Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate

“Plurality should not be posited without necessity.”  — William of Occam


I added an extra hour to my commute this morning by taking a shortcut.  The pursuit of shortcuts is a common pastime in Atlanta — and no doubt in most metropolitan areas.  My regular path to work involves taking the Ronald Reagan Highway to Interstate 85, and then the 85 to the 285 until I arrive at the northern perimeter.  Nothing could be simpler, and if it weren’t for all the other cars, it would be a really wonderful drive.  But I can’t help feeling that there is a better way to get to my destination, so I head off on my own through the royal road known as “surface streets”.

Cautionary tales like Little Red Riding Hood should tell us all we need to know about taking the path less traveled, yet that has made no difference to me.   Secret routes along surface streets (shortcuts are always a secret of some kind) generally begin with finding a road that more or less turns the nose of one’s car in the direction of one’s job.  This doesn’t last for long, however.  Instead one begins making various turns, right, left, right, left, in an asymptotic route toward one’s destination. 

There are various rules regarding which turns to make, typically involving avoiding various well-known bottlenecks, such as schools and roadwork, avoiding lights, and of course avoiding left turns.  Colleagues and friends are always anxious to tell me about the secret routes they have discovered.  One drew me complex maps laying out the route she has been refining over the past year, with landmarks where she couldn’t remember the street names, and general impressions about the neighborhoods she drove through when she couldn’t recall any landmarks.  This happened to be the route that made me tardy this morning. 

When I told her what had happened to me, the colleague who had drawn me the map apologized for not telling me about a new side-route off of the main route she had recently found (yes, secret routes beget more secret routes) that would have shaved an additional three minutes off of my drive.  Surface streets are the Ptolemaic epicycles of the modern world.

A friend with whom I sometimes commute has a GPS navigation system on his dashboard, which changes the secret route depending on current road conditions.  This often leads us down narrow residential roads that no one else would dream of taking since they wouldn’t know if the road leads to a dead-end or not — but the GPS system knows, of course.  We are a bit slavish about following the advice of the GPS, even when it tells us to turn the trunk of the car toward work and the nose toward the horizon.  One time we drove along a goat path to Macon, Georgia on the advice of the GPS system in order to avoid an accident on S. North Peachtree Road Blvd. 

All this is made much more difficult, of course, due to the strange space-time characteristics of Atlanta which cause two right turns to always take you back to your starting point and two left turns to always dump you into the parking lot of either a Baptist church or a mall.

Various reasons are offered to explain why the Copernican model of the solar system came to replace the Ptolemaic model, including a growing resentment of the Aristotelian system championed by the Roman Catholic Church, resentment against the Roman Catholic Church itself, and a growing revolutionary humanism that wanted to see the Earth and its inhabitants in motion rather than static.  My favorite, however, is the notion that the principle of parsimony was the deciding factor, and that at a certain point people came to realize that the simplicity, rather than complexity, is the true hallmark of scientific explanation.

The Ptolemaic system, which places the earth at the center of the universe, with the Sun, planets and heavenly sphere revolving around it, was not able to explain the observed motions of the planets satisfactorily.  We know today was due to both having the wrong body placed in the center of the model, as well as insisting on the primacy of circular motion rather than elliptical route the planets actually take. 

In particular, Ptolemy was unable to explain the occasionally observed retrogression of the planets, during which these travelers appear to slow down and then go into reverse during their progression through the sky, without resorting to the artifice of epicycles, or mini circles, which the planets would follow even as they were also following their main circular routes through the sky.  Imagine a ferris wheel on which the chairs do more than hang on their fulcrums; they also do loop-de-loops as they move along with the main wheel.  In Ptolemy’s system, not only would the planets travel along epicycles that traveled on the main planetary paths, but sometimes the epicycles would have their own epicycles, and these would beget additional epicycles.  In the end, Ptolemy required 40 epicycles to explain all the observed motions of the planets.

Copernicus sought to show that, even if his model did not necessarily exceed the accuracy of Ptolemy’s system, he was nevertheless able to get rid of many of these epicycles simply by positing the Sun at the center of the universe rather than the Earth.  At that moment in history simplicity, rather than accuracy per se, became the guiding principle in science.  It is a principle with far reaching ramifications.  Rather than the complex systems of Aristotelian philosophy, with various qualifications and commentaries, the goal of science (in my simplified tale) became the pursuit of simple formulas that would capture the mysteries of the universe.  Whereas Galileo wrote that the book of the universe is written in mathematics, what he really meant is that it is written in a very condensed mathematics and is a very short book, brought down to a level that mere humans can at last contain in their finite minds.

The notion of simplicity is germane not only to astronomy, but also to design.  The success of Apple’s IPod is due not to the many features it offers, but rather to the realization that what people want from their devices is only a small set of features done extremely well.  Simplicity is the manner in which we make notions acceptable and conformable to the human mind.  Why is it that one of the key techniques in legal argumentation is to take a complex notion and reframe it in a metaphor or catchphrase that will resonate with the jurists?  The phrase “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” was, though bad poetry, rather excellent strategy.  “Separate but not equal” has resonated and guided the American conscience for fifty years.  Joe Camel, for whatever inexplicable reasons, has been shown to be an effective instrument of death.  The paths of the mind are myriad and dark.

