Sunday, 31 March 2013

In defense of a classical or liberal arts education

I was watching with my nuliakuluk yesterday a movie called, The Emperor's Club, starring Kevin Kline as a classicist teacher struggling with issues of ethics and personal values:

...a man's character is his fate.

In this dialogue below, Mr Hundert's class is reading from Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar:

Sedgewick Bell [as Brutus]: Oh Marc Antony, let us be sacrificers and not butchers.

William Hundert: Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers. Your Brutus lacks conviction, Mr. Bell. You are aware of what you are saying, do you not? The fate of the Roman Republic is at stake!

Sedgewick Bell [sarcastically]: Not for me.

William Hundert: Yes, I know not for you, but try to place yourself in the time period. You, Brutus, the noblest Roman of them all, are at the center of a conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar! And you believe this is for the good of all Rome. But you are struggling profoundly with the moral and physical implications of what you are about to do.

Sedgewick Bell: I do not agree with their plan.

William Hundert: Brutus does not agree with their plan?

Sedgewick Bell: No, I do not agree with their plan. They should kill Marc Antony as well as Caesar. Brutus is a pussy!

Class laughs at Sedgewick's vulgarity

William Hundert [appalled]: A pussy?! Because he has a conscience? Because he believes there is a wrong way and a right way?

Sedgewick Bell: In the end, Marc Antony ended up taking him down, right?

William Hundert: He and Octavian, yes. In a manner of speaking.

Sedgewick Bell: If he did what the other guy suggested, uh...uh...

William Hundert: ...Cassius.

Sedgewick Bell: ...yeah, that is it. If he did what Cassius recommended...Brutus might have gone on to become King!

Sedgewick gives smug look to class

William Hundert: Emperor, as a matter of fact. Which Brutus had no desire to be.

Sedgewick Bell: Whatever! He would have won!

William Hundert: Yes, but at what cost? Do you remember the lessons of Socrates?

Sedgewick Bell: Not really.

Class agains laughs at Sedgewick's flippancy

William Hundert: It is not living that is important, but living properly. Socrates chose to die an unjust death, a death he freely accepted, rather than break the laws of Athens to which he pledged his loyalty!

Sedgewick Bell: Another genius. [Sedgewick whispers cynically]

This is a scene where Mr Hundert is in Senator Bell's office (the father of Sedgwick)

William Hundert: That is why I am here Senator, I have come to see you about your son.

Senator Hiram Bell: Sedgewick? Oh Jesus, what the devil has he done now?

William Hundert: Sir, Sedgewick is not paying attention in class. Nor is he doing his reading assignments. I am sure Sedgewich is a bright boy, but..

Senator Hiram Bell [chuckling]: That is a horse that can talk! So basically what you are telling me is my son Sedgewick has got his head up his ass.

Mr. Hundert stammers at hearing such a crude remark

Senator Hiram Bell: Let me ask you something. What is the good of what you are teaching these boys?

William Hundert: The good?

Senator Hiram Bell: Yeah, the good.

William Hundert: Senator, the Greeks and the Romans established systems of popular involvement and the rule of law protecting the rights of everyone, respectively, which, I should not have to tell you, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution used as a model for the American constitutional republic. Besides that, I believe that the boys are put into direct contact with men from history such as Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. As a teacher it is my job to mold your son...

Senator Hiram Bell [interrupting and enraged]: Mold him? Mold him! Great God in Heaven you ain't going to mold Sedgewick! You are a teacher. Teach him why the world is round, teach him his times tables, teach him who killed whom in what battle and why. I, sir... I will mold my son!

The reason why I'm quoting this movie extensively is because I'm trying to make a point that a "liberal arts" education is inherently about questions of morals and ethics, about developing character. The final scene between the now-grown Sedgewick and Mr Hundert is a powerful scene about the implications of a morally-bankrupt leadership, why utterly insideous hypocrisy and conceit in the political, legal and business classes are to our society.

The Nunavut system of "education" (I think the whole of public education system in Canada, actually) is utterly empty of a liberal arts component, an almost total absence of a discourse on the archetypal characters to emulate or avoid, no hero figures to aspire to and be inspired by.

One of my heroes is Northrop Frye, a famous Canadian literary critic and social commentator. Literary critics and classicists (and social commentators) often appear in one and the same person, and Frye was the epitome of this rule. He saw the shift in Canadian (at the least, Ontario's) education system to what is called "child-centered" pedagogy, and it must have him bothered a bit. He wrote about it at any case as Ontario was reviewing its education system in more than one essay. This from a perspective thus:

The civilization we live in at present is a gigantic technological structure, a skyscraper almost high enough to reach the moon. It looks like a single world-wide effort, but it's really a deadlock of rivalries; it looks very impressive, except that it has no genuine human dignity. For all its wonderful machinery, we know it's really a crazy ramshackle building, and at any time may crash around our ears. What the myth tells us is that the Tower of Babel is a work of human imagination, that its main elements are words, and that what will make it collapse is a confusion of tongues. All had originally one language, the myth says. The language is not English or Russian or Chinese or any common ancestor, if there was one. It is the language that makes Shakespeare and Pushkin authentic poets, that gives a social vision to both Lincoln and Gandhi. It never speaks unless we take the time to listen in leisure, and it speaks only in a voice too quiet for panic to hear. And then all it has to tell us, when we look over the edge of our leaning tower, is that we are not getting any nearer to heaven, and that it is time to return to earth. (Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination, p.98)

I'm watching right now PBS's Moyers & Company where Bill Moyers is talking with Bryon Stevenson re: publicly funded constitutional right of criminal representation. It turns out that not all states have this constitutional guarantee though the supreme court decision was made in the US and copied in almost every democratic nation on Earth. (Bryon Stevenson also gives a talk in TED ( regarding this issue).

