revives a “boyhood’s timid lust for the wealth of endragoned seas and spice-islands.” It is a rich union, lush and violent, more so when her infidelity is found out. “To her to rail, beat, near-kill. I rip her bodice, tear, wrench, gnash, chew.” After this, WS goes despondent, withdraws into verse.

We do not hear a whole lot about the writing of WSs great works, or the playing of them; we get the context instead, their worldly inspiration and deployment. WS wooes S with his Venus and Adonis. The young nobles “swoon at its rich conceits,” as they do with The Rape of Lucrece. This is sweet Master Shakespeare at his sugary best, and the Inns of the toffs, and the University darlings, lick it up and go dizzy with epithets – “oh, the commodious conceits, the mellifluous facetiousness.” We see the intrigue behind the marriage sonnets the scenes of filth behind Troilus and Cressida. We witness a short sketching-out of a “warring family play”, with a Montague coming into it, and the next we know of Romeo and Juliet is as a finished play, “ravishing the inns.” Here is boss Dick Burbage saying a play is needed for a wedding in three weeks, here is a stanza from Chaucer, here a name (“And then came the name Bottom…”), and a title forked straight out of real life: “Yet with my fire made up I sweated as midsummer, and lo I got my title.” We witness WS turning away from the poems that ravished his noble patrons. They are something, but not enough. He cannot go on “living in a filigree cage, fed on marchpane, turning out jewelled stanzas for the delectation of lords, a very superior glover.” His sees “verse of a very different order.”

Up goes the Globe Theatre, and up goes the rod again of WS, and away he goes again on a lusty marathon. The narrator recounts one particular night with his black beauty. In the plot of the book, more things go on after this event: WS goes into decline, breaking out into pussy gruesomeness and weary sores; he speaks his dying words, he dies. But on this particular night he goes out into the London night and walks along with his dark friend, and as he does so the grim city turns, on an edge of love and fancy, into a lovely place where lovers walk. This transmuting act, played out in dirt and filth for the sake of love or art or some other high thing, has the feel of a climax. The beggars are heroes, the kites are cleansers:

“London, the defiled city, became a sweet bower for their love’s wandering, even in the August heat. The kites that hovered or, perched, picked at the flesh of traitor’s skulls became good cleansing birds, bright of eye and feather, part of the bestiary of the myth that enthralled them as they made it. The torn and screaming bears and dogs and apes in the pits of Paris Garden were martyrs who rose at once into gold heraldic zoomorphs to support the scutcheon of their static and sempiternal love. The wretches that lolled in chains on the lapping edge of the Thames, third tide washed over, noseless, lipless, eye-eaten, joined the swinging hanged at Tyburn and the rotting in the jails to be made heros of a classical hell that, turned into music by Vergil, was sweet and pretty schoolday innocence.”


Themes? There is a lot of madness and a lot of cruelty, of nature and of people. The witch-hunters, the plague and all it caused, the sunny horror of a public execution, prison-riots and money-riots, cracking heads and sticky blood in the afternoon, pus-bulging syphilis, the rats in the tower. Shit heaves. Rats run.

“The flesher shooes flies off with both hands before chopping his stinking beef.”

“The city grew a head, glowing over limbs of towers and houses in the at-scurrying night, and its face was drawn, its eyes sunken, it vomited living matter down to ooze over the cobbles, in its delirium it cried Jesus Jesus.”

More than once WS sees the city as himself.

“In my delirium the City was mine own body – fighting broke out in ulcers on left thigh, both armpits, in the spongy and corrupt groin…the image of the falling city, pre-figured in the prodigies of a night, was drawn from my own body – the bloody holes, the burning hand.”

Some of the best descriptions of physical filth are used as reports of other kinds of corruption:

“Limping about Bread Street and Milk Streer, inhaling Fleet Ditch, I was drawn to searching out my fellows in disease, gloating on a nose-sore like a raspberry, a lip glistening soft, wet, huge, coal-shiny, a naked arm that was yellow streaks and rose pustules, a stone mined with worms. Then I reeled at my discovery of what I should have long known – that the fistulas and imposthumes, bent bones, swellings, corrupt sores, fetor were of no different order that the venality and treachery and injustice and cold laughing murder of the Court. And yet none of these leprous and stinking wretches had willed their rottenness. The foul wrong lay then beyond man’s own purposing; there was somewhere, outside time’s very beginning, an infinite well of putridity from which body and mind alike were driven, by some force unseen and uncontrollable, to drink...the fruitful triangle of stealing friend, stolen mistress, WS. Well, what was the agitation in the city of mine own soul but that? A finger-dip into butter-smooth pleasure and the armies and rioters trample through my veins, crying Kill kill.”

Kites are omnipresent. They wheel above the story like page-numbers, marking time and happenings. They signal the arrival of the plague, “announced in tender swelling buboes.” They share in the slaughter at Tyburn, where three Spaniards, shackled for treason, are rope-dangled, stretched, and opened up by a hangman’s axe. They hang around the rise of WS, around the soft and witty lords in their gold float; and around the decline of WS, his flesh-eating ruin. They are connected to WS's wife, whose name they screech as WS travels home to find said wife with child; they are part of the dark romance in the later pages; as mentioned, they are cleaners in WS's romantic vision of London.

