. Alas, not me: June 2014

29 June 2014

Negative 3 Mister Darcys, or How I Came to Love √-1

I have a very good friend who went the extra mile to get two Bachelor's Degrees, one in Math and one in English.  What is more, after that she got her PhD in English Renaissance Drama.  Although she vehemently denies having a good memory, she can, if asked, deliver ex tempore a succinct and accurate plot summary of any play of the period you can possibly come up with.  I'm not talking about Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Ben Jonson here.  I'm talking about writers and plays most people not versed in the period are at best only dimly aware of.  And even 20 years after the last Math class she took, she could still remember and talk about the Math in a meaningful way.  So her memory isn't good.  It's prodigious.

Most of the Math she could discuss was lost on me, however.  Geometry and Trigonometry I loved and did well in, but I haven't taken a Math class since high school.  Never took Calculus.  Never wanted to.  But every now and then I would see some equation somewhere and say to her, "So what does that symbol mean?"  And she would launch into some explanation that before too long made my poor brain swell, but, you know what, it's rather charming to watch someone you like indulging a passion that they don't often get to indulge because they are surrounded by people who won't know what they are talking about.  It was a lovely thing to watch, though I was utterly clueless.

And as long as we didn't touch too much on negative numbers, we were fine.  For some reason I had always found the assertion that negative numbers were real particularly irksome.  (It is somehow akin to the claim that "perception is reality," though I have noticed that the perception which is also reality never ever seems to be my perception.)  I mean, okay, negative numbers come in very handy for solving equations, but they were just tools, a means to an end, a bit of mental mathematical gymnastics.  They didn't exist as a measure of real quantity.  Because of course you cannot actually have -3 apples or anything else.

And in my typical cleverer than thou way my proof of the unreality of negative numbers was that the square root of any negative number was an imaginary number. Because obviously a number that didn't exist would have a square root that was imaginary.  Somehow this failed to persuade her.  In fact it annoyed her. Largely because it was stupid, and she knew and disliked the fact that I was trying to tease her.

In revenge she gave me a book called An Imaginary Tale: The Story of √-1, by Paul J. Nahin, for Christmas.  (Revenge tragedy was her specialty.)  Now from what I have read about this book, it is a good book and very highly thought of by those who are able to think of it, but for me a visitation of three spirits by night would have been kinder.  She kept insisting that the Math wasn't that hard, and perhaps I would have decided she was right if I could have gotten to page three.  I couldn't even claim that it was all Greek to me, because then I would have understood it.  In any event my brain oozed out through my ears.  But I have always maintained that turnabout is fair play, and this was a most palpable hit.

Though I still didn't buy that negative numbers were real.

Because it's true that you can't have -3 apples.

Then one day it hit me.  If negative numbers are real because we can conceive of them, and can hold the idea of them in our heads, and do things with those numbers, well then Mr Darcy is real, too.  And Sam Gamgee.  And Falstaff.  And Colonel Aureliano Buendía.  And Viola.  And Diana Villiers.  And the incomparable Lily Bart.

And I can dance with Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

So don't be telling me if I'm wrong.  I don't want to know.

27 June 2014

He do the police in different voices -- reading fiction versus listening to it

"For I ain't, you must know," said Betty, "much of a hand at reading writing-hand, though I can read my Bible and most print.  And I do love a newspaper.  You mightn't think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper.  He do the Police in different voices."

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, Chapter 16.

His voice takes away my voice.

His imagination limits my imagination.

Audio books, for years I've heard people rave about audio books.  Thoughtful, clever people, who love books and read a lot, people whose opinions I can respect even when we disagree, have declared their affection for audio books.  I just don't get it.

I've made several attempts over the years, and every time within a few minutes I have been left so cold and bored that I can continue to pay attention only by the force of will.  This is not a case of what I think of as Great Band Aporia -- you know, when you hear lots of people talk about how great a certain band is, but you can't for the life of you imagine why anyone would believe this.  It's different because in Great Band Aporia you regard the general opinion as something of a delusion to which you are, thankfully, quite superior.  And you think this way because the band itself just doesn't seem that remarkable to you.  The songs, the performances, they're just not that good.