I always learn something from shows like Moyers & Company because though the show talks about US-specific issues and topics these usually have bearing on our own society. In any case, it gives me a better perspective on Nunavut's (and aboriginal) social issues and alternative ways of looking at the problems and ways of addressing them (and the logical consequences of not discoursing on them).

This overall perspective is more important now since the voting in of a quasi-fascist government of Harper in Canada where many progressive social policies have been decimated or outright eliminated (supposedly in the interest of public finances but upon cursory reflection these are targetted at the vulnerable in our society - aboriginals, women's rights, NGOs, children at risk, etc.).

As the dialogues quoted from The Emperor's Club movie, a liberal arts education is often unappreciated and dismissed as navel-gazing by intellectuals and academic task-masters. This is especially the case with the rightwing narrative which is often rightly portrayed as "anti-intellectual". But a liberal arts education is nothing less, nothing more than about learning "...the language that makes Shakespeare and Pushkin authentic poets, that gives a social vision to both Lincoln and Gandhi."

Upon the writing of this entry (started this morning), I heard on the news yet again of a murder-suicide visited upon one of our communities: a father, a mother and a three year old son. There are no guarantees against tragedies and deformations of the human spirit like this which are sadly a familiar experience of many aboriginal groups (methinks) around the world. The Weberian "polar night of icy darkness" is an existential reality that has long been in the Canadian Aboriginal communities but becoming very real in mainstream Canada where Harper's government is truly a consequence and cumination of an education deplete of character development. But a change in perspective in education wouldn't hurt either:

What the critic as a teacher of language tries to teach is not an elegant accomplishment, but the means of conscious life. Literary education should lead not merely to the admiration of great literature, but to some possession of its power of utterance. The ultimate aim is an ethical and participating aim, not an aesthetic or contemplative one, even though the latter may be the means of achieving the former. (Northrop Frye, The Well-Tempered Critic)

Finally, in this apologia for a liberal arts education I'd like to leave with another quote:

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. (John 13:34, King James version)

"Love" as I read it in this case is not a mere emotion but a living, breathing principle.


Saturday, 30 March 2013

Faster than c?

I seem to recall a news article somewhere I read or heard where scientists in Europe thought they had just witnessed particles travelling faster than the speed of light (that famous c in Einstein's equations). It was soon found out that there was faulty equipment...

I was watching the TV show, Touch, yesterday where Jake (the star character and narrator of the show) said something to the effect that Einstein suspected that time itself might be an illusion, that past, present and future may all co-existed in some unspecified field. It may well be that time may be an illusion (at the least "time" as we think we know it), but there are other inescapable laws of Nature that suggest time - whatever it is - does exist: the conservation laws; the law of entropy; the constant c itself (the speed limit for all particulate matter - ie, us and everything else in the material universe).

I was reading an article in Popular Science (April 2013) this morning, Warp Factor (p.50), that got me thinking about the recent discovery of the Higg's boson and the veracity of the Standard Model of particle physics (a model constructed on the principles of special relativity and quantum mechanics), and I thought: barring the fact that we are made up of normal matter, and could somehow interact with dark matter and dark energy (which we do not as far as present science tells us), I kind of think that the notion of a "warp drive" is pure speculation and mathematical navel-gazing.

There are many examples of these speculations and navel-gazings in physical and mathematical sciences that seem to take a life of their own (string theories (in the plural) and unprovable statements in maths, for eg) once they are stated but, following Einstein's admonitions, we should never forget that science should stick to experimentally verifiable results.

As in all life, this admonition is sound and proven to an astounding and perplexing degree. Einstein himself had deep doubts about quantum physics which he himself is one of its founding members, and he came up with tests and thought experiments for many of its strange and non-intuitive results - quantum entanglement, for one - but he never deviated from its principles though he was deeply dismayed by what they found (at his behest). This is real science at its very best.

The PopSci article said something that kind of baffled me:

It almost goes without saying that functional warp drive would have tremendous implications for space travel. It would free explorers not only from Earth's orbit, but from the entire solar system. Instead of taking 75,000 years to get to Alpha Centuri, the star system nearest to our own, warp-equipped astronauts...could make the trip in two weeks. (PopSci, April 2013, p. 52)

The thing I find puzzling is how they came up with the difference between 75,000 years and two weeks, let alone the four or so years it takes light to travel from the Alpha Centuri system to our eyes here on Earth. Like the often perplexing rightwing narratives that apparently do away with existential, religious and social (contradictory) consequences in their politics, methinks the problem stems right from the premise, the substance of the issue.