The book is full of bodies, and human fleshiness gives rise to the most lovely notions and the most appalling. It is full of sweet and golden love, spicetrees and fresh thighs; but it is full of ugliness too. This is Shakespeare’s time, when people lived close to their bodies and to the bodies of others, to dirt and sun and indelicate nature. There are no planes but there are kites. There are no buses or fridges or self-cleaning toilets. Nature is the opposite of whiteware. It is profuse and lusty and runs away in the distance, changing out of sight, and thereby it fits perfectly the prose of WS. At the end of the book there is a sense of massive sickness and massive termination, a mad ending that is too sick and violent for reason; it makes reason soft and na├»ve and senseless, and leaves poetry as the only sane thing, because poetry is madly full of words and it rows over the horrible mess and casts it on a clean mirror. “Die in dust but live in filth. Well, if we are to live with it we must somehow ennoble it.”

Nothing Like The Sun: Pus and Decadence

The next post was meant to be a review of Anthony Burgess's Nothing Like the Sun, but really it is just an excuse to quote Anthony Burgess as he imitates Shakespeare. Here are some of the juicy bits, unspoiled by my ramblings:

Was it, he wondered then, to be the way of the adventurer, mythical raker of carbuncles and diamonds from beneath the spicetrees, but first and last the hold’s stink and the foul water after the weeviled biscuit, men rent and filthy and reechy like their shirts of the hogo of earwax, the hap of wrack and piracy or, at best, spewing among rude and rough rascals made roaring lustful with salt beef and, a mere week at sea, cursing and raging in their fights over the ravaging of the soft white body of a boy, a boy refined and gentled with snippets of Ovid and maxims out of Seneca. A dark excitement came that guilt once pounced on in a rearing wave to wash away. Yet the names fired: America, Selenetide, Zanzibar, Terra Florida, Canaria, Palme Forro…

Reechy! Hogo! Selenetide, Canaria! Mounched! (Mounched?) Frotting, spirochaete! Croshabell, oaklings, footsticks, cinques, moxibustion, dittany!

He sat at the table on a three-legged stool, moving a greasy wash-clout from it first; the cheesy smell of curds rose at him like a small grey spirit. She mounched away at nothing, bringing cards. He knew these cards, though not the manner of telling them. Cartomancy. He thrilled at the word. These were not for an innocent game of trump or ruff; they were antique pictures, of towers crumbling to brick in a lightening-flash; of pope and empress; the moon all blood; Adam and Eve; the rising of the dead, sleepy and naked, at doomsday’s trumpet.

Sail-trimmers at their work on the waist between poop and forecastle, where too were stowed pinnance and skiff. The gravel-ballast and cable tiers; the outboard-thrusting beakhead that cracked the seas as the ship plunged. The hold below the orlop where the rotten beer and crawling cheese were stored. Foresail and foretop sail on the foremast; square course and topsail on the mainmast; the mizen mast with its lanteen or mizen yard; the bonaventure mizen; drabler and bonnet. Calivers and arquebuses, the gunner with his linstock, the aft and forward slueing of the carriage, the quoin.

Drink, then. Down it among the titbrained molligolliards of country copulatives, of a beastly sort, all, their browned pickers a-clutch of their spilliwilly potkins, filthy from the handling of spade and harrow, cheesy from udder new-milked, slashed mouths agape at some merry tale from that rogue with rat-skins around his middle, coneyskin cap on’s sconce. Robustious rothers in rural rivo rhapsodic. Swill thou among them, O London Will-to-be, gentleman-in-waiting, scrike thine ale’s laughter with Hodge and Tom and Dick and Blakc Jack the outlander from Long Compton…Hast a privy for a god, then, with the shit in’t. Sayest? Not one fart do I give, nay, for all thy great tally. Wouldst test it, then? Thou wouldst not, for thou art but a hulking snivelling codardo. I have been in the wars and do speak the tongues of the Low Countries. Ik om England soldado. U gif me to trinken. Who saith a liar? I will make his gnashers be all bloody. I will give him a fair crack, aye. You are but country cledge, all, that have seen naught of this world, and this one here, who is but new-wiped, he is a dizard. Thou yearling, thou, had I my hanger I would deal thee a great flankard. But I have my nief and I will mash thy fleering bubbibubkin lips withal…

It was no wise congrued with her lying near-bare against him nor with that horrible steaming-out, some few minutes past, of a mouthful apter for a growling leching collier pumping his foul water into some giggling alley-mort up by the darkling wall of a stinking alehouse privy.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Towards a Coherence Theory of Silliness


A number of recent papers have made considerable progress towards giving a full account of silliness. The concept of silliness is a sorely neglected topic in the history of philosophy, and none of the major philosophers have so far written treatises on the matter. Some people look back to Hegel and Jacques Derrida, whose collected works may be regarded as extended meditations on the topic, as pioneers in the field. But most people view it as unfair to regard these writers as “philosophers”; and there is some dispute, even among leading writers on silliness, about whether or not the writings of such people as Hegel and Derrida really do fall under the category of “silliness”; with some commentators regarding the related concepts of “artful nonsense” and “gibberish” as more appropriate in those cases.

