Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Praise the Lord for all the Middle Pleasures

Praise the Lord for all the middle pleasures,
Work and play in one, pleasing sense and taste.
Rounding off the wealth of other treasures,
Often hidden, sometimes lost, never waste.
An easy joy it is to rut and feed,
But dumb, unaimed: better free than fatter.
Appeasing sense, the middle joys repair the need
To stuff the beasty holes with meaty matter.
And yet to feed the soul, the limbs, the mind,
With dryer food alone, is not much fun.
The middle meal, with bread and sweets combined,
Entreats the self to savour what it’s won.

Proud pleasures, raising both the high and low,
Where can these be found? Praise to those who know!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lake Waikaremoana

There is not much to say about Lake Waikaremoana, in the North Island of New Zealand. This is not because there is not much to the Lake. Rather, the place is so beautiful that it is hard to say anything that will succeed in being about the Lake, rather than about some lesser place.

How can one say, for example, how the hills rise up straight out of the lake and run away into the distance for miles and miles, and how they are all covered in thick bush? The guide-book says that the hills “roll north in a seemingly endless procession, mantled in a lush carpet of emerald-green foliage.” This author tries hard to say what the hills are like, but there is something missing, and it is not just that the physical reality of the hills are missing from a piece of writing. The picture they put in the reader’s mind is also inferior to the real thing.

And how can one give a good picture, an accurate picture, of how the lake looks in the early morning, just after the mist has lifted over the hills and disappeared, and the water is perfectly still? In a little estuary on the lake, the water is like a mirror. It is like a mirror, but of course it is not a mirror. A mirror does not ripple like that, a mirror is set into processed wood, not living trees and tangled foliage, and a mirror reflects people and hallways, not toi-toi and rimu.

Perhaps narrowing the simile down will make it more accurate: let’s say that the reflective qualities of the lake surface, and nothing else about the lake or its environment, are very similar to those of a mirror. But actually we do want to say something about the lake and its environment, so accuracy comes at a high price.

And perhaps accuracy does not even come at all: perhaps we are so used to seeing near-perfect reflection instantiated in a household mirror, that the quality of near-perfect reflection cannot be detached in our minds from the qualities of household mirrors. Perhaps, for this reason, the mirror on the lake surface will always be smudged by the household banalities it carries over from the usual dwelling-place of mirrors.

Perhaps we can improve things by describing how the lake is not a mirror. A mirror does not fail at its edges, and show what is inside it instead of what is outside. You cannot look into the shallow parts of a mirror and see blue-green logs and grasses. And only a liquid could change itself so easily to match the contours of the shore-line, all the little bays and coves and stumpy peninsulas, the streams and the jutting bushes. And the silence! The immense and fragile silence, which is so dense and which you can break with a movement of your foot.

But look at the angle of the struts of the bridge. Perhaps you could specify this angle, put it at, say, 37 degrees from the vertical. But even to a person whose head was full of struts of every different angle this would not be enough, because there is something about the shape of the struts, and the texture of the wood, and the slope of the branch in the foreground, that gives the angle a special quality.

Perhaps one could get closer to the real thing by specifying the relevant qualities of the wood and the branch and the shape of the struts. But noone has a head full of wood and branches and textures of all different kinds. So even if we knew just where the special quality came from we would not be able to get that quality into another person’s head.

And the colours of the sunset? Well, one could say that they are “soft” and “pink”, but just how soft are they, and what sort of pink? They are soft in the sense of being diffuse rather than concentrated, and they are the kind of pink that you never find on the dresses of little girls. But is that really much use? It is something, but it does not really capture the actual delicacy or grandeur of the colours of the sunset, or the peculiar shapes of the clouds.

And I despair of getting across to the reader the precise way in which the water at the lake’s edge creased into a wrinkle, and bent into a little “v”, when it snagged on a stick that was poking up out of the sand. And there was also the soft beating of the sea on the sand, as if of an immense but far-off heart, a beating that seemed to me to be too specific and too rare to be chased down by similes and adjectives.

The toi-toi stood in groups, and their heads were bowed and nodded in the wind. They were a bit like old men in conference, bowing and nodding like that, but they were so much unlike old men in conference, and the source of the unlikeness is so hard for me to grasp, that I can’t say I have really given you the right idea about those toi-tois.

