30 March 2005 - Wednesday

Reading lists and the hermeneutic circle

I often read books before I am equipped to understand them. When I was fourteen or fifteen, for example, I chewed my way through a great deal of A. V. Dicey's The Law of the Constitution (1885); although this book taught me the origin of the expression "read the riot act" and informed me that the British constitution is hard to find written down in any one place, it was probably the least efficient way I could have discovered these things. I'm not sure why I ended up reading it. On the other hand, I often discover that I have not read texts everyone else read in junior high and high school. Except for a few outliers, for example, I haven't had much experience with the American novels everybody is supposed to read as a teenager.

I'm a great fan of educational programs that have students read primary sources extensively--at all ages. On the other hand, students need guidance from secondary sources in order to understand what they read. Even with help, many readers later find themselves wishing that they had waited longer to read, say, War and Peace for the first time (just such a reflection in Isaiah Berlin's The Crooked Timber of Humanity served as the inspiration for this post).

This is not a particularly big problem for short works, but longer works involve a significant opportunity cost for the audience; if the reader is too inexperienced to have a basic appreciation of the whole before he reads the first part, he will probably find it unprofitable to wade into the text at all. Even the brightest third-grader will find it difficult to appreciate enough of The Divine Comedy to make reading the full text more valuable than reading a summary. In such a case, the first reading of the work would be better deferred, however great the literature may be.

At the same time, I think it unfortunate that so many people know so many texts only through the eyes of other readers. Early development of "cultural literacy" is desirable, but in some cases so much important detail gets washed out of a text that the popular understanding of it is not only shallow but inaccurate. To use an example that has appeared on this blog before, I believe the film Rashōmon (to construe "text" loosely) has entered the popular imagination as something entirely different from what the director had in mind. Even when the public's understanding of a work is generally accurate, it may be distilled to the point of denaturation, stripped of everything that would make the text interesting to the individual and thus effective as a means of communication. (The higher a document is held in the cultural esteem, the less likely people are ever to get around to reading it. The dust on America's copies of the works of Shakespeare could be measured in cubic yards.) Even if a member of the public knows important things about such a text, he cannot claim to understand it.

In other words, while one must often understand the whole of a work before being able to understand any of its parts, one rarely gets an appropriate understanding of the whole without interacting with those parts.

How, then, should we design a program of reading, for ourselves or for others? If there are "canons" to be followed, where do we begin them? Should we design reading programs around themes that will explicate texts, or around texts that will reveal themes? Given unlimited time and energy, of course, a student could simply read everything over and over--but in real life, efficiency is desirable.

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29 March 2005 - Tuesday


Alpha Eta Mu, my university's chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, met for dinner last night at the Olive Garden. Every member present who is not a graduating senior was officially elected an officer. I'm president. Huzzah.

I spent the rest of the evening plotting ways to make the society useful.

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26 March 2005 - Saturday


An acquaintance of mine wasn't in class on Thursday. Her father died of a heart attack on Wednesday.

I learned on Friday that a friend of a friend had lost his grandfather to pneumonia.

One of my favorite teachers will preside at the funeral of one of his friends on Monday.

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Carrion Comfort

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist -- slack they may be -- these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoíd thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.
Cheer whóm though? The héro whose héaven-handling flúng me, fóot tród
Me? or mé that fóught him? O whích one? is it eách one? That níght, that yéar
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

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25 March 2005 - Friday

Good Friday

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
Isaiah 53:12, ESV

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23 March 2005 - Wednesday

A good name for a rock band

"Phlegmatic Motorists."

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22 March 2005 - Tuesday

The very witching time of year

So . . . it's course selection time again at LeTourneau University.

For this fall, I have 16 hours lined up (five courses and a one-hour seminar). The history courses on my list are American Foreign Policy and Colonial & Revolutionary America. I would rather remove American Foreign Policy from this slate, though; I'm far better versed in foreign affairs than in a lot of other areas. Unfortunately, Foreign Policy is one of only three upper-level history courses being offered this fall, and I've already taken the one I haven't mentioned here.