The merit of those views, however, is not the subject of this paper, and nor are any of the other new and interesting questions relating to the history of silliness in philosophical writings. Rather, I am concerned here with the concept of “silliness”, aloof from any historical considerations. In particular, I will elaborate upon a particular account of silliness, which I will call the “coherence theory of silliness,” and which I have mentioned briefly in an earlier paper. The core of the coherentist view is that the coherence of a potential silliness-set is a necessary condition for that silliness set to be an actual silliness set. This view may be contrasted with, and has been attacked by proponents of, the “cohesion” theory of silliness. This view holds that coherence is not a necessary condition for silliness, and proposes its own necessary condition in the place of coherence. The key difference between the replacement condition (“cohesion”), and the “coherence” condition, is that the former emphasises the intrinsic relations between silliness scenarios, while the former emphasises the extrinsic relations between silliness scenarios. In this paper I will first respond to some objections to this view that have been put forward by Jones (2006) and Andrews (2006); and will then use my comments upon those objections to motivate some refinements to my own view, which will include a distinction between local and global silliness.

Silliness Sets and Silliness Scenarios

It is almost unanimously agreed that the most useful unit of analysis for the concept of silliness is the “silliness scenario.” The canonical definition of the “silliness scenario” was given by Jones in his pioneering 2005 paper. Later papers have made some refinements upon Jones’ account, but they are of a highly technical nature, and the essence remains the same. For Jones, an event E is a silliness scenario if and only if the following conditions hold:

E must be apprehended by at least two humans agents if the perpetrator of the scenario was a human; and at least one human if the perpetrator of the scenario was not a human. (Discussion about this condition has centred mainly around the problem of zombie perpetrators, solitary silliness, and delayed apprehension. All of these issues warrant further investigation, but they do not pose any real problems for the interaction condition).

(2)Non-Cognition: the agents must apprehend the silliness of E without any cognitive engagement in that event. The agents may, of course, be engaged cognitively with aspects of E that do not actually give rise to any silliness; the agent may, for example, apprehend cognitively some of the intellectually involved parts of a joke, but still apprehend the silly parts without using the cognitive faculty. (This has proven to be the most troublesome condition. There has been considerable discussion about the kind of “cognitive engagement” that is appropriate to this condition, with some advising an abandonment of “cognition” altogether, and settling for a more mild condition; most of these accounts make some use of Davis’ notion of “cognitive relaxation.” Some more recent accounts have investigated the notion of “cognitive tension”, asserting (rightly, I think) that the distinctive features of silliness, which Jone’s (2) gestures towards, is not the absence of cognition, but the tension between what is apprehended using the higher cognitive function, and what is appreciated in the silliness event. If there is some disagreement, however, about just what (2) is gesturing towards, all writers agree that it is gesturing towards something, and that (2) or some variant of (2) is essential to any account of silliness.)

E must be “detached” from any non-silly event. This condition is designed to capture the thought that an event is not usually regarded as silly if it has any genuine real-life consequences (except whatever immediate emotional responses it might elicit from the apprehending agents [see condition (4)]). The silly event must be absurd, free-standing, trivial. As with (2), there is not much doubt that (3) points towards a distinctive feature of silliness; but, as with (2), there is some debate about how to work out the details. In particular, there is debate about what sort of “detachment” is required (logical, topical, psychological, or a combination of those three); and about just how strict the “non-silly” requirement should be. With regards to the second point, some writers prefer to relax the “non-silly” requirement, and replace it with a requirement that is based on “non-funny” events, or even on “non-fun” events.)

(4)Funniness. Clearly the silly event must be amusing: it must elicit a light-hearted response from the agents. The main point of contention surrounding this condition is to do with the relationship between it and the other three conditions; in particular, whether or not this condition is independent of those conditions. Most writers agree that the silly event elicits a different emotional response from the funny event (or else there would no real basis for distinguishing between the two kinds of event). But some hold that this difference should be attributed to the different sort of funniness that inheres in the event; while others hold that that silly events and funny events share the same sort of funniness, and that the difference resides only in the other properties of the silly event (inconsequence, non-cognition etc.) that are absent in funny events. Others (including myself) hold that the debate between these two positions is meaningless.

These, then, are widely accepted as necessary and sufficient conditions for an event to constitute a silly scenario. These conditions may seem irrelevant in this paper, since this paper is concerned with the notion of a silliness set, rather than that of a silliness scenario. But some of those conditions are relevant to the objections that have been levelled against the coherence theory of silliness, and also to my response to those objections. I will move onto those objections, and my response, after outlining the notion of a “silliness set”, and briefly considering the “cohesionist” approach to silliness sets.

