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More subsequent remarks preliminary to a voyage

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my officially incipient tache - a supposedly fun thing I'll never grow again

my officially incipient tache – a supposedly fun thing I’ll never grow again

So as flight-time draws nigh, it’s hard to describe my tangle of emotions. The first is dread that this is the end [litt ref 3.5, with apologies to the Doors]. I have a micro-fear of flying, and this’ll be the first long haul. I love embracing travellers’ lingo. We’re flying Emirates, stopping over at Dubai, but the thing is, we’re flying all night. I mean, how do the pilots see anything?

OK, I know it’s all ineffably hi-tech and the safest form of transport ever invented and night flights are pushbuttoningly routine, and Mick Jagger’s still alive and dancin after 10 zillion flights, but there have to be exceptions to prove rules perhaps, and when disasters do happen they’re always spectacular. I mean, you don’t get a dose of whiplash from a plane crash. They’re not called prangs. It’s, like, 279 dead, body parts spread over an xx-kilometre zone, so much for safety in numbers, and I’m wondering, as strangely-pathetically I often do, what will be the reaction to my passing…

But enough self-indulgence, I’ll be right on the night. Still the other emotions and stressors are pastel in comparison. In fact, actually, truthfully, the flight’s the only real issue. Money, la langue francaise, communications home, possible tensions with my TC, health concerns (not flu jabbed, tsk tsk), all mere nanothemes. I’m collecting gratis advice – take a KO dose of valium, get drunk, use nasal spray (done), chew gum (will do), sleep, get over it, enough self-indulgence.

The home I leave behind will be tenanted by a sweet young miss of whom I will say no more in the unlikely event that she reads this blog, and I must say I’ll miss the daily watched-kettle-not-boiling progress of the various building sites in my neighbourhood, with, as a neighbour pointed out, possibly lethally ambitious NYC names like the Bowery, the Beeline (or is it the Beehive?) and Park Central. Really. Cafés and R & R areas are proliferating and jackhammers and earth-pounding noise-makers are just starting to shape the projected City Square a few blocks away. How thrilling it’ll be to actually notice a difference come the end of May. I don’t feel at all cynical about it, as a relative newcomer to regular acceptable employment, a parvenu, a bourgeois – but not assez plat, to recall the slicing words of Stendhal [litt ref 4.5]. Besides, I’ve encountered a few of the occupants of the new medium density constructs sprouting around me (I mean sighted them, not met them) and mostly they look just as spivvy as myself. And the enviro-ideas shaping those buildings really are exciting, but I’m too excited – just about to be picked up and driven to the airport – to detail them now. I will survive [musical reference 1 – but then the Doors reference should really be a  musical reference not a half-litt reference – ok no more ref-mentions].

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2016 at 6:00 pm

remarks subsequent to my preliminary remarks preliminary to a voyage

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the modest vessel we may be travelling on - specially designed to resemble passing buildings

the modest vessel we may be travelling on – specially designed to resemble passing buildings

As might’ve been guessed, I’ll be maxing out on prétention française in this blog series, as soon I’ll be desecrating French soil for the première fois since gaining a degree in French Lang & Litt, aged 32, more than a standard generation ago. Just the other day I reached the end of my French duolingo app. I was horror-shocked, I thought it just lingoed on forever, but no they have no more to teach (BS really) and the only next step is immersion, supposedly.

The problem is, l have enough trouble speaking to people in my first language. I wouldn’t be surprised if l’ve spoken to myself (aloud) more than to the whole rest of humanity. The best conversations, selon Chekhov [literary ref 1]. My vocab’s pretty extensive, my reading’s well fluent but I have trouble stringing a speaking sentence together even in my head (l’m referring to French by the way), so l’m looking forward/not looking forward to the challenge of Paris.

But before that lies the riverboat cruise, and I’m prepping for it by rereading David Foster Wallace’s ‘a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again’ [litt ref 2], which l first read when it came out 20 years ago and found almost inexplicably exciting, comparing it (in conversation with myself, aloud) to Shakespeare himself [litt ref 3] in its lingual liveliness.

‘a supposedly fun thing…’ was a piece of journalism Wallace wrote for Harper’s, reflections on a 7-day Carribean cruise in one of those floating wedding-cake-type vessels passengered almost entirely by obese middle-aged-to-elderly Americans and mainly owned-and-operated by those seafarers of long standing, Greeks and Scandinavians. I thought that rereading it now would happily reinforce my cynicism about such pleasure cruises, and also provide a rich scatter of points of comparison. What I’ve found is a darker side to his observations I hadn’t fully noted on first reading, but which Wallace’s suicide in 2008 has naturally primed my attention to. Here’s the clearest example:

There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir – especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased – I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture – a weird yearning for death combined with the crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling  of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.