Taking a fresh look at the surface streets I have been traveling along, I am beginning to suspect that they do not really save me all that much time.  And even if they do shave a few minutes off my drive, I’m not sure the intricacies of my Byzantine journey are worth all the trouble.  So tomorrow I will return to the safe path, the well known path — along the Ronald Reagan, down the 85, across the top of the 285.  It is simplicity itself.

Yet I know that the draw of surface streets will continue to tug at me on a daily basis, and I fear that in a moment of weakness, while caught behind an SUV or big rig, I may veer off my intended path.  In order to increase the accuracy of his system, even Copernicus was led in the end to add epicycles, and epicycles upon epicycles, to his model of the universe, and by the last pages of On the Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies found himself juggling a total of 48 epicycles — 8 more than Ptolemy had.

Drinking with the Immortals


There are various legends about drinking with the Immortals.  They typically involve a wanderer lost in the wilderness who is offered shelter by strange people.  He is brought close to the fire and given beer, or wine, or mead, depending on the provenance of the folktale.  As his clothes dry out, he is regaled by tales of ancient times and slowly comes to realize that his companions are not typical folk, but rather denizens from behind the veil.  He has fallen, through no merit of his own, into the midst of an enchanted world, and his deepest fear is not of the danger that is all around him, but rather that once the enchantment is disspelled, he will never be able to recover it again.

It occurred to me recently that I had such an experience about a year ago.  I was sent by my company to the Microsoft campus in Redmond to spend several days with the ASP.NET Team and other luminaries of the .NET world.

The names will mean nothing to most readers, but I had the opportunity to meet Bertrand LeRoy, Scott Guthrie, Eilon Lipton, and others to discuss the (then new) ASP.NET Ajax.  I had been painfully working through the technology for several months, and so found myself able to almost hold a conversation with these designers and developers.

On the final night of the event all the seminar attendees were taken to a local wine bar and had dinner.  As is my wont, I drank as much free wine as was poured into my glass, and began spinning computer yarns that became more and more disassociated from reality as the night wore on.  I’m sure I became rather boorish at some point, but the Microsoft developers listened politely, and in my own mind, of course, I was making brilliant conversation.

Even to those who know something of the people I was talking to, this might seem like no big deal.  I went drinking with colleagues in the same industry I am in — so what.  But for me, it was as if I were suddenly introduced to the people who make the rain that nourishes my fields and the sunlight that warms my days.  Microsoft software simply appears as if by magic out of Redmond, and like millions of others, day in and day out, I dutifully learn and use the new technologies that come out of the software giant.  To find out that there are actually people who design the various tools I use, and build them, and debug them — this is a bit difficult to conceive.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf reflects on Charles Lamb’s encounter with a dog-eared manuscript of one of Milton’s poems, filled with lines scratched out and re-written, words selected and words discarded:

“Lamb then came to Oxbridge perhaps a hundred years ago. Certainly he wrote an essay-the name escapes me-about the manuscript of one of Milton’s poems which he saw here. It was LYCIDAS perhaps, and Lamb wrote how it shocked him to think it possible that any word in LYCIDAS could have been different from what it is. To think of Milton changing the words in that poem seemed to him a sort of sacrilege.”

My own discovery that the things of this world which I consider most solid and most real — because they are so essential to my daily life — could have been otherwise than they are, was a similar moment of shock, tinged with fear. 

In a moment of anxiety during this sweet symposium, I leaned over to the person immediately to my right and confided in him my strange reflections.  He laughed gently, and dismissed my drunken observations about the contingent nature of reality.  I later found out he was the twenty-three year old developer of the ASP.NET login control, used daily in web applications around the world, when he inquired of me whether I had ever used his control, and what I thought of it.

The Price of Progress


dasBlog is the engine I have been using over the past year on my web site.  Besides its low cost (free as beer), and a tendency to be a reliable blog engine, I also like it because it uses XML files rather than a database to persist information.  The release version has been running on the .NET 1.1 Framework for quite a long while, and despite a teaser tag on their home site insisting that the new 2.0 version would be released in a matter of weeks, dasBlog 2.0 has actually taken a much, much, longer time to come out.

But now the wait is over, and I plan to upgrade to the newest version sometime later tonight.  As sometimes happens, this may entail the complete collapse of the site and the loss of all prior blog posts — but I’m keeping my fingers crossed and maintaining a positive attitude about it, for such is the price of progress.

Supposing that I am successful in migrating to the newest version, I don’t plan to post a review of the qualities of the new platform since, in this case, the medium is very much the message.