Silliness scenarios need not occur in isolation. According to condition (3), silliness scenarios must be detached from any non-silly events; but of course any particular silliness scenario does not need to be detached from other silliness scenarios. In fact, some of the richest and most interesting silly phenomena emerge only out of silly scenarios when they are considered together, and not when each one is considered on its own. Of course, not any collection of silliness scenarios will do. We must consider silliness sets to be collections of scenarios that are related to each other in some substantive way; and the disagreement between coherentists and cohesionists is over just what sort of relation must hold between a collection of silliness scenarios, before that collection can rightly be considered as a silliness set.

Coherence and Cohesion of Silly Sets

On the cohesionist view, the right relation is one that holds between the parts of each scenario in the set, and not the whole scenarios. To work out, from some collection of silly scenarios, which ones constitute a silliness set, each scenario must first be divided into a number of “silly elements”, and then the silly elements from all of the scenarios in the collection of candidate scenarios must then be brought together into a “silly group.” The elements in the silly group are then considered together, irrespective of the silly scenarios from which they were derived. Precisely, they are considered in respect of the richness if the relations that hold between them; this gives rise to a “cluster” of silly elements, all of which enjoy many connections with one another. A scenario belongs to the “silliness set” if and only if all of its silly elements belong to the silly cluster.

The cohesionist view may be contrasted with the coherentist view, according to which the relations to be considered are the relations that hold between the silly scenarios as wholes. There is some temptation to think that the coherentist and the cohesionist views are not in competition at all, but rather that they are equivalent. But this is not the case. That is, there is a genuine question about which of these views gives the right necessary condition for status as a silly set.

To see this, one might consider the analogy of sets of novels (it does not matter if they are silly novels or not). One might take a coherentist view on the criterion for set membership of novels: one consider each novel as a whole (the theme, say), and then determine set membership on the basis of similarities between the themes of the candidate novels. Or, one could adopt the cohesionist view, and hold that the basis for set membership should be the topics of the chapters in the novels: the novels that get into a set should be ones whose chapters are closely related. Now, it is clear in this example that a collection of entities may satisfy the coherentist criterion for set status, without satisfying the cohesionist criterion. This would be the case if the “theme” was an emergent property: one which does not manifest itself in each chapter taken individually, but only when they are considered together. In such a case, it seems likely that the themes of a group of novels may be very similar, but the chapters of each have no special connections between them. A similar situation could plausibly give rise to a set of novels that satisfy the cohesionist criterion, without satisfying the coherentist criterion: the set of novels may have chapters that are very closely related, but which give rise to themes that have no special connection between them. Hence, the choice between the coherence criterion and the cohesion criterion is a genuine choice: one will end up regarding different silly collections as silly sets, if one chooses one of these criteria over the other.

The Cohesionist Attack:

Jones (2005) asks us to consider the following “sillygism”, which he claims to be sound. (In Jone’s terminology, which I will adopt here, a “sillygism” is a list of silly scenarios that have been put forward as a candidate for a silly set. If the collection does indeed turn out to be a silly, the list represents a “sound” sillygism; if not, it is an “unsound” sillygism. If one or more of the scenarios in the silly set are not in fact “silly”, but the scenarios nevertheless satisfy some criterion for set-hood, then the sillygism is “valid” but not “sound.”) Consider the following set of three sillyness scenarios:

1)A man, M2, walks into a bar, B, with a bucket of water, BW in his hand, H. M1 takes B and throws it onto another man, M2, who is sitting at a table talking to a penguin, P1. M2 looks down at his shoes, smiles and utters the statement S1:

S1: “If you do that again I’ll eat your shoelace.”

2)M2 walks into another bar with an Irishman, I, an Englishman, E, and an elephant, EL. EL sees P1 sitting on the bar drinking vodka. E goes up to the bar and orders a Guiness. E goes up to the bar and orders a bar-maid. P1 utters the statement S2

S2: “Throw me a bone, Jim, there’s a shoelace on my soup.”

3)EL walks into a corner dairy, CD, and asks for a penguin. The shop-keeper, S, responds with S3:

S3: “I’m sorry, we’ve run out of penguins. But yesterday the bar-maid delivered a new batch of shoelaces. Will a shoe-lace be sufficient?”

EL replies with S4:

S4: “That should do the trick. Thanks.”

Now, Jone’s claim is that this sillygism, if sound, is a counter-example to the coherentist criterion for silliness sets. For, Jones claims that the coherentist cannot account for the soundness of SA. He claims, that is, that SA fails to satisfy the coherentist criterion. Morevoer, he argues that SA is one of a much larger class of syllogisms that, though sound, do not satisfy the coherentist criterion. If Jones is right, the coherentist account is in serious trouble.

It is hard to deny that SA is a sound syllogism. Some (Pritchard, 2006) have raised some doubts about its soundness, pointing for example to the introduction of the vodka and the Guinness in 2), and the shop-keeper in 3). Some have gone so far as to question the validity of the set, pointing in particular at the “funniness” condition for silliness. In Pritchard (2006) we find the claim (for example) that “while SA3 might raise a giggle for some people, SA2 is pretty lame. And SA1 is scandalous. Quite simply, SA is not funny.” But Pritchard’s intuitions about silliness have been shown to be deviant in other cases; and most philosophers, including a number of logicians, agree that SA is funny.