To wit: the circle can indeed be squared, but that is to mistake the physical act from the deeper question of reconciling transcendental numbers with rational numbers (a geometrical and numerical impossibility - at the least, in any rigorous way).

Even if warp travel were possible, there are still laws of conservation of energy and matter to contend with. E eqauls Mc squared tends to have devastating explosive consequences such that even if faster-than-light travel could be achieved deceleration may well preclude its functionality (ie, with us in such a vehicle). At miniscule fractions of c, meteors that come into our atmosphere tend not to survive the decelerative forces, the recoil from the shock wave (analogous to the hypothetical bubble in the PopSci article) alone is usually unsurvivable, which travels from a point outwards.

Then there is the problem of the uncertainty principle...I mean, the more we're certain of energy levels of quantum systems the less certain we are of the positions of the quantum systems (ie, particles), and vice's those damned laws of conservation and entropy (again) that wouldn't allow reabsorption into normal space as a coherent entity anyhow.


Friday, 29 March 2013

That thats and Socrates the man

I don't know if I've wrote about it here on this blog (some time ago) or perhaps it was in my old email distribution list where I talked about my suspicions that there might be more than one form of nouns, as in that syllogistic argument:

all men are mortal;
Socrates is a man;
therefore, Socrates is mortal.

All things being equal one would assume that a purely nominal construct like "(the) man is Socrates" would have the same kind of value as "Socrates is (a) man" - but they don't, at least not in the English Subject Verb Object structure. And, I kind have doubts that it may have to do with the definite and indefinite articles "a" and "the" (though these are good clues). There seems to be an unmarked (and unspecified) grammatical mood/case/tense lurking there somewhere because - leaving aside the abstract and technical considerations for the moment - both are declarative phrases in effect specifying that Socrates is a man (or, that the man is (indeed) Socrates) which amount to pretty much the same thing - a plain declarative.

We may try and explain that perhaps it has something to do with "subject" and "object" grammatical functions (both are nouns after all), but interchanging "Socrates" for "man" and vice versa doesn't change the fact that we're talking about the same thing because both phrases are intransitive constructs (ie, complete in and of themselves and do not require an adjunct phrase to complete their grammaticalities) and we're actually not talking about two things but one (Socrates = man).

The only way to distinguish the differences is to construct a convoluted and contrived argument like, "the man is Socrates (because Socrates is a man), and it is he that we're talking about". The problem actually has to do with "passive" and "active" tense, as in "the man is Socrates...and it is he we're talking about" - which is inherently a "passive" construct in direct contrast to "Socrates is a man" - which is clearly in the active tense.

In Inuktut the two would be:

"(taanna) angut Socrates-ngujuq" = lit. "(this) man, Socrates is he (called)" = "(the) man is Socrates"

"Socrates angutiujuq" = "Socrates is a man"

which also suggest that the differences have to do with "passive" and "active" tenses.

There are other similiar subtle problems of linguistics - as in "that that" and "had had" constructs - that also point to tense (in this case "perfectivity" rather than "passive vs active") as the determining factor of differentiation.

I know that verbal and nominal forms are stumbling blocks for many interpreter/translators here in the Inuit world, but the problem of tense is something many times more subtle than these questions of verb and noun constructs - that is, "snacks" translated as "tamulugaksaliuqtut" (they are making snacks) rather than "tamulugaksat".

When we, here in Nunavut, first started talking about Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (that which is long known by Inuit = Inuit traditional knowledge = IQ) I had a hard time trying to explain the difference between "active" and "passive" constructs in proposing that we call IQ Inuit Qaujimaningit (purely, Inuit Knowledge) rather than the one that was first coined as IQ.

I have heard many an Inuit elder asking (in whispering tones) "what is 'it' that is long-known?" because there is an expectation caused by passive tense that what "it" is will be specified (the "that which" is long-known); whereas, the "Inuit Qaujimaningit" appeals to the body of knowledge as a concept rather than a hanging passive construct implied by "Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit...(are theses...)". Compare the ja construct of IQ with "(the) man is Socrates" and you'll see that without "Socrates" the phrase would be incomplete.

As a terminologist I'm asked to review translations, and often the problem is not perceived to be a "problem" by people who are otherwise very competent speakers of Inuktitut (many of them are better speakers of Inuktitut than I am) but who happen to think that word-level translation (ie, literal translations rather than meaning-based translations) is a good form (sort of like speaking English with a French grammar sort of makes English somehow sound nobler or more poetic when plain-speech has a better impact when it's not contrived thus).

My nuliakuluk and I had an on-going discussion about a line in a song that went "I kiss your heart while you sleep" which she said that, in French, the poetics is completely allowed. I suppose it is also completely acceptable in English (at least, I can't make a convincing argument that it isn't). But there is something that doesn't quite sound "right" about the line...


Sunday, 24 March 2013

The inadequacy of textual descriptions

I'm currently reading John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and coming to the end of the first part where Christian and Hopeful have reached the border of the Celestial City. Like many of the books I collect this is a real keeper. Naturally, I've been reading up on this great original classic of the English language: One analyst suggested that because of the book - especially because of the individualistic (protestant) take on the notion of salvation - England didn't go the way of the French Revolution...other compared the differences between Catholic and Protestant faiths...and yet another the differences between the first and second parts of the book itself.

