And are also heirs
My first experience of really powerful and complex English prose came through Thomas Cranmer. Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Dick and Jane and Spot were all good in their way, but imagine the effect on the young mind of such sentences as this:
Immortal and ever-living God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy sacraments with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our savior Jesus Christ, and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness toward us, and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of his most blessed death and passion.
It’s a grammarian’s delight (and, on checking, I find that my memory made only two mistakes, neither breaking with the rhythm): a main clause to which are subordinated four “that…” clauses, each with its own attack and consequence (“for that thou dost vouchsafe… and [that thou] dost assure.. and [that thou dost assure us] that we are… and [dost assure us that we] are also heirs…”). Never a dull repetition; always a variant skewing back to the main point; the “members incorporate” of the long, ornate sentence admitting either an interpretation that would make them all equivalent, or one that would make them a series of differences fanning out from an initial act of grace (“we thank thee for that”).
We were off-and-on churchgoers in my family, to the point that friends, relatives and “the help” took us children to a variety of churches in our parents’ stead, but despite the lace and candles that I remember from the Catholic cathedral and the intense musical athleticism of the black churches, the language is what I remember from the Episcopal parish that we were supposed to call home– that and a smell of floor wax and a big brass cross whose nodal point was surrounded by a halo with a curious ring of wiggly flames. I remember a few hymn tunes from my childhood. Nothing about Sunday School. But those long, swerving, delaying and crosscutting sentences, absolutely. There was nothing else like it in my experience. Maybe those pieces my father liked to play on the piano, that started with a simple little tune and wound it up into so many layers of argument and chatter that you couldn’t keep up with them, that were called Bach.
James Wood, recently, wrote a birthday card in the New Yorker for the Book of Common Prayer (350 years old in its 1662 revision; 473 if you’re looking at Cranmer’s first attempt, which dates from 1539). He praises Cranmer’s ritual prose for its “simplicity and directness… ‘coziness’ or ‘comfortability.'” I wouldn’t think of simplicity first. Coziness? Well, anything that you’ve heard for decades tends to get cozy in your ear; that’s no explanation. “Comfortability” is a borrowing from Cranmer (the “comfortable words” are the exhortation to come forward to communion). What comes most to my mind is the slanted, scarred quality of Cranmer’s words, acknowledging and bewailing their impossible or insincere content under a perfect pastoral straight face. The words of administration of communion name the bread and wine as the body and blood, but in the next sentence specify that the congregant is to take and eat them “in remembrance.” To paraphrase a bit: “Yes, that’s what we would like to say about these mere material elements, but we can’t truthfully state that that’s what they are, so let’s follow up with this more commonsensical version of the presence doctrine which is all you’re going to get anyway.” Another fine bit of truthful and artful dodging is the way the officiant uses the subjunctive mood (a piece of old-fashioned English grammar one might have to learn from Cranmer, if growing up in Tennessee): the remission of sins is performed not by the priest, but (in hope and under conditions) by the Almighty who is invoked but not compelled. As with so many other grand churchly paragraphs left us by Archbishop Cranmer, the mustering of clauses and sonority might give one the impression that something wondrous has been done, but a closer inspection reveals that the operative clauses were shrewdly minimized: “Almighty God… have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, strengthen and confirm you in all goodness,” etc.: all in the subjunctive mood. The swinging of robed sleeves and censers, if any, is just decoration. The operative bit is no performative speech act, but a wish. It might happen, then again it might not.
And when burying someone, the Prayer Book says that it is done “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.” Clever Cranmer again: what’s sure and certain is not the resurrection, but the hope of it, and perhaps our hope is sure and certain only because it’s one of those things that are “meet, right, and our bounden duty” to say. I always found this escape-clause comforting, in a grim way, when consigning people I loved to the ground.
As James Wood does not say (perhaps he is reporting on the state of things in England), the old Prayer Book, last revised for US Episcopal churches in 1928, is no longer in use. The 1970s substitute offers a modernized version of all the services and “traditional” versions for some of them (1928 with light revision). Comparison shows what subtleties are lost. Where Cranmer had written these lines for the congregation: “We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings,” the 1970s US Episcopalians go all touchy-feely: “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” This is getting it backwards, according to the somewhat cynical psychology of the 1539 service book. You repent first and then you have the luxury of feeling sorry. In the 1970s, you are subjectively, emotionally sorry first and you describe that as humbly repenting. I don’t know what an omniscient, omnipotent being would feel about anything, but my impression is that the 1539 people are playing their cards a little more carefully, allowing for more distrust of their own motives, and the 1970s people are unable to tell the difference between a feeling and a state of affairs.