There is some hope, however. Before spring break, I asked Dr. Kubricht (the history/political science department chair) whether it is possible to put together an independent-study course--something related to modern intellectual history. This morning, I was assured that Dr. K and Dr. Johnson think it should be possible. They seem to think, however, that it would be a good idea to open the class up to a small group of upper-division history students rather than set it up for independent study. I am highly pleased.

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20 March 2005 - Sunday

< 24 hours

Remember, there's still time to comment on Spring Break Open Thread 2005. Don't quit just because I've started posting again.

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19 March 2005 - Saturday

Sinaiticus goes digital

I'm highly excited. A project is being launched to digitize the most important Bible of them all--the Codex Sinaiticus. The project is expected to take 4 years and cost £680,000. More details are here.

Via Mirabilis.ca. (Have I mentioned Mirabilis.ca here before? If not, I certainly should have.)

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Lots of fun advice for (high school) students:

The best protection is always to be working on hard problems. Writing novels is hard. Reading novels isn't. Hard means worry: if you're not worrying that something you're making will come out badly, or that you won't be able to understand something you're studying, then it isn't hard enough. There has to be suspense.

Well, this seems a grim view of the world, you may think. What I'm telling you is that you should worry? Yes, but it's not as bad as it sounds. It's exhilarating to overcome worries. You don't see faces much happier than people winning gold medals. And you know why they're so happy? Relief.

I'm not saying this is the only way to be happy. Just that some kinds of worry are not as bad as they sound.

"What You'll Wish You'd Known," by Paul Graham.

Via the Vengeful Cynic.

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18 March 2005 - Friday

George Kennan: 1904-2005

George Kennan is dead at 101.

When I was fifteen or sixteen years old, I was still devouring World War II history more than anything else. I came across a reference in American Heritage to "the Long Telegram" and "the X Article." I could probably date my interest in (or at least my familiarity with) international relations to that moment.

A couple of years later, in my first university-level history class, I wrote a paper on Kennan's version of containment, arguing (as I recall) that the Vietnam intervention was inconsistent with Kennan's approach.

I don't make heroes out of many people these days. But I would not entirely mind being not entirely unlike George Kennan.

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16 March 2005 - Wednesday

History Carnival IV

The fourth History Carnival is up at Blogenspiel. Here are some of the entries I found especially intriguing:

Thanks to PBS, Threading the Needle has recently been learning about the early evolution of slavery in the United States; this post argues that the course slavery followed gives the lie to the "fairy tale" of American progress.

Sharon Howard tells us far more than we ever dared hope to know about ritual transvestism in early modern Europe. She seems to have strong feelings about it.

At Philobiblon, Natalie Bennett has discovered that old postcards can be fascinating.

In the face of several recent controversies over academic standards, Cliopatria's Ralph Luker reminds us that life can be complicated.

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11 March 2005 - Friday

Spring Break Open Thread 2005

It's that time again, folks. Since we won't be seeing as much of each other for the next few days, I want you to load the comments on this post with as much sophomoric drivel as possible.

Here are this year's rules:

1) No moray eels.

2) No dancing, smoking, or foreign language.

3) No public displays of affectation (sic).

4) No erudition.

5) No random amusing hyperlinks.

6) No quibbling.

7) No posting after 1 a.m. (your time).

Suitable prizes (to be delivered to the LeTourneau professor of your choice) will be awarded for (a) the most frequent commenter and (b) the commenter who breaks the rules the most effectively. Entries are not limited to LeTourneau students.

This thread will close at 11:59 p.m. (Central) on the 20th (Sunday).

Commencez, mes amis.

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8 March 2005 - Tuesday

Liberation militant

At Siris, Brandon celebrates International Women's Day with an anecdote about a conservative Muslim acquaintance. In an elevator, a young man lectured her on how oppressive it is to observe hijab.

How nice to have such enlightened boors about, ready to liberate us from ourselves on the spot.