Meme Manqué


Pronunciation: n-‘kA
Function: adjective
Etymology: French, from past participle of manquer to lack, fail, from Italian mancare, from manco lacking, left-handed, from Latin, having a crippled hand, probably from manus
: short of or frustrated in the fulfillment of one’s aspirations or talents — used postpositively <a poet manqué>

Merriam-Webster Online


During my perusal of the August 27th New Yorker, I came across the word manqué in two different articles, which struck me as noteworthy as I don’t think I have come across this word in several years.  A quick search of the New Yorker archives indicates that besides these two recent uses,  one in a snarky article about Nicolas Sarkozy by Adam Gopnik:

“People close to Sarkozy like to say that he is an American manqué….”

 and the other in a fawning review of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film opus by Anthony Lane:

“This is not to say that the Italian was a novelist manqué.”

the word had been used in an April review of a Richard Gere film, and prior to that had not appeared in the pages of The New Yorker since September of last year, in a short story by Henry Roth.

Occasionally an unusual word achieves a brief period of fashionability due to its rarity, such as was the case with the term disestablishmentarianism, and its dopplegänger anti-disestablishmentarianism, a few years back.  Once it is recognized that such a word has become le mot juste in just too many instances, however, it quickly recedes back into obscurity, like boy bands and one hit wonders. 

Playing with The New Yorker archives reveals similarly suggestive, if not definitive, phenomenological gold about the way rare words become popular for a brief time, and then go underground for a year or more.  Try, for instance, a search on sartorial, zeitgeist, or pusillanimous.  A more interesting project, of course, would involve sifting through the archives of several high-brow publications and graphing the frequency of rare words.  What a memetic field day that would be.

Perhaps this is peculiar to me, but I feel sometimes that using a given word more than once in a blue moon is already an overuse.  Such is my feeling about swearing, which should be used judiciously in order to achieve maximum impact, as well as my feeling about obscure words.  Obscure words, used judiciously, demonstrate erudition and good taste.  Rare words, when abused, simply demonstrate boorishness, false eloquence, and a supercilious character, as well as a proclivity toward intellectual bullying.  That’s fucked up.

My sense that the obscure should be kept obscure does not pertain to words alone.  In the early 90’s I came across an anecdote while watching Star Trek: Next Generation called the frog and the scorpion, which was ascribed to Aesop.  In the version I heard, a scorpion asks a frog to take him across a river and after much deliberation and rationalization, the frog finally agrees.  Unfortunately, the scorpion does decide to sting the frog midstream, after all, and when the frog asks why, the scorpion replies, “It is my nature.”  The punchline is that they both drown.

Oddly I came across the same anecdote again, a few weeks later while watching Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia deliver a speech on the Senate floor.  It probably was over an important international event, but I only remember the anecdote and no longer recall what the anecdote was meant to illustrate.  What was interesting about Senator Byrd’s version is that he ascribed the story to Chaucer, rather than Aesop.

A while after that (was it months or years?) the anecdote came before me once again in another Star Trek franchise, Voyager, except this time it was described as a Native American myth and was told by the space-faring Indian Commander Chokote, and the protagonists were now a coyote and a scorpion rather than a frog and a scorpion.

A little research indicates that this particular anecdote may have originally been revived from its antique sleep in the movie The Crying Game, before it made its way through public policy papers, senate speeches, and finally into televised science fiction, where I came across it.

The first time I heard it, I found it charming. The second time, I thought it platitudinous.  The third time, I thought it was idiotic and vowed to boycott the next show, politician or foreign policy that attempted to leverage it in order to make a point.  Such is my nature.

Then again, I recall Benjamin Franklin’s prescription that once one has found a word that works, it is unnecessary to go out of one’s way to find synonyms in order simply to avoid overusing the word in a given piece of journalism or essay.  One should just reuse the word as often as one requires it — which is common-sensical advice, I must admit.

Coming Soon…


I’ve been stuck in a dilemma that many bloggers find themselves in.  I have been busy at work and can’t find the time to write anything.  And I’m not the only one.  Look at Steve Yegge’s blog.  He hasn’t written anything in about a year.  Of course he has a huge readership and I have almost none — which tempts me to just leave the blog fallow for a while. 

At the same time, what’s the point of paying ten dollars a month if I don’t say something?  As this thought occurs to me every few days, I start on the five or six ideas I have for a blog entry, but typically these ideas grow out of my control, and I find that I can’t start talking about a movie I like without at least discussing Aristotle’s Prime Mover, and I don’t want to do that without mentioning Heiddeger’s analysis of final and efficient causes in the Essay Concerning Technology, and so on and so forth…  Clearly, pretension is my Achilles heel.

Nevertheless, I need to write something, if only to get those fornicating monkeys off the top of my main page.

I considered posting an observational post, as many people do.  Just a few words about how I have been listening to such and such a song so what do you think about it please comment? — but this seemed a bit too pathetic.

Next, I thought of resorting to what many bloggers do when they run out of ideas.  They post about how they aren’t going to write anything for a while, which both informs readers of the situation and furtively counts as an actual post.