What struck me, and has always struck me, is the description of the "shining city of the hill", and the use of 'precious' metals and others considered 'luxury' materials (woods, gems, etc.) to describe the holy city. Bunyan's description got me thinking this morning whether the materials in the description are desirable because the Lord has made them so, or whether they're just allegorical devices.

See, to me, a more satisfying description of the holy city would have to do with the architecture and the landscape and not just the materials. I've had this deep fascination with cathedrals and other older forms of architecture since I could remember. The St. Paul's cathedral, the Chartres cathedral, the Notre Dame cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, Michu Picchu, Angor Wat, even unto ancient and modern cities...and I tend to think (forgive me) what are called 'precious' materials actually detract from the beauty of such things and make them contrived, gaudy and cheap (sort of like the technicolor Wizard of Oz type thingy, fascist and soviet architure). I guess some things don't naturally lend themselves to textual descriptions.

Having seen Picasso's and Kahlo's sketchbooks, I think context, geometry, balance, proportion, broken and unbroken symmetries are extremely important...hidden dimensionless numbers (constants) that only appear in contemplation of structures and architecture all require an active seeking of simplicity and elegance...all the physical universe, its governing dynamics, is perfection itself - the wondrous miracle hidden in plain sight - the varying of the flow of time itself adumbrate the deeper, unfathomable mystery of God. Even dirt itself has witness to the glory of God if we would seek to examine it.

There is a beautiful passage in Bunyan's book that speak to the inadequancy of the human heart alone to understand the glory and promise of God, that humility and admission of our error-prone ways (our arrogance, prejudice and impatience) are required of us to see and partake in the miracle of the Celestial City. The Law in itself, as Christians say (sometimes without much appreciation), is not enough; the fulfillment of the Law (Jesus Christ - ie, the perfected love and grace of God) is not about punishment and reward (our righteousness are like filthy rags, quotes Bunyan) but becoming simple enough to see and appreciate the glory of God (if even for short moments in time). Though, I think, Bunyan falls short in his description of the Celestial City the central message (the Law in itself is incomplete; it requires love and acceptance) rings clear.

It is said of Darwin that he spent his last days in great, palpable sadness; methinks he saw only the Law, and not the beautiful mystery that animates and necessitates that Law. The seven cardinal sins are deadly not so much because they are "moralistic" sins (and this dogmatic view tends to trap and double-bind fundamentalists of all faiths, anyhow), but because they have real-world consequences: just look at our present state of affairs in the world's economy to see the consequences of greed...our addictions (gluttony), likewise, lead to sadness and depletion because they disrupt the natural balance of our bodies and make us do things that sacrifice our dignity.


Saturday, 23 March 2013

On "lost" positives

I received a very interesting email the other day from someone I consider a good friend (though I rarely see him since he moved away), and the email was with respect to an observation made by a person - a biography my friend is editing - having to do with language change. At first I didn't quite get the question and in fact I thought it had to do with "folk etymology" but a couple of emails later and much thinking I realized what a profound observation the guy had made - I hope I did justice to enlightening my friend.

You see, in the Inuit Language - before contact with non-Inuit - there was no such thing as "how are you?" and "good day". The close proximity/bonds of members within a community (usually family and close friends) didn't require these formalities much, and, upon meeting a stranger, the greeting rituals consisted of hand-shakes, a few verbal exchanges to determine where from the stranger(s) came and/or who they were related to, etc. (if the strangers weren't familiar with the receivers, that is). But there was no "qanuippit?", no "ullukkut"

The "Qanuippit" question originally had a meaning: "are you unwell?" (ie, are you not in good health) and the stress/emphasis was different from how modern Inuktitut now use it and, therefore, even today the modern usage usually requires an answer in the negative "qanuinngittunga" to indicate that one is not unwell. The "ullukkut" greeting is likewise a bit strange if you think about it - in a sense that it is an orphaned phrase (morphemically speaking) from "(I see and acknowledge you) through/on this day" which has been quickly lexicalized into "have a good day"

Languages change.

In English (which is a weird mixture of Germanic and Latin/Greek languages), there is a phenomenon called "lost positives" that do not make much sense in the way these "lost ones" are used in contemporary English but do make sense (in a way) when we trace them back to the original language.

There are words like "inept", and "disheveled", for eg, in modern usage of English but it sounds strange and wrong to say "ept" and "heveled".

I mentioned this to my nuliakuluk (a consumate and insightful student of Inuktitut) and her comments made the missing puzzle pieces fall into their places beautifully. You see, the word "inept" can be etymologically traced back to Old French (from Latin originally):

c.1600, from Old French inepte (14c.) or directly from Latin ineptus "unsuitable, improper, absurd, awkward, silly, tactless," from in- "not, opposite of" (see in- (1)) + aptus "apt" (see apt). Related: Ineptly; ineptness. (

In fact, my nuliakuluk told me, Modern French still has the positive opposite of inept: apte though the opposite didn't quite make it into the English usage (at least not in the sense in which the opposition was originally used).