The novel part of Jone’s argument (and the part I wish to attack here) is his claim that the coherentist criterion cannot account for the soundness of SA. Before giving my response to Jone’s claims here, I will rehearse his argument briefly.

To be continued, given further inspiration. In the meantime, consider this silliness scenario (especially the sub-scenario in the 30-60second range).

Monday, December 24, 2007

Martin Amis, "The Information"

Here's the first page of The Information, by Martin Amis.

Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It's nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that... Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them. Women – and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses – will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, “what is it?” And the men say, “Nothing. No it isn't anything really. Just sad dreams.”

Richard Tull was crying in his sleep. The woman beside him, his wife Gina, woke and turned. She moved up on him from behind and laid hands on his pale and straining shoulders. There was a professionalism in her blinks and frowns and whispers: like the person at the poolside, trained in first-aid; like the figure surging in on the blood-smeared macadam, a striding Christ of mouth-to-mouth. She was a woman. She knew so much more about tears than he did. She didn't know about Swifts Juvenilia, or Wordsworth's senilia, or how Cressida had variously fared at the hands of Boccaccio, of Chaucer, of Robert Henryson, of Shakespeare; she didn't know Proust. But she knew tears. Gina had tears cold.

Richard raised a bent arm to his brow. The sniff he gave was complicated, orchestral. And when he sighed you could hear the distant seagulls falling through his lungs.

“Nothing. It isn't anything. Just sad dreams.”

Forget the mild, straight-faced sexism, or the fact that women cry at night as well (let's not argue about all that) or the imprecise unhappiness that runs through the whole novel, and gets tiresome after while; forget the references to the outer universe, the frailty of a novelist who ventures into the details of phsyics, and the foolhardiness of anyone who does so with the aim of asking the tired question of “what are we in the eyes of the universe?”

Forget the forgettable bits. But remember the bits that get stuck in the mind because they are strung with hooks of great prose. “Swing low on your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob-probes, and you will mark.” That line would look good, I think, at the start of a poem, let alone a novel. And the “distant seaguls falling through his lungs.” Where does this come from, and how does this strange image do its meaning-work? I don't know, but it works all right: empty sea, emptying sky. The striding Christ is superfluous, isn't it, as far as meaning goes? If anything it goes too far and upsets the solemnity of the occasion. But it doesn't matter, because it is a boastful, playful flourish, full of the joy of writing.

For hunters of metaphors, Amis is a teeming plain.

“Now in the dawn, through the window and through the rain, the streets of London looked like the insides of an old plug. Richard contemplated his sons, their motive bodies reluctantly arrested in their sleep, and reef-knotted in their bedware, and he thought, as an artist might: but the young sleep in another country, at once very dangerous and out of harm's way, perennially humid with innocuous libido – there are neutral eagles on the windowsill, waiting, offering protection and threat.”

“Now came the boys – in what you would call a flurry if it didn't go on so long and involve so much inanely grooved detail, with Richard like the venerable though tacitly alcoholic pilot in the cockpit of the frayed the time he rounded the final half-landing the front door was opening – was closing – and with a whip of its tail the flurry of their life was gone.”

But perhaps there is more to analysing a book than listing metaphors. Well.... perhaps. In a limited sense, on some days. I have to admit that there's a plot in The Information, something about sex and a well-read hitman and literary jealousy. There are themes as well. Ageing, the vastness of the physical universe, the power of art and the pushiness of life, sons and fathers, the search for the “universal.”

But I'ld say that these galvanising agents do not do as much to unite the novel as does the mood of the thing. The book has a sad, tired mood, bitter but impotent. This is the mood of the main character, who is the emotional centre of the book. We see the others through the smog of Richard's unhappiness. In this atmosphere, Gwyn's bright visions of a better earth, laid out peacefully in his best-selling novel, are depressingly fake. Richard's wife is an obsession he fails to satisfy, and her coldness towards his art is another example of her distance, the obscurity of her “private cosmogony.” America is a deafening mystery that Richard can observe but not absorb. He returns to England to the safety of its past, the place where students spend “three years in twelfth century universities with Paradise Lost on their knees.” But the past of England is also absent. England is an old baron, comically senile; a shambling mansion; the success of fake novelists; dead children on the muddy paths of Dogshit Park.

If we wanted to sum up Richard in one word, the word would be “isolation.” In the fog he hears his sons play in the park, but he cannot see them and he cannot understand their sounds. His best friend is a man he despises. His wife is part of the flurry of life, and Richard is standing on the stairs. To the men in the local pub he is a knowledge-freak, an impressive man but an outsider. Arguably, the person with whom he is most intimate is Scozzy, the well-read hitman. And Scozzy, arguably the most confident character in the book, is an irreversible misanthrope.