And then I came across this surfing blog, of which I am very fond for sundry reasons.  At this blog, the authors occasionally post about something they plan to write about but haven’t yet found the gumption to actually pen.  Perhaps the convention has been around for a while, but I have not come across it before.  It’s a brilliant notion.  So here goes … my first “trailers” post.

Aristotle In Love — in which the author contrasts the notion of efficient causes in ancient and modern times, as well as the way in which the ancient notion still exists in the attempt to find the cause of public works in private inspiration, and how this reveals an on-going concern with teleology and the metaphysics of essences — with a side-discussion of contemporary cinema.

Zombies III — in which the author attempts to extend his exploration of this cultural phenomenon from the perspective of privacy, with a further discussion of different notions of privacy over the centuries, revolving primarily around Kant’s treatment of the subject in his political essay What is the Enlightenment?

Hillary’s Knee — in which the author discusses the films of Eric Rohmer and his own fascination with the inner life of one of the most public figures in American culture.

Catch Twenty-Two — in which the author interweaves a discussion of war novels with the problem of threading deadlocks in software programming.  Hilarity ensues.

Why the Phantom of the Opera Is So Cool and The Cure is are Overrated — in which the author writes about some of the music he has recently been listening to.

The Bonobo, the Potato, and the Giant


Beth at Cup-Of-Coffey has a new entry about why she loves the Internet involving a video of hundreds of inmates at a filipino prison performing Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  It’s a testament to the human spirit, sort of, but more importantly it is a testament to the peculiar character of our modern world in which wonder can be inspired simply by clicking a link.

The New Yorker has an article about Bonobo apes — also known as hippie apes due to their gentle natures, compared to humans and chimps, as well as their sexual promiscuity — in which one of the leading researchers in the field comments, regarding field work:

“You always think there’s going to be something round the next bend, but there never is.”

My experience this week on the web has been quite the opposite.  The Internet is much better than I have been led to believe, and here are a few reasons why.

Conrad H. Roth, over at Varieties of Unreligious Experience, has a film-review of the 1966 documentary Africa Addio unlike any film review I have ever read.  The film itself is a disturbing and violent portrayal of the chaos of post-colonial Africa, but Conrad’s explanation and recommendation of the film raises it to the level of a dark portrayal of the human condition.  Conrad brings up the petite-tyrant Roger Ebert’s review, summed up in the words ‘brutal, dishonest, racist’, only to convince us not only of Ebert’s smallness of character but also how this basically accurate description of Africa Addio is part of what makes the movie great.  It is all this and more.

The Polyglot Vegetarian, who hadn’t posted anything since April, has finally blogged about the Potato.  PV has picked out a special niche in the blogosphere — he blogs eruditely about veggies, giving their linguistic and social history.  He makes the lowly noble.

If you liked The Da Vinci Code, or if you happened to prefer the original version by Baigent and Leigh, then you will certainly enjoy Raminagrobis’s explanation of “the much and justly maligned” Claude-Sosthène Grasset d’Orcet’s theories about how to decode Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel through the discovery of the proper uses of punning.

Finally, the Beta 2 of Visual Studio 2008 has just be released for download, as explained on Scott Guthrie’s blog.  In certain corners of the world, this is a fairly momentous event, but falling in such an interesting week, it is a bit underwhelming for me against the backdrop of dancing prisoners, darkest Africa, the bonobo, the potato, and the giant.

My Dark Lord Can Beat Up Your Dark Lord


Voldemort vs Sauron, who would win? 

hobbitsI’ve just recently picked up my copy of the seventh Harry Potter book and secreted it beneath a stack of Playboys.  I take it out occasionally and read it in the bathroom so Mrs. Ziffer won’t know what I’m up to.  For me, reading the adventures of the boy wizard is a secret vice — as all vices should be.

In the 60’s the U.S. had the Arthurian cycle — or at least the musical version of it — to serve as the prism through which its citizens interpreted the political world.  During the American Civil War, A Thousand and One Arabian Nights served much the same purpose.  During the American Revolutionary War, political leaders were guided by the Roman historians and able to quote Thucydides.  More recently, neoconservatives have attempted to revive interest in Thucydides as a template for forming political narratives, but facts on the ground have tended to discredit this project.  And in its place, we instead have … what?

The Dark Lord Sauron commands an army of tens of thousands, including the Nazgul and their witch-king.  He manifests himself as a far-seeing eye, and the mere mention of his name by the unwary draws his attention.  He can corrupt the souls of men.  In battle he drives his enemies before him with a wave of his hand. 

The Dark Lord Voldemort commands followers who disrupt sports matches, ripping up tents and setting off fireworks.  He uses three forbidden spells, the most powerful of which is a death spell that works when he is near his victim.  It works something like a self-reloading pistol.  It is not clear whether it can penetrate decent armor like kevlar or mithril.  Chances are that it cannot, since even common furniture has been known to deflect it.  It is also not a spell peculiar to him — he just seems more willing than most to use it.

In a no-holds-barred battle between the two, I’m not sure how Voldemort stands any chance.