James Wood’s article ends with cases of “reverent irony” in citations of Prayer Book language by Woolf and Beckett. I rather think the reverent irony was there to start with; but you have to discover it. In my case, it took memorizing those labyrinthine sentences and uncoiling them in my mind, again and again, over decades, to see what a Cheshire Cat of a shaggy dog the cautious archbishop had perched on the tree branch.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I find myself more exasperated and dread-filled this election season than during any other. It’s not that I worry the candidate I favor may lose despite my belief that he is far and away the better choice; I’ve spent enough time with those worries to make peace with them. And it’s not the feeling of powerlessness that comes with living in a state totally irrelevant to the election’s outcome. (Peace has come to that front, too.) Though closer, it’s not even so much the epistemic closure, more hermetic each cycle, of the Republican ecosystem. Rather, Republicans have given up on epistemology altogether. Yes, that’s it.
Epistemic closure is all about restricting (or in many cases generating) facts to only those that support the beliefs and positions held by the inhabitants of that ecosystem. But this restriction still presupposes and relies upon a recognizable evidence-belief relation, one in which truly holding a belief demands having evidence and reasons for it.
Think about it like this. How do we revise our beliefs? Myself, I’m partial to the Duhem-Quine thesis, which pretty much says that our beliefs, knowledge, and experience together form an explanatory web we use to make sense of anything, a web we constantly revise and update based upon experience and reflection. But our experiences and reflections don’t by themselves determine how we should revise our web, and any bit of it is in principle revisable, depending upon how willing we are to adjust the rest of the web accordingly. Watch a magician work, and you’ve got a choice: Conclude that your eyes are being tricked or that a physical object (tiger/elephant/Statue of Liberty) can be made to disappear upon the utterance of the right word. You can believe the latter, but doing so means revising deep and wide in your web — giving up beliefs about object permanence, for example, to hold true the observation. Radical, but possible. For some, letting gays marry undermines central principles about the universe, both material and immaterial, so it’s better to believe children need a mother and father or will grow up to rob liquor stores. Epistemic closure, then, serves as just a type of defense against belief revision.
The Romney/Ryan ticket have gone beyond this defense into epistemic implosure. It’s not that Romney/Ryan create their own facts (which they do on occasion). Rather, they don’t revise in any recognizable fashion. Romney decries Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by 2014 on one day, then embraces the timetable wholeheartedly the next. He works hard to help institute universal healthcare in Massachusetts, then attacks the very same model as unsustainable and enslaving. He contends both that government doesn’t create jobs and that he will (somehow) create 12 million jobs as head of government. (And the principle of non-contradiction is one of those center-of-the-web kind of things.)
It’s tempting to conclude (to best preserve one’s own web) that Romney is willing to say more or less anything, that he has no center to revise, and that’s just, you know, Politics These Days. If you’re willing to believe that, you better be willing to give up on believing.
The Coming Storm
This single sentence from a recent weather report contains multiple wonderful band names and perhaps some indecent acts:
“DESPITE A MODEST CLUSTER OF OUTLYING DETERMINISTIC SOLUTIONS AND
ENSEMBLE MEMBERS FROM THE VARIOUS MODELING CENTERS, THE LION’S
SHARE OF GUIDANCE INDICATES THAT THE CIRCULATION ASSOCIATED WITH
HURRICANE SANDY WILL PASS CLOSE ENOUGH TO THE AMPLIFYING POLAR
TROUGH OVER THE EASTERN UNITED STATES TO BECOME INCORPORATED INTO A HYBRID VORTEX OVER THE MID ATLANTIC AND NORTHEAST NEXT TUESDAY.”
It is not like me to spare much time for business opportunities, but this one says more about the direction ‘Western Civilization’ is moving than a hundred miles of newsprint.
In Today’s Mail
“I majored in English Literature for my undergraduate and graduate study in China, and I know well about the cultures in Eastern and Western world. Now I am working as a senior English editor in the largest college press of China…. Since college time, I have dense interests in studying culture issues and observe Western culture with black eyes.”
I know. It’s happened to me too. You just get better at dodging.
More from the Memory Man
Maurice Halbwachs, author of two great books about social and collective memory (1925 and 1950), was briefly a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 1930, as faithful readers of Old Printculture will remember. Continuing his adventures: a visit to Robert Hutchins, the boy wonder who reshaped the curriculum of the University of Chicago during his presidency, 1929-1951.
On Friday morning Ogburn took me to see the president of the University, Mr. Hitchins [sic]. 33 or 34 years old, very young in appearance, Hutchins has never been (or only vaguely been) a professor. His main job is to bring to the University donations from millionaires…. He has already come up as a possible candidate for President of the US, on the Democratic ticket. He’s a ‘big man.’ (Letter to Yvonne Halbwachs, 25 October 1930.)
“Big man,” quoted in English, must refer to the anthropological type of the tribal leader (described in Melanesia) who gains power by concentrating command over foodstuffs and redistributing them to allies.