These dark remarks, out of a clear Carribean sky, made for an unexpected turn in the narrative, but they forced my focus onto the saturnine aspects of the whole. Was the staff’s hierarchy really so aggressive? The pampering so relentless? The passengers so grotesque or pathetic? The cruise in general so despair-engendering?

Anyhow, Travel Marvel, the cruise company we’ll be sailing (deliciously al fresco word) with, is Australian-owned, a marvel in itself, so l’ll be expecting a more laid-back perfection. And though l may lack Wallace’s prose luminosity l may also lack his lugubriosity, for better or worse. Encore, on verra.

Silly postscript: While writing this and getting tired, I baulked at having to copy out the longish quote from Wallace (I type horribly), so I tried Siri, the not-so-hot Apple voice-recognition thingy. It did mostly OK with the occasional mangle, to be expected with oddities like ‘banalised’ and ‘gaiety-noise’, but there was one cackle-inducing clanger – ‘with the crushing sense of my own small nose’. Poor D F Wallace, rest in peace with no more crushing burdens large or small.

Written by stewart henderson

April 21, 2016 at 11:39 pm

the fall – when curiosity was shameful, and miracles abounded

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the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

I’ve been reading some medieval literature recently, and I’d like to make a brief comparison here between the writings of Benedict of Nursia (c480-547) and Pope Greg the Great (reigned from 589 to 604), and the Roman writers of a few centuries before, such as Livy, Tacitus, Cicero and Plutarch. It’s maybe a bit unfair as Greg and Ben perhaps weren’t typical writers of the sixth century, I’m hardly medievalist enough to say, but still they capture for me the tragedy of the soi-disant Dark Ages for the development of thought and ideas. I’ll be quoting from the medieval writers, but only referring to the Romans – you’ll just have to take my word for it about their smarts.

Benedict of Nursia is probably better known as Saint Benedict, but I don’t like that appellation – not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because nobody does, as in order to become a saint it must’ve been ‘proven’ that you performed miracles, and such silliness shouldn’t be encouraged. More importantly, this nominatively determined method of severing such individuals from common humanity does us all a disservice. Anyway, Benedict was the founder of 12 monasteries or communities in Italy, and he wrote rules for them which were later adopted in other regions to form the basis of the Benedictine system of monks – though there was never really a strict Benedictine order (monks who live communally under a set of rules are called cenobites). I’ve just read these rules, followed by Pope Gregory’s  hagiography of Benedict, and it gives me a perspective on the closing of the European mind – if that’s not too grandiose a term – associated with the Dark Ages.

Benedict is praised for what Wikipedia calls the ‘balance, moderation and reasonableness’ of his rules, which facilitated their adoption by many European monasteries. However, moderation is a relative term, and as a rabid anti-authoritarian I probably chafe more than most under imposed rules. Still, I reckon most independent-minded modern westerners would find Benedict’s rules deadeningly stifling, and if they were considered moderate for the time, I’d hate to think about the more immoderate rules that the pious were forced to submit to. But judge for yourself.

Benedict states at the outset that ‘we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord’. This isn’t of course a school in the modern sense, it’s more like certain types of Madrassa, in which nothing outside of sacred texts is studied. The school or institute is to be presided over by an Abbot, chosen for his personal qualities, including self-discipline, firmness, compassion and insight into the ways of the Lord. Recalcitrant souls need to be coaxed or reproved into the narrow path. However,

… bold, proud, hard and disobedient characters he should curb at the very beginning of their ill-doing by stripes and other bodily punishments, knowing that it is written, ‘The fool is not corrected with words’, and again, ‘Beat your son with the rod and you will deliver his soul from death’.

I suppose this isn’t too much worse than a lot of army-style biffo, as depicted in Full Metal Jacket and the like, but there’s more, and monasticism was a life commitment. Benedict goes on a lot about humility and seriousness – he frowns upon laughter. He also insists, ominously, on narrowness, for ‘strait is the gate and narrow is the way’ to salvation, as we all know. Clearly the lives of these life-long penitents are going to be highly circumscribed. Patience, endurance, humility and obedience are the watchwords.

The monks’ days are rigidly ordered. Prayers are to be offered up 7 times a day (more often than in Islam, even) because, according to Benedict, the Prophet says ‘seven times in the day I have rendered praise to you’. Who this prophet was I can’t ascertain, and there’s no such quote in the Bible, though Isaiah and Luke both display a fondness for the number. In any case, Benedict gives instructions about the number and type of psalms to be sung at the Morning Office, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Prayers are to be ‘short and pure’, in compliance with the spirit of silence that should inhabit, not to say inhibit, the school. One of the longest chapters is ‘On Humility’, in which Benedict defines 12 different degrees of humility, as the monk becomes more and more cleansed of vice and sin:

The tenth degree of humility is that he be not ready and quick to laugh, for it is written, ‘The fool lifts up his voice in laughter’.