Examining their respective nemeses only seems to muddy the waters further.  Frodo is armed with a magic dagger that detects the proximity of goblins and orcs.  With his short reach, however, it is only effective in close-quarters fighting, and Harry prefers to cast spells at a distance.  Frodo is also protected by a mithril coat of mail, an elven cloak, and the vial of Galadrial, which may grant him enough protection to close the distance between himself and Harry and put his dagger to use.  He prefers to use these defenses to flee from enemies, however, and appears to lack the martial skills to use his powerful defensive weapons effectively to overcome young Harry.  Again, the odds seem overwhelmingly to favor one combatant over the other.  A Patronum, Expelliarmus and Rictusempra spell should quickly bring Frodo to his knees.

Despite the fact that Frodo can be easily defeated by Harry, who is presented as a close match for Voldemort, who in turn is clearly out of the Dark Lord Sauron’s league, Sauron is ultimately defeated by the halfling, who by the transitive principle should be the weakest of them all.  How is this possible?

According to Jean-Francois Lyotard, this is an instance of a differend:

As distinguished from a litigation, a differend would be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments.  One side’s legitimacy does not imply the other’s lack of legitimacy.  However applying a single rule of judgment to both in order to settle their differend as though it were merely a litigation would wrong (at least) one of them (and both of them if neither side admits this rule).

While on their surface, both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings belong to the same narrative genre, the paradox above reveals that they in fact belong to different genres.  The regimens which determine the outcome of conflicts in these two series are incompatible, even though they co-exist and confirm a similar theme — good must overcome evil.  To apply the narrative rules of one to the other would confound this theme, and cause evil to overcome good.  In Harry’s world, Frodo would quickly be destroyed by the Avada Kadavra (he has neither magic nor the charm of a mother’s love, as far as we know), while in Frodo’s world, Harry would succumb to the power of the ring or simply be overcome by hordes of uruk-hai.

yoda The rules by which Harry is able to overcome Voldemort (I don’t mean to give away the ending — let us assume that this is where the story is clearly headed), and Frodo to defeat Sauron, are derived from two very ancient narratives about the nature of the conflict between Good and Evil.

According to one, good and evil are cosmic forces in conflict.  They are equal in power.  Ultimately good is intended to triumph, though this also entails many victories for the forces of evil along the way.  How goodness can triumph, when it is a power equal to the power of evil, is an open question.

According to the other, as enunciated by Plato, evil is a privation.  There is only The Good, while evil is simply a way of talking about distance from this Ideal.  Evil is nothing in itself; evil is the absence of goodness.

Christianity, while having officially adopted the latter cosmology, has in fact always vacillated between these two notions.  During times of little struggle, the Platonic viewpoint has tended to hold sway.  In times of trouble, however, the tendency to reify evil predominates, and in its wake Manichean cosmology holds sway.

The peculiarity of The Lord of the Rings lies in the placement of a Platonic regime within a Manichean narrative, and that the confirmation of this does not reveal itself until the end.  The struggle between  good and evil in Middle-Earth is stark.  The good are so very good, while the bad are so clearly evil.  The corruption of men, when it occurs with Lord Denethor and Saruman, is rarely subtle.  The redemption of King Theoden and Baromir, and the near-redemption of Gollum, are central moments in the story, and in each case is caused by the forces of light — by Gandalf, Merry and Pippin, and Frodo, respectively — as if redemption were a force which these characters emanated from their very being. 

The progress of the novel involves the Fellowship of the Ring moving through Middle-Earth and recruiting allies to a cause that is sure to fail.  The overwhelming power of the Dark Lord Sauron is always clear, so in what lies their hope?  How does a hobbit resist and defeat such an evil will?  This is only possible if the rules of conflict are Platonic rather than Manichean.  Sauron is everything that Frodo is not.  More accurately, Frodo is everything that Sauron is not, and he proves this by resisting the lure of the ring.  In the Lord of the Rings, all it takes to defeat evil is to deny evil any power. 

matrix In the Harry Potter novels, the reverse is the case.  What is required to defeat evil, in this narrative regime, is to recognize that Evil exists and to apply a more powerful force against it.  Harry recruits allies not to deny those allies to the Dark Lord.  Rather, he recruits allies in order to gather power — good power of course — that will be sufficient to overcome Voldemort’s reserves of evil force.  Moreover, unlike in Tolkien’s work, the powers involved are not based on disproportion, but rather on the similarlity in power between Voldemort and Harry, who carries part of Voldemort’s power in his famous scar.  The series builds, surely and inevitably, toward a final showdown (again, I don’t mean to give away the ending — let us merely agree that we understand the narrative rules upon which Harry Potter is built, the same rules upon which Star Wars is built, in fact, and go on from there) in which Harry must use this stolen power to defeat the powers of darkness — so unlike the burden of Frodo, who must carry Sauron’s power and refuse to use it.

We might go so far as to say that Harry Potter is a Manichean struggle in a Platonic world.  We are given glimpses of the family background that makes Voldemort the Dark Lord he is, as if to demonstrate that there are no evil people in the world, just misunderstood people.  We are given glimpses into the life of Snape, and the not always exemplary school career of Harry’s wizard father, demonstrating that the line between good and evil is not so clear as we would like to think.  Good people have their faults, while bad people (all the former dark-wizards who have changed their ways) have their virtues. 

