Found in Translation: Thales’ Plummet according to Hans Blumenberg

Hans Blumenberg
The Laughter of the Thracian Woman
Bloomsbury, 2015

We do not know to which segment of Thales biography the anecdote of the well plummet refers (p. 105).

 Thales called his method metaphorology but this book is really anecdotology, though there are no punchlines or zingers, and Blumenberg’s writings intensely flat and bland.

Thales the Milesian, often thought of as the first Western philosopher, fell into a well while observing the stars. Blumenberg follows this anecdote and its variations over the centuries: Aesop, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes the Cynic, Tertullian, Brahe, Copernicus, Montaigne, Bacon, Bayle, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, and many more. Some take Thales’ side, some take the side of the Thracian slave girl who laughed at him; some think of Thales as a philosopher, some as an astronomer, and so on. The moral of the story varies with the one telling it.

However, I am going in a different direction. The primary meaning of “plummet” is “drop straight down, plunge”,  but the other meaning is “plumb-bob”: a piece of metal, traditionally lead, attached to the end of a plumb line. A plumb line, in turn, is a line from which a weight is suspended to determine verticality (in carpentry, etc.) or to measure depth (navigation: in this usage usually called a sounding-line or lead-line).*

In his fall / plummet, thus, Thales was both establishing the just, right, true vertical standard and measuring depth. The philosopher is both upright (lotrecht) and deep, The contrast in the anecdote is between the philosopher and the girl, who represents the generic human: unphilosophical, shallow, crooked, skewed, and unjust.

There are two problems here. For one, Blumenberg’s presentation ends with Heidegger, and to Heidegger the whole point about depth and everything else good and real is that it cannot be measured.* However, since Blumenberg is basically unsympathetic to Heidegger, perhaps here Blumenberg was subtly disagreeing with him.

The second problem seems weightier.The German word translated “plummet” (stürzen: “fall, plunge, plummet, tumble, collapse”, or der Sturz: “the fall”)has nothing to do with the German word for plumb-bob (das Lotblei, das Blei). Furthermore, the three words “plummet”, “Lot”, and “Blei” are not even etymologically related but come from entirely different roots. (The only German word-group which might be etymologically related to “plummet” includes der Plumps “bump, thud, splash”, plumpsen “to bump, thud, or splash” and das Plumpsklo “toilet”).

However, while these words are not phonetically related, their root meanings are the same, since “das Lot”, “das Blei”, and “plummet” all trace back to the metal lead (Latin plumbum; German das Blei; and German das Löt solder)**. And indeed, philosophy has always had the reputation for being heavy and leaden (as the Thracian slave girl would certainly have agreed).

And of course there has always been the alchemist’s hope that lead might be transformed into gold.

Now, you may say: “John, this is merely an artifact of translation and has no significance whatsoever”. But nothing could be further from the truth! The fact that neither the original author nor the translator intended this nuance of meaning — “intended”, as if that means something! — or even noticed it ,  just shows how deep the metaphor is.

 * Mark Twain, by contrast, took his pen name from the sounding-line term for two fathoms or twelve feet, which is deep by some standards but shallower than you would wish if you were a riverboat pilot. Twain was not much like Heidegger.

 ** I am faking it here. The German word das Löt, seems not to exist, though löt is used in compound words having to do with soldering, and solder is sort of like lead and often includes lead.

P.S. Yes, my knowledge of German is weak. It’s pure cruelty when internet stalkers keep reminding me of that.

Published in: on January 19, 2016 at 9:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

8 1/2″ x 8 1/2″ Daodejing

One Page 道可道

Published in: on November 1, 2015 at 7:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

One Page Daodejing

Contemporary philosophers, like bad coughs, are far too productive.

One Page 道可道

Published in: on October 31, 2015 at 6:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ressentiment and Schooling

MORE: It may seem that it is original sin that teaches us that there are no innocents and that we must painfully expiate our guilt  in the schools, but schooling came first and original sin was one of the lessons Augustine drew from it. And behind schooling were deflation, debt, and social climbing. (Attn. David Graeber).

The Fundamental Turtle of Western Civilization

When the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school.

William Shakespeare, “The Ages of Man”

Friedrich Nietzsche, a philologist by trade, testified to the importance of the study of Latin and of Latin rhetoric:

Of all the things the German academic high school did, the most valuable was its training in Latin style, for this was an artistic exercise, while all the other activities were aimed solely at knowledge. To put the German essay first is barbarism, for we have no classical German style developed by a tradition of public eloquence; but if one wants to use the German essay to further the practice of thinking, it is certainly better if one ignores the style entirely for the time being, thus distinguishing exercise in thinking and in describing. The latter should be concerned with multiple versions of a single content, and not with independent invention of content. Description only, with the content given, was the assignment of Latin style, for which the old teachers possessed a long-since-lost refinement of hearing. Anyone who in the past learned to write well in a modern language owed it to this exercise, (now one is obliged to go to school under the older French teachers); and still further: he gained a concept of the majesty and difficulty of form, and was prepared for this in the only possible right way: through practice.”

“One vanished preparation for art”, #203 in Menschliches Allzumenschliches, vol. I.

I think that extensive drill in the imitation of the virtuoso Latin authors probably does account for the extraordinary subtlety, quickness and vigor of Nietzsche’s writing. Another nineteenth-century author of similar education was the poet Arthur Rimbaud, Nietzsche’s younger French contemporary, who was a student of one of those “older French teachers” and won a prize when he was twelve for a Latin poem (complete with epanalepsis and anantapodoton) on an obscure set theme (Jugartha, the Numidian enemy of Rome):

….ascitur Arabiis ingens in collibus infans
Et dixit levis aura: “Nepos est ille Jugartha!