The Information was written in 1995, in a pre-internet age (the writer predicts that postmen will be superseded by the fax). This may be related to the fact that, in this book, “information” is not treated as a false thing, mere data, something to be contrasted with “knowledge” or “understanding.” For Richard, information is desirable, something contrasted favourably with the silence or gibberish of family members, and with the short platitudes, endlessly repeated, of publicists and sham novelists. Richard has a radio interview that is meant to be twenty minutes long but ends up at two minutes. He is determined not to label himself with a slogan, but he ends up saying nothing about his writing:

“But what is it saying?”
“It's saying itself. For a hundred and fifty thousand words. I couldn't put it in any other way.”
“Richard Tull? Thank you very much.”

Richard wants to be incompressible but ends up being invisible. Perhaps the problem of his wife is similar: in wanting to say everything he ends up saying nothing. Certainly this is a problem at other times. Extraordinarily, Richard gives a passionate speech (“You don't think that's extraordinary? Oh, but it is”). Predictably, he loses a job. Richard may want information, but not everyone does.

Is there any success or salvation in this book, any productive exchange of information, any victories of expression that are not just a retreats into obscure art or private clarity? We'll see. In the meantime, mark the prose. I can open the book at random and reliably come across a piece of writing that matches the rhythm and vividness of the first page. Perhaps it would take a long time and groping to get the message of the whole book: at that level, information is not easy to come by. But the transmission of mood and speech and image, at the level of sentence and paragraph, is as clear and informative as you could want. Does that constitute an overall message? Look for meaning in the fridge or the Friday morning, not in the stars? Look for pixels, not pictures? Whether it is or not, I think it works well as a novelists' mantra, this anti-message message. But this is too broad: if Amis has something to say here, it must be more specific than that. And whether he has anything to say or not, he has a lot to give to anyone who reads authors for their verbal gifts, their non-prosaic prose.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Signpost [last number] +1

There are many different kinds of charm, more than I have described below.

The charm of Lolita is aloof, childish, sarcastic. It is full of mockery and hard-to-reach places. It also has a sort of breathless resignation to the pleasures of adulthood.

The charm of Catherine Moorland is quiet and prudent. It is unthreatening but it also provocative, and it has hard questions for older people.

Elizabeth Bennet has a similar charm, in my opinion. But it is more penetrating and more intelligent and it is capable of anger. I could not imagine Catherine Moorland being really angry.

Dora Copperfield has a different kind of charm altogether. She is all candyfloss and icing. You need to be gentle with her or she will break apart, but in return she will give you pleasures of the gentlest kind.

Imagine each of these charms separately. Then imagine them all together, combined in one person. This person will be sensual and puzzling. She will be sharp and full of youth and full of an intense girlish vexing energy.

And imagine the kind of response this person would get when they took their vexing youthful affection and bestowed it on another person. I venture that the response would be strong and erratic. By turns the person would be calm, complacent, condescending, aloof, suspicious, guarded, amused, surprised, alarmed, affronted, insecure, defensive, thoughtful, warm, admiring, tender, tantalised, wary, adventurous, calm.

These responses would not follow each other in a graded sequence. They would jump around a lot, start again from scratch, repeat themselves. After a while they will settle down into a wary excitement, but even then they will be prone to sudden changes.

All of this may explain why I have not written much on this blog recently. Another explanation is that I have been reading a lot of History of Science; but that explanation is not very interesting. I don't know what I will write on this blog in the upcoming weeks, but I hope it is something.

Hey My Droogs and Little Malchikiwicks

Well well for your Michael Trevor yes the time's been going fastly, O my far-away friends, and many sunny happenings have been going on over this-here little point of action, no mistaking that my friends.

I went to Ottawa. Yes! I went to Ottawa my mates and I was tolchocked on the groodies, yes I was, by the goodness growing there, the goodness and the multi-pleasurableness of this fun-sponging place. The trees were bleeding all over the city, o the ruby-water flowed and the leaves were dead on the ground and it was just like old times, o my foreign droogies in your happy summer full of oily skin and little lambs being carried off in trucks, o yes. And the things that they have built there, in Ottawa! So much building, you must see it some time before somone knocks you over, yes you mustly very soonish or there will be sorry things to say about it, notwithstanding. Buildings made of rock and buildings made of glass, all in glass, you could make a thousand knives if your inclinations lay that way my pleasing droogies, from these buildings.

And a parliament, a parliament just like the jolly big thing in London-city, all brown and spiky like a very serious fence, very serious indeed. And there were happy sunny houses in the happy suburbs, with the leaves lying sunny on the ground like money. And so much richness in these places there was, so much leafy money, that there were no footpaths at all, yes they had been killed off long ago my friends, quite some time ago when you were just a little droog with jelly fingers, o yes. And the cars went past like shiny bullets, very big and not see-through at all, not a little look-see even once.

And I went also to another place of much delight and belly-tumbling too. This was Quebec, not so far from Ottawa as you may know from school or some such thing. And there was as much leafiness and tree-falling sussuration and so forth as I had ever seen or ever wanted or needed to see in my short hooray. And the hills were all dressed up in it, o my comrades, in the heigth of Roman fashion so they say. And I scurried up a hill on my little scuttlers and I saw a little way ahead, where the hills were going bloody all the way along, poor things. And that was all. I just went down after that and was carried past the shiny lakes and people swimming and drowning happily all along the shore, like little babies fat with little arms ha ha. O yes, it was not too bad really, and me only two months from home.

