Archive for August, 2011

August 9, 2011

Getting Lost

Because I liked his article in Lapham’s Quarterly on pica (which I wrote about here), I decided to read Daniel Mason’s novel The Piano Tuner.

My recommendation is not, repeat NOT, to read the author’s note at the end. Although it does contain some mildly interesting facts about Burmese history, it also tells the reader which parts of the novel are historical and which are invented. What this does is to reinforce the familiar, comfortable and above all false dichotomy between fact and fiction. Like, here are the things that are supposedly real (history) and false (invention), so when you close the back cover of the book you are fully back in the given, everyday world. This is a shame because the novel does such a good job of teasing the reader out of it, slowly and subtly charming the reader into a foreign world.

Edgar Drake, the main character, is a piano tuner in London at the end of the 19th century, during the British-Burmese wars. There is an unusual request by the War Office that he travel to the remote hills of Burma to tune a grand Erard piano. From the very beginning, the reader is tied to Drake. We want to know just as much as he does why someone would demand a grand piano be shipped from London to the jungle in Burma, how it was transported, what is it used for, how it is helping the British war effort (for the purposes of the book, we are loyal British subjects), etc.?

The book echoes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in that takes its time describing the trip out of Britain and into foreign, other, colonial, war-zone territory. But where in the Heart of Darkness the more we travel, the more strange and other the Congo becomes, in the Piano Tuner the opposite happens. Drake is a curious yet sensitive traveler. His eyes onto a new world open us up to reading about a exciting and beautiful world, that loses none of its enchantment as it becomes more familiar.

When we finally meet Anthony Carroll, the eccentric genius doctor in the British military at whose request both the piano and the piano tuner were brought to Burma, we have, along with Edgar Drake, forgotten that there is a war going on – we are lost. Now we have eyes for fascinating rituals, exotic plants, and people’s habits only. Drake’s and our transition can be seen in Mason’s language describing the makeup and paint the women and men in Burma use for their faces. When we first encounter it, there is a grotesque aspect, a slight revulsion, like upon hearing that some foreign culture eats a plant or animal we (in Victorian England) do not consider food. As the novels moves, Drake notices the make up no longer as ‘that thing they do,’ but rather in the way we would notice the difference between a woman wearing or not wearing mascara and what it means for example that she had just put it on. It goes from strange phenomenon to signifier.

Mason, of course does not leave it there. Without revealing too much, I’ll say that the war provides complications. But however things turn out for Mr. Drake, it is this aspect of leaving the familiar and getting lost that is the joy of reading this novel. Until, as I said, he goes on to ruin it all by writing an author’s note at the end.

August 7, 2011

For Hölderlin’s Soul continued

Far be it from me to decide which of the two philosophical positions on Hölderlin is correct. Nor do I feel comfortable giving some deep literary analysis of Hyperion, since it requires at least one more reading from me and a lot more thinking.

However, I want to give you my impressions of these philosophic interpretations of Hölderlin’s work. I should probably disclaim that I have studied a little Hegel and have a (perhaps bad) habit of reading his philosophy into many a text. I am always suspicious of a text that sounds overly Hegelian, because I’m afraid that I’m just reading my own mind back to myself. So when I kept running across Hegelian thought throughout Hyperion, I was worried.

That being said, let’s try to leave an overtly Hegelian critique aside for a moment. The Nietzschean side of this debate (and here that does not mean all Nietzscheans nor solely Nietzscheans, but rather those who subscribe to that interpretations of Hölderlin) seems to me to be an incredibly sensitive literary analysis of Hölderlin. Not only of the thought, which we think as the important thing for philosophy, but the beauty of the prose, the rhythm of the words and sentences. So not just the content, but the style. In addition to that, the Nietzscheans are sensitive to Hölderlin’s relationship with ancient philosophy. Hyperion (the novel) takes place in 18th century Greece, but in Greece nonetheless. And although that civilization is irretrievably gone, the lessons are there, in their philosophy, plays, sculptures, temples. These lessons for Hyperion (the main character) are not just markers of the past, but ideals towards which me must move to live in a better world (to over simplify things).

This account, however, suffers from a kind of ahistoricity in two ways. The first is that it seems to talk about Man in ancient Greece and Man today in the same way: these are questions of metaphysics, of fate and freedom, of tragedy and suffering, as if Hölderlin’s eyes upon Europe of the 18th century are our eyes upon our world are the eyes of Heraclitus upon his world. Surely, our civilization (if we may broadly say that Hölderlin’s civilization is ours) and the ancient Greek are different enough? Surely, some development has taken place in the world in the last two and a half millenia to question such conflation?