The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he do so gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, in few and sensible words, and that he be not noisy in his speech. It is written, ‘A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’

Again, Benedict doesn’t tells us where these dubious claims are written, but they don’t seem to come from the Bible. In any case, you get the idea, the fantasy that suppression of all spontaneity and originality leads through the narrow gate unto heaven.

Of course, the microcosm of the monastery doesn’t necessarily reflect the macrocosm of medieval Europe, but in a world of more or less homogenous Christian belief many of these ‘ideals’ would have been prominent. Not that the previous Roman world was that much better, as far as the nurturing of curiosity and intellectual inquiry was concerned. Roman society was also quite rigid in its structure, and philosophically, neither the Stoics nor the Epicureans thought in terms of intellectual progress. But the near-obsessive stifling of curiosity, the obsession with an obedient, humble, slavish attitude before an all-knowing master-god, that was very much a product of the Christianising of the Empire and ultimately of all Europe. The kind of reflective history-writing and philosophising found in the work of Tacitus, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, dealing with human psychology and conduct in its own right, without reference to divine expectations, all but disappeared for centuries.

Interestingly, along with the fashion for slavishness came a flourishing of credulity. Pope Gregory the Great’s bio of Benedict teems with his miracles and fulfilled prophecies, reminding us that the age of Jesus wasn’t the dimmest for unbelievable beliefs, though it may have sparked the fashion for them. There’s virtually a miracle on every page, so I’ll quote here one of the first, from when he was a youth, having abandoned his studies to serve his Master, to give you a taste:

When Benedict abandoned his studies to go into solitude, he was accompanied by his nurse, who loved him dearly. As they were passing through Affile, a number of devout men invited them to stay there and provided them with lodging near the Church of St Peter. One day, after asking her neighbours to lend her a tray for cleaning wheat, the nurse happened to leave it on the edge of the table and when she came back she found it had slipped off and broken in two. The poor woman burst into tears, she had just borrowed this tray and now it was ruined. Benedict, who had always been a devout and thoughtful boy, felt sorry for his nurse when he saw her weeping. Quietly picking up both the pieces, he knelt down by himself and prayed earnestly to God, even to the point of tears. No sooner had he finished his prayer than he noticed that the two pieces were joined together, without even a mark to show where the tray had been broken. Hurrying back at once, he cheerfully reassured his nurse and handed her the tray in perfect condition.

Of course, this little tale is partly designed to show Benedict’s kindness and attentiveness in small matters, and perhaps that’s the best take-home message, but not all the miracles are so nice, and some display the wish-fulfilling fantasy of bringing down enemies. The point, though, is that these miracles are disseminated by the highest religious authorities in Europe, so that it would amount to sacrilege to deny them. Interestingly, when I was nine years old, my mother bought me a collection of books called ‘Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories’ – about ten books each with about ten stories in them, and every one told of a miracle much like this one (and to be fair to my mother, she hadn’t vetted them first and wasn’t aware that they were Christian propaganda). People had fallen on hard times or had suffered an accident, they prayed to God, their fortunes were miraculously reversed. They were very formulaic stories, and I steamed with annoyance on reading them, but it’s fascinating to find a template for that kind of writing from nearly 1400 years before. How the world has changed and how some aspects of it remain.

What is interesting for me, though, is the connection between credulity and authority that marks the Dark Ages. As a youngster I was free to, and took delight in, spurning the ‘authority’ of Uncle Arthur and his benevolent miracles. I’m a creature of my era and social milieu, as we all are, but there are many social milieux in our world. I’ve just seen a TV clip about the ‘fight of the century’ between one Floyd Mayweather and the Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. I’m not much into boxing these days (I was a keen follower of the sport in my youth), but I hear this fight is being billed as goodie v baddie, because Mayweather is a convicted wife-beater and apparently something of a self-advertising loudmouth whereas Pacquiao is a member of parliament, charity worker and other respectable things. However, when I just looked at the screen I saw Pacquaio wearing a t-shirt with ‘Jesus is my Lord’ or some such thing emblazoned on it, and I felt a spurt of disgust. I have a visceral reaction to the slavishness and submission of the two most common religions on the planet. The old ‘pagan’ religions certainly engaged in seasonal placatory gestures but they didn’t practice or preach eternal submission to their invisible and undetectable masters. And not only are we supposed to accept our enslavement, but to exalt in our specialness. It’s the most horrible kind of unreality, to me. So there’s still plenty of darkness to deal with, or to avoid. Let’s remember Goethe’s reputed last words – more light.