Nietszche’s and Rimbaud’s virtuosity as writers made it possible for them to write things that they could not have said using a more straightforward style. Both had the power to say many things at once, including contrary things, without losing the thread. Indeed, Rimbaud’s derèglement de tous les sens, whatever else it may have been, was a new rhetoric, and some of the Illuminations can be seen as simple exercises in a new way of putting words together — as if the nominally meaningful content in a virtuoso piece on some Jugartha had been replaced with words more associable with Rimbaud’s actual obsessions:


Toutes les monstruosités violent les gestes atroces d’Hortense. Sa solitude est la mécanique érotique, sa lassitude, la dynamique amoureuse. Sous la surveillance d’une enfance elle a été, à des époques nombreuses, l’ardente hygiène des races. Sa porte est ouverte à la misère. Là: la moralité des êtres actuels se décorpore en sa passion ou en son action. – Ô terrible frisson des amours novices sur le sol sanglant et par l’hydrogène clarteux ! trouvez Hortense.1


All the monstrosities invade the horrible movements of Hortense. Her solitude is a erotic mechanics; her weariness, an amorous dynamic. Under the watch of childhood she has been, at various times, the blazing hygiene of the races. Her door opens on squalor. There the morality of present beings disembodies into her passion or her action. – Oh terrible shudder of novice love, against a bloody ground and hydrogen-illumined! — find Hortense.

Rimbaud, whose harsh mother monitored his studies closely and demanded extraordinary efforts, hated Latin from the first:

In spite of all this, my father sent me to school when I was ten. “Why”, I would say to myself, “learn Greek and Latin? I don’t know! There’s no need of it, anyway! What does it matter to me if I pass my exams? What’s the use of passing one’s exams? It is of no use at all, is it? Yes it is, though: they say there is no employment without a pass….Then take history: learning the lives of Chinaldon, and Nabopolassar, of Darius, of Cyrus, and of Alexander, and of their cronies, outstanding for their diabolical names (remarquables par leurs noms diaboliques) is a torture. What does it matter to me that Alexander was famous? What does it matter?…..What evil have I done that they should put me to the torture?”

“Le soleil etait encore chaude….”,   Collected Poems, tr. Bernard, written in 1864 when Rimbaud was ten years old.

Sometimes [Rimbaud’s mother] would send them to bed supperless because they had been unable to recite, without a slip, the hundreds of Latin verses she had set them to learn from memory).

Bernard, “Introduction”, p. xxix.

Rimbaud had ample precedent for his resentment, which is intrinsic to schooling itself. The great church father St. Augustine, for example, had been forced into the study of rhetoric by his ambitious parents:

I was too small to understand what purpose it might serve and yet, if I was idle at my studies, I was beaten for it, because beating was favored by tradition. Countless boys long forgotten had built up this stony path for us to tread and we were made to pass along it, adding to the toil and sorrow of the sons of Adam…..


I was still a boy when I began to pray to you, my Help and Refuge. I used to prattle away to you, and though I was small, my devotion was great when I begged you not to let me be beaten at school. ….

 Oh Lord….O Lord, throughout the world men beseech you to preserve them from the rack and the hook and various similar torture which terrify them. Some people are merely callous, but if a man clings to you with great devotion, how can his piety to inspire him to make light of these tortures, when he loves those who dread them so fearfully? And yet this is how our parents scoffed at the torments which we boys suffered at the hands of our masters. For we feared the whip just as much as other feared the rack, and we, no less than they, begged you to preserve us from it. But we sinned by reading and writing less than was expected of us.


St. Augustine, Confessions, I, #9, p. 30.

If this was so, why did I dislike Greek literature, which tells us these tales, as much as the Greek language itself?…. I suppose that Greek boys think the same about Virgil when they are forced to study him as I felt about Homer…. For I understood not a single word and I was constantly subjected to violent threats and cruel punishments to make me learn….. This clearly shows that we learn better in a free spirit of curiosity than under fear and compulsion. But your law, O God, permits the free flow of curiosity to be stemmed by force. From the schoolmaster’s cane to the ordeal of martyrdom, your law prescribes bitter medicine to retrieve us from the noxious pleasures which cause us to desert you.

Book I, #9, p. 35.

In Augustine’s case, as in Nietzsche’s and Rimbaud’s, the child was, to his own detriment, made the standard-bearer for the worldly ambitions of a pious and respectable, but marginal and (roughly) petty-bourgeois family, and Rimbaud’s triumphant rhetorical set-piece on Jugartha had been preceded a millennium and a half earlier by Augustine’s prize-winning but meaningless “speech of Juno” (Book I, #17, p. 37). Even as a Saint, Augustine remained bitter:

And yet human children are pitched into this hellish torrent, together with the fees that are paid to have them taught lessons like these. Much business is at stake, too, when these matters are publicly debated, because the law decrees that teachers should be paid a salary in addition to the fees paid by their pupils. And the roar of the torrent beating upon its boulders seems to say: This is the school where men are made masters of words. This is where they learn the art of persuasion, so necessary in business and debate….

 Book I, #16, p.36.

Kenneth Rexroth has argued that St. Augustine invented the Oedipus Complex and was responsible for the sexual guilt which he thought characteristic of Western civilization:

There is ample evidence that Western European civilization is specifically the culture of the Oedipus Complex. Before Augustine there was nothing really like it. There were forerunners and prototypes and intimations, but there wasn’t the real thing. The Confessions introduce a new sickness of the human mind, the most horrible pandemic, and the most lethal, ever to afflict man. Augustine did what silly literary boys in our day boast of doing. He invented a new derangement.

