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.


Excursis on Deception


The Renaissance theories about eyes and pneuma depend on a natural relation between the eyes and the underlying physical world.  For instance, a person could not give someone the evil eye simply by painting their own eyes with pigment.  The cause of the affliction must lie in the nature of the person who passes on this curse, and not in some extraneous cause.   Similarly, the eyes of the beloved must really transmit something of her soul through love’s arrows in order to ensorcle the lover.  In this sense, pneumatic theories are natural theories.

In my readings for the preceding blog, however, I came across a curious origin for the name of the belladonna plant.  According to some sources, the belladonna, an herb of the nightshade family, was once used as a cosmetic to dilate women’s pupils, which was believed to make them more attractive to men.  The belladonna’s name, consequently, is ascribed to its association with beautiful women.

Deh, bella donna, che a’ raggi d’amore
ti scaldi, s’i’ vo’ credere a’ sembianti
che soglion esser testimon del core

Ah, fair lady, who warmest thyself in the rays of love,
if I may trust to looks
which are wont to be witnesses of the heart

–Dante, Purgatorio XXVIII

The practical power of the belladonna, in effect, replaces a spiritual theory of love with a psychological one, for the eyes no longer mirror the soul but instead can be manipulated and enhanced by other means.  What is given by nature is transformed by art into something other, and the presuppositions about natural relations are undermined in the process, much as in the modern world, breast augmentation is preceived as displacing natural beauty with an artificial conception of what is beautiful.  The analogy is sometimes drawn with the binding of women’s feet in China, a practice that was propelled by a cultural desire on the part of certain men for small feet as well as coercion by women who had already undergone the grueling procedure.

The case with foot-binding may be something different, however, since the goal in this case is not to make one thing appear to be something it is not, but which is also natural, for instance transforming small eyes into big eyes, but rather to transform one natural thing into something else that is unnatural, and culturally conditioned.  Exceptionally large eyes, while unusual, do occur in nature, whereas feet folded over on themselves do not.  Thus the former is an act of deception, while the latter, technically, is not.

For Aristotle, the senses can never be deceived.  In On the Soul III:3 he states that “sensations are always true.”  To explain deception, then, he extends the faculty of imagination beyond something that is merely present in revery, and instead makes it a part of everyday experience.  To make this distinction between sense and imagination at the end of III:3, Aristotle draws on a distinction he made previously between special objects of sense and incidental objects of sense.  As an illustration (which is then used in several other works) Aristotle contrasts the patch of white that we might see in the distance with the son of Diares (the son of Cleon is sometimes also used in these illustrations).  The son of Diares is the incidental object of sense, while the patch of white is what we actually see.  While we might be in error about the former, we cannot be so about the latter.

Perception of the special objects of sense is never in error or admits the least possible amount of falsehood.  That of the concommitance of the objects concomitant with the sensible qualities comes next: in this case certainly we may be deceived; for while the perception that there is white before us cannot be false, the perception that what is white is this or that may be false.

Aristotle makes the imagination an intermediary between sensation and thought, functioning both as a high-level kind of sensation, or as something that often accompanies sensation, as well as a low-level kind of thinking.  Most interestingly, he ascribes this faculty of pseudo-thought to animals.

And because imaginations remain in the organs of sense and resemble sensations, animals in their actions are largely guided by them, some (i.e. the brutes) because of the non-existence in them of mind, others (i.e. men) because of the temporary eclipse in them of mind by feelings or disease or sleep.

tr. J.A. Smith

Contemporary biology supports the belief that animals not only have the faculty of imagination, and so are capable of being deceived, but goes further in suggesting that they also have the capacity to be deceivers.  In their book, How Monkeys See The World, Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth provide empirical evidence about the mental lives of monkeys, apes, and other species, including their ability to mislead others, even without the ability to introspect, which is the core faculty that allows humans to form notions about the inner lives of other people, and in turn allows humans to present themselves in ways that manipulate those inner lives.