At the same time, there is a thread running throughout the novel — more Manichean in nature — of a struggle between a wizarding aristocracy and a proletarian wizarding class, the muggle-lovers, which belies this therapeutic message.  Both Snape and Sirius Black are class-traitors not fully trusted by either side.  These issues of class resolve themselves into the more fundamental issue of whose side you will stand on when it is time to fight.  Are you with the forces of Evil?  Or are you with Us?

Harry Potter is a secret pleasure because, though I don’t like to admit it, I find Manichean struggles much more engaging than Platonic philosophizing.  Asking ‘What is the Good?’ is all good and well, but at the end of the day, I like a Hegelian Master-Servant struggle in which victory confirms the rightness of my cause and my self-worth.  In a Platonic world, the rightness of my cause is a separate matter from my success, and the only proper course of action, at the moment of true struggle, is to fulfill an obligation to Asclepius. 

It would be salutary to believe that world-affairs are guided by more high-brow narrative regimes than I am, but I am not so sure.  In the West we struggle against Islamo-fascists in our attempts to make the world a better place.  In Russia, Chechnyan separatists and their ilk in the Caucuses are the enemies of choice.  In China, they crush dissidents.  In the Middle East and other Islamic regions, they resist the modernizers and … well … us.  I sometimes wonder if the jihadis watch Star Wars and see their own aspirations and hopes acted out by Luke Skywalker.

In a similar vein, do young jihadis read Harry Potter as I do, in secret, in order to avoid public humiliation and, in their case, possible bodily violence?  If so, then perhaps we can overcome our differences through the recognition that we all have this one thing in common, an innate desire for Manichean struggles of self-affirmation.  And isn’t this how the first-steps toward peace are always made: by understanding what unites us, rather than what makes us different?

The Decemberists In Atlanta


I once heard the Yiddish storyteller and Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer describe his first experience with a cafeteria in New York City.  He was initially frustrated by the lack of help he received from the servers at the strange restaurant.  As he waited politely for a table, he saw scores upon scores of waiters and waitresses carrying trays of food around but they all ignored him when he requested their assistance.  ‘What a devilish restaurant,’ he thought, ‘with more staff than customers, and yet the service is still horrible.’

Something similar may have gone through Colin Meloy’s mind when he and his band, The Decemberists, performed at Chastain Park this past Friday.  Whereas at many venues the audience is there to listen to the performers, at Chastain the band is very much there to entertain the audience.  People typically arrive half-an-hour after the show has started.  They bring in their own food and spirits; they dine and converse throughout the show.  The fifty or so tables set up in the area immediately before the stage reinforce this casual atmosphere, since some of the audience can even turn their backs to the band in order to better carry out their convivial discussions.

My hope is that The Decemberists were not offended by this or took it for a lack of appreciation.  At a certain point Meloy even walked through the diners in the pit and sampled some brie from one of the tables.  He seemed to be in a good mood, and the only reason to think otherwise is the brevity of the main set, which lasted only a little over 70 minutes.  This may have been due, however, to the fact that there was no opening act and the show had to be coordinated with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which performed backup on many of the songs.

The Decemberists are an Indie band (a term often used to describe something non-mainstream — I’m not sure what else it is meant to encapsulate since they are currently on a major label.  They are also said to be a folk band, though I am not sure in what way, other than that in some songs an acoustic guitar predominates (for instance in Red Right Ankle, which I’m listening to, now) and that most songs involve esoteric narratives sung from the point of view of street urchins, nineteenth century soldiers and dissolute aristocrats.

My mother was a Chinese trapeze artist
In pre-war Paris
Smuggling bombs for the underground.
And she met my father
At a fete in Aix-en-Provence.
He was disguised as a Russian cadet
in the employ of the Axis.

My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist

I don’t follow rock reviews well enough to describe the music, itself, which is beautifully melodic and filled with complex and occasionally obscure instrumentation.  I think coming up with terms to describe rock sub-genres must be a bit like inventing terms to describe wines.  To my palate, The Decemberists taste like summer fruit, with overtones of oak casks and tobacco, as well as a hint of wet dog.  What strikes me most about the songs is the beauty of the lyrics, which typically are imbued with a nineteenth century romanticism and filled with a similarly stylized diction, as well as surprising inversions and exotic, near-hysterical rhyming schemes.