some thoughts on humanism and activism

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jim-al-khalili

What Australia needs

 

I’ve been a little more involved in ‘movements’ in recent years, though I’m not usually much of a joiner, and I’ve always been wary of ‘activism’, which is often associated with protesting, personning the barricades (doesn’t have quite the aggressive ring to it, does it?), even a bit of biffo – if largely verbal, by preference. I’ve just been hungry for a bit of stimulus – salon culture, witty and cultured and informative exchanges with people cleverer than myself. But since I’ve been occasionally asked to engage on a higher, or deeper level, in ‘the culture wars’, on the side of reason, atheism, secularism, humanism, whatever, my thoughts on the matter have started to crystallise, and they’re hopefully in evidence in my blog writing.

I don’t mind calling myself an activist for humanism, or for other isms, but I think we should be activists for rather than against. Now it might be argued that to argue for one thing is to argue against another, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think it matters a great deal. It’s a matter of trying to be positive and influencing others with your positivity. Secular humanism has a great case to promote, as do reason, self-awareness and ‘skepticism with sympathy’.

I’ve learned from years of teaching students from scores of different countries and cultures that we all can be excited by learning new stuff, that we’re amused by similar things, that we all want to improve and to be loved and appreciated. The ties that bind us as humans are far greater than those that divide us culturally or in other ways. I’ve also learned that the first principle of good teaching is to engage your students, rather than haranguing or badgering them. This may not seem easy when you’re teaching something as apparently dry and contentless as language and grammar, but language is essentially a technology for communicating content, and if we didn’t have anything meaningful or important to communicate, we’d never have developed it. So the key is to engage students with content that’s relevant to them, and stimulating and thought-provoking enough that they’ll want to communicate those thoughts.

I suppose I’m talking about constructive engagement, and this is the best form of activism. Of course, like everyone, I don’t always ‘constructively engage’. I get mad and frustrated, I dismiss with contempt, I feel offended or vengeful, yet the best antidote to those negative feelings is simple, and that is to throw yourself into the lives, the culture, the background of your ‘enemy’, or the ‘other’, which requires imagination as well as knowledge. I mis-spent a lot of my youth reading fiction from non-English backgrounds – from France and Germany, from Russia and eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. It was a lot cheaper than travelling, especially as I avoided a lot of paid work in order to indulge my reading. Of course I read other stuff too, history, philosophy, psychology, new-wave feminism, but fiction – good fiction, of course – situated all these subjects and issues within conflicted, emotional, culturally-shaped and striving individuals, and provided me with a sense of the almost unfathomable complexity of human endeavour. The understanding of multiple backgrounds and contexts, especially when recognising that your own background is a product of so much chance, creates multiple sympathies, and that’s essential to humanism, to my mind.

However, there are limits to such identifications. Steven Pinker discusses this in The better angels of our nature (the best advertisement for humanism I’ve ever read) by criticising the overuse, or abuse, of the term ’empathy’ and expressing his preference for ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an impossible ideal, and it can involve losing your own bearings in identifying with another. There are always broader considerations.

Take the case of the vaccination debate. While there are definitely charlatans out there directly benefitting from the spread of misinformation, most of the people we meet who are opposed to vaccination aren’t of that kind, usually they have personal stories or information from people they trust that has caused them to think the way they do. We can surely feel sympathy with such people – after all, we also have had personal experiences that have massively influenced how we think, and we get much of our info from people we trust. But we also have evidence, or know how to get it. We owe it to ourselves and others to be educated on these matters. How many of us who advocate vaccination know how a vaccine actually works? If we wish to enter that particular debate, a working knowledge of the science is an essential prerequisite (and it’s not so difficult, there’s a lot of reliable explanatory material online, including videos), together with a historical knowledge of the benefits of vaccination in virtually eradicating various diseases. To arm yourself with and disseminate such knowledge is, to me, the best form of humanist activism.

I’ll choose a couple more topical issues, to look at how we could and should be positively active, IMHO. The first, current in Australia, is chaplaincy in schools. The second, a pressing issue right now for Australians but of universal import, is capital punishment.

The rather odd idea of chaplaincy in schools was first mooted by Federal Minister Greg Hunt in 2006 after lobbying from a church leader and was acted upon by the Howard government in 2007. It was odd for a number of reasons. First, education is generally held to be a state rather than a federal responsibility, and second, our public education system has no provision in it for religious instruction or religious proselytising. The term ‘chaplain’ has a clear religious, or to be more precise Christian, association, so why, in the 21st century, in an increasingly multicultural society in which Christianity was clearly on the decline according to decades of census figures, and more obviously evidenced by scores of empty churches in each state, was the federal government introducing these Christian reps into our schools via taxpayer funds? It was an issue tailor-made for humanist organisations, humanism being dedicated – and I trust my view on this is uncontroversial – to emphasising what unites us,  in terms of human rights and responsibilities, rather than what divides us (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc). To introduce these specifically Christian workers, out of the blue, into an increasingly non-Christian arena, seemed almost deliberately divisive.