The second ahistoric aspect of Nietzschean accounts is that reading it, one would think that this is writing pulled out of a personal suffering and tragedy and could have been written in the 12th century as well as in the late 20th. This is some kind of rarefied, metaphysical thought! No mention of the revolutions that rocked Europe, of the problem of living in turbulent times, when an old (Medieval) world is crumbling much, much faster than the new (bourgeois) can form. Greece may be the site of old Hellas, but it was also the site of the nascent modern Greek nation state, a cause célèbre of the literary world of the day (Lord Byron famously went to fight with the Greeks). Tragedy and suffering are noble topics, but the thought that Hölderlin might have also been thinking of the question “What now that the Turks are gone?” does not enter into the Nietzschean equation. (And if the question seems particular to Greece, consider that the French revolutionaries and German idealists would have had to ask themselves the same.)


I need to read more accounts of the Hegelian interpretation of Hölderlin, because Lukacs botched this one. In his zeal to stick it to the National Socialist and their ideologues (this was written in 1934, after all), he reads Hölderlin like it’s a decorated version of a philosophy stuck half way between Rousseau and Marx. Or else Hyperion is a poetic narration of the history of the failed French Revolution. Literature is neither veiled philosophy, nor a glorified diary of events.

Here is a passage form Lukacs’ essay. “His Alabanda says of the bourgeois: “One does not ask if you want! Slaves and barbarians, you never want! It is not you we wish to improve, for this would be in vain! “We wish to take care only that you get out of the way of the victorious advance of mankind.” A revolutionary Jacobin in Paris in 1793 could have spoken such words amid the rejoicing of the plebeian masses. In Germany in 1797, such a view signified a despairing and disconsolate solitude, for there was no social class to which these words could be addressed, none in which they could have found so much as an ideological echo.
Surely, this is torturing the text to fit one’s interpretation. Hölderlin uses the word bourgeois not at all, and it all reads like it is Lukacs who would like speak those words in Paris in 1793 amid the rejoicing plebeian masses.

If the Nietzschean interpretation is too esoteric, Lukacs’ is too limiting. In attempting to situate Hölderlin’s thoughts at the time of the French Revolution, an admittedly crucial aspect his thought, Lukacs writes like the circumstances exhaust this text. Because Hölderlin was German (and not English like Shelley), and because the industrial revolution was more successful earlier in England than in Germany, Hölderlin’s thought is therefore more abstract and ends in pessimism. Or because Hölderlin could not comprehend the inherent contradiction in bourgeois society, he never developed a Hegelian understanding of post revolutionary reaction. As if just because they dealt with the same problem, they have to have arrived at the same conclusion.

It is clear that Lukacs is trying to wrest Hölderlin away from the Nazis and place him in the list of pre-Marxian leftists. This in itself is not a weakness. But there lacks a literary analysis, something to support the politico-ideological pronouncements, such as this. “But with all its defects it is one of the great paths which leads to the future and to the elaboration of the materialist dialectic.” Really, George, really?


As I said, my impulse in general is to side with the Hegelians, but I feel that the Nietzschean side has a better literary analysis of the novel. And even if I find something better than Lukacs, there is much to be learned from ‘the other’ side.

I leave you with a letter between two friends. Here is Hölderlin to Hegel in 1794.
I am certain that you have occasionally thought of me since we parted from one another with the watchword — Reich Gottes! [Kingdom of God] I believe that we would recognize each other throughout every metamorphosis with this watchword. I am certain that whatever you become, time will not efface this trait in you. I think that this will also be the case with me. Every trait that we love one another for is exquisite. And thus can we be sure of everlasting friendship. Otherwise, I often wish that you were nearby. You were so often my genius. I thank you very much. Only since our separation have I felt this so completely. There is still a good deal that I would like to learn from you, and I would also like to occasionally impart something of my own.
Writing letters, of course, is only makeshift, though it is something. Therefore, we should not neglect it altogether. Occasionally we must remind ourselves of how greatly entitled to one another we are.