There were many different ripples on the lake, and sheets and bands of water that were distinct from the rest but had no ripples at all. There are many different ways in which the water rearranges the sun. Here the sun is a white glitter on the lake, here it is a wide and glaring plain, here an intense wobbly mass.

Is it breath-taking, the hills and the lake and the sun? When you go along the track and come to a sudden gap in the bush, so that you can see the whole scene spread out, does Lake Waikaremoana take away your breath? No, it does not. I have tried it, and if anything it gave me back my breath, smoothed things up in my throat as if a knot had been untied somewhere in there. But this may have been because I had a rest after a bit of hard walking.

Is it spectacular? One might use that word to describe the lake, but that would place the lake on the same level as rugby tries and economic booms. It is certainly a spectacle, but it is not truly spectacular. It is too quiet, too still, lacks aggression. Is it superb, beautiful, sublime, unique, unparalleled? I do not want to say it is, because the first four of those terms are muddied by incautious usage, and would make the lake sound more ordinary than otherwise. And the fifth is false. The best I can say is that Lake Waikaremoana is worth seeing, and you won't really see it except by going there yourself.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bell's Falls, Mt. Taranaki, New Zealand

On the morning of the day I came to a narrow place of rocks and water.

Water came over the rocks because the air was filled with water. Water came over the rocks because the stream was round and running. The water on the trees made the trees thick and green and the water on the rocks made the rocks full of shining.

I came to the narrow place. I felt the thickness of the trees, and the green was full of moss and thick as fallen snow. As I came to the narrow place, full of falling water, shining of the rocks and the water on the run, and the rocks were full of water and I slipped along the rocks with the water and the rain.

And I came to the narrow place, on the morning of the day.

I came upon the narrow place and saw the water falling, from a rock on the walls that were full of water streaming and the water turned to snow as it ran across the rocks and it fell down the wall to a green sea below, and across the sea a spray, a spray of sweaty ghosts came across the filling sea.

In the green sea the water widened. In the sea the waves were green and the peaks were full of snow. And I saw the water falling and the filling of the sea, and the ghosts and the snow and the running of the green. In the narrow place, I saw the rocks and water.

I saw the trees and water, on the morning of the day.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Seven 50 Word Stories

50 word stories are as addictive in the writing as in the reading. They have the newness of poems without the tedium. They have the mysticism of a number, like haikus. The good ones are story and aphorism in one. The bad ones are over quickly. Read mine. Write yours.

“I am strong and full of longing,” I said. My cat did not answer. Nor did she answer when I picked up a sheet of very white paper and folded it in half four times very neatly and without any wrinkling or overlap, and so I watched the news instead.

“The examined life is not worth living.” That sounded right, so I read seven large books on the topic and dreamt about logical operators. This was worthwhile, in its own way, but when I tried to write things down there was nothing there. The unlived life is not worth examining.

The grey trees were even greyer in the pictures. They were thin and grey and leaned out like hungry ghosts. I tried to remember how they had been when I was small and hungry, but I always came back to the pictures. I hid them in a drawer and forgot.

It was five o’clock before they got any sleep. They had been up all night watching the grass change colour, and it was so exciting that they had sat there talking about it for three hours. It was one of their biggest nights, but they slept soundly in the end.

Once there was a large pond, full of bones and daisies. A man went to see it. He was warned very ardently but he went along anyway, saying: “I lost my bones long ago.” He never came back. There were many more bones in the pond, and three more daisies.

Near the end of my Honours year I spent two hours writing fifty words when I should have been writing two hundred words every ten minutes. “I am full of words,” I thought, “but most of them are badly shaped and hard to get out.” I must be more disciplined.

Making No Difference At All

We need to stop treating science as if it were a single monolithic entity, a solid kingdom embattled against rival kingdoms. On the one hand, the various sciences differ hugely. Ecology and anthropology are not at all like physics, nor is biology, and this is not disastrous because they do not have to be.

This passage is from a book I am reading about symbols and science, and an elegant and well-written book it is too. But I am suspicious of the line of reasoning evident in the quoted passage, and I think there is a mistake in that line of reasoning that is made quite often. The mistake is to think that, if a group of objects are such that each object differs hugely from each other object, then there is no hope of finding any commonality in that group. Below are three reasons why commonality can exist despite large differences.