And the journey then, o my droogs! A big bus with bolshy big windows black and wrapped around like darkened glasses, not unlike the road-machines back home I venture. It was not bad at all, not so bad at all I say. I say it was not so bad as you might think, and I say you catch my little meaning here and so I journey on.

And all this and many more besides, o my readers in your ugly chairs! Glad enough I was, I say, to catch a game of batter-ball. So much in the happening, and so little to see! A game of batter-ball, with all the pyjama-panted players and so much happy throwing and a little teeny bit of hitting it was not enough for me I think. Not a thing to recommend to a friend, though a foe is something different, except you may say if the friend has a beautiful companion, or some such thing, to make the time go past with greater snappishness, o my droogs.

All that to one side and the rest to another, I should say I found a friend or two while working round my itty way the city. And all are nicely set in place o my well-proportioned people, as is in the nature of things so to say. One for tennis and tennis on the table and under the table and other sizzling racquet-sports ha ha. Another then for other things, like study-work and such. And then some more for lighter times, for eating jugs of briny browny bubble-juice. But mostly study-work I think, o Michael Trevor knows the inside-outs of this and that when study-work is raised. And not all well-companioned, I should say. Not a social thing is study-work. But never mind. There's always juice or tennis on the table, so to speak.

And study-work is not so bad, though long. The History of the Physical Sciences and the History of Pschologicology and the Philosophical Parts of Science are the things I am reading and hearing about, and writing too. And there's a lot to do and no mistake. A book a week for each of these, they say that's not too much. And that is much. But very jolly study-mates I have, and not too bad are those who speak to us in class and know so much of this and that. So study-work is working just as well as one could hope, I think.

And so I go along with this and that to do and not a lot to say. I did go shopping for a thing or two. I took a lusty wallet with me, needed to, and found a place to find a windows tool or screen or pelvis-sitter, what they said it was I do not know and many grazny numbers on it too, all Niggerhertz and RAM and so on and heretofore and so they say. And other things as well. A grazny mouse or finger-lover. A set of speaking boxes which is very good for playing lovely Beet and Franz and other lovely gorgeousness, too bad about the room-mate sleeping ha ha ha. And a big sack to hold it all, of course.

I saw a film that had the right amount of dying. It started out with an unfortunate happening in a barbers shop, which left one man with a very sore neck, a very sore neck indeed, and not much means to speak about it ha ha. And so it went like that for some time, but got a little soft in the centre so to say. But mostly it was men with veins in their arms, and one or two sore ladies ha ha. Viggo Mortgensseon was there, I saw. And someone else who did famous things that noone told me about. Anyway, it was all a good time and someone gave me popping-corn, so not too bad, not too bad at all my droogs. I see you dripping at the mouth right now, o yes.

Wink wink my friends, I must away. The grazny time is timing all my typing. Not too long to go, I think. Not too long at all, now even less. O yes my droogs, I hope very much that nothing bad happens to you in the next day or so, and good things happen instead and every little thing is sizzling fast, if you like it that way, or something else if you don't. No doubt there's more to say. Your Michael Trevor o my droogs is not a one to slouch around in hats, so more to come I say. But not right now.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Mapping out Science and Literature

I want to study the intersection of science and literature. But what does this mean? There are a few basic divisions to make here, and they help to map out this odd and interesting field of study. Some of the following divisions are interdependent (it would be nice to get rid of this interdependency; in the meantime, richness takes priority over clarity).

Method and matter
What happens when scientists apply the scientific method* to the phenomenon of literature, and vice versa? Scientists, especially psychologists, can study the cognitive processes that go on in an poet's head. Less interestingly, they can analyse handwriting and manuscripts as physical phenomena (eg. to date old scrolls). Likewise, there are novels about science and its social etc. implications (though usually about the implications of science, not science itself. I don't know any works of laboratory fiction, expect perhaps the writings of some sociologists).
*Here I've interpreted "method" broadly, to span discovery, justification and method of presentation (ie. language).
A study of the above kind will provide "weak" answers to the question of how each discipline contributes the other. I say "weak" because the answers do not tell us whether or not literature types are doing the same sort of things as science types. Science can give us insights into the workings of the literary mind; but it can also give us insights into the workings of the solar system. "Strong" questions about science and literature will reveal similarities and differences between the scientific and literary methods. For example, some people think that imagination is the link between physics and poetry: is it really, and what do we mean by "imagination"? And where do metaphors fit into all of this?

Parallel cases and the rest
A good way to examine the respective methods of science and literature is to look at cases where they are applied to the same subject matter. For example, large parts of psychology are not relevant to the method of science or of literature. But these parts of psychology are part of the subject matter of both disciplines. Finding this sort of common ground helps to eliminate unwanted variables, giving better grounds for comparison.

Foreground and background questions
We can think of science and literature as consisting in their respective subject matter and their respective methods of inquiry and expression. A naive view would clearly separate these spheres from the rest of the world. But an awful lot happens outside of these two spheres, and a lot of it is relevant to the spheres themselves. People possess values and make statements about those values; they have social lives and form political parties. They have rich psychological lives. In a lot of cases these happenings will be effected by what goes on in the two spheres; in some cases (certainly in the realm of literature) the causal arrow will run in the other direction. One way to illuminate the connection between science and literature is to look at how they interact in the background world of daydreams and social lives and politics.