What's interesting about "disheveled" is that there is no "heveled" let alone "hevelling" or "hevels" because the root word "hevel" comes from Latin chevel and one can't quite transition the apparent past tense -ed into the present and present perfective forms. In fact, a logically derived analysis of "disheveled" would suggest that the initial segment /ch/ had been fronted to /s/ in English, such that the proper translation would derive into "without hair" - which is the opposite of the modern English meaning.

The other day I was watching The Family Guy (an episode in which Lois becomes a boxer) where Quagmire is seen dragging an unconscious female boxer that Lois knocked out and he shrugs and says "I like watching her box" and Peter quips: "That has two meanings".

As a student of linguistics and an Anglophile (in terms of language and literature), I'm constantly delighted by how flexible and diverse the English language is (actually, all language are). English is, clearly, an arrogant bastard; a 3 dressed as a 9; liable to cut off its nose despite its face. It is sheer madness to look too closely at it.

But it also points to the profound insight that, once we look beyond just the words, we realize that the grammatical structure of human languages is divinely inspired, and utterly beautiful to contemplate.


Sunday, 17 March 2013

The age of feuilleton

I was listening in on a CNN (ie, while writing and not watching) yesterday where the broadcast went to the rightwing confab, CPAC  - not our venerable parliamentary cable channel but something to do with the tea party in the US - while Palin was talking when it occurred to me that the rightwing (no matter what country it belongs in) is not "anti-intellectual" per se. No, that assessment would be too smug on my part. Rightwing nuttery is rather more like what Hermann Hesse talked about at length in his book, Magister Ludi or The Glassbead Game: its intellectual basis derives almost entirely from a feuilleton-like mentality.

The online defines "feuilleton" like this:

a. The part of a European newspaper devoted to light fiction, reviews, and articles of general entertainment.
b. An article appearing in such a section.
a. A novel published in installments.
b. A light, popular work of fiction.
3. A short literary essay or sketch.
The Murdock empire (its tabloids, Fox Network, etc.) and Sunnews in Canada are political feuilletons because besides passing editorials and inserting their commentators into stories as journalism their whole content are devoted to easing people on how and what to think about by virtue of by-passing any semblance of "balance". These new takes on propaganda are all-encompassing bubbles of drivel.
Umberto Eco also talks about feuilletons quite a bit (especially in The Prague Cemetery, and his anthology of essays, Inventing the Enemy) and how these vehicles of "light fictions" have been and continue to be used for dark political purposes (ie, as all-encompassing, self-reinforcing bubbles of drivel that pass for discourse on history, art, politics, and religion). I mention Eco only in passing because I don't want to spoil anything for fans of Eco. But the facts remain...
This feuilleton-like mentality is as old as philosophical and political discourses if not older. Socrates' discourse is not only a response to sophism (a form of feuilleton) but his whole philosophical stance is intended as an alternative to disingenuous, light treatment of deep human and spiritual issues upon which feuilleton mentality preys (since we are all of us just naturally lazy, I'd surmise the disingenuous counts on that nature so it may create society in its own dark image (or at the least, desensitize us to its ugliness)).
Giovanni Pico (who I wrote about yesterday) was also concerned about the attractive snake oil of feuilleton mentality. His Oration on the Dignity of Man is justified ultimately by his said concerns:
28. Add to this [exhaustive list of different schools of thought he wanted to talk about] that any sect which assails the truer doctrines, and makes game of good causes by clever slander, strengthens rather than weakens the truth and, like flames stirred by agitation, fans rather than extinguishes it. This has been my reason for wishing to bring before the public the opinions not of a single school...but rather of every school, to the end that that light of truth Plato mentions in his Epistles through the comparison of several sects and this discussion of manifold philosophies might dawn more brightly on our minds, like sun rising from the deep. (Renaissance Philosophy of Man, p. 244)
Pico continues with the Socratic and Judeo-Christian expectation that critical knowledge (or faith) be not just words but that these notions inform our values and actions (ie, be opposite of what feuilleton cultivates):
It is surely an ignoble part to be wise only from a notebook (as Seneca says) and, as if the discoveries of our predecessors had closed the way to our own industry and power of nature were exhausted in us, to produce from ourselves nothing which, if it does not actually demonstrate the truth, at least intimates it from afar. For if a tiller of the soil hates sterility in his field...surely the Divine mind joined to and associated with an infertile soul will hate it more in that a far nobler offspring is desired. (ibid, pp. 244-245)
It has been these ideas and admonitions that bear down on me most severly as "from the depths I cry out to the Lord" in this Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita - "midway of [my] life's path." I'm not a religious person, but I've become more and more aware and concerned recently about something that I've lost along the way; namely, my spiritualism. I can reasonably doubt that the world-as-it-is has changed; it is my perspective (my umwelt) that is changing. I pray that I come out a better person.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Oration on the dignity of man

I read in one of David Berlinski's books that Galois was a tragic figure in the same way that Mozart was: both were gifted in the extreme (one in maths, the other in music) and both died before they had the opportunity to live out their full potential; to this I would add Giovanni Pico, count of Mirandola. This list is not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination, but it does illustrate how giftedness is not restricted to a single thing (vague and mysterious though it seems to us mere mortals) but occurs in all human endeavours. Historical pedagogy/study is replete with examples of such human genius that would humble anyone capable of reflection and thought, and/or have attempted to create something.