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MCP: Poe and Ransom

I completed this reading assignment:

Edgar Allan Poe
"The Bells"
"Annabel Lee"
"The Raven"
"For Annie"
"To ---- [Violet Vane]"
"[Lines on Ale]"

John Crowe Ransom
"Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"
"Here Lies a Lady"
"Piazza Piece"
"Dead Boy"
"Painted Head" [scroll down]

Here are my reflections:

Except for "The Raven," of course, "The Bells" was the first Poe poem I read. I recall my English teacher using it in junior high as an illustration of several concepts, including onomatopoeia and alliteration. The sound of the words, she pointed out, reminds the reader of the sound of bells ringing. Reading the work now, I am struck by the importance of rhythm to the success of that effect. For me, the poem does not capture the tone of the bells as much as their beat and the psychological effect they produce. This works particularly well in the second stanza, in which the irregular meter of the poem suggests the uniquely syncopated rhythm of wedding bells, and the third stanza, in which the irregular meter suggests the panic and confusion of an emergency. I do not find the technique as effective in the first or fourth stanza.

"To ---": Let's just be good friends . . . 'cause we've already got lovers. Somehow, I think, the sentiment would have seemed more convincing if it had not produced a poem.

In "[Lines on Ale]," the author's attitude toward the intoxicant in question reminds me more of typical reactions to absinthe than of common literary reactions to ale. Unlike most of the writing I can think of that involves ale or beer, this poem has a very solitary feeling to it. I doubt that the author was drinking in company. For some reason, I am reminded of G. K. Chesterton's statement in Heretics (chapter 7) that alcohol is best taken not medicinally but recreationally:

Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.
In this case, unlike most of the ale literature I can think of, the poet's drink seems to be a replacement for, not a seal of, human fellowship.

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7 March 2005 - Monday


Hello. A blog with a command line interface. Sadly, it seems to be up only for experimental purposes.

Via Joe.

Update: Aha. Here's another.

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5 March 2005 - Saturday


As a result of attending a small academic conference last spring, I am one of hundreds of people on an e-mail list related to the work of the Inklings literary group. (I know there are hundreds of us because I can see every e-mail address on the list every time I receive a message.) I do not actually recall asking to be included in this list, although I suppose I may have checked a box on a form during the conference.

Today, a message arrived with the subject line "gender-inclusive language; why I oppose it." The message is more than 700 words long. It has an RTF attachment that runs to more than 6,600 words.

Allow me to provide a sample of the e-mail:

I have just completed a controversial essay that I think C. S. Lewis would have agreed with but which much of modern academia would not. I am asking you all to please, please take the time to read or at least skim through it and to then forward it on to others in your address book whom you think would benefit from it. [. . .]

Finally, I ask that if you agree with what I’ve written that you forward this email on to others in your community, workplace, school, church, etc. The censorious tide of gender-inclusive language CAN be pushed back, but it will take a real GRASSROOTS effort to do so (something akin to the grassroots attempt to halt gay marriage).

This e-mail came from a professor of English.

I was amused when, twenty minutes later, one of the recipients of this message sent a reply to everyone on the list: "Please remove me from this email distribution list. I am not particularly a lover of C.S. Lewis and have not benefited from any emails sent to me on Lewis-related topics."

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Il faut cultiver notre jardin

At The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik analyzes the humanitarian impulses of Voltaire, the Enlightenment's intellectual plenipotentiary. According to Gopnik's interpretation, Voltaire was neither the radical nor the pessimist that some think. His early advocacy of human rights came from inclinations we might regard as conservative, and his criticism of optimism was actually an attack on militant ideologies.

As Tocqueville saw half a century later, home-making, which ought to make people more selfish, makes them less so; it gives them a stake in other people’s houses. It is not so much the establishment of a garden but the ownership of a gate that moves people from liking a society based on favors to one based on rights. Enclosing his garden broadened Voltaire’s circle of compassion. When people were dragged from their gardens to be tortured and killed in the name of faith, he began to take it, as they say, personally. [. . .]