August 6, 2011

For Hölderlin’s Soul

Sometime after he returned from France, in 1802, the German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin started to unravel. In 1803, one of his old school buddies from Tübingen wrote to another mutual school buddy.
The saddest sight I’ve seen during my stay here was that of Hölderlin. Since his journey to France, where he traveled on Professor Ströhlin’s recommendation with a completely false conception of what the duties of his position were to be, and whence he immediately returned again, since it appears that demands were made of him which he was incapable of fulfilling, and which were not compatible with his sensitivity — since this unfortunate journey, his spirit has become completely disturbed, and although he has proved capable of a few works, such as the translations from the Greek, he is otherwise thoroughly absent of spirit. The sight of him was unsettling to me: he neglects his appearance to the point of repugnance, and though his speech is less suggestive of madness, he has taken on the outward mannerism of those in such a condition. There is no hope of being able to restore him to health here.

The thing was that  there was not much hope for poor Hölderlin. He went crazy and basically stayed that way until his death in 1843.

I was prompted to read some of his stuff because I kept running across books and articles with titles something like Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Heidegger, or Hölderlin, Heidegger, Adorno or some such. So I read Hyperion, Hölderlin’s epistolary novel from 1797 or 1799 (it came out in two parts). And it is…well, it’s fantastic. I mean it’s got beautiful poetic language, passionate, moving passages, a passionate friendship, a tender love-affair, a fight for freedom (the novel takes place during the Greek rebellion against the Ottomans of 1770)…everything. It is also overtly philosophical and fully of truly profound thoughts on nature, man, freedom, etc. The other thing the novel is full of, is references to ancient Greece. This becomes relevant for all those philosophical papers I mentioned.

There are two diametrically opposed philosophical traditions, both claiming Hölderlin as their own. Let’s call them the Nietzscheans and the Hegelians. Freddy (Nietzsche) thought Holderlin a kindred soul, because they were both obsessed with ancient Greece and its philosophy, poetry, tragedy; they were both misunderstood in their respective times (or so Freddy thought, he was more popular than he knew), both went mad, etc. The personal similarities never end. Early on in his career, Freddy wrote poetry in honor of Hölderlin and scholarly essays about him that were poorly received partly because they were coming from him, partly because the subject was somebody who was on his way to be forgotten (or so it seemed in the 19th century).

Martin Heidegger, following Nietzsche (we’re putting him in that camp for our purposes here), also spent a lot of time reading and writing about Hölderlin. He gave a series of lectures in 1942 about Hölderlin’s poem The Ister, this being the ancient Greek name for the river Danube (at least the part downstream in the Balkans). Marty (Heidegger) fancied himself the greatest philosopher of all time, and the greatest expert on all things ancient Greek, so he deemed it appropriate to render judgment on previous thinkers. Here’s a passage from his Introduction to Metaphysics.
Of all the early Greek thinkers it is Heraclitus who, in the course of Western history, has suffered the most transformation along un-Greek lines, and yet who in recent years has provided the strongest impulse toward rediscovery of the authentic Greek spirit. Hegel and Hölderlin were both under the great and fruitful spell of Heraclitus, but with the difference that Hegel looked backward and drew a line under the past while Hölderlin looked forward and opened up the way to the future. Still different was Nietzsche’s relation to Heraclitus. Nietzsche was a victim of the current (and false) opposition between Parmenides and Heraclitus. This is one of the main reason why in his metaphysics he did not find his way to the decisive question, even though he understood the great age of Greek beginnings with a depth that was surpassed only by Hölderlin.

In a paper entitled Between Hölderlin and Heidegger: Nietzsche’s Transfiguration of Philosophy, the author quotes another Heideggerian scholar. “Föster writes that Heidegger ‘entered into a dialogue with the poet that continued throughout his life,’ whereby ‘Hölderlin represents the alternative to the entire metaphysical tradition that reaches its peak in Hegel’s system.'”

Which is a stunning pronouncement all on its own, you see, because the letter I quoted at the beginning was written to Hegel by another philosopher of German idealism, Friedrich Schelling (I know, they were all Friedrich, including Hegel). Hegel and Hölderlin were born a few months apart in 1770, and roomed together (along with the slightly older Schelling) in Tübinger Stift in the 1790s. Meaning that in one bedroom in the 1790s, the world contained one guy who was the pinnacle of an ‘entire metaphysical tradition,’ and one guy who represented its alternative. (One wonders: a well timed earthquake…)

Which is why there are people who want to claim Holderlin back into the Hegelian tradition. Like Georg Lukacs, the Hungarian philosopher and Marxist. He has a 1934 essay, in which he is trying to reclaim Hölderlin from the Nazis, since he had by then been revived and become a Nazi favorite.

