Monday, September 18, 2017

"Let Be Be Finale of Seem"

These are famous words from a famous poem.  No doubt they've been explained already by many, or at least analyzed; perhaps even by the poet himself.  Wallace Stevens was a poet who wrote of poetry.  Perhaps the lawyer in him, or the student of Santayana that he was, still within him, compelled him to be a critic as well as an artist.  I will give them my own interpretation, though.

The sunset is a kind of finale, though not one as final as death.  It's the finale of a day, which may indeed be remorseful as A.E. Housman wrote but need not be.  Remorse is understandable at the end of a day, or a life, to one who is thinking at the end of one or the other, because it's not uncommon to feel remorse for what was done or was not done which could have or should have been done.  Humans being what they are chances are excellent that they should have or could have done something and that something they did was wrong.

What seems to be isn't necessarily what is.  To be is to exist.  What exists may seem not to exist.  You get the picture (or at least you get what the picture seems to be).

"Let be be finale of seem."  Let the end of our efforts to determine what seems to be, be?  Let what seems to be, to us, be?  Or, let it be, in the sense of give it up, forget about it?  Give it up, this tendency we have to distinguish appearance from reality, to insist on a thing-in-itself that we cannot know?  Give up the belief that what seems to be reality isn't really reality (the really real)?

I'm impatient with metaphysical and ontological concerns, i.e. the issue of Being and, that other favorite, Nothingness.  That may be a failing on my part.  I'm unconcerned with questions regarding what it is, in all cases, to be or not to be (was Shakespeare having a bit of fun with philosophers when he wrote this speech of Hamlet?  I find myself hoping so).  The fact that we make mistakes sometimes leaves me unimpressed.  It hardly seems grounds on which to question all we interact with naturally, by living, with considerable success, much less envision some kind of place apart from the world on which all truth and beauty depends.

So, I would interpret Stevens as saying that what is, is in the end what seems to us to be.  In the end of the day, in the end of us, you and me.  Let it be so.

"Things Merely Are" is the title of a book by Simon Critchley about philosophy in the poems of Wallace Stevens.  It seems a less than hopeful phrase, but it's an assertion that renders a good deal of speculative philosophy superfluous.  And, if that was what Stevens was attempting to say, in his poetry, it's something few other poets have said, I think.  Yet there's unquestionably beauty in his poetry, just as there is unquestionably beauty in things of all kinds.

Consider sunset, especially as pictured above.  The sunset merely is, of course, but though we don't cause the Earth to revolve or the sun to exist it is what it seems to be to us, the end of a day, and though it can seem to be, to us, a splendid end or a dismal, dull one, it's nonetheless an end of something.

We're edging into Autumn, now, and in that part of our Great Republic in which I live the leaves will turn glorious and then wither and fall.  Crops will be harvested, vegetation of all kinds will stop growing, weather will turn cold.  As we've known since ancient times, we wither and die like other things in the world do.  But some of the most striking sunsets I've ever see have been winter sunsets, when the world seems, and is, dead.  Those sunsets merely are as our deaths merely are.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Ambivalence of Henry Adams

I've tried for some years now to read The Education of Henry Adams.  I have not succeeded in doing so.  I'm trying to read it once more, and this time have read more of it than I ever have.  I'm uncertain whether I'll be successful in reading it all.

This disturbs me, as it's a work which seems to be admired by almost everyone.  Gore Vidal, whom I admire as a writer (but not necessarily as a public figure) was very fond of it indeed, and wrote that there was something of a competition on the death of a relative or friend regarding who would receive the deceased's copy of the book.

It's a curious book, often described as an autobiography but if so not one which even pretends to set forth events which took place in a more or less objective manner (to the extent that's possible).  It's instead a commentary regarding certain aspects of Adams' life and certain people he encountered while living it.  It is well written, but as a commentary, not as an effort to relate what took place.  Adams is uninterested in describing what took place.  He wants instead to tell us something of what he thought of what took place while it took place, but most of all to tell us what he thinks now about what took place and those who were there while it took place including, perhaps most of all, himself.

There's nothing wrong with the author of an autobiography being interested primarily in himself, of course.  A certain level of self-interest and self-regard is required if an autobiography is to be written.  Nor is there anything necessarily wrong with an autobiographer using the opportunity provided to opine regarding people and things in his or her past.

  What I find somewhat peculiar, though, is that Adams does nothing but opine about them.  It seems the entire purpose of the book.  What I also find striking is that Adams never seems to wholeheartedly admire, or write well of, anyone or anything.  That includes his famous grandfather and great-grandfather, and his own father.  Whenever he describes a talent or ability of a person, he invariably notes, as if to offset it, something lacking in him.  The same goes for any institution.  It has certain good qualities which he will mention, but is otherwise deficient in some sense.  The deficiencies of any person or institution, inevitably, are greater than the merits; or it seems at least that he spends more time remarking on their inadequacies than he does on their good qualities.