“Introduction” to D.H. Lawrence’s Selected Poems

The truth seems to be otherwise, however. According to the evidence he gives, during his serious relationship young Augustine was enthusiastic, affectionate, and faithful. His guilt was due to the fact that his long-term relationship was an unmarried one, and this was because a marriage would have interfered with the worldly ambitions of his parents — including his pious mother:

My family made no effort to save me from my fall by marriage. Their only concern was that I should learn how to make a good speech and how to persuade others by my words…..For even my mother, who by now had escaped from the center of Babylon, though she still loitered in its outskirts, did not act upon what she had heard from her husband with the same earnestness as she had advised me about chastity. She saw that I was already infected with a disease that would become dangerous later on, but if the growth of my passions could not be cut back to the quick, she did not think it right to restrict it to the bonds of married love. This was because she was afraid that the bonds of marriage might be a hindrance to my hopes for the future – not of course the hope of the life to come, but my hopes of success at my studies. Both my parents were unduly eager for me to learn, my father because he gave no thought to you and only shallow thought to me, and my mother because she thought that the usual course of study would certainly not hinder me, but even would help me, in my approach to you.

 Book II, #3, pp. 42-46).

Augustine only begins to mention sexual temptation and his rather minor Oedipal problems in Book II. Book I is dominated by his resentment of his teacher, who sometimes resembles an angry God and sometimes a cruel demon (as in Manichaeanism). Augustine’s feelings in Book I are a confused mess: resentment of the punitive teacher; partly-sublimated resentment at his parents for having forced him into this “martyrdom” (his comparison); guilt at his mild and childish disobedience (a guilt which seems to derive from the shame of physical punishment); and Christian objections to the pagan and worldly content of the teachings in the school. In the end his renunciation liberates him, not really from The Father, but from the teachers:

The schoolteachers need not exclaim at my words, for I no longer go in fear of them now that I confess my soul’s desires to you, my lord.

Book I, #13, p. 34.

So here we have a new theory of Western Civilization, which is based not on sexual repression per se, but on educational practices which, in the interest of their parents’ family ambitions, consign small, helpless children from middling families to the hands of brutal teachers, forbidding them to marry or to have fun until they have achieved success and can find a properly respectable match — at best, in early middle age. In the cases here the “family” consists of a strong mother and an absent or ineffectual father — and it is precisely the father’s failure to properly establish the family that imposes the terrible obligation on the poor child. (In Augustine’s case, as Bartin and Brown show, in the decaying and deflated Roman Empire almost no one could afford a respectable marriage, with the result that “lewdness” was rife.)

It was the resentment felt against being forced to study Latin or Greek instead of marrying which led to the resentment, decadent practices, heterodox views, and brilliant writing which have been the driving force of Western history. Augustine was only the beginning of a long tradition. During his Manichaean period before he reconverted to Christianity, he had in fact been a member of a decadent avant-garde group called “The Wreckers” (Book 3, #3, p. 58), and this move from decadence to piety was later matched by Dante, Verlaine, Huysmans, and many others.


In the history of civilization Rimbaud and Nietzsche are counted among the rebels, naysayers, and immoralists, whereas Augustine was a founder of Christian orthodoxy. But they are all men of the same type, angry men who, for reasons of family ambition, had been forced against their will into intense programs of study which, in return, allowed them to express their resentment with supreme eloquence and persuasiveness. Augustine seems different because over the course of the centuries, his eloquence persuaded almost everyone, notably the mothers of Nietzsche and Rimbaud. But prophets are always fated to have their words misinterpreted, and a key part of his message has been forgotten: his hatred of his teachers.


  1. Hortense in Rimbaud’s “H” is presumably Hortense de Beauharnais: Napoleon III’s mother, Napoleon I’s stepdaughter and sister-in-law, Morny’s mother, and Queen of Holland. The Communard Rimbaud hated Napoleon III, and here he is ever so eloquently talking shit about his mom. The one-letter title is probably a parody of the contemporary practice of avoiding the use of full names for fear of a lawsuit or duel — a practice which Rimbaud cheerfully violates at the end of the poem.The Bonapartes make a joke of the ideologies of hereditary rule. Descended from an uncultivated commoner family in the most backward (and least French) province of France, they inherited no ancient lands or titles, and in 1815 they lost everything that Napoleon had gained for them. But most of the second generation of Bonapartes were cousins of the crowned heads of Europe, and Napoleon I’s own upstart prestige still lingered, so the Bonapartes couldn’t just be ignored.Princess Mathilde reports on her Murat cousins (Bonapartes on their mother’s side):

She went on to talk about the Murats, the whole family sleeping together pell-mell. “They were just like rabbits”, she said. “Anna [Duchesse de Mouchy], at the age of ten, was always in her nightdress. I had all the trouble in the world to keep her from kissing one of the valets….. As for the other girl, Caroline, Madame de Chassiron, it was impossible to wash her feet.”

 Goncourts, pp. 139-140.

Topics for Future Study


Henry David Thoreau, “the finest American classicist of his century”. His ambitious mother, his ineffectual father, and his failed love affair.


The significant sisters of Rimbaud, St. Augustine, Thoreau, Nietzsche and Pascal. The role of the parents in Sartre’s Les Mots: did Sartre study Latin? Pascal’s mother. Nietzsche’s relative lack of resentment of his forced studies: was he in denial or repressed ?

“I did far too much when I was young” he sometimes said to me. “As a student I sometimes studied all night, I always had a bucket of cold water under the table; if I noticed that I wanted to fall asleep, I put my feet in it, and then I felt fresh again….”