Medicating in the sun
pinched doses of laudanum
longing for the old fecundity of my homeland
Curses to this mirage!
A bottle of ancient Shiraz
a smattering of distant applause
is ringing in my poor ears

On the old left bank
my baby in a charabanc
riding up the width and length
of the Champs Elysees

If only summer rain would fall
on the houses and the boulevard
and the side walk bagatelles it’s like a dream
with the roar of cars
and the lulling of the cafe bars
the sweetly sleeping sweeping of the Seine
Lord I don’t know if I’ll ever be back again

The Legionnaire’s Lament

The lyrics are also overflowing with words one needs to look up.  What is a charabanc, or a bagatelle, or an infanta, palanquin, gingham, corncrake or taffeta?  The esoteric character of the lyrics, far from making the songs remote, make them more accessible since all one has to do to enjoy them is to agree to play along.  The experience is a bit like a graduate seminar in which one at first feels unqualified to participate — after a while, one realizes that no one is really qualified to participate and that all that is necessary to play is to learn a few technical terms and be willing to follow the conversation wherever it goes.  As an added bonus, a conversation with The Decemberists takes you across a field of Dickensian fancies, spy novels, turn of the century adventure tales, and on occasion, in such songs as Los Angeles, I’m Yours and Sixteen Military Wives, even the contemporary world.

Finally, unlike many popular bands where memorable refrains are the most salient aspect of the songs, for me the most memorable aspect of The Decemberists are the wonderful images their songs evoke.  For instance, from Los Angeles:

There is a city by the sea
A gentle company
I don’t suppose you want to
And as it tells its sorry tale
In harrowing detail
Its hollowness will haunt you
Its streets and boulevards
Orphans and oligarchs it hears
A plaintive melody
Truncated symphony
An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore,
Los Angeles, I’m yours.

… from California One:

And the road a-winding goes
From golden gate to roaring cliff-side
And the light is softly low as our hearts Become sweetly untied
Beneath the sun of California one.

Take a long drown with me of California Wine…

… and from Summersong:

My girl, Lenin in curls
Lips parting like a flag unfurled
She’s grand, the bend of her hand
Digging deep into the sweep of the sand

Despite a forecast of summer rains, the weather was fair throughout the evening at Chastain, and as the sun set we watched bats flitting overhead.  The band opened with The Crane Wife 1 & 2 and followed this with Los Angeles, I’m Yours.  At the same time, my wife and I opened with some Barefoot California Chardonnay (perhaps the same wine The Decemberists sing about in California One?), accompanied by salami, butter and asiago sandwiches on homemade bread.  Next we had a not-so-ancient shiraz paired with a greek salad made with rotini, cherry tomatoes, grilled chicken cubes, feta and a balsamic vinaigrette.  I think The Decemberists were playing Perfect Crime #2 and The Bagman’s Gambit while we were eating our salad, but I can’t be sure.  The band continued with The Infanta and We Both Go Down Together, while Mrs. Z and I continued with a double bock from Munich (we had both recently read Tim Powers’s The Drawing of the Dark in which this brew plays a central role in the survival of Western Civilization)The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra had made the earlier pieces interesting, but with the two following arrangements for Odalisque and The Tain, the audience had the opportunity to hear something transcendent.  Following I Was Meant For The Stage, the ASO left the stage, as did The Decemberists.

The audience was a bit surprised at this.  The sun had only just gone down.  Perhaps we had done or said something wrong?  Or perhaps the orchestra simply had to get home early.  The crowd, previously demure and appearing uninterested, finally woke up and cheered the band to the degree it deserved for such a fine, if somewhat brief, show.  The Decemberists generously came out again and performed what I think is one of their best songs, Sixteen Military Wives.

Fifteen celebrity mimes
Leaving their fifteen sordid wretched checkered lives
Will they find the solution in time
Using their fifteen pristine moderate liberal minds?

Eighteen academy chairs
Out of which only seven really even care
Doling out a garment to five
Celebrity mimes, they’re humbly taken by surprise
Cheer them on to their rivals

Cause America can; and America can’t say no
And America does, if America says it’s so,
It’s so …

A clearer expression of American exceptionalism I have never heard.  The night ended with a furious and participatory rendition of The Mariner’s Revenge Song in which we had an opportunity to hear the sweetness of Jenny Conlee’s singing as she stepped out from behind the organ to strap on an accordion.  

The Decemberists departed the stage for the second time that evening and as the audience began chanting, once again, for more, the stage hands were abruptly sent out to send a clear message that the evening was over.  It reminded me of something my grandfather used to say when guests had overstayed their welcome.  “Come on, honey.  We ought to go to bed.  These people obviously want to go home.”

You can hear some of The Decemberists at their myspace site here. In addition, they did a recording for Austin City Limits a few days ago, which should air fairly soon.

Never Mark Antony

“The past is a foreign country,” as Leslie Poles Hartley pointed out, but they don’t always do things differently there.  It is a peculiar feeling, especially to one who views history through the dual prisms of Heidegger and Foucault, to find the distant past thoroughly familiar.  Such is my experience in reading Elizabethan poet John Cleveland’s Marc Antony, in which the refrain is both trite and profound, and perhaps only matched in this characteristic by Eliot’s refrain from The Lovesong of J. Alfred Proofrock, as well as a few of the better tracks off of Bob Dylan’s Desire.