But that's not the case for me with audio books.  I used to have an unabridged version of Derek Jacobi reading The Iliad.  Now I love The Iliad.  It's a titanic work about the consequences of human choices, and the horror and the beauty that arise from them, often side by side.  And Derek Jacobi is one of the great actors of our day, with an absolutely marvelous voice.  His Hamlet for the BBC long ago is amazing, and his performance in Breaking the Code on Broadway was the best thing I've ever seen.  He even played a hilariously bad Shakespearean ham on Frasier. What a perfect match he and Homer seemed.  But not for me.  It wasn't long before I was just as cold and bored as I was listening to some bland heartless drone of a reader reciting contemporary popular fiction.  I was very disappointed, but not in Derek Jacobi.

Currently I am trying again.  I am listening to Christopher Lee reading The Children of Húrin by Tolkien.  Again this is a work of which I am very fond, and a tale with which I am quite familiar. Christopher Lee is also well known to be a great aficionado of Tolkien.  These are the reasons I chose this particular book.  I hoped it might help. And then, too, there's that rich and resonant voice, which it is a pleasure to listen to, mostly.  Some of the characterizations he attempts with it, especially of women, are rather strange and, I think, unsuccessful.  He makes the character of Morwen, a stern, strong, sad woman, sound like Miss Havisham on laudanum.  And he is a little too zealous in his pronunciations of elvish words, with that all too sober glee that proclaims "See, I know how to say this word."  I am reminded of NPR reporters who insist on overdoing the accent when pronouncing a South American dignitary's name, as if saying a Spanish name meant they had stopped speaking English for the space of two or three words.  But these criticisms are of Lee, not the audio book itself. After a minute of two I can barely make myself listen.

A few years back I often worked on Sunday mornings, and on the drive in I would listen to Selected Shorts on NPR.  If you don't know, Selected Shorts is a live recording of short stories, commonly read by actors, to a studio audience.  Though I started listening at first largely because it was there, I kept on listening because I became interested in my own reaction to it.  You see, it didn't matter if the actor read the story well.  It didn't matter if I thought the story was clever or well done or interesting. I reacted to every one just as I did to audio books.

It seems I don't like being read to, even if I think the material is good and being read well.  In fact it may be worse if I do like the material.  But why?  It's a matter of voice and imagination.  When I read, there's a voice somewhere in my head that is a combination of the narrator and myself.  This voice involves my imagination with the story.  I am directly engaged.  But when someone else is reading the book for me, my voice is taken from me.  My voice is no longer telling me the story through my own imagination.  The reader's voice is substituted and the reader's imagination limits mine.

I am shut out.  I am used to getting lost inside a book, so much so that I jump if addressed or if the phone rings.  And it doesn't matter what kind of fiction it is, so long as it's good.  I can get just as lost inside Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day or A. S. Byatt's Possession, both terrific books, as I can inside Homer or Tolkien. It's only when I can do this that I understand the words of Machiavelli about reading that I quoted in an earlier post -- "I enter ... and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born." 

It's that voice that makes this food mine alone, so much so that I was born for it. Without it, I go hungry.  But I'm glad I had the opportunity to figure this out, since it makes me appreciate that voice and my imagination and my love of books all the more.

The Iliad
The Children of Húrin
Breaking The Code
Selected Shorts
Elizabeth Bowen
A. S. Byatt

22 June 2014

It's just the wind, right?

It's just the wind, right?  Or maybe not.

Perhaps it's because I was a little boy in the late 1960s.  There was so much going on.  A larger world swirled like The Starry Night upon the limits of my own.  The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, drugs, young men with long hair, pretty girls in gauzy shirts and peasant skirts, Martin Luther King, Civil Rights marches, peace marches, riots, Vietnam, body counts on Walter Cronkite.  It was all so overwhelming, so impossible to make sense of, so strange and wondrous and daunting for a boy who lived in books.

But there was one thing I did make sense of.  We were going to the moon.  I loved looking up at the stars and puzzling out the constellations.  As dim and pale as they were above the streetlights of the Bronx, they still shone brightly for me.  The sky was more full of worlds than all the books ever written.  And we were going to the moon.

With every Apollo mission we came closer, until one magical night in July 1969 that was even better than Star Trek.  I went outside and looked up, not because I expected to be able to see anything, but because we were there.  We were there.