Eugenie Gallie, quoting one of Nietzsche’s landlords, in Sander Gilman, Conversations with Nietzsche, p. 171.


The classicists of the early modern age (Montaigne, Rabelais, More, Erasmus). Their attitudes toward Latin and Greek respectively — the reverse of Augustine’s. They hated Latin scholastic theology but loved Greek, whereas in his youth St. Augustine had delighted in immoral pagan tales in Latin, his native language, but hated Homeric Greek. (In Charlemagne’s court Alcuin grumbled about the novice monks continuing to recite pagan sagas).


Classicist education was forced on helpless boys in traditional China too. Why did China not also become a culture of ressentiment?


God and grammar:

O Lord my God, be patient, as you always are, with the men of this world as you watch them and see how strictly they obey the rules of grammar which have been handed down to them, and yet ignore the eternal rules of everlasting salvation which they have received from you.

Augustine, Book I, #18, p. 39


I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Kaufman’s translation.

What I want to stress here is a special correspondence between the emergence of selfhood understood as a person and the emergence of “the” text from the page.

Ivan Illych, In the Vineyard of the Text


We like to attribute shameful deaths to grudgingly-admired authors who were too weird for us, and cliodiagnosis is perhaps the evilest area of literary studies. We know now that Nietzsche did not die of syphilis and was probably not syphilitic at all, that Poe died of rabies from a dog bite and may not have been an alcoholic at all, and that whether or not

he had syphilis, Baudelaire died of the hereditary disease that killed his mother a few years later. More examples could easily be found.

Further reading: Bartin, Carlin, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans, Princeton, 1993; Brown, Peter, The World of Late Antiquity, Norton, 1971; Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, Vintage, 1980.

Published in: on October 24, 2015 at 5:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Turtle theory (complete), grumpy comments on Adorno, and miscellaneous other constructive contributions to the dialogue.


Any Kantians in the audience? Is this Kant’s turtle? It seems much like Leibniz’s preestablished harmony:

“Critical philosophy must then acknowledge a correspondence between consciousness and the being-thus of the world, which it terms a ‘lucky chance’ (glücklicher Zufall; recall that we started with the necessary idea of necessity) but for which we it will seek and will secure a transcendent guarantee– which, one immediately realizes, actually overdetermined everything at the start. God alone, in fact, as a ‘transcendental ideal’, alone fully determines the sense of being.”

(Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, p. 342, citing Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, tr. Meredith, OUP, 1952 p. 23).

“Since the death of politics, radical theory has been above all about presenting oneself as superior. As such, theory must not be too easily understood, for readers must be tested and required to prove themselves. The theoretical concepts themselves might be difficult or they might be easy, but taking pains to present them intelligibly is not necessary. What is required, in fact, is quite the opposite.”

Adorno, Gesammelte Werke (my translation)

“What is needed is a definitive and tenable doctrine, not vagueness or inconsistency in adhering to an impossible one.”

Charles Hartshorne, Whitehead’s Philosophy, p. 42.

“Poetry Chicago” actually paid money to poets for their poems, which is how Vachel Lindsay and T S Eliot sometimes ended up side by side

The Turtle Theory of Theory

The myth of barter (that money was developed to replace barter) is believed and taught by all American economists even though the historical facts are known and have shown the theory to be wrong. Much the same is true of the social contract myth taught by political philosophers, which actually explains the same transition as the barter theory does.

In other words, we Americans are taught the social contract myth and the barter myth, whereas primitive peoples were taught that the world rests on the back of a large turtle. (Paul Radin’s informant informed him that the turtle who created the universe was not the same as the turtle they saw scuttling into the ditch. Similarly, political philosophers have always known that there was no social contract).

The proletariat is the turtle of the left.

The “state of exception”, however, doesn’t need to stand on anything. If you have enough weaponry you can be your own turtle.

Once you see one turtle explanation anywhere, you see turtle explanations everywhere. Turtles all the way down.


The Asshole Theory of Theory

As Gödel has shown, aporiæ are like assholes. Every system has one. Theory explains everything, but theory itself is just one more great big hairy ball problem.

In short, theory rides on the back of a turtle, and every turtle has an asshole.

The Fundamental Turtle of Western Civilization

Original sin is the turtle upon which Western civilization was founded. In “The World of Late Antiquity” Brown described the world of the young Augustine, a deflated world in which weddings were still priced at the older, more opulent level so that marriage had to be deferred to middle age, or even forever. Augustine’s immorality (an affectionate unmarried relationship) rose from this. It was this deflation that gave us original sin (and “primordial debt”: see David Graeber).

With original sin there can be no innocent victims, and the righteous can wreak havoc just as they please. Its fundamentals live on today, even for unbelievers, as Social Darwinism (some races should die off), free market dogmatism (the unproductive should die off), imperialism (the strong should dispossess the weak), and finally the simple, unthought brutality of bandits and thugs. The evolutionary, economic, nationalist, theological, and criminal justifications for brutality are not necessarily consistent with one another, but they all are firmly grounded on that turtle.

The World of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown


Lenin’s Turtle

Lenin’s turtle: “From the philosophy of Marxism, cast of one piece of steel, it is impossible to expunge a single basic premise, a single essential part, without deviating from objective truth.”

Pieces are just pieces, whether it’s a piece of steel or a piece of tin, and if you take something away from one if them what you get is just a smaller and differently shaped piece. What he presumably was trying to say was that Marx’s thought is systematic and that all parts of it are necessary for its functioning, but ten his steel fetishism took over.


