Monday, March 31, 2014

Fragments of Notes on JM Coetzee

Fragments from my notes to "The Humanities in Africa," chapter five of Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee

When the work keeps anticipating possible interpretive trains of thought


One can see why the Church would want to oppose evolution, beyond the specific details of its stories: evolution/genealogy make it not only impossible but unnecessary to return to an origin that is seen as the truth.


The return to the origin is an intellectual effort to overcome the traces of earlier intellectual efforts.


    Hostility in an essayistic text generates unease. Since it is inappropriate to express hostility in such a context (especially hostility by the honoree toward those doing the honoring), it demands an explanation. And since hostility is an emotion, and emotion in general is inappropriate (only reason should speak in this space), as is getting emotional about the kind of material that she is talking about—given all that, one turns to the personal for an explanation.
    When the personal intrudes into the space of ideas, it must be contained. And the way to contain it? An ad hominem attack. Those who speak personally will be condemned on personal grounds.


The way a story can ruin an idea. One tells a story to exemplify an idea, but then one has to tell the story in such a way that it serves the idea. The excess or surplus in the story can ruin the idea, the point that the storyteller is trying to make.


The novel as a type of storytelling that drops the idea of making a point in favor of ... obscenity. — Look at the great novels: what are they condemned for? Obscenity. Flaubert, Joyce. — Look at Plato's condemnation of Homer: what does Plato condemn Homer for? For taking liberties with the story, liberties that are just part of making it a great story, rather than of using the story as a tool of teaching, of philosophy.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"To be sure" in "Emma"

And here are many of the appearances of "to be sure" in Austen's Emma. I really wonder about how to interpret this expression. It's quite slippery. Suggestions?

To be sure

            "That may be, and I may have seen him fifty times, but without having any idea of his name. A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is, therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as in every other he is below it."
            "To be sure. Oh yes! It is not likely you should ever have observed him; but he knows you very well indeed—I mean by sight."


            "You could not have visited me!" she cried, looking aghast. "No, to be sure you could not; but I never thought of that before. That would have been too dreadful!—What an escape!—Dear Miss Woodhouse, I would not give up the pleasure and honour of being intimate with you for any thing in the world."


            "Then she is a greater simpleton than I ever believed her. What is the foolish girl about?"
            "Oh! to be sure," cried Emma, "it is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for any body who asks her."


            "Upon my word, Emma, to hear you abusing the reason you have, is almost enough to make me think so too. Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do."
            "To be sure!" cried she playfully. "I know that is the feeling of you all. I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in—what at once bewitches his senses and satisfies his judgment. Oh! Harriet may pick and chuse. Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you. And is she, at seventeen, just entering into life, just beginning to be known, to be wondered at because she does not accept the first offer she receives? No—pray let her have time to look about her."


            The picture!—How eager he had been about the picture!—and the charade!—and an hundred other circumstances;—how clearly they had seemed to point at Harriet. To be sure, the charade, with its "ready wit"—but then the "soft eyes"—in fact it suited neither; it was a jumble without taste or truth. Who could have seen through such thick-headed nonsense?


            Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush shewed that it could pain her.
            "Ah!—well—to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend."


            "Harriet!" cried Emma, collecting herself resolutely—"Let us understand each other now, without the possibility of farther mistake. Are you speaking of—Mr. Knightley?"
            "To be sure I am. I never could have an idea of any body else—and so I thought you knew. When we talked about him, it was as clear as possible."

Compliments in "Emma"


            Mr. Frank Churchill was one of the boasts of Highbury, and a lively curiosity to see him prevailed, though the compliment was so little returned that he had never been there in his life. His coming to visit his father had been often talked of but never achieved.


            "I am glad you think so; and the good hands, I hope, may not be wanting."
            "Come," said he, "you are anxious for a compliment, so I will tell you that you have improved her. You have cured her of her school-girl's giggle; she really does you credit."


            "There is so pointed, and so particular a meaning in this compliment," said she, "that I cannot have a doubt as to Mr. Elton's intentions. You are his object—and you will soon receive the completest proof of it."


            Emma perceived that the nature of his gallantry was a little self-willed, and that he would rather oppose than lose the pleasure of dancing with her; but she took the compliment, and forgave the rest.


            "Insufferable woman!" was her immediate exclamation. "Worse than I had supposed. Absolutely insufferable! Knightley!—I could not have believed it. Knightley!—never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley!—and discover that he is a gentleman! A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr. E., and her caro sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and underbred finery. Actually to discover that Mr. Knightley is a gentleman! I doubt whether he will return the compliment, and discover her to be a lady.


            "So I remember to have heard. He will find an addition to the society of Highbury when he comes again; that is, if I may presume to call myself an addition. But perhaps he may never have heard of there being such a creature in the world."
            This was too loud a call for a compliment to be passed by, and Mr. Weston, with a very good grace, immediately exclaimed,
            "My dear madam! Nobody but yourself could imagine such a thing possible. Not heard of you!—I believe Mrs. Weston's letters lately have been full of very little else than Mrs. Elton."


            "A very fine young man indeed, Mr. Weston. You know I candidly told you I should form my own opinion; and I am happy to say that I am extremely pleased with him.—You may believe me. I never compliment."


After a good many compliments to Jane on her dress and look, compliments very quietly and properly taken, Mrs. Elton was evidently wanting to be complimented herself—and it was, "How do you like my gown?—How do you like my trimming?—How has Wright done my hair?"—with many other relative questions, all answered with patient politeness.


            "Miss Fairfax's compliments and thanks, but is quite unequal to any exercise."


            "John enters like a brother into my happiness," continued Mr. Knightley, "but he is no complimenter; and though I well know him to have, likewise, a most brotherly affection for you, he is so far from making flourishes, that any other young woman might think him rather cool in her praise. But I am not afraid of your seeing what he writes."