Currently the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron Williams, of the Humanist Society of Queensland. As far as I’m aware, Williams’ challenge was largely self-funded, but assisted by a donation from at least one of the state humanist societies. This was a cause that could and should have been financed and driven by humanists in a nationally co-ordinated campaign, which would have enabled humanists to have a voice on the issue, and to make a positive contribution to the debate.

What would have been that contribution? Above all to provide evidence, for the growing secularism and multiculturalism of the nation and therefore the clearly anachronistic and potentially divisive nature of the government’s policy. Identification with every Christian denomination is dropping as a percentage of the national population, and the drop is accelerating. This is nobody’s opinion, it’s simply a fact. Church attendance is at the lowest it’s ever been in our Christian history – another fact. Humanists could have gone on the front foot in questioning the role of these chaplains. In the legislation they’re expected to provide “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, but there’s an insistence that they shouldn’t replace school counsellors, for counselling isn’t their role. Apparently they’re to provide support without counselling, just by ‘being there’. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have their photos on the school walls? The ‘spirituality’ role is one that humanists could have a lot of fun with. I’ve heard the argument that people are just as religious as ever, but that they’ve rejected the established churches, and are developing their own spirituality, their own relationship to their god, so I suppose it would follow that their spirituality needs to be nourished at school. But the government has made a clear requirement that chaplains need to be members of an established religion (and obviously of a Christian denomination), so how exactly is that going to work?

While humour, along with High Court challenges and pointed questions about commitment to real education and student welfare, would be the way to ‘get active’ with the school chaplaincy fiasco, the capital punishment issue is rather more serious.

The Indonesian decision to execute convicted drug pedlars of various nationalities has attracted a lot of unwanted publicity, from an Indonesian perspective, but a lot of the response, including some from our government, has been lecturing and hectoring. People almost gleefully describe the Indonesians as barbarians and delight in the term ‘state-sanctioned murder’, mostly unaware of the vast changes in our society that have made capital punishment, which ended here in the sixties, seem like something positively medieval. These changes have not occurred to the same degree in other parts of the world, and as humanists, with a hopefully international perspective, we should be cognisant of this, aware of the diversity, and sympathetic to the issues faced by other nations faced with serious drug and crime problems. But above all we should look to offer humane solutions.

By far the best contribution to this issue I’ve heard so far has come from Richard Branson, representing the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), who spoke of his and other commissioners’ interest in speaking to the Indonesians about solutions to their drug problems, not to lecture or to threaten, but to advise on drug policies that work. No mention was made about capital punishment, which I think was a good thing, for what has rendered capital punishment obsolete more than anything else has been the development of societies that see their members as flawed but capable, mostly, of development for the better. Solutions to crime, drug use and many other issues – including, for that matter, joining terrorist organisations – are rarely punitive. They involve support, communication and connection. Branson, interviewed on the ABC’s morning news program, pointed to the evidence showing that harsh penalties had no effect on the drug trade, and that the most effective policy by far was legalisation. It’s probably not a story that our government would be sympathetic to, and it takes us deeply into the politics of drug law reform, but it is in fact a science-based approach to the issue that humanists should be active in supporting and promulgating. Branson pointed to the example of Portugal, which had, he claimed, drug problems as serious as that of Indonesia, which have since been greatly alleviated through a decriminalisation and harm-reduction approach.

I hope to write more about the GCDP’s interesting and productive-looking take on drug policy on my Solutions OK website in the future. Meanwhile, this is just the sort of helpful initiative that humanists should be active in getting behind. Indonesians are arguing that the damage being done by drug pushers requires harshly punitive measures, but the GCDP’s approach, which bypasses the tricky issue of national sovereignty, and capital punishment itself, is offered in a spirit of co-operation that is perfectly in line with an active, positive humanism.

So humanism should be as active as possible, in my view, and humanists should strive to get themselves heard on such broad issues as education, crime, equity and the environment, but they should enter the fray armed with solutions that are thoughtful, practicable and humane. Hopefully, we’re here to help.

a change of focus, and Charlie Darwin’s teenage fantasies

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He's just so moi, though I'm more rough than ruff

He’s just so moi, though I’m more rough than ruff

“bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal”

Michel de Montaigne, ‘Myself’

Sitting at my computer with the ABC’s ‘Rage’ on in the background, when on came a video by an artist who’s taken the moniker ‘Montaigne’, and how could I not be attracted? Good luck to her. I first stumbled on the original Montaigne decades ago, and like thousands before and since, I was fairly blown away. He’s been an inspiration and a touchstone ever since, and to think I’m now approaching his age at his death. One thing he wrote has always stayed with me, and I’ll misquote in the Montaignian tradition, being more concerned with the idea than the actual words – something like ‘I write not to learn about myself, but to create myself’. This raises the importance of writing, of written language, to an almost ridiculous degree, and I feel it in myself, as I’ve sacrificed much to my writing, such as it is. Certainly relationships, friendships, career – but I was always bad at those. All I have to show for it is a body of work, much of it lost, certainly before the blogosphere came along, the blogosphere that retains everything, for better or worse.