Giovanni Pico was born February 24, 1463 and died November 17, 1494 (31 years on this planet). In a book called, The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (The University of Chicago Press, 1948), one of its editors, Paul Oskar Kristeller, writes in his introduction:

The range of Pico's learning is not only extensive; it assumes additional interest from the fact that he was able to absorb many different ideas and traditions that most of his contemporaries would have considered incompatible. Having enjoyed a thorough classical education, he was familiar with the major works of Latin and Greek literature and philosophy; he cultivated friendship of some of the leading Humanists of his time; and was able to write letter and treatises in a style which satisfied their meticulous standard of literary elegance. At the universities of Padua and Paris he became acquainted with the logical and philosophical tradition of the Middle Ages and with the writings of the Schoolmen. Pico was not only able to handle their technique of argument and their terminology; he was ready to defend their reputation against the attacks of his Humanist friends. (The Renaissance of Philosophy of Man, p. 215)

Kristeller continues:

In order to understand the content and significance of the Oration [on the Dignity of Man], it is important to recall the circumstances of its composition. In December, 1486, Pico published in Rome his nine hundred theses, inviting all scholars interested in to a public disputation in January, 1487. The disputation never took place. Pope Innocent VIII suspended it and appointed a commission to examine the theses. The commission condemned some of them as heretical; and when Pico tried to defend the incriminated theses in an Apologia, he made things even worse and became involved in a conflict with the papal authorities that was to last for several years. (ibid, p. 217)

Though, according to my modern eyes and literary tastes, the schema and mental images Pico draws up in the beginning parts of his Oration on the Dignity of Man are somewhat "baroque", it is not lost upon me his power and capacity to absorb and reconcile "many different ideas and traditions that most of his contemporaries would have considered incompatible", and I cannot help but admire and appreciate him for the many wonderful insights he is able to gain and adumbrate the incomprehensible fullness of God at work in the history of humanity (the continuous, unbroken strand of ethical, spiritual and philosophical/literary discourse in the Occident and Orient is clearly discernible throughout the ages in the able hands and mind of Pico). But what else would we expect from a spiritual and literary prodigy?

The Judaic tradition itself is full of examples of the likes of Pico. These Torah and Talmud prodigies are called Illui (iluyim, in plural) derived from Hebrew and Yiddish. In the Gospel of Luke (I wrote "Matthew" in error earlier), it says that the Christ himself was such a person. There is a passage in there that speaks of the parents of the young Jesus who had lost him in the bustle of the Temple and found him in an involved discussion with the Jewish elders who were confounded by his brilliance.

Whether or not we choose to put a spiritual spin, Pico's works can more than stand on their own as works of a brilliant mind. But, of course, I do not speak nor read Latin (the language of academic discourse even up to Newton's time) however, it is the substance if not the form that determines the beauty of the ideas which solid translations bring out so well. And it is the notion of "syncretism" of Pico that I would like to discourse on.

The idea of "syncretism" is defined as: The amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.

There is a rhyme, reason and method to this practice of syncretism in that it follows strict logical and principled means of reconciliation and synthesis of seemingly different, even disparate ideas - of which Pico was clearly a master. In linguistics, we have a principle that says that any human language is translatable into any other human language (no matter how apparently far these langages may be). Syncretism of Pico follows this logical principle.

It is not about trying to reconcile diametrically opposed ideas (such as our notions of "good" and "evil"; "light" and "darkness", etc.) but is rather more like Socratic or Hegelian dialectics which goes: thesis, antithesis, synthesis ("antithesis" being such a poor choice of word because it is about synthesizing into an argument the true limits of a given statement or principle, and not something that would contradict a given principle itself).

In one language we may write a lyric that goes: "a thousand shades of something new" but try translating this line into another language. Though the lyric may sound good in one language, upon examination and closer scrutiny it's apparent grammatical/semantic soundness falls away very quickly indeed because it has no real meaning other than its specific metaphorical value (in that one language and the context of that one song). In reality the lyrical line has no archetypal ground on which to walk on its own.

Spiritual, philosophical, ethical and factual statements do have that all-important archetypal grounding (variously called the "human experience") that lines in a lyrical song do not. This is why syncretism and translation of historical, philosophical, spiritual and literary works of substance are translatable (in the same sense that mathematics has an ability to describe reality in such a fashion it does). It is as if rough-and-ready lyrics were a primitive form of human literature the same way that astrology begat astronomy and alchemy begat chemistry.

My father spoke not one word of English let alone any of the classical languages (to which, besides Latin and Greek, I would include Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Sanskrit and Tibetan among cultures that have produced holy scriptures and works of philosophical/rational import), but he was a baptized Christian and tried his best to lead a virtuous life having been inspired by text not indigenous to his/our language.