Grumpy comments on Adorno

In Minima Moralia a member of the high bourgeoisie, dialectically transformed into a proletarian, expresses his dialectical sense of regret for the destruction of the hated class of his birth by an interloper who destroyed incorrectly.

“Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse. (Adorno, Minima Moralia, #8).

I pretty much agree, but there’s a solution: don’t go to movies. What’s wrong with that guy.

Adorno, like me, is a grumpy old man, and people are surprised that I don’t like the guy. But that just shows their unawareness of how grumpiness works.


“Bad films cannot be put down to incompetence; the most gifted are broken by the business set-up, and that the untalented flock to it is due to the affinity between lying and swindling”. (Adorno, Minima Moralia).

That was exactly the opinion of Ben Hecht, the author of decadent novelist and friend of German Expressionists who later (strictly for the money) became one of the great screenwriters of all time — “Gone with the Wind”, “Front Page”, “Scarface”, etc. Decadence and kitsch (like the bohemians and the bourgeois, H. L. Mencken and the revivalists, and the revivalists and organized crime) are inextricably entwined, the two faces of the same coin.


“The unity of Expressionism consists in expressing that people wholly estranged from one another, life having receded within them, have thereby become, precisely, dead”. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 191.

“Language is neither reactionary nor progressive; it is quite simply fascist”. Barthes, oral tradition.

“Precisely” and “quite simply” in the sense of “not at all, really”, just like the supposedly new usage of “literally” to mean “figuratively”, or the use of “of course” when you want to sneak in something doubtful.


Ticket balancing in national elections may seem like a bad idea, but without it the lives of John Wilkes Booth and Leon Czolgosz would have been tragically wasted.


Miscellaneous wisecracks

When George Will, David Brooks, et al express their doubts the possibility of solving problems in this fallen world, they never express doubts about the possibility of profit maximization.


All Is One and We Are The World, but not really in what you would call a good sense.


“The Confidence Man” is the greatest of all novels, the others are all at the retail level of dowries, inheritances, and who fucks whom, whereas Melville talks about the big realities.


I’ve probably seen 20 third parties come and go in my lifetime. So if a new one comes along, it’s not a third party, but a 23rd party.


For early October, yesterday’s weather was unbelievably nice. Portents of doom have never been so pleasant before.


Intimacy is a nice word for sex, but somehow “casual intimacy” still doesn’t sound right.


The people ahead of me in line were not really extras in a Fellini movie, my blood sugar was just low.


I determined, therefore, to attempt the reformation; I consulted the best lawyers, and the most skillful astronomers, and we cooked up a bill for that purpose. But then my difficulty began; I was to bring in this bill, which was necessarily composed of law jargon and astronomical calculations, to both of which I am an utter stranger. However, it was an absolute necessity to make the House of Lords think that I knew something of the matter; and also to make them believe that they knew something of it themselves, which they do not. For my own part, I could just as soon have talked Celtic or Sclavonian to them, as astronomy, and they would have understood me full as well: so I resolved to do better than speak to the purpose, and please instead of informing them. I gave them, therefore, only an historical account of calendars, from the Egyptian down to the Gregorian, amusing them now and then with little episodes; but I was particularly attentive to the choice of my words, to the harmony and roundness of my periods, to my elocution, to me action. This succeeded, and ever will succeed; they thought I informed, because I pleased them; and many of them said, that I had made the whole thing very clear to them; when, God knows, I had not even attempted it.

Lord Chesterfield, March 18 (o.s.) 1751, to his son

In a way, the preachers believe what they preach, but it is as men who have taken a bad £10 note and refuse to look at the evidence that makes for its badness, though, if the note were not theirs, they would see at a glance that it was not a good one.

Samuel Butler, Notebooks

Published in: on October 21, 2015 at 1:19 am  Leave a Comment  

The Fundamental Turtle of Western Civilization

Original sin is the turtle upon which Western civilization was founded. In “The World of Late Antiquity” Brown described the world of the young Augustine, a deflated world in which weddings were still priced at the older, more opulent level so that marriage had to be deferred to middle age, or even forever. Augustine’s immorality (an affectionate unmarried relationship) rose from this. It was this deflation that gave us original sin

Deflation, debt, social climbing, forced education, and immorality are all tied together, and by ruining young Augustine’s life they gave us the doctrine of Original Sin. (Attn. David Graeber).

With original sin there can be no innocent victims, and the righteous can wreak havoc just as they please. Its fundamentals live on today, even for unbelievers, as Social Darwinism (some races should die off), free market dogmatism (the unproductive should die off), imperialism (the strong should dispossess the weak), and finally the simple, unthought brutality of bandits and thugs. The evolutionary, economic, nationalist, theological, and criminal justifications for brutality are not necessarily consistent with one another, but they all are firmly grounded on that turtle.


A related article of mine: Ressentiment and Schooling. Nietzsche resented being such a nice boy, but he was still nice.

The World of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown

Published in: on October 19, 2015 at 8:33 pm  Leave a Comment  


Published in: on October 7, 2015 at 7:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Gratuitous sour milk symbols

In “Milk Bottles” Sherwood Anderson, possibly writing on an unbearably hot summer night in Chicago, speaks in the voice of a writer much like Anderson. (Many of Anderson’s main characters are writers, often described by non-writers).   Writing on an unbearably hot summer night in Chicago, Anderson’s narrator, “goes off his head”. He quits writing to take a walk, and on his walk meets another writer — an advertising man who wants to be a serious writer. (As an advertising man this second writer is even more like Anderson, though in other ways he might be a bit more like the ex-realist romance writer Hamlin Garland). The second writer reads him what he himself thought was a great piece about Chicago writer that he had just written, but it’s really just wishful, dreamy romantic boosterism, though the narrator doesn’t tell him so.