For Lukacs, Holderlin was an unfinished Hegel. They were both swept in the fervor of the French Revolution and both dismayed by the Terror that followed it, and disappointed by Napoleon. (They also both translated Sophocles’ Antigone from ancient Greek, Hegel too being obsessed with the ancients.) Clearly, they were both trying to make sense of the new bourgeois world emerging in Europe at the time. But whereas Hegel overcame this problem (the only other person to have overcome this problem as well, according to Lukacs, is Balzac) and saw the Terror, Thermidor and Napoleon as necessary phases, Holderlin’s pure, aesthetic soul could not bear the defeat of the French Revolution, and he got lost in mysticism in his writing, and madness in his own life. Thus Lukacs.

To be continued…

August 4, 2011

The Birth of Dorian Gray

Alex Ross, otherwise the music critic for The New Yorker and author of the excellent The Rest is Noise, wrote a piece about Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray that is as informative as it is well written. Ross talks about how the novel and its author were tied, much to the detriment of the author at his public trial. Wilde defended himself at the trial from malicious and willfully naive accusations that Dorian Gray is autobiographical and hence proof of Wilde’s immorality. And while the attempts of the prosecution to equate Oscar and Dorian seem laughable to us today, a disturbing parallel between the work and the author’s life emerges. While we still today read and love the novel, during his lifetime, the novel ruined its author’s life. Much like the final scene in the novel where Dorian turns into a withered corpse, whereas the portrait returns to its initial youthfulness and beauty and remains such.

But that’s not why I’m writing this. I wanted to share with you a vignette Ross tells in his article.
“Dorian Gray emerged from the same dinner that insured the immortality of Sherlock Holmes. Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle dined together in London in August, 1889, as guests of Joseph Marshall Stoddart, the editor of Lippincott’s. Doyle, like so many others, came away dazzled by Wilde. “He towered above us all, and yet had the art of seeming to be interested in all that we could say,” Doyle recalled. Later that year, Doyle sent Lippincott’s his second Holmes tale, “The Sign of Four,” assigning a few Wildean traits to the great detective. (You can imagine Wilde saying, “I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation.”) Wilde, for his part, may have picked up some tricks from Holmes’s creator: parts of “Dorian Gray” are as gruesome as a police procedural.”

How great is that?

The Sign of Four was published in February of 1890, while Dorian Gray appeared in Lippincott’s in July of the same year.

Also, here is a page from Wilde’s handwritten manuscript of Dorian Gray, held at the Morgan Library in New York.

August 3, 2011

Punctuate Me!

To see how easy it is to put on one’s cultural blinkers and be unable to imagine other ways of living, one need only look at typography. How words are produced (writing, printing, typing), the various fonts they appear in, and the symbols that tie them together are things we take for granted. If you’d like to be disabused of this notion, have a look at Keith Houston’s blog Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation.

At first I would just tell you about because it is an extreme case of wonderful geekery, but the more I read the more I realized how much rich cultural tradition is hidden beneath each familiar symbol. I am just going to cover some points of some symbols he discusses in more detail.

Consider the ampersand. The & symbol started out as graffiti in Pompeii sometime around 79 AD. Shorthand for the Latin et, meaning and, in high brow circles was a different symbol: ‘⁊’. The ‘Tironian et’, named after Tiro, Cicero’s scribe and secretary, still exists in Irish Gaelic, but has been replaced everywhere else by ‘&’. But between its invention and us today, the ampersand took some deviations.


But if the symbol’s origins are ancient, its name is much more recent. According to Houston, it was included as the twenty-seventh symbol on tablets for children learning the English alphabet. Kids would recite the alphabet and when they got to the end they would say X, Y, Z, and per se AND. (Per se means by itself, distinguishing the symbol from the rest.) From and-per-se-and we derive ampersand.



Unlike the ampersand, we don’t know where the name octothorpe comes from. Other names for the symbol are ‘hash’, ‘pound’, ‘number sign’. We do know that the symbol derives from the Latin term libra pundo, meaning a pound on the scales, or a pound. English kept the second part of the phrase as the word that denotes weight, but gets its unit symbol from the first part of it. Hence 5lbs, lb being short for libra. The symbol ‘#’ also comes from that shorthand ‘lb’ since writing it quickly would result in the two upright lines being crossed twice to complete the letters.

Since then, the octothorope’s uses have been as varied as the theories of the word itself. Named for James Edward Oglethorpe; named to designate a village, where eight fields (octo in Greek) surround a central square (thorpe is a village in old English); named by Bell Telephone Lab engineers to confound foreign speakers who could not pronounce the diphthong ‘th’ in it; named after the outer eight points (for the octo part) and Jim Thorpe, an early Olympic gold medalist…Take your pick, nobody knows.