The New Yorker captures the appeal of Montaigne well. He wasn’t an autobiographical writer, in that he didn’t dwell on the details of his own life, but as a skeptic who trusted little beyond his own thoughts, he provided a fascinating insight into a liberal and wide-ranging thinker of an earlier era, and he liberated the minds of those who came later and were inspired by his example, including moi, some 400 years on. So, I’d like to make my writings a bit more Montaignian in future (I’ve been thinking about it for a while).

I’ve been focussing mainly on science heretofore, but there are hundreds of bloggers better qualified to write about science than me. My excuse, now and in the future, is that I’m keen to educate myself, and science will continue to play a major part, as I’m a thorough-going materialist and endlessly interested in our expanding technological achievements and our increasing knowledge. But I want to be a little more random in my focus, to reflect on implications, trends, and my experience of being in this rapidly changing world. We’ll see how it pans out.

what's in that noddle?

what’s in that noddle?

Reading the celebrated biography of Charles Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, I was intrigued by some remarks in a letter to his cousin and friend, William Darwin Fox, referring to the ‘paradise’ of Fanny and Sarah Owen’s bedrooms. This was 1828, and the 19-year-old Darwin, already an avid and accomplished beetle collector and on his way to becoming a self-made naturalist, was contemplating ‘divinity’ studies at Cambridge, having flunked out of medicine in Edinburgh. Fanny was his girlfriend at the time. These bedrooms were

‘a paradise… about which, like any good Mussulman I am always thinking… (only here) the black-eyed Houris… do not merely exist in Mahomets noddle, but are real substantial flesh and blood.’

It’s not so much the sensual avidity shown by the 19-year-old that intrigues me here, but the religious attitude (and the fascinating reference to Islam). For someone about to embark on a godly career – though with the definite intention of using it to further his passion for naturalism – such a cavalier treatment of religion, albeit the wrong one, as ‘inside the noddle’, is quite revealing. But then Darwin’s immediate family, or the males at least, were all quasi-freethinkers, unlike his Wedgewood cousins. Darwin never took the idea of Holy Orders seriously.

Written by stewart henderson

February 8, 2015 at 10:53 am

where does our alphabet come from?

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Etruscan ink-holder, with alphabet, from the early 7th century BCE

Etruscan ink-holder, with alphabet, from the early 7th century BCE

I’m currently reading Lost languages: the enigma of the world’s undeciphered scripts, by Andrew Robinson, a pretty demanding work in parts, though designed for the general reader. It’s looking at the difficulty of scripts of which we have too few examples, and too few connected languages – either descended from or ancestral to these extant fragments – to be able to get a handle on them. However it also looks at famous decipherings of the past – of the Egyptian and the Mayan hieroglyphs, and of Linear B (Mycenean, the earliest form of Greek), as well as at written languages in general, which inevitably makes a fellow think of his own taken-for-granted language, its origins and its ‘type’, among all the types of writing we have.

Robinson informs us of a consensus among scholars, arrived at though much struggle – that all written languages contain phonemic and semantic, or logographic, elements. A dummy’s way of presenting this is that they contain both sounds and signs. Our alphabet is, of course, largely phonemic, but in writing we also use signs, such as full stops, question marks, apostrophes, quotation marks, etc. We also use capitals. For example B represents the same sound as b, but it also signifies the beginning of a sentence or (the beginning of) a name of something. It follows that b also has a sign value, in contrast to the sign value of B. Apparently Finnish is the most purely phonemic language we have these days, while Chinese and Japanese are very heavily sign based.

So what about the English language, or more strictly, the alphabet we share with many other European languages. It’s generally known as the Latin alphabet, and it was introduced to England by Christian missionaries in about the 7th century, replacing Anglo-Saxon runes that date back at least another couple of hundred years. These runes may also be traced back to the Latin alphabet – we don’t have enough extant examples to be sure.