Well worth observing: very distinguished, full of life and activity, with something magnetic about him. I pass on the regards of Richard McKeon, whom I’d seen in New York. This caused Hutchins to wax eloquent in praise of Etienne Gilson, and he seemed provoked to learn that Gilson is at Toronto.
McKeon was at Columbia, but would return to Chicago in 1932 and rule the humanities, as people have told me, with an iron hand, or rather with two iron hands, one named Aristotle and one named Aquinas. McKeon’s teacher in Paris had been Etienne Gilson, who now, Hutchins learns, has accepted a visiting position at Toronto and not let any of his Chicago friends know! Will Toronto, a well-known den of medievalists, corner the market and leave Chicago in the cold? What’s a gang leader to do? Here, a beautiful transition or non-transition, directly after the last sentence:
Then we talked about gangsters. That very morning the papers were announcing the death of Aiello, a big gangster boss, who had been tricked into an ambush by associates of Al Capone. Just when he was about to get into a taxi a machine gun started to shoot at him from the second story. He ran into a neighboring alley and there, from a third-floor window, another machine gun pumped more than a pound of lead into him. The police stood by watching. The gangsters are in charge of the illegal distribution of alcohol and carry out their attacks freely. This Aiello had killed a dozen or so guys in his time. … Quite a country. The papers are full of such stories, which make for terrific headlines. I’m reading a novel of the Wild West by Edna Ferber now… The cowboys and robbers of those times aren’t a bit more colorful than what you see in Chicago today. Seems that Americans, or Middle Westerners anyway, have this violence in their blood. It’s less prosaic than Babbitt, anyway.
Well observed, Mr. Sociologist!
I just spent three days in Las Vegas, to which I must reluctantly return in another three days for another conference. I have to say that it’s the most horrible place in the world.
This is, I recognize, a feeling profoundly mediated by social class. The word “vulgar” kept coming to mind. And of course it came to mind about other people (though not just people) who were clearly having the time of their lives in Vegas. It would be a mistake to confuse those people with America–to take all this as the felt symptom of a difference between me and them that would reinforce precisely the suspicious class structure of the word “vulgar.” Instead it would be good, with compassion, to figure out who exactly loves Vegas, and to ask ourselves what needs are being met by it–what forms of inadequacy in their own lives makes the forms of Vegas an adequation or a salve. A project for some other time.
Even the outside feels like it’s inside. It’s in this sense that it’s like Disneyland–the sense of a fully consistent experience, of living inside a Gesamntkunstwerk, is common to both. No escape, visually, spatially, aurally.
I have never been in a place that felt so contemptuous of its living environment. The absolute and total violence of the disregard for the living desert–which I can only imagine, since at this point it’s completely dead–is what allows someone to build up buildings that smash down and erase every trace of the land and its otherness. That done, of course, you need to build a new outside, which the hotels have done, in the form of interior gardens designed to approximate living spaces the builders do respect. These of course borrow their architecture and flora from southern Europe.
We’re at a ridiculous and expensive steakhouse in the Bellagio. (We had made reservations at a Japanese place in the same hotel but somehow the reservation got switched.) Fifteen minutes in, we have drinks and are talking. A woman comes up and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I take your picture to celebrate this occasion and these beautiful ladies [handwave at the XXs of the group]?” No, of course.
But for whom is the picture meaningful? For someone for whom this is a memorable occasion, someone for whom the memorialization of a once-in-a-lifetime meal turns it into an “experience.” I was reminded of the photographs that are automatically taken at the roller coasters in amusement parks, so that one gets off the thing and looks at the pictures, delighting in the expressions of fear, horror, and pleasure as they were recorded only minutes ago. Perhaps the Bellagio can move to such a system in the future, so that guests would leave the restaurant to spend minutes looking at photographs of themselves eating, drinking, talking, or, in some undreamt-of but surely plausible future, of themselves looking at photographs of themselves eating and drinking and talking, or of photographs of themselves looking at photographs, looking at photographs, looking at photographs.
Duties of citizenship
All this talk of taxes keeps making me think of my naturalization interview.