Historical and philosophical questions
This division is more straightforward for some people than for others. The problem is that some philosophers of science reckon they need historical examples to verify their claims about ideal scientific methods (eg. Popper can't be right, because that's not how Newton did it). And some historians reckon they need the philosophy of science to decide whether or not they are studying science (as opposed to superstition or popular rubbish).

Still, there are some straightforward mistakes that one can make in this area. To avoid controversy, perhaps it is better to talk about general questions, about all known science, and questions about specific historical fields. It is known, for example, that the Roman poet Lucretius wrote a poem that theorised about the natural world, putting forward an early version of atomism; and that this poem was influential in the development of science. But it would be wrong to conclude that all known science is necessarily poetic in origin.

It is interesting and valuable to learn about particular epochs and particular figures in known science (what were the literary influences of Peracelsus? What, if anything, did the nineteenth century discover about the role of the unconscious mind in literary composition?) But this is quite different from making broad hypotheses about all the science that has ever been done.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Some info. on my blogging

Below is a bit of information about the topics I favour on this blog. (There is also a general welcome lying around somewhere).

The idea is to say why I find these topics interesting and what I will do with them. If the summaries below are not enough to persuade you of the overwhelming value of any particular topic, try the linked posts in the sub-heading. If they do nothing else, these linked posts (I like to call them "Introductions") will bore you intoagreement.

Travel (as literature; as philosophy)
Writing is not just a way of expressing the world, but also of sensing the world. Travel-writing is easier than creative writing, because it places fewer demands on the imagination. It is easier than philosophy because you don't have to think too much. When I am traveling, this suits me. Frequently when I am not traveling it also suits me.

I would like to think that metaphor is the one true link between the crafts of the intellect and the arts of the imagination, the fibre in the knot that binds the threads of science and poetry. There is a faint possibility that this view is a bit fanciful. But I like metaphors anyway. I also like to collect them - here's a sample. I deny that this hobby makes me in any way odd, obsessive or eccentric.

I would like to say that I am deeply enthusiastic about education. But really I am deeply enthusiastic about the idea of education. I like to say that good education is rich and empowering and full of wit and wisdom, that good education is key to human flourishing, that we should all become school teachers. I probably should think about these claims a little more. I should also admit that I am not really as keen as I might be on the idea of being a school-teacher. I wrote a series of three essays on education; it is called "Education as an Ideal."

Philosophy (and here and here)
In the first of the linked posts I wrote: "I do not have the will or the ability to live a life of philosophy, but I do wish to life a philosophical life." On reflection, this is really just a way of saying that I'm a pretty amateur philosopher. The things I do write on this topic are just as likely to be stimulated by a book or an abstracted idea, as by a real-life event. I am not equipped to say anything really interesting about ethics, education, politics, aesthetics or science; and I am not equipped to say anything at all about logic, metaphysics or semantics. But I like to exercise my mind and I like to reward my curiosity. I aspire to asking interesting questions. Failing that, I hope to make some interesting errors.

Everyone likes a good yarn. A lot of people also like words. Some people like writing books. Some people like writing poems. Some people like sticking a bunch of words together to see what happens. A poem is a good way of decorating a thought that would otherwise be uninteresting. It is also a good excuse for bad arguments. I like writing poems that rhyme, especially sonnets.

There are lots of good-sounding reasons for people to write dialogues. However, it is easier to write about writing dialogues than to write dialogues. Watch this space (intermittently).

Does this need an introduction?
People read books, and then they write about them. I write about them because it enriches the experience of reading. Reviews can be long and ponderous or little more than a quote. Often they are just a way of making one's blog look better by including the prose of people who get published.


Stories About Cows

Signpost 4: More Odds and Ends

[Update: by the looks of things, graduate life is a constant scramble to meet yesterday's deadlines. Probably I will not have much time over the next few months to post on this blog, except on topics directly related to my studies.]

Subject-wise, the writing on this blog over the next little while will be the same as it has been over the last little while ie. odds and ends. Style-wise, it may change: I'll make an effort towards brevity. Or rather, I will yield to the temptation of failing to spend hours writing long and ponderous essays on obscure topics.

This is not as easy a decision as it looks; but nor is it very hard. On the one hand, I quite like the idea of being an earnest long-winded scholar who shuns worldly delights in service of the wordy exposition of minutiae. On other hand, I would like people to read this blog. (And worldly delights are, after all, delightful).

My first act of popularist summarizing is to condense all of my bloated introductions into a single easy-to-read no-nonsense pocket of information. And here it is.

The jury is out on the merit, readership-wise, of writing odds and ends. I've heard that success in blogging is impossible without a fairly narrow and consistent subject matter. But surely there is something to gain from appealing to a wide audience. At any rate, I'll give top priority to what appeals to me. Thanks to the people who have left comments behind so far.