The behavior and vocal signals of many different species often function to deceive or mislead others.  A review of the evidence, however, raises doubts about the flexibility of animal deception and provides little evidence for the attribution of mental states to others.  Great tits, for example give apparently deceptive alarm calls at feeding perches, and they are skillful enough to vary their false alarm calls depending upon who is nearby. If the birds at the feeding perch are lower ranking than the signaler, false alarm calls are rarely given, presumably because the caller can simply supplant his rivals by approaching.  When higher-ranking birds are present and a supplant is not possible, however, lower-ranking birds do give false alarm calls (Moller 1988).  There is, then, some flexibility in the use of deceptive alarms by great tits; however, the limits of great tit deception are equally striking.

This behavior suggests Nietzsche’s analysis of the origins of ressentiment, through the exercise of which Nietzsche’s mass men are able to overcome his nobles since the latter are incapable of duplicity or even of understanding it.  Ressentiment is a tool that allows not only for the levelling of society, but also allows the weak of Nietzsche’s philosophy to overcome the strong using mendacity and illusions.  The power of ressentiment comes from the ability to shape the minds of others as well as the drive to do so.  In animals, however, this special faculty seems to be absent.  According to Cheney and Seyfarth, manipulations of this sort only affect behavior, not thoughts.

We have no evidence, for example, that the birds use any other signals to deceive each other or that they use deceptive signals in any other social context.  Even in the case of nonhuman primates, there is little evidence that individuals ever act to manipulate each others’ beliefs, as opposed to each others’ behavior.

Perhaps the power of the belladonna, unlike that of Dante’s bella donna, is of a similar kind for, as Cheney and Seyfarth point out, the limits of great tit deception are striking.

Of Zombies (Part II)

Before using zombies as a metaphor for the dehumanizing treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, Slavoj Zizek drew attention to a significant but often overlooked characteristic of zombies [1992]:

To a connoisseur of Alfred Hitchcock, this image instantly recalls The Birds, namely the corpse with the pecked-out eyes upon which Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy) stumbles in a lonely farmhouse, its sight causing her to emit a silent scream.  When, occasionally, we do catch the sparkle of these eyes, they seem like two candles lit deep within the head, perceivable only in the dark: these two lights somehow at odds with the head’s surface, like lanterns burning at night in a lonely, abandoned house, are responsible for the uncanny effect of the “living dead.”

The eyes of the undead are typically turned up so the irises are hidden and only white is shown (or sometimes the irises are even blotted out completely by the noxious fluid that animates the zombie).  This blankness of expression emphasizes the lack of an inner fire, as well as an incongruence between what zombies once were and what they have become. 

Contrast this with the eyes of the Afghan girl above, captured by a National Geographic photographer’s camera in 1985, which seem to overflow with the story of her life.

Zizek plays on this common association of the eyes with the soul to draw a connection between the empty eyes of the undead and the windows of an abandoned house.  The origin of this perceived affinity between eyes and souls is difficult to track down, however.  William Blake observed that “This life’s dim windows of the soul / Distorts the heavens from pole to pole.”  This in turn appears to be a reference to an older English folk saying, The eyes are the windows of the soul or, alternatively, The eyes are the windows to the soul, which the OED traces back to the sixteenth century.  Yet we also find a variation of this proverb in French, Les yeux sont le miroir de l’ame, which can loosely be translated as “The eyes are a reflection of the heart.” turns up Das Auge ist ein Fenster in die Seele as a German proverb, but erroneously ascribes it to the Bible. 

Rather than the Bible, the connection may lead back to ancient greek psychology.  In the Timaeus, Plato propounds a theory of vision involving both an inner fire and an outer fire created by the Demiurge.   Following Empedocles, Plato states that the inner fire lies behind the eyes, and in the act of perceiving emits rays that reach out, Superman-like, to touch the object being perceived.  At the object, the rays carrying the inner fire co-mingle with the light around the thing perceived and return this mixed light to the eyes and to the perceptive soul. 