It turns out, however, that before he had written the crappy piece, the second writer had written a much better piece about Chicago, bitter and realistic, but that since he had attributed its negative tone to the transient bad mood induced a day spent writing advertising copy (a successful day businesswise , but a horrible day otherwise), he had discarded the piece.

This advertising copy for condensed milk. We do not see the piece that had been thrown away, but we do know sour milk played a part in it. And all through Anderson’s own story sour milk keeps showing up — four times in nine pages. This is not unrealistic — on hot afternoons in Chicago before the coming of refrigeration, sour is what milk did — but four times is a lot.

But why is gratuitous sour milk symbolism so universally condemned? Why should authors try to fool readers by slipping the symbols in artfully? Why not just slam them in there and dare the readers to do something about it? Anderson’s narrator starts off by admitting to having gone almost nuts. Maybe the gratuitous symbolism is just a part of that, part of the characterization. The way the story is written we can’t even really be sure which of the three authors is responsible — the narrator, the author he tells about, or Anderson himself. By the end none of the three seemed really capable of keeping track of things and probably none of them could remember who was who.

Many of Anderson’s first person narrators are inarticulate, and there’s reason to believe that Anderson was bit inarticulate too. Faced with an inarticulate passage, we can never be sure whether Anderson had brilliantly succeeded in portraying the character’s inarticulation, the way Nabokov would, or whether the symbiosis between his own inarticulation and the character’s inarticulation allowed Anderson to find optimal inarticulation the ideal place where the two curves crossed — the very opposite of Flaubert’s cogent and perspicacious presentation of the confusion and incomprehension of his hapless, dumfounded subjects.

Anderson was poorly educated and not well read. His secret was that he had no censor, and while one thing this meant was that like Freudians and liberationists he wrote a lot about sex, it wasn’t the same thing at all. Freudians and liberationists still have the censor — they just adjust its settings and produce genteel, depressing smut. Anderson wrote about awkward and embarrassing things of all kinds, not just sex, and he didn’t write about dramatic maudit awkwardness but about boring, ordinary awkward people. Like Schnitzler, perhaps, Anderson was writing about Freud’s raw data, but without putting a Freudian analysis on it.

Anderson was much like the people he wrote about. At least since Henry James people in the biz have been assuring us that authenticity and sincerity are irrelevant to literary merit, but are they actually a detriment? It seems to me that when Flaubert or the Goncourts or Zola studied up on like zoo animals in order to write about ehm, people with whom they would never dream of socializing, regardless of how masterfully they wrote, something important was lost.

Anderson is generally regarded as proto-: proto-Hemingway, proto-Faulkner, proto- Southern Gothic. He could just as well be regarded as proto-Holden Caulfield or proto-noir or proto-absurdist, but why not take him for what he is? The Hemingway comparison is especially unjust, because one of Anderson’s great accomplishments was to succeed in writing non-edifying fiction, not merely because Hemingway was shitty to Anderson, but because what Hemingway ended up doing was write a new kind of edifying fiction, less genteel than the previous version but still glorifying his tragic, nobly damaged protagonists.

In real life, Anderson didn’t believe in the American Dream, but he lived three versions of it. First the rags-to-riches story when he became a paint manufacturer after a white trash upbringing, second the forget-about-success-and-throw-it-all-way escape-from-conventionality story when he left everything and never looked back, and finally the still-active advertising-man-writes-serious-literature story. Everyone since has just been replaying these cliches.


Here’s a weirdness sample, from a different book. The married narrator is thinking of his fantasy girl, Natalie. He is fully aware that he is being absurd, but the censor is off:

Down in the office he had thought of her body as a house within which she lived. Why could not more than one person live within such a house?….There was the thought about Natalie being a house kept clean and sweet for living, a house into which one might go gladly and joyfully.

Could he, a washing machine manufacturer of a Wisconsin town, stop on the street a college professor and say, “I want to know, Mr. College Professor, if your house is clean and sweet for living so that people may come and live in it and, if it is so, I want you to tell me how you went about it to cleanse your house”.

The notion was absurd. It made one laugh to even think of any such thing. There would have to be new figures of speech, a new way of looking at things. For one thing people would have to be more truly aware of themselves than they had ever been before.”

Published in: on September 11, 2015 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

History of the Caucasian Albanians

The History of the Caucasian Albanians by Movses Dasxuranci (a.k.a. Moses Kałankatuaçi; tr. C.J.F. Dowsett,Oxford, 1961)

Written in Armenian around 1000 A.D., this book relates the history from about 600 A.D. of a vanished people who spoke an exotic and now-extinct language. It’s not quite as exotic as that, however — the Albanians were very closely associated with the Armenians, and the book is basically a version of early Armenian history.

This isn’t the most obscure book I’ve ever looked at. That would probably be Cosmas Indicopleustes’ Cosmography, a sixth-century Greek work which purports to show that the Earth is oblong rather than spherical.1 Neither book is a lot of  fun in the strict sense of the word, but if you poke around Movses’ book, you will be transported to post-Roman, pre-Muslim world which is Christian but neither Western nor exotically Eastern – a world in which almost everything seems to have been put into the wrong pigeonhole.

So “Albania” in this book does not mean the Albania of today, but instead the present-day Azerbaijan.  The Romans were careless about names, putting Albanias, Iberias (once the name of Caucasian Georgia), Galicias, and Gauls here, there and everywhere — Galicias and Gauls were located in in Turkey, France, Wales, Poland, Belgium and Spain.