Even afterwards I watched every mission, still excited.  The tension of Apollo 13 was breathtaking, but my faith then was childlike and perfect: I had no doubt they would return safely.  It was only years later that I realized how close they had come to never coming back at all.  But that was after Challenger, when the boldness of going into space no longer seemed linked to an equal brilliance of leadership.  The glory and vision of Apollo sank into scheduled maintenance on the Hubble.

It wasn't that the astronauts were less brave or less skilled.  They still climbed on top of a rocket and rode fire into the heavens.  It wasn't that experience and routine made their missions less dangerous.  We have the evidence to prove the opposite. It was that the gap between our reach and our grasp became so great that we confined ourselves to what we could do in near orbit and what we could see from afar.  Our one and only spaceship, which was plump and stodgy to begin with, became a delivery van.  

Perhaps it's because I was a little boy in the late 1960s, but even Hubble's images of the far end of the time, and Kepler's detections of hundreds of planets circling distant stars, as magnificent and humbling as they are, will never be as compelling as the Apollo Program.  If I could look up and see the Pillars of Creation in the night sky and pick out Kepler-186f, I would be outside looking up every single night.  Not because they would be beautiful.  No, not merely that.  But because some part of my humanity would want to know what it was like there, would want us to go there, even if I know that such journeys will almost certainly remain forever beyond our ability.  Still the idea of such voyages of discovery would trump the pedestrian impossibility.  That's why the idea of Mars will not die.

Perhaps it's because I was a little boy in the late 1960s, but a night came in early 2005 when the Huygens probe landed on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, and rekindled the wonder I had felt long before.  The simple expedient of attaching a microphone to the outside of the craft allowed me to hear the wind blow on another world.

To hear the wind blow on another world.  

To hear the wind blow on another world.  

We were there.

More on Titan
More on Apollo
The Magic Words
The Other Magic Words

19 June 2014

The Mythgard Institute

In the winter of 2012 I was poking around the internet, looking as we all do for god knows what  -- our futures perhaps -- when I came across this guy named Corey Olsen who was calling himself "The Tolkien Professor."  Now I'll admit that my first reaction (okay, it's my default reaction) was skepticism.  "The Tolkien Professor" just sounded a bit geeky, and I'm old enough to remember when geek was not a compliment.  And what was with that definite article, huh?  The Tolkien Professor?  Was that like The O'Neill, The O'Donnell, The Humongous?

But since an essential part of real skepticism is to investigate those things at which we first look askance, and since I have always loved Tolkien, I decided to check it out.  First I listened to the podcasts of his undergraduate classes at Washington College, then to his Tolkien chats and Q&A sessions, and the Silmarillion Seminar (of blessed memory).  As someone who has read The Lord of the Rings so many times that, if I told you how many, you would roll your eyes and assume I was wearing a costume as I wrote this,* I can reasonably lay claim to being a competent judge.

And let me tell you this: Corey Olsen knows his stuff.

Now don't misunderstand me.  The discussions on the podcasts are only very seldom about whether Balrogs have wings (since of course they don't).  Rather, they are serious literary discussions that explore the ceaselessly amazing world of Middle Earth through careful study of the texts themselves.  At the same time they are also lighthearted, full of humor, and untrammeled by ponderous literary theories.  Instead they pay attention to what the author actually wrote.  Inconceivable.

While Professor Olsen's undergraduate lectures are still available through iTunes and his website (www.tolkienprofessor.com), ever since 2012 he has been embarked on a new adventure, creating and building up The Mythgard Institute, which offers graduate courses online for Master's credit and for auditing. (Tuition for both is quite reasonable.)  While many of the early courses have focused on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, the range of courses and the number of professors have been steadily expanding.  Most recently, for example, Professor Olsen, a Medievalist and Chaucerian by trade, has offered two semesters on Chaucer.  I have audited both of these classes, and rarely have I had so much fun and learned so much at the same time.  I'm thinking of making a pitch for more Middle English next spring or summer.  How about Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl?

But wait there's more.  In addition to the Mythgard Institute there's also The Mythgard Academy, which since the summer of 2013 has offered free courses on works and authors proposed and voted on by those of us who have made voluntary contributions (think NPR).  But to listen and participate is absolutely free, and if you miss a session the recordings are usually posted within a day or two.  Nor are the readings limited to Tolkien.  We recently had a course on Ender's Game, which raised my opinion of Orson Scott Card as a writer, and in the end of July or beginning of August we'll be starting Frank Herbert's Dune.  I'm very much looking forward to that.