In On Sense and the Sensible, Aristotle rejects his master’s notion of an inner fire, among other reasons because he finds it unnecessary.  Rather than a fire going out and then coming back in, Aristotle proposes that light from the object simply enters the eye, as we believe today.  He points out the mistaken notion that the visual organ is made of fire (natural science in the ancient world always revolved around the four elements) has its source in the bright lights one sees when one presses a finger against the eye.  Centuries later, Isaac Newton describes a similar experiment he self-inflicted by pushing a stick against his own eye, to see what would happen.

Aristotle proposes that the eye, in particular the pupil, is made of water rather than fire, for it has this particular characteristic of water: it is transparent.  Instead of serving as an active organ of attention, shooting out rays towards the world, the eye is a passive organ that receives impressions of color and magnitude which it passes to the soul, forming an impression of the sensible forms upon the soul as a signet ring forms an impression upon a piece of wax.

There must, therefore, be some translucent medium within the eye, and, as this is not air, it must be water.  The soul or its perceptive part is not situated at the external surface of the eye, but obviously somewhere within: whence the necessity of the interior of the eye being translucent, i.e. capable of admitting light.

In On the Motion of Animals and On the Generation of Animals, Aristotle outlines a physical theory of pneuma, a fine substance which permeates the body and carries sense impressions to the heart, which is the organ of the sixth sense (an organ he earlier denied  exists in On the Soul), or the common sense.  This pneumatic theory was further developed by Aristotle’s disciples, then by the Stoics, and eventually made its way into Renaissance psychology.

In his 1984 study of Renaissance phantasmic pneuma, Eros and Magic, Ioan Couliano surveys the problem of pneumatic infection through the eyes.  On the one hand, this takes the form of the evil eye, in which a diseased eye or an eye filled with malice can infect a person through the sensory organ and pneuma, thus taking over the sensus communis and causing a wasting away of the infected victim.  On the other, it takes the form of romantic infatuation, in which the beloved’s image takes over the lover’s soul and, when the love is unrequited, causes a similar wasting away of the victim. This erotic phenomenon led the poet Giacomo da Lentino to ask, “How can it be that so large a woman has been able to penetate my eyes, which are so small, and then enter my heart and my brain?”  Following the Platonic theory of ingneous optical rays, French poets identified this with fleches d’amour, an image which still persists in modern culture, though out of context, as Cupid’s arrows.  In its proper context, we can better understand Leonardo da Vinci’s observation “that the eyes of virgins have the power to attract the love of men.”

Circulating through the same pneumatic passage in which contagion of the blood is spread are images that, in the mirror of common sense, are changed into phantasms.  When Eros is at work, the phantasm of the loved object leads its own existence, all the more disquieting because it exerts a kind of vampirism on the subject’s other phantasms and throughts.  It is a morbid distension of its activity which, in its results, can be called both concentration and possession: concentration because the subject’s entire inner life is reduced to contemplation of one phantasm only; possession, because this phantasmic monopoly is involuntary and its collateral influence over the subject’s psychosomatic condition is highly deleterious.

— Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, tr. Margaret Cook

All the foregoing has assumed that the affinity between eyes and souls is a cultural artifact.  An alternative case can be made that the cultural function of the eyes is actually a side-effect of how we see the world.  Studies of the brain indicate that the interpretation of other people’s emotional states tend to concentrate on the eyes, and a great deal of our brain capacity is devoted to this particular task.  The amygdala, a part of the brain connected to the visual cortex and responsible for regulating fear reactions, has been shown to respond more strongly to larger (fearful) eye whites than to smaller (happy) eye whites. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Arthur Arun, a New York psychiatrist, has performed experiments demonstrating that simply encouraging people to stare into each other’s eyes for a length of time can instill feelings of attraction. 