The alphabet has evolved over the years. Wikipedia tells us that back in the year 1011 a polymath named Byrhtferth set down the alphabet as it was understood at the time. It comprised 23 of our modern letters (J, U and W had not yet emerged), the ampersand & and five other letter/symbols no longer recognised, or at least formally recognised, as alphabetical. One was the ligature æ, called ash. In the fourteenth century the letters uu, often used together, were merged to make w, still called ‘double u’ today. The alphabet became fixed in the sixteenth century, when j and u emerged as distinct from i and v.

So it would seem that the Latin alphabet evolved, much like humans evolved from earlier forms, with little mutations along the way, so that if you go back far enough it’ll be barely recognisable. What is called the classical Latin or Roman alphabet derived from a western variant of the Greek alphabet, used in southern Italian colonies such as Cumae in modern-day Campania. This was in turn modified by the Etruscans (800-100BCE) before being taken up and modified further by the Romans.

It’s an enormously complicated story of interaction and modification. The English alphabet isn’t exactly the Latin alphabet, which itself changed as the Romans developed and advanced their civilization, incorporating more territories and their cultural influences. It’s not something you can trace in an obvious linear way. The Romans were influenced linguistically by both the southern colonies and the northern Etruscans. After the Roman conquest of Greece in the first century BCE, the Greek letters Y and Z were added to their alphabet, giving them 23 letters during the ‘classical’ period (the period of the late republic and the empire). Our number system – obviously a part of our written language, but I won’t get too much into mathematical symbology here – is often described as Arabic, but the Arabs and Persians adopted it from the Hindus, who apparently developed the place-value notation in the fifth century, adding zero a century later.

If we want to go back to the origin of writing systems and writing itself, it seems not to have had a single origin. I’ve mentioned the  ancestor of Latin, the Greek alphabet, which has been around since the eighth century BCE and is still in use. It consists of 24 letters from alpha to omega, and of course many of its symbols, including pi, are used in mathematical notation. The Greek alphabet in turn derives from the Phoenician. There is some dispute or at least conjecture as to how far back the Phoenician alphabet can be dated – a bit like putting a date on the first humans, who after all had parents who were much the same as they were. Scholars generally put the date back to 1050 BCE, and inscriptions with Phoenician elements before that date are attributed to ‘parent scripts’. To quote the Wikipedia article:

The oldest known inscription that goes by the name of Phoenician is the Ahiram epitaph, engraved on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram from c. 1200 BCE.[5]

However, the immediate predecessor to Phoenician is conventionally referred to as Proto-Canaanite. Ancestral to this was the Proto-Sinaite script, used by Canaanites in the Sinai region from about 1850 BCE. We don’t have too many examples of it, but it’s claimed by some to be the first ever alphabetic writing system. Most of the inscriptions using this language, generally accepted as Semitic, were found among Egyptian hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions, and there are graphic similarities to the hieratic script, which is less elaborate than hieroglyphics, but little headway has been made in deriving the Semitic script from Egyptian hieratic.

Egyptian hieroglyphics can be dated back to 2700 BCE. They’re complex beasties that can be used as phonograms, logograms or determinatives; in other words as sounds or sound sequences, as pictorial representations, or as clues to meaning neither clearly pictorial nor phonological (in earlier times hieroglyphics were doggedly construed as almost entirely logographic, and this hindered a full decoding). It’s quite possible, apparently, that the Proto-Sinaite script was influenced by the phonological (hence alphabetical) elements of hieroglyphics.

The Meroitic script, again probably derived from hieroglyphics, is an alphabetic script used in the Nubian Kingdom of Meroe in what is now northern Sudan. It first appeared in the second century BCE and flourished at the height of Nubian power (750 to 300 BCE). It appears to have developed independently of the Greek alphabet, though some scholars claim a connection.

One of the earliest known writing systems, Cuneiform, emerged in Sumer in the late 4th millennium BCE . The term ‘cuneiform’ means wedge-shaped, and was so named by its wedge-shaped markings left on clay tablets. The earliest Cuneiform was pictorial, but over time it became more stylized, simplified and abstract. The Cuneiform of the early bronze age contained about 1000 characters, but this was down to 400 by the late bronze age, some 1500 years later. Sumerian is not really recognised as a fully fledged language by scholars until about the 31st century BCE.

So is there an earlier form of writing than Cuneiform? I suspect that there were innumerable forms of proto-writing, symbols used with a shared, tribal meaning indecipherable to outsiders, and that this could have gone on for millennia. It just happened that with early Sumerian civilization we had a larger clot of people together than ever before, and with that, language took a further step towards codification and regularisation.

So I’ve gone a bit further back than our alphabet, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of language development. Tracing all the connections is an endless and ongoing task, and we’re continuing to make headway, but the key to all this is human ingenuity in finding such a variety of more or less efficient systems to communicate and preserve increasingly complex ideas, which whole regions of our developing brains are devoted to. There’s so much more to say on this subject.