Clearly I am quite pleased to have made this discovery.  I have learned a lot about Tolkien and tons about Chaucer.  I can't find enough good things to say about the job Corey Olsen does.  I just wanted to take the opportunity to say that.


*Don't own one. Never worn one.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  It's all in good fun.  And the only convention I've ever been to was the first Star Trek convention in New York when I was eleven.  Even then no pointed ears.

18 June 2014

Machiavelli reading (1)

When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.* 
So wrote Niccolò Machiavelli of the pleasure he found in reading.  And while the robes of court and palace are in short supply at my house, I do take off my shoes the instant I am in the door, and don a pair of raggedy, paint stained comfortable old shorts that I hope I won't be caught dead in.  Though I probably will. And then, like Nico, I start to read.

For a long time my passions in reading were much the same as his.  The ancients he's talking about are the Greeks and Romans.  Plato, Homer, Sophocles, Aristotle, Thucydides, Cicero, Vergil, Tacitus, Sallust, Livy --  I spent years immersed in their works, in conversation with them as Machiavelli imagines it.  And I loved every minute of that conversation.  Indeed (yes, I said indeed) I had the great good fortune to make my living in that conversation for quite a few years.  For someone who finds joy in reading and talking about books to be able to make his living doing so is a rare convergence of the useful and the sweet. 

But time passed on, and nowadays I read mostly modern fiction -- okay, one thing you need to understand here is that for me ancient means "before the Middle Ages," not "before I was born;" and "modern" means "not ancient, medieval, or renaissance, but later," which, I grant you, makes the concept a bit wibbly-wobbly.  We won't even get into Modern and Post-Modern (capital letters, like money, change everything) -- but the pleasure of the conversation with the moderns and their characters is as great or greater.  Let's face it.  Miss Elizabeth Bennet is more out and out fun to pass an evening with than Socrates.  Both of them will cut you to pieces with their wit, but at least with Eliza Bennet you can also meditate on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.  It is another convergence of the useful and the sweet.  With Socrates, not so much.

*Quoted from from J.R. Hale, The Literary Works of Machiavelli (London, 1961) p. 139.

15 June 2014

The Cross of the Moment

Yet the noble despair of the poets
Is nothing of the sort; it is silly
To refuse the tasks of time
And, overlooking our lives,
Cry, "miserable wicked me,
How interesting I am."
We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

W. H. Auden
The Age of Anxiety

And so I came to this passage long ago.  I heard a man like myself quote these lines, and recognized the truth in them.  Like him, the illusion that I was different, special, smarter, better, more heroic, more tragic, better acquainted with sorrow, brought with it the dread that I was wrong.  And I was, wrong.  I was just the same as everybody else.  If I had done anything, felt anything, said anything, so had everybody else.  If there was a word to name the thought, the feeling, the action, that meant someone had already thought it, felt it, or done it.  Like most truths revealed to the willfully blind, it seemed at once obvious and profound.  And that's pretty easy to scoff at.  But realizing that I am nothing more than just another human being saves my life, and keeps me climbing the cross of the moment.

What precious nonsense, eh?

And what's it got to do with anything?

Well, not every time, but often enough when I've read a blog or some other effusion of the endless chaos of conspiracy and opinion that is the internet, all I could do was think "miserable wicked you, how interesting you are.  You should write a bloody memoir."  I'd wonder why I should care what these people had to say, and wonder even more why I was wasting my dwindling moments reading it.  And every time someone suggested I should write a blog, I'd wonder why others would care about what I had to say.  Doesn't the internet have enough prating and ranting already?  I mean, I'm sometimes miserable, and was occasionally wicked in the long ago, but others would only find what I had to say interesting if they recognized themselves in it.  I'm just not that interesting. And why would I want to be like those people anyway?

Oh, wait.  There I go thinking I'm different again.  Sorry, give me a moment.  I just banged my head on the beam of that cross.  Forgot to duck.  Again.

So, years down the line, I come to the notion of writing this blog (doesn't help that I think it's a very ugly word) with decidedly mixed emotions.  I don't know whether this will work, or whether anyone will read it -- let alone find it worth reading -- but I feel like talking, apparently just like everyone else.  I guess I'll see how it goes.