But history did take its revenge. For Movses the “Romans” are the Byzantine Greeks in Constantinople — despised Chalcedonian heretics like today’s Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians. It’s the Albanians, Armenians and (up to a certain point) Georgians who are “Orthodox” — meaning Monophysite.2  The Western Europe of the Dark Ages, and the Pope, are not even factors here – Movses’ chronicle begins two centuries before Charlemagne, at a time when many  Franks were still pagan and the pagan Anglo-Saxons were just getting settled in Britain. (But while there are no Catholics as we know them in this book, there is a Catholikos – a high-ranking Monophysite churchman).

Because of their enmity to the Romans (Greeks), at the beginning of the book the Albanians and Armenians are usually allied to the Persians, who were still Zoroastrian or “Magians”.  Soon enough, however, the Persians were overwhelmed by the Arab Muslims, who are called Tajiks — a word which now refers to Central Asians of Persian language and culture, notably (but not only) in Tajikistan.  (The word “Arab”, in turn, almost always refers to nomad bandits or Bedouins in Gibbs’ translation of Ibn Battuta.  Ibn Battuta himself was a Berber, though he wrote in Arabic, but this is probably not the reason he used the term thie way he did — only recently, under the influence of Western nationalism,  have the Arabic-speaking peoples begun to call themselves “Arabs”, rather than simply identifying themselves by religion and place of birth or residence.)

Foreign cultures appear in Movses’ book in a marvelously garbled form.  Muhammed was a “diabolical and ferocious archer who dwelt in the desert.  One day Satan, assuming the shape of a wild deer, led him to meet a false Arian hermit by the name of Bahira….. Bahira began to teach him from the Old and New Testaments after the manner of Arius, who held that the Son of God was a created thing, and commanded him to tell the barbarous Tajiks what he had learned from him, his foul teacher…. The gullible and erring Tajik tribe summoned a great assembly, went into the arid, demon-haunted desert, and welcomed the diabolically inspired Muhammed into their midst.” Muhammed is also revealed to be an adulterous lecher, a very old trope indeed.

Elsewhere Movses tells a garbled story merging the Iliad and the Aeneid: there are 2,000 Trojan horses instead of one, and the story ends with the founding of Rome by descendants of returning Greeks who had been  blown off-course to Italy, and stranded there when the captive Trojan women burned their ships. (Movses also seems to accept the Iliad as a holy book of the Christian Romans / Greeks, on a par with the Bible.)

The most interesting parts of this book are probably the tactful descriptions of the pagans – the devil-worshiping “thumb-cutters” and the Turkish Khazars.  The Khazars: “bestial, gold-loving tribes of hairy men…. an ugly, insolent, broadfaced, eyelashless mob in the shape of women with flowing hair….demented in their satanically deluded  tree-worshipping errors in accordance with their northern dull-witted stupidity, addicted to their fictitious and deceptive religion….There we observed them on their couches like rows of heavily laden camels.  Each had a bowl full of the flesh of unclean animals, and dishes containing salt water into which they dipped their food, and brimming silver cups and beakers chased with gold which had been taken from the plunder from Tiflis.  They also had drinking horns and gourd-shaped utensils from which they lapped their broth and similar greasy, congealed, unwashed abominations. Two or three of them to one cup, they greedily and bestially poured neat wine into their insatiable bellies which had the appearance of bloated goatskins….. Possessing completely anarchical minds, they stumble into every sort of error, beating drums and whistling over corpses, inflicting bloody sabre and dagger cuts on their cheeks and limbs, and engaging naked in sword fights – oh hellish sight! – at the graves, man against man and troop against troop, all stripped for battle….. They danced their dances with obscene acts, sunk in benighted filth and deprived of the sight of the light of the creator…. They were also incontinent sexually, and in accordance with their heathen, barbarous customs they married their father’s wife, shared one wife between two brothers, and married several women.”

In defiance of the retreating Khazar qagan, at one point  the Georgians “fetched a huge pumpkin upon which they drew an image of the king of the Honk’, a cubit broad and a cubit long.  In place of his eyelashes which no one could see they drew a jot; the region of his beard they left ignominiously naked, and they made the nostrils a span wide with a number of hairs under them in the form of a mustache so that all might recognize him. This they brought and placed upon the wall opposite them, and showing it to the armies, they called out ‘Behold the Emperor, your King! Turn and worship him for it is Jebu Qagan!'” (But this terrible insult only made the Huns’ revenge that much fiercer in the following year.)

As for the thumb-cutters (seemingly an indigenous Caucasian pagan cult): “The devil appears in human form and orders three ceremonies to be held, each one comprising three men; these are not to be wounded or slain, but while still alive are to have the skin and thumb of the right hand removed and drawn with the skin over the chest to the little finger of the left hand; the little finger is then to be cut and broken off inside the skin. The same is to be done with the feet while the victim is still alive, and then he is to be slain and flayed, arranged and placed in a basket.  When the time for the wicked service arrives, a folding iron chair is set up, the feet of which  are in the shape of human feet, and which many of us saw brought here.  A valuable garment is placed on this chair, and when the devil comes, he dons this garment, sits in the chair, and taking a weapon, he examines the skin of the man together with the fingers….. A saddled and harnessed horse is held ready, and mounting the horse, he gallops it to a standstill; then he becomes invisible and disappears.  This he repeats every year.”