Scientific discourse has that same quality I speak of above. It is one of the reasons why I truly believe that all scientific principles that generate logically productive insights are very translatable to Inuktitut. Having some familiarity with the grammar of Inuit language(s), what I believe in is not some airy-fairy wish but a proven principle of the human experience.


Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The paucity of consumerism

My aippakuluk bought me a music magazine that had a Pink Floyd CD and a feature article on the group last year. The magazine is called, MOJO, and it is published in the UK. I've read it cover to cover more than once now but I'm still coming away from it with new information and awareness.

The magazine made me realize how sterile the North American consumerist society seems in comparison with other cultures. Compared to North American monocultural rags, MOJO is a veritable tropical rain forest not just in musical genre (Jerry Lee Lewis along side Amy Winehouse along side up-and-coming and/or indie artists) but also in temporality: There is even a sideline on 1960s/70s Khmer rock icons, Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth (which I had never heard of because they would never be featured in the North American music scene, that's for sure). There is depth to the magazine - anthropological, historical, artistic and cultural depth. There is something that's missing in North American discourse.

I'm not a practicing musician (not that talented to begin with) but I know something of music. My tastes - like most normal people (even North Americans) - tend to run the whole gamut. I love Glenn Gould as much as I love David Gilmour/Nick Mason/Richard Wright's Pink Floyd (ie, before and after Roger Waters became too egotistical); I also love "discovering" old artists. And, since my taste in music is not just about music, I make a point of watching PBS's music broadcasts that lay in the outer fringes of pop culture because PBS has a bent for historical pedagogy - documentaries that trace the roots and innovations of music. It was through PBS that I was introduced to Van Cliburn (the American counterpart and compatriot of our Glenn Gould in the land of musical prodigy).

There is something deeply satisfying about reading MOJO besides its awareness expanding articles. There is a space for quiet and reflection where I come to appreciate artists that I myself wouldn't buy nor put on my playlist but simply for the depth being aware of them provide. It's the same with other forms of art and science - they just add to the overall picture of how things evolve and where they've come from. It's about learning where to look and what to look for; it's about expanding that space for quiet and reflection.


Saturday, 9 March 2013

At the precipice

Yesterday I watched two different version of the movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The 1951 version was concerned with the advent of atomic weapons and the rule of law; the 2008 version with the destruction of the environment and humanity's right to exist.

"At the precipice" is taken from the dialogue between Klaatu and Professor Barnhardt:

Professor Barnhardt: There must be alternatives. You must have some technology that could solve our problem.
Klaatu: Your problem is not technology. The problem is you. You lack the will to change.
Professor Barnhardt: Then help us change.
Klaatu: I cannot change your nature. You treat the world as you treat each other.
Professor Barnhardt: But every civilization reaches a crisis point eventually.
Klaatu: Most of them don't make it.
Professor Barnhardt: Yours did. How?
Klaatu: Our sun was dying. We had to evolve in order to survive.
Professor Barnhardt: So it was only when your world was threated with destruction that you became what you are now.
Klaatu: Yes.
Professor Barnhardt: Well that's where we are. You say we're on the brink of destruction and you're right. But it's only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve. This is our moment. Don't take it from us, we are close to an answer. (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2008)

I'm currently reading and thinking about Umberto Eco's literary criticism (Inventing the Enemy, 2012) where he's talking about the notion of (Romantic) "excess" in one of the essays, Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess, where he brings up the point that Victor Hugo's excess (in a sense of Klaatu's role in the 1951 movie):

Hugo presents himself here as the authorized interpreter of divine will, and seeks to justify each story he tells from the point of view of God. (Inventing the Enemy, p.112)

The first words that Klaatu speaks to the 1951 version of the Professor is whether he has faith, to which the Professor responds:

It isn't faith that makes good science, Mr. Klaatu, it's curiosity. Sit down, please. There are several thousand questions I'd like to ask you.(The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951)

As the movie dialogue above indicates (2008), Klaatu has taken a more nuanced role of an advocate (in the sense of the jurisprudence) than a judge. In a way, the notion of Jakob von Uexküll's umwelt has insinuated itself into the dialogue between Klaatu and the Professor; a semiosis has occurred:

The Umwelt theory states that the mind and the world are inseparable, because it is the mind that interprets the world for the organism. Consequently, the Umwelten of different organisms differ, which follows from the individuality and uniqueness of the history of every single organism. When two Umwelten interact, this creates a semiosphere.

Earlier in the Eco essay on Victor Hugo, he writes a succinct image of the guillotine that I think captures the notion of the oxymoron (in a sense of this unvoiced shift in perspective of Klaatu) that Romantic excess affects so well: Ninety-three the guillotine, even though it will kill the Revolution's purest hero, passes from the side of death to that of life and, in any event, stands as a symbol for the future against the darkest symbols of the past...

What is a ferocious, death-giving monster that promises a better life? An oxymoron...The oxymoron is "a rhetorical microcosm that affirms the substantially antithetical nature of the world"...(p.111)

I've been currently going through a dark time myself: self-doubt, frustration and dismay in seeing the maw between values I espouse and my innermost feelings (if I be brutally honest with myself). I've also been contemplating the Pauline distinction between the Law and the promise of divine grace (the "spirit" of the Law, as I understand it to be). As a hopeless intellectual these questions of self-doubt have been phrased in the language of semiotics while at the same time I've been seeking out comfort for my soul in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. It takes strength beyond my means to not try and panic, I can tell you.