First, objects usually differ in respect of one or more qualities; and, since different respects are often independent of one another, a group of objects can differ greatly from eachother in most respects, yet be very alike in other respects. The set of complete sentences varies greatly in respect of length, tone, syntax, and content; but this does not stop them being alike in respect of their basic grammatical structure.

And in the scientific case, ecology and physics may differ greatly in respect of the precision their statements, and in their subject matter, and in their affinity with mathematics, but perhaps they share a common method. Perhaps they do not share a common method, in which case there is some reason to doubt the “monolithic” character of science. But simply saying that different sciences “differ hugely” is not enough to establish the lack of commonality in the sciences.

Another reason is more causal than conceptual. Small variations at a microscopic level can lead to highly divergent behaviors at a macroscopic level; hence a group of objects can appear to differ hugely in their everyday appearance, yet still have very clear structural similarities. The set of all tri-molecules (that is, the set of all molecular substances such that each molecule contains three separate atoms, a group I just made up then), is clearly a quite homogeneous set; yet it contains substances that are as different in appearance and behavior as CO2 and H2O.

The third reason draws on the fact that statements about similarity and difference only really make sense in relation to some standard of comparison. In respect of size, is a plate similar to a table? There is no way of getting a determinate answer to this question, I think, except by bringing in some standard of similarity to compare the plate/table case to. We may not be able to say whether a plate is similar to a table, in respect of size, but we can say whether a plate is more similar to a table than (say) a plate is to house.

This point is relevant because, as soon as one relativises similarity in this way, one universalizes it. If two objects can be similar simply by being more similar than some other two objects, then almost any two objects can be similar. If your scope is broad enough, any two objects in your vision will look close together. It doesn’t matter how much anthropology differs from physics; what matters is how the difference between those two pursuits compares to the differences between those pursuits separately, and non-scientific pursuits (say, English and History). One can bang on all one likes about how different anthropology is from physics. But as long as one has not shown that one of those pursuits is more similar to English (say) than it is to the other of those pursuits, then one has given no reason to question the “monolithic” character of the sciences.

But perhaps I have been a bit unfair here. The standard of comparison I have mentioned is, I think, usually established implicitly, by context. And by demanding that all statements of similarity and difference carry with them an explicit standard of comparison, I am showing a kind of insensitivity to ordinary usage that (some might say) only a philosopher could suffer from. When someone says that the temperature on Tuesday will be “similar” to that on Wednesday, we don’t all put on puzzled expressions and ask the speaker to relativise her statement to some standard. If it turns out that Tuesday’s temperature differs from Wednesday’s by 2.5 degrees, we are not surprised, even though this difference would (in some scientific contexts, for example) be vast. We are aware, in an intuitive sort of way, that the context of everyday weather fixes certain rules about which pairs of temperature are to be considered similar, and which are not.

And perhaps the reader is expected, from the passage above, to intuit some kind of context. And the natural context to use is that of prior expectation. That is, what the author means when she says “physics and anthropology differ hugely” is really “physics and anthropology differ much more than is commonly appreciated.” And the latter statement both makes pretty good sense, and is interesting.

Nevertheless, it is also pretty clear that the latter statement is milder than the claim that the author is trying to make. The claim is that it is somehow impossible to warrant the grouping of physics and anthropology, that they are hopelessly disparate. And, for the three reasons given above (though only the first and third only really apply here) this strong claim does not follow from the milder claim about the inaccuracy of popular beliefs.

A similar pattern of thought is sometimes present in discussions about ethnicity. When discussing the census, for example, commentators sometimes protest (for example) that Korean and Chinese should not be grouped together (eg. under the label of Asian), on the basis that Korean culture is “vastly different” from Chinese culture, or that the two have “very little in common.”

Again, it may be that people do often make genuine mistakes about the closeness of Korean and Chinese culture, and it is worthwhile to counter these mistakes by clarifying the distinctive qualities of each. But the fact that the two cultures are less similar, or similar in fewer respects, than is commonly imagined, does not mean that they should never be grouped together. They may differ greatly, and yet still differ less than what Chinese culture differs from any given European culture. Or in some respects (say, population size) Korea may be more naturally grouped with European countries than with China; and yet in all relevant respects they are enough alike to be put in the same box.