The horror that Voltaire wanted crushed, cruelty in the name of God and civilization, was a specific and contingent thing. [. . .] The villains are the villains: Jesuits and Inquisitors and English judges and Muslim clerics and fanatics of all kinds. If they went away, life would be much better. He knew that the flood would get your garden no matter what you did; but you could at least try to keep the priests and the policemen off the grass. It wasn’t enough, but it was something.

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3 March 2005 - Thursday

Squirming in paradise

I am developing a love-hate relationship with my schoolwork this semester. On the one hand, I have a light workload and adore all of my classes but one--and that exception is a very easy course. On the other hand, because I am actually getting to dig more deeply into the humanities than ever before, I resent the workload I do have; sometimes, my schoolwork takes me away from my learning. Even so, I find that my assignments--even the most annoying ones--are consistently leaving me satisfied with my learning afterwards.

The previous paragraph may not make any sense. I shall try to explain my meaning with a specific example.

I made a presentation in International Business on Tuesday. I presented a case study on the rapid depreciation of the baht (Thai currency) against the US dollar in 1997. The case study was a lot of work; it even showed up in my dreams. By the time I stood up in class, however, I knew I had mastered the topic. I was euphoric by the end of the class period. My grade on the case was 105.

I recount all of this because International Business is exactly the sort of course that I should and sometimes do love. Most of the time, however, I feel that I am not learning much. Ironically, this is partly due to the course's heavy reliance on student presentations; I am not an auditory learner at all, so the only presentations that do me any good are the ones I make myself. This is frustrating. Why must the methodology be so inconvenient and my learning so spotty?

I have extremely easy weeks, and I have extremely busy weeks. So far, I have not discovered a practical way to even out the workload; a substantial portion of it cannot be predicted more than a few days in advance. This week was busy. Last week was light.

The reader should not imagine that I am having a difficult semester. I am taking only 16 hours; 9 of those hours are from literature courses, all of which are excellent. At the same time, I am working in three sections of English Review as a tutor, and I occasionally get work from the history/political science department as well. My c.v. is expanding very nicely. I've even made some new friends along the way.

Right now, I am sitting all alone in my apartment, listening to Arvo Pärt's Passio. I am still warm with the afterglow of this afternoon's succesful presentation on D. H. Lawrence in Modern & Contemporary Poetry. Do I really need anything else? What cause have I to be dissatisfied, with myself or with anyone else?

This is a long way of saying that I want for nothing except sleep. In fact, I'm even getting a good deal of that this semester.

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1 March 2005 - Tuesday

One who was certainly completely crazy

For the record, Gertrude Stein's "Picasso" is the most boring poem I have ever read.

Here is the first paragraph (stanza?):

One whom some were certainly following was one who was completely charming. One whom some were certainly following was one who was charming. One whom some were following was one who was completely charming. One whom some were following was one who was certainly completely charming.
There are eleven more where that came from.

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This is your credibility. This is your credibility on WMD.

If genocide happens, and the only powerful people to notice it are the same people who invaded Iraq to secure WMD that cannot be proved to have existed in several years, is it genocide?

Salih Booker, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Africa Action, attributed the inaction to Security Council members' own interests and to a loss of U.S. moral authority in the world body in the wake of now discredited claims about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

''China is the single largest investor in Sudan's oil industry; Russia has significant arms deals with Khartoum, and both countries want to avoid scrutiny of their own internal wars against various ethnic communities,'' Booker said in a Foreign Policy in Focus commentary. ''Pakistan and Algeria have either ideological or political interests in helping the government in Sudan. All four abstained.''

Added Booker, ''Once upon a time, Washington could have exercised its clout as the most powerful nation in the world and handily won over the support of these recalcitrant members. But now, the country that cried wolf (over Iraq) has lost the moral authority it needs to rally its global neighbors.''

Sudanese officials have countered U.S. claims of genocide by saying that Washington presented a false dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and now is presenting a dossier against Sudan, another Arab state with oil, he said.

''Sadly, such cynical skepticism resonates in large parts of the world,'' said Booker.

Abid Islam, writing for OneWorld.

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