This "interaction" between my umwelt and the world-as-it-is, this semiosis, is the source of my spiritual and existential crisis. This semiosis has sensitized me greatly to the "substantially antithetical nature of the world" and I can only whimper in fear because I realize the real world has often no neat tying of 'loose ends", no resolution other than what we decide to take away with us from our experiences.

I can see and contemplate the great wondrous beauty of the universe through my understandings of the principles of physics; I can see and contemplate the beauty in the abstract structures of the human language; in classical music; in fictional and non-fictional literary works; in art...I have felt and perceived the beauty of the world. But I am painfully aware that this is my umwelt and no one else's. It is the dark side and ignorance (in myself and others) that terrifies me.



Sunday, 3 March 2013

There are no atheists in foxholes

In his anthology of essays, Inventing the Enemy (2011), Umberto Eco writes in an essay titled, Imaginary Astronomies:

I would like to make it clear straightaway that in talking about imaginary geographies and astronomies I will not be dealing with astrology. The history of astrology has continually crossed paths with that of astronomy, but the imaginary astronomies and geographies I will be talking about have all now been recognized as entirely imaginary or false, whereas businessmen and heads of states still turn to astrologers for guidance. Therefore astrology is not a science, whether exact or otherwise, but a religion (or a superstition - superstition being other people's religions), and as such cannot be demonstrated as true or false. It is only a question of faith, and in questions of faith it is always better not to get involved, if only out of respect for those who believe.

The imaginary geographies and astronomies I will be discussing were created by people of good faith who explored the sky and the earth as they saw them - and though they were wrong, we cannot doubt their good intentions. Yet those who are still involved in astrology today know perfectly well they are describing a sky that is different from that explored and defined by astronomy, and still they continue to behave as though their conception of the sky were true. There can be no sympathy for astrologers' bad faith. They are not people who are deceived; they are deceivers. End of argument. (p. 134)

I read voraciously and have always been attracted by non-fictional books (encyclopedias, books and articles on maths, science, history, politics, linguistics, anthropology, religion - anything that captures my imagination, really) though I also read a bit of fiction and classic literature. Generously, I'm a connoisseur of good writing and well-thought-out notions and ideas; less generously, I'm a snooty and fastidious reader.

Recently, I've been experiencing some stress and (perhaps unfounded) fear for my personal dignity (if not my safety so much). And, this experience has got me seriously examining my own personal belief and value systems. I need not get into the details of my particular situation because that is not the point of this blog entry but what I do want to talk about is what I've come to realize (yet again) how we sometimes lose our way in the value systems we ostensibly (uncritically, perhaps) hold dear to our hearts but only (it seems) in instances where we are not called on to demonstrate them with our actions.

I've always had a spiritual drive and expectation, and as a younger man became a lay-reader in our local church (years ago now). Though I kind of lose my desire for religion after a series of questions of faith that I considered very important at the time with our parish priest (having to do with Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ), my will to spirituality has out-lasted my religion.

I am no saint, let me make that perfectly clear. My "spirituality" is decidedly secular humanistic though I grew up a Christian and in my darkest hours I do pray with the image of Christ in my thoughts and wish-desires.

My recent source of stress - as far as I can tell - has no need for finer distinctions of humanity and ideals. Appealing to highfalutin notions of human conduct and dignity seems (seemed) rather pointless because the bodily needs were/are rather more urgent and immediate than an abstract discourse (poverty and homelessness tends to do that). These facts made me realize just how easily divorced my supposed belief and value systems are from my innermost concerns - the cruel irony of the need to preserve my self-image and dignity in the face of a perceived threat is not lost upon me.

I've become again more spiritually-inclined and more down-to-earth in my expectations of self in relation to others in need. Nothing in my situation has changed (as far as I can tell) but my perspective has. I am like Christian (insofar as my character content of another character called, Ignorance, who expected an easy way to Paradise) in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress when he realizes that all is not well in his spiritual life:

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein; and, as he read, he wept, and trembled; and, not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, What shall I do? (opening of the book)

The "great burden" I carry is no less than what I admire in others but do not seem to be able to espouse whole-heartedly upon my own person. I've come to realize (to quote V for Vendetta):

...Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn't be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent. Last night I sought to end that silence. Last night I destroyed the Old Bailey, to remind this country of what it has forgotten. More than four hundred years ago a great citizen wished to embed the fifth of November forever in our memory. His hope was to remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives... [my emphasis]. (excerpt taken from V's TV speech scene)

What my recent contemplations have hopefully taught me is (in the words of V) "...if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror." This is less an indictment (though certainly it is that) but more a humbling realization that I've only myself to account to for my dear-to-heart values and beliefs. There is wisdom and compassion in the serenity prayer, I have found:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him

Forever in the next.
Amen. --Reinhold Niebuhr

I am no atheist; there is no shame in admitting that to myself.