Written by stewart henderson

September 24, 2013 at 11:06 pm

books and e-books

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don't bother, at least not with the ebook version

don’t bother, at least not with the ebook version

Change is the only certainty, and the world of books (made of paper), booksellers and publishers is having this little apothegm rubbed painfully in its face at present, it seems to me, and, as a person who loves books but has always been poor as a church-mouse, I feel rather caught in the middle of all this transition, and pulled more or less equally in the directions of tradition and transformation.

After all, the choice between e-books and the traditional version is a little more fraught than that between CDs (please note – no fucking apostrophe) and MP3 downloads. Books don’t just go back to the days of Gutenberg and Caxton, or the movable type that was used in Korea from at least the thirteenth century. The library of Alexandria, founded well over 2000 years ago by the Ptolemaic dynasty (Ptolemy Soter, the ‘illegitimate’ son of Philip of Macedon, half-brother and general of Alexander the Great,  and subsequent ruler of Egypt, was probably its originator) is said to have contained some 500,000 papyrus scrolls, all now lost to history. That’s one advantage of e-books; they render book-burnings obsolete.

So writing on paper, or its antecedents, has a long and proud history, and is now being threatened for the first time in millennia by new technology. So I’ve been feeling this weight of history when ducking into the odd bookshop lately. I’ve been a bookshop-haunter for forty years, and it’s pretty obvious that they’re going through tough times now. As with CDs, makeshift shops full of cheap editions are cropping up here and there, then just as suddenly disappearing when the number of buyers drops off. I was in one the other day, and held in my hand a prettily-packaged volume of Ovid, called The Art of Love, selling for a mere $7. It was apparently an amalgamation of two collections, Amores and Ars Amatoria, and a ridiculous bargain, but even that tiny amount gave me pause. I’d always wanted to explore Ovid’s works on love, because of their influence on Shakespeare, but I’ve been so caught up with reading sciencey stuff lately, almost to the point of addiction, and then it occurred to me that, with my new Kindle, I could probably download all of Ovid’s works for free…

I ended up buying three cheap books, one of them sciencey. The lab rat chronicles: a neuroscientist reveals life lessons from the planet’s most successful mammals comes with a recommendation from Patricia Churchland, no less, and I suspect that such books aren’t available through Kindle, at least not at anything less than $10, the price I paid. Ok I’ve just checked, and it is available, at exactly the same price. The 2 other books I bought were God is not one: the eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter, by Stephen Prothero ($10), and How to win a cosmic war: confronting radical religion, by Reza Aslan ($8). Interestingly, the Prothero book isn’t available on Amazon, but the Aslan one is, for $10. So there are still bargains to be had offline. However Amazon is always reducing its prices, as books move from ‘must read-nows’ to ‘has-beens’. That’s happening in the bookstores too, of course, but not at the same rate. Then again, though you’re unlikely to get hold of the complete works of Plato (Benjamin Jowett translation, presumably with his excellent introductions) in a second-hand bookshop for a dollar – the going Amazon price – there are book exchanges (there’s one in the caf around the corner from me) where you can pick up one of an admittedly limited selection of books for free, with the idea that you exchange it for something of your own, honour bound.

So I weigh the pros and cons and ponder the senses of guilt and obligation. The kindle is light and convenient, and easy to read in bed. My eyesight is poor, so I appreciate a backlit screen as opposed to the foxed and mouldering pages of a second-hand text, though I wonder if the light is damaging my eyes even more. On the other hand its caveat emptor with some of these e-books. One of the first ones I bought (okay it was free so I’m not really allowed to complain) was A very brief history of the first crusade, by one Mark Black. Brief it was, more of a pamphlet than a book. I have a copy of Christopher Tyerman’s monumental history of the crusades on my shelves, but I gave up on it a few years back after about 200 pages = too many Count Theobalds and Sir Roberts, too many family connections and names and names and names, I felt as confused as any medieval plebeian might have felt when caught up in the thick of it, but without the concentration of the mind an imminent death would’ve usefully brought on. So I thought this brief history might offer a clearer view, but I was more than disappointed. I suspect everything in it was lifted from Tyerman’s book, so it told me nothing new. What was worse, though, was that the grammar was often hilariously bad. I have a feeling it wasn’t actually edited by a human being. Possibly the text was used as an experimental test case for robotic proofreading. A black mark for Mark Black, whose name, I note, crops up for many of these ‘brief histories’, mostly unrelated to each other. Anyway, an odd experience.

So I’m not entirely convinced of the new reading technology, though the possibilities are obvious, and it’s clearly a mode still in its infancy. Hopefully the two ways of packaging good reading material will live side by side for a while to come, and I look forward to accessing both, long into the future.

Written by stewart henderson

May 24, 2013 at 8:27 pm