The proverb the eyes are the windows to the soul may mask a physicalist truth, that the eyes are not a metaphor for the soul, but rather the soul is a metaphor for the eyes.  In the eyes we see the essence of another person: their emotions which over time become a model of our expectations of how they will respond to us.  The eyes are a touchstone allowing us to project thoughts and beliefs upon other people.  We introspect to triangulate our beliefs, eye expressions, and emotions, and from this matrix try to determine if another person responds as we would, or as we would like.  We look to the eyes to determine a person’s depth of emotion, and consequently their depth of spirit.  And when those eyes are empty, there is no longer anything present to project upon or interpret.


As no part, if it participate not in soul, will be a part except in an equivocal sense (as the eye of a dead man is still called an ‘eye’), so no soul will exist in anything except that of which it is soul….

On the Generation of Animals, tr. Arthur Platt

Of Zombies (Part I)

Asking the question “What is a zombie?” raises methodological issues which must be addressed before any attempt to answer the question may proceed.  For instance, it must be determined what kind of zombie we are trying to define: voodoo zombies, movie zombies, philosophical zombies, some other kind of thing called a “zombie”.  We might also want to arrive at a definition that covers all these various sorts of zombie.  Additionally, we need to concern ourselves with how we should go about determining what a zombie is.  We might follow a natural language philosophy, in which case we would replace the question “What is a zombie?” with the semantic question “What do we mean when we say zombie?”  We might, on the contrary, decide that we want to determine the deep meaning of the phenomenon of zombies, in which case we replace “What is a zombie” with the structuralist question “What is the cultural function of the zombie?”  Both of these questions have empirical, hence verifiable, procedures for persuing their respective questions.  We might also pursue a non-verifiable manner of determining what a zombie is.  To find out what a movie zombie is, we might ask George A. Romero what he intended his zombies to be.  We might also take the tack that the author is unreliable in matters such as this, and so a true revelation of the deep meaning of zombies would require that we ask anyone but the auteur what zombies represent. 

One tendency in evaluations of the undead is to discover a political meaning in the zombie phenomenon.  In doing so, the intent isn’t simply to show that there is a political dimension to zombies, but rather that the political exhausts all the deep meaning inherent in zombies.  For a survey of the political analyses of zombie-hood, see Reason Magazine‘s survey of zombie literature, which covers interpretations of zombies as alienated labor, Vietnam vets, white supremists, consumer culture, and a few more.  This follows a tendency in certain circles to see all deep meaning as ultimately political.

David Chalmers goes in a different direction with his discussion of philosophical zombies.  Chalmers makes clear that he is not trying to reinterpret the phenomenon of zombies, but rather is merely appropriating the language of zombies to describe something technically different.  Thus, while there may be overlaps between philosophical zombies, movie zombies and voodoo zombies, these are not necessarily relevant to the study of zombies that he is pursuing.  Which to some extent is unfortunate, since the relationship between philosophical zombies and political zombies is a rich one.  There is an apparent connection between zombies as a manifestation of alientated labor, zombies as a manifestation of aliented man, and zombies as beings without interior lives.

Zombies can be defined provisionally as empty vessels into which any sort of meaning may be poured.  This is what Descartes does in the Meditations to resolve the problem of other minds which he initially poses.  Early in this work, Descartes wonders how he can know that the people around him are indeed real people rather than automata, devices created to emulate human behavior but which have no being other than that of a seeming-nature.  Only after proving his own existence, which serves as a ground from which to prove the existence of God, is he able to return to the original problem and declare that other persons most likely do have an interior life like his because they outwardly behave as he does, and that God would not create a world in which an appearance such as this is not accompanied by a similar reality.  God is not a deceiver.

God has been pronounced dead in the intervening years, and so we are left with various problems we once thought resolved.  The notion of a natural political order upon which democracies such as the United States were founded have fallen aside in His wake.  Without a ready repository of pre-determined meanings founded on religion, modern man is left unmoored and in search for relevance.  Once apparently settled by Descartes, the problem of other minds rises from the dead to trouble us once more, and the attempt to unravel the meaning of the Zombie is entangled with the attempt to unravel the meaning of our own existence.

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