Earlier this year I applied for Korean citizenship. (I will still retain my U.S. citizenship.) As in the U.S., the naturalization process requires an interview, for which I diligently prepared (mostly the night before). The interview tests the applicant’s knowledge of:
1. 애국가 The national anthem (first verse)
2. 한국어 능력 Korean language ability
3. 국민으로서의 자세 Citizen’s comportment (the 4 duties, community spirit, national holidays)
4. 자유민주적 기본질서 Basic tenets of liberal democracy
5. 국민으로서 기본소양 Basic knowledge (using public transportation, dialing 112 in case of emergency, where to throw away trash)
(these are my poor translations from the information sheet, which you can download here)
The U.S. publishes its list of questions that might be asked in a naturalization interview. (If you’re interested in these questions, see SL Kim’s excellent old post.) But in the above list, only three are specific: the national anthem, the 4 duties, and the national holidays. It’s the 4 duties which really interest me. These are:
국방의 의무 National defense duty
납세의 의무 Duty to pay tax
교육의 의무 Educational duty
근로의 의무 Duty to work
My eldest son happens to be studying democracy in his 6th grade social studies class, and his textbook emphasizes the balance between rights and duties. But in the naturalization interview there were no questions about rights. Only duties. Not just to defend the country and pay tax (which one might guess) but also the duty to educate oneself for the required amount of time and use that education to help the country develop (“개인의 성장 및 나라의 발전에 이바지하기 위해 필요함”). The duty to work in order to help the country develop but also for one’s own happiness and competitiveness (모든 국민이 나라의 발전을 위해 일을 해야 할 의무, 개인의 행복과 나라의 경쟁력을 높이기 위해 필요함).
In the actual interview, I was asked a lot of other questions, from all sorts of areas (including a question about Dokdo, and another about whether I would choose to stay here or be evacuated with the Americans if war should occur). But the duty question was what stayed with me, especially as I watched the presidential debates.
Perhaps more on this later. It’s been a long time since I blogged. Baby steps.
Marks of Experience
Really interesting series of photos over at the Slate photo blog by Claire Felicie portraying Dutch Marines before, during, and after a tour in Afghanistan. Studying these faces, I tried to articulate for myself the differences among the before, during, and after (but especially the before and after). There’s a certain placidity in the before faces, even in the first one with the furrowed brow, a certain relaxed slackness around the mouth, even in those with pursed or slightly smiling lips, that disappears in the subsequent shots. Editing? Lighting? The framing and titling? I’m sure these all play a role in our perceptions — we’re primed to look for differences, to share in the photographer’s witnessing of changes wrought by war. However inaccessible the internal changes may be, though, the physical changes seem unmistakable.
The photos invite our scrutiny, demand it, even. But the faces, at once open and closed, only give us so much. In the midst of my looking, poring over the gazes, the wrinkles on the foreheads and around the eyes, the set of the jaws, the turns of the mouth, I started feeling a bit unsettled by my own interest in confirming the marks of war on them. I started to worry that perhaps these images, despite what Felicie may have wanted to do, end up romanticizing the experience of combat in the way Chris Hedges argues in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, assuring us that the necessary human sacrifices have been made so that we can keep believing in nobility and goodness.
So the other day I heard someone say, with the impression that it would be illustrative and moving, that in the wake of a recent natural disaster that killed hundreds she canceled a planned trip to Europe.
This strikes me as an excellent model for assuaging one’s survivor guilt more generally, but it would benefit from some nuance. For instance many things happen that don’t quite arrive to the level of canceling a vacation; upon hearing about the deaths of a few people in, say, Norway, in a train accident, you might refuse to put sauce on your pasta for that evening’s dinner; or upon reading that some ridiculous percentage of Americans are planning to vote for Mitt Romney (a tragedy in multiple dimensions), you could forgo your morning coffee. It’s not wearing a chalice, but hey, it’s a start.
Berube on Paterno
Very good piece from my colleague Michael Berube on his resignation of the Paterno Chair, mainly because it manages to parse the difference between the local and national insanities involving the entire Penn State situation, and because it reminds us once again that sexual crimes are almost always generators of deeply conservative hysterias.
“It is possible to imagine circumstances in which air would be a part of wealth. If it became customary to sojourn long in places where the air does not naturally penetrate, as in diving-bells sunk in the sea, a supply of air artificially furnished would, like water conveyed into houses, bear a price; and if from any revolution in nature the atmosphere became too scanty for the consumption, or could be monopolized, air might acquire a very high marketable value. In such a case, the possession of it, beyond his own wants, would be, to its owner, wealth; and the general wealth of mankind might at first sight appear to be increased, by what would be so great a calamity to them. The error would lie in not considering, that however rich the possessor of air might become at the expense of the rest of the community, all persons else would be poorer by all that they were compelled to pay for what they had before obtained without payment.”
John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy (1848)
Excerpts from my Private Vice-Presidential Debates Diary (2012 Edition)
damn. debate’s on. which channel annoys least? i forget.
i definitely gotta floss more.
Hey, I just met you, and this is kooky, but here’s my number! Tongue Labouti!
Top Ten Scandalous-Sounding Names For Fictional Intimate Acts Generated By Putting Chinese Transliterations Of Terms From A Fourteenth Century Collection of Mongolian Documents Through Google Translate This Afternoon:
10. Martha and The Black Mahama
9. The Fire of the Original Clean
8. Wipe Tuo
7. Scattered Jill Police
6. Tongue Assassination
5. The Black Dingban of Ghana
4. The Wood Answer
3. Satisfied Door
2. Satisfied Speed Children
1. Kazakhstan Tongue Labouti