Whenas the nightingale chanted her verses
And the wild forester couch’d on the ground,
Venus invited me in the evening whispers
Unto a fragrant field with roses crown’d,
Where she before had sent
My wishes’ complement;
Unto my heart’s content
Play’d with me on the green.
Never Mark Antony
Dallied more wantonly
With the fair Egyptian Queen.

First on her cherry cheeks I mine eyes feasted,
Thence fear of surfeiting made me retire;
Next on her warmer lips, which, when I tasted,
My duller spirits made me active as fire.
Then we began to dart,
Each at another’s heart,
Arrows that knew no smart,
Sweet lips and smiles between.
Never Mark Antony
Dallied more wantonly
With the fair Egyptian Queen.

Wanting a glass to plait her amber tresses,
Which like a bracelet rich decked mine arm,
Gaudier than Juno wears whenas she graces
Jove with embraces more stately than warm,
Then did she peep in mine
Eyes’ humor crystalline;
I in her eyes was seen
As if we one had been.
Never Mark Antony
Dallied more wantonly
With the fair Egyptian Queen.

Mystical grammar of amorous glances;
Feeling of pulses, the physic of love;
Rhetorical courtings and musical dances;
Numbering of kisses arithmetic prove;
Eyes like astronomy;
Straight-limb’d geometry;
In her arts’ ingeny
Our wits were sharp and keen.
Never Mark Antony
Dallied more wantonly
With the fair Egyptian Queen.

History Blinks

Concerning history, Pascal wrote “Le nez de Cléopatre: s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé.”  Numistmatics have recently begun to challenge this precept, however, with the discovery of less flattering profiles of the Egyptian queen.  Earlier this year, academics at the University of Newcastle announced that by studying an ancient denarius, they arrived at the conclusion that the Queen of the Nile was rather thin-lipped and hook-nosed.  Looking at pictures of the denarius in question, however, one cannot help but feel that perhaps the coin itself has undergone a bit of distortion over the years.

Given that history distorts, it seems peculiar that we would place so much faith in the clarity of twenty-twenty hindsight.  Perhaps this is intended as a contrast with the propensity to error that befalls us when we attempt proclamations of foresight.  Yet even the clarity of hindsight regarding recent events is often, in turn, contrasted with the objectivity achieved when we put a few hundred years between ourselves and the events we wish to put under the investigative eye.  Is there an appropriate period of time after which we can say that clarity has been achieved, shortly before that counter-current of historical distortion takes over and befuddles the mind, like the last beer too many at the end of a long night?

Looking back is often a reflexive act that allows us to regret, and thus put away, our past choices.  Usually, as Tolstoy opines in his excursis to War and Peace, distance provides a viewpoint that demonstrates the insignificance of individual actions, and the illusory nature of choice.  It is only in the moment that Napolean appears to guide his armies over the battlefield to certain victory.  With the cool eye of recollection, he is seen to be a man merely standing amid the smoke of battle giving instructions that may or may not reach their destinations, while the battle itself is simply the aggregation of tens of thousands of individual struggles.

And yet, in the cross-currents of history looking forward and historians looking backward, one occassionally finds eddies in which the hand of history casts our collective fates with only a handful of lots.  Such an eddy occurred in late 2000, and, in retrospect, it changed the face of the world.  With an oracular — and possibly slightly tipsy — pen, the late Auberon Waugh was there to capture the moment for posterity:


Many Europeans may find it rather hurtful that the United States has lost all interest in Europe, as we are constantly reminded nowadays, but I think it should be said that by no means all Americans have ever been much interested in us. Only the more sophisticated or better educated were aware of the older culture from which so many of their brave ideas about democracy derived.

Perhaps the real significance of the new development is that Americans of the better class have been driven out of the key position they once held, as happened in this country after the war, leaving decisions to be made by the more or less uneducated. We owe both classes of American an enormous debt of gratitude for having saved us from the evils of Nazism and socialism, and we should never forget that. It is no disgrace that George W. Bush has never been to Europe; 50 per cent of Americans have never been abroad. They have everything they need in their own country, but their ignorance of history seems insurmountable.

Everything will be decided in Florida, but it is too late to lecture the inhabitants about the great events of world history which brought them to their present position in world affairs. Florida is a strange and dangerous place to be. It has killer toads and killer alligators. An article in the Washington Post points out that it is also the state where one is most likely to be killed by lightning. Most recently a man in south central Florida was convicted of animal abuse for killing his dog because he thought it was gay. The state carried out a long love affair with the electric chair which it stopped only recently, and somewhat reluctantly, in the face of bad publicity when people’s heads started bursting into flames.

George W. Bush’s considerable experience of the death penalty in Texas may help him here, but I feel we should leave the Americans to make up their own minds on the point. If we had a choice in the matter, I would like to think we would all choose the most venerable candidate, Senator Strom Thurmond (or Thurman if you follow caption writers in The Times) who is 97 years old. If the other candidates cannot reach a decision by Inauguration Day on January 20, he will swear the oath himself. These young people may have many interesting features, of course, and Al Gore’s hairstyle might give us something to think about, but one wearies of them after a while.


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