Eventually, the Khazars (also called Huns, or “Honk'” in Armenian) were converted to Christianity.  The thumb-cutters were killed after an unsuccessful attempt at reforming them.  Later still the Khazars were to make quite a stir by converting again, to Judaism this time.3 

Those who have enjoyed the stories of the thumb-cutters and the Khazars will probably also enjoy Ibn Fadlan’s ninth-century description of a Rus’ human sacrifice and orgy among the Volga Bulgars.  The Rus’ were ancestors of the Russians but were probably mostly Scandinavian at the time when Ibn Fadlan observed them. (Marius Canard,  Miscellanea Orientalia, Variorum, 1973, XI: “La relation de la voyage d’Ibn Fadlan chez les Bulgares de la Volga.”)


1 “The Deity accordingly having founded the earth, which is oblong, upon its own stability, bound together the extremities of the heaven with the extremities of the earth, making the nether extremities of the heaven rest upon the four extremities of the earth, while on high he formed it into a most lofty vault overspanning the length of the earth. Along the breadth again of the earth he built a wall from the nethermost extremities of the heaven upwards to the summit, and having enclosed the place, made a house, as one might call it, of enormous size, like an oblong vaulted vapour-bath. For, saith the Prophet Isaiah (xlix, 22): He who established heaven as a vault. With regard, moreover, to the glueing together of the heaven and the earth, we find this written in Job: He has inclined heaven to earth, and it has been poured out as the dust of the earth. I have welded it as a square block of stone.”

Contemporary Bible literalists have enormous problems with the firmament which separates the waters above the earth from the waters below the earth. Evolution isn’t the only thing they have to worry about.

2 The “Rom” or “Rum” have variously been Greeks, Turks, Crusaders, Romanians, and Gypsies over the centuries, and as the capital of the Empire or as the center of Christendom, “Rome” has minimally been sited at Ravenna, Constantinople, Aachen/Aix, Salerno, Avignon, Moscow, Paris, and Vienna. During the modern colonial period “India” was also found everywhere: in India, Ethiopia, the Caribbean Americas, and Southeast Asia. (Guinea / Ghana / Guiana is another wandering colonial place name.)

The bird we call the “turkey” is often given a foreign geographical designation, being called “dinde” (or some equivalent meaning “bird of India”) in many languages (including Turkish); “peru” in Brazil (and in India, from the Portuguese); “bird of  Egypt” in Macedonian; “Dutch bird” in Malaysia; some derivative of “bird from Calicut” (India) in Dutch and in the Scandinavian languages; and “bird of India”, “bird of Ethiopia” or “bird of Rum” in Arabic dialects .  (Note that Rome shows up again: “Rum” = “Rome” = “Turkey”).

And there is another turkey-like bird called a “Guinea fowl” which was occasionally mistaken for the turkey during the early days.

The list of words in the modern Romanian language derived from the word  “Rome” is quite a motley one. (Note that “Rumanian” and “Romanian” have entirely different meanings):

“Rom”: Gypsy; rum.
“Roman”: Roman; novel , novellette, serialized story.
“Romanşă”: Romansch (Swiss dialect).
“Român”: Romanian (n, adj) .
“Română”: Romanian (language).
“Rumân”: Serf, villein, peasant.
“Rumânie”: Serfdom, villeinage, peasant dependency.

(Andrei Bantaş. Dicţionar Român-Englez, Teora, Bucareşti, 1995.)

3 Frankly, I’m not really sure that the Khazars and the Huns are the same people in this work, though they certainly seem to be in what I’ve read so far.

On the Jewish Khazars, see:
Dunlop, D. M., History of the Jewish Khazars, Princeton, 1964;
Golden, Peter, Khazaria and Judaism, Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevii, vol. 3, 1983, 127-156;
Pritsak, Omeljan, “The Khazar King’s Conversion to Judaism”, Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 2, 1978, pp. 261—281.

Published in: on September 1, 2015 at 7:39 pm  Comments (1)  

Daughter of the Pioneers


188 F.2d 577 (1951)


United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals.
February 27, 1951.
Siegel, Mandell & Davidson, Lane, Young & Fox and Brooks & Brooks, Lane & Wallace and John D. Rode, all of New York City, associate counsel for appellee.
Before GARRETT, Chief Judge, and JACKSON, O’CONNELL, JOHNSON, and WORLEY, Associate Judges.

GARRETT, Chief Judge.

This is an appeal from the judgement of the United States Customs Court, First Division, C. D. 1203, 24 Cust.Ct.___, entered in conformity with the decision of the majority, Mollison, J. dissenting, sustaining importer’s protests claiming free entry for plates of kid skins imported from China and entered, under the Tariff Act of 1930, at the port of New York in February 1935.

Two protests, Nos. 811174-G and 909743-G, are involved. The merchandise being similar and the protests substantially identical, the cases were consolidated for trial and disposed of by the Customs Court in a single opinion and judgment.

The merchandise was classified by the Collector of Customs under paragraph 1519(a) of the Tariff Act of 1930, 19 U.S. C.A. § 1001, par. 1519(a), which reads: “Par. 1519(a) Dressed furs and dressed fur skins (except silver or black fox), and plates, mats, linings, strips, and crosses of dressed dog, goat, or kid skins, 25 per centum ad valorem; all the foregoing, if dyed, 30 per centum ad valorem.”

Alert for bandits, his trusty rifle always by his side,  Susan Sontag’s birth father Jack Rosenblatt spent years  in Siberia , Mongolia and Manchuria among the Evenki, Yukagir, and Yakuts, exchanging glass beads for sable, wolf, fox, squirrel, kid, and dog skins and sending them on camelback to the coast. But when he died in Tientsin in 1939, his efforts had come to nothing, and all he left his fatherless five year old daughter was this law suit. Memories of this latter-day Natty Bumppo would always haunt her dreams.

Published in: on October 18, 2014 at 7:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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