My favorite is the pilcrow. Says Houston “This is a pilcrow: ¶.” It’s that symbol that denotes the beginning of a paragraph. The pilcrow’s story itself is rather simple. The word is derived from the Greek word paragraphos (becoming pelagraphe, pylcrafte, and eventually pilcrow). But the symbol, although it looks like a reversed P, comes from the letter c, for capitulum (the other name for the symbol today), or little head, as in a new heading.

However, that straightforward story hides a much richer history and more far reaching consequences. Houston goes back to Homeric times and what writing was like then, when there WERE ONLY CAPITAL LETTERS, ANDTHEYWEREWRITTENWITHOUTSPACESORPUNCTUATION. Yeah, that says ‘and they were written without spaces or punctuation’. (Moreover, the sentences went both from left to right and right to left in alternating lines.) It was when Greek became the Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean world and foreigners had to interpret Greek texts that Aristophanes of Byzantium, the librarian of Alexandria, introduced punctuation to make it easier to read the text.

Even with his invention of three different dots called komma, kolon, and periodos (!), the Romans did not take to punctuation. It took Christianity for punctuation to really proliferate. And even then, punctuation was not put in by the author, but rather by the reader or the teacher to indicate to the student where to pause, where to take a breath, where to stop. Christianity also introduced spaces between words and lower case lettering. The also introduced the letter K at the beginning of a text (for kaput, meaning head) and c at each paragraph, as I said, meaning capitulum, or small heading.

The K fell out of use, but the c grew in importance. So much so that when a text was written, the scribe would leave space at the beginning of each paragraph for a separate person to come in and paint, in red, an elaborate letter c. This morphed into ‘¶’. Even after Gutenberg invented the press, the ¶ had to be written in by hand, only now, because printing quickly became cheap and easy, the people who painted the capitulum couldn’t keep up with the amount of books. The space was simply left blank, leaving us with the habit of leaving an indentation at beginning of paragraphs.

August 2, 2011

Yo-Yo and the Heart

Things are rarely simple. Even those simplest will be found complex in (at least) three ways. They have origins, precursors, stories of generation, a history; they can be broken down into parts, or certain aspects can be put in focus or privileged; if different cultures have it, it will vary in form and function – you can count on that.

So the yo-yo. I’ll tell you in a moment what prompted me to look this up, but right off the bat, the Wikipedia article on the yo-yo will complicate this simplest of toys. Certainly ancient, we don’t know how old it is exactly, but it dates at least back to 500 BC. One theory for the origin of its name is a language in northern Philippines, but this is disputed. Actually, even its names are multiple: yo-yo, bandalore, quiz, emigrette, joujou…

The other thing that struck me on the Wiki entry on yo-yos is that the toy has engendered its own jargon. There are tricks called ‘sleeper’ and ‘walk the dog.’ There is such a thing as off-string play (“in which the yo-yo is not attached to the string at all.” How does that work?), looping and freehand. And owing to the recent technical innovations, the engineering that goes into making various types of yo-yos is simply staggering.

There is a website dedicated to the history of the yo-yo: Lucky’s History of the Yo-Yo, by one Lucky Meisenheimer, M.D. There we read that “[d]ue largely to the efforts of Dale Oliver, the first modern  world yo-yo championships were held in 1992 and his leadership also resulted in the formation of the American Yo-Yo Association in 1993.” (We truly are the pinnacle of human civilization!)

yo-yo or bandalore in 1791

On the same website, we also find out that “[d]uring the late 18th century the yo-yo became very popular in France amongst the nobility.” And Lucky continues that “[b]eing a very fashionable toy of the French nobility during the time of the guillotine, when the heads of the nobility started being loped off [an image not unlike the yo-yo, I must interject here], many of the nobles wisely emigrated along with their yo-yos.”

This connection with the French Revolution brings me to the impetus of my inquiry into the yo-yo. I am reading Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Erotic Poems, which is a bunch of filthy (if deliciously so) love poems. The Venetian Epigram No. 37 goes like this:

“What an agreeable toy! A disc on a string, I unwind it, 
Casting it out of my hand, and it rewinds in a trice.
That’s how I seem to be casting my heart at this and that beauty:
But it is never long gone, bounces straight back, as you see.”

The yo-yo: a simple toy and metaphor for a fickle heart.