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Ronald Bush on Pound's "Canto LXXXI"

This afternoon at 1 pm, Ronald Bush of Oxford University will be speaking on Ezra Pound's "Canto LXXXI" at the English Department of the University of Basel. Here's an abstract of his talk.

The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
         Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

Monday, March 17, 2014

"Wildly, insanely overstated"

I moved to Germany in 1991 (for a year that turned into a lifetime, but that's another story, my life story, as it were) and to Switzerland in 1995. After four years in Germany, and with a German girlfriend (now wife) whose family speaks little or no English, I could speak High German pretty well.

But the Swiss don't speak the same language; they speak Swiss German (in numerous dialects).  There is a Swiss High German, and German speakers in Switzerland do speak it, but it is not their everyday language. They code switch rather easily between their varieties of German (not to mention French, Italian, and English). Many Swiss German speakers switch to High German or English when speaking to me, and even after 18+ years here, I don't speak Swiss German (or Basel German), which I would need to sit down and actually study if I were ever going to do so.

In contrast, when my wife is in Basel, after 13+ years here, she now speaks a mix of High German and Basel German, and she understands the local dialect much better than I do. In this sense, you can see that the two varieties of German, while quite different in many ways, are close enough for a native speaker of High German to pick up enough Basel German to get by, while a non-native speaker like myself can understand it, but picks up very little without extra effort. (That's an anecdote, of course, and not an experiment, so consider that a hypothesis to be tested, rather than a claim being made.)

All this came to mind on reading Geoffrey Pullum's "Undivided by a Common Language." Pullum vigorously argues that the differences between British English and American English, in their standard varieties, "is wildly, insanely overstated." I agree—and especially on the basis of the contrast with the differences between High German and Swiss German. There are many differences in grammar and comprehensibility between the two Germans (and this doesn't even bring up dialects in Germany and Austrian German); there are, as Pullum argues, hardly any grammatical differences between British English and American English, and the ones that do exist are insignificant in terms of comprehensiblity. The differences in vocabulary are considered significant enough for the American publisher of Harry Potter to translate some terms into American English, but even those differences are minor (and almost everyone I mention that to says, "That's ridiculous. People know how to use dictionaries."). But it's a matter of a few words here and there, while a novel written in Swiss German has to be translated into High German for anyone north of Lake Constance to be able to read it.

The differences between British English and American English are indeed "wildly, insanely overstated," especially when contrasted with the differences between High German and Swiss German. One response to this claim might be that I am contrasting two standard varieties in one case and standard and non-standard varieties in the other. But my hypothesis is that a speaker of Southern American English and a speaker of the English spoken in Scotland would be able to communicate much more while sticking to their two varieties than someone from Hamburg and someone from Basel if they also stuck to their two varieties. Now if only someone would test it.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A song for every occasion

My son Miles recently mentioned to me that I have a song lyric to quote for just about every occasion. We spent several days in the Black Forest together, and apparently, I would quote lines whenever I heard a phrase that reminded me of a line. For example, "take it easy" leads me to quote The Eagles. If I hear the phrase "the last day," I'll quote Al Stewart's "The Last Day of June 1934."

Once he pointed it out to me, I began to notice just how often I think of phrases from songs. And I began to wonder whether I think of phrases from poems very often. I certainly quote Eliot's "Let us go then, you and I" all the time—in fact, it crosses my mind whenever someone says "Let's go!" And there are other poems that have tag lines in them that bring them to mind when I hear echoes of those lines.

But mostly it's songs that I quote in such contexts, not poems. For years now, I have argued that poetry and song lyrics should be treated as members of a larger category that I call "verse"; attempts to strictly distinguish poems and lyrics have never been convincing to me. Verse that is not written to be sung tends to have more enjambment than verse that is written to be sung—a side effect of the effect of melody on lineation. But that doesn't seem to me to be enough to say that poetry and lyrics are different in essence.

Miles's observation about my quotation habit suggests a way to articulate another difference between poems and songs. The phrases that lead me to quote songs tend to be unremarkable, even cliched: "take it easy" is an empty little formula, not exceptional at all. There are many more such phrases in lyrics than in poems; in contemporary poetry, formulas and cliches tend to be avoided, while songs are extremely forgiving when it comes to the use of such well-worn language. It's fun to hear a catch phrase and sing along with the singer; it's boring to read a catch phrase in a poem (unless the poem brings it back to life in some way).

That still doesn't seem to me to be enough to strictly distinguish the two kinds of verse from each other. But it helps me understand my quotation habits.


For a discussion of my understanding of "verse," see the fourth paragraph of this post.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

From Canto IV of Dante's "Inferno," tr. Ciaran Carson

I just had occasion to type this in for George Szirtes, who was asking on Facebook for an English version of Dante's Inferno in terza rima. This is Ciaran Carson's translation, published by Granta Books in 2002.


Shattering the deep sleep in my head,
a peal of thunder rang, so I awoke
confused, like someone shaken out of bed;

and coming to, and getting up, I looked
about with rested eyes to ascertain
where I might be. O such an awful nook!

this was, in truth, the dread Abyss of Pain
whose brink I stood upon, from which there rolled
collective groanings, endlessly sustained.

Dark as a thundercloud was that enormous hole;
so deep, the eye could get no fix on where
it ended; nor could I see any foothold.

'Down into the blind world we must fare,'
began the poet, whiter than a sheet;
'I first, then you, we'll make a goodly pair.'

And I, who'd marked the pallor of his cheek,
said: 'Go? When you, who, when I was in doubt,
was wont to be my strength, appear as weak?'

And he: 'It's when I hear the awful shouts
of those below, that pity drains my face
of color; not cold feet, as you make out.

Onward! a long road lies ahead of us.'