For example, he attended Harvard College which was good in its own way, inoffensively and efficiently preparing its students for life in the world, but provided a poor education.  His classmates included such as O.W. Holmes and the son of Robert E. Lee, but Holmes at the time was nothing to write home about and Lee, though sociable and having leadership qualities was an angry, stupid, thin-skinned drunk liable to leap at you with a knife if he thought you had offended him.  Adams' father, Charles Francis Adams, was amiable and remarkably even tempered, but dull and something of a dunce.

Life seems to have been a series of disappointments for Henry Adams, overall.  The world and all that's in it was on the whole somewhat dispiriting.  It in any case contained nothing, apparently, which Adams thinks was wholly good.  What was good wasn't quite good enough, and was in some way bad.  Nothing seemed worthy of any great effort on his part.

This perhaps is why he didn't go into public service as his ancestors on the Adams side did.  His grandfather and great-grandfather were presidents and his great grandfather was a Founding Father of his country, a revolutionary.  His father served as U.S. Ambassador of England.  He accompanied his father as a clerk, it's true, but his natural tendency seemed to have been to comment on people and things, not very approvingly, as an occasional journalist and historian.  He didn't soldier in the Civil War.

He may have been one of the first public, or even professional, full time intellectuals.  He had a kind of salon, at which he and others of like mind met and discussed significant matters.  He seems to have been especially fond of clever young women, his "nieces" as they were called.  He had an ongoing, though it seems platonic, relation with the beautiful daughter of William Tecumseh Sherman.  His wife committed suicide, and he took the trouble to destroy all her correspondence and indeed never wrote of her, even in his "autobiography", and it seems didn't speak of her after her death.  This led some to speculate that he had been unfaithful to her.

A peculiar man, then, and one given to judge others, not too kindly.  He was apparently also a notorious and savage anti-Semite.  His friend John Hay commented that he would have attributed the eruption of Vesuvius to the Jews.

It's possible his propensity to see and speak of the deficiencies in all people he knew or encountered, and any human institution he experienced, may have been the result of having a judicious mind.  But one has to wonder, reading this book, whether he was ever enthusiastic about someone or something, or whether he found fault wherever he looked, for all his life.

Intellectuals, it seems, live to criticize, and are never really content in doing anything else.  Henry Adams may have been representative of the decay of a great New England family (he never was particularly fond of Boston, either).  Or he may have been simply more astute than anyone else.  He may have relished and thrived in his disappointment and ambivalence; it may be that he wouldn't have enjoyed being content or happy, at least if it meant that he would not be inclined or able to find fault with someone, anyone.

The education of Henry Adams was apparently an education in the faults of others, and even his own faults.  These faults weren't formally taught, and so were not part of his education or that of anybody else, but simply were made evident to him as part of our existence, which he observed and wrote of, disapprovingly for the most part.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Dead Languages Society

It seems there is a difference between "dead languages" and "extinct languages."  An extinct language is one that is no longer spoken.  A dead language is one that is no longer the native language of any living community.  Latin is an example of a dead language.  It is not the native tongue of any person now alive.  However, it "lives" in the sense that it is still spoken by some, read by some; some even write it.  So, the Latin phrase shown above, which may be translated as "Long live dead languages," isn't nonsense.  It actually makes sense, to those who study Latin and other dead languages and delight in creating such phrases.  Better yet, I think, is Sola Lingua Bona est Lingua Mortua, which is to say "The only good language is a dead language."

In the Western tradition, Etruscan is a good example of an extinct language.  Nobody speaks it; very few can read what examples of it we have, and then can only do so in a very limited way.  It hasn't been figured out yet.

It's interesting to view the lists of dead or extinct languages which can be found in such sources as Wikipedia.  What is striking about these lists is that the languages shown as dead or extinct significantly outnumber those which are "living."  Dead or extinct languages may have been transformed over time and become living languages, as Latin became Italian, Spanish and French.  Or they may have been annihilated in the course of cultural assimilation.  The English and Americans insisted that the children of those they conquered learn English.  They even thought they were doing them a favor by conspiring in the destruction of native languages.  And of course they were not alone in this linguistic imperialism.

The extinction of a language is, I think, a real tragedy.  So essential is language that it may be said not merely a people or a culture but an entire world is lost when this takes place, or at least a world view, i.e. how the world is perceived by a people, how they interact with it.  It's a kind of genocide.  The extinction of languages is something like the extinction of those who spoke it.  If that's the case, then our history has been a series of extinction events; hundreds of cultures have been lost or destroyed, ways of living have been wiped off the planet.

English is neither dead nor extinct, of course, but it's interesting to speculate regarding whether it will be one or the other, in time.  I think it's more likely it will be transformed.  It may be that American English will be transformed through the slow progression in the use of Spanish in the U.S., which will take place regardless of the efforts of those who will, whether they like it or not, die soon enough and likely not be replaced or replaced by a steadily dwindling number of their descendants with the same reactionary views.  Or, and this is especially interesting, it may be that English will be transformed by the technology which now encourages us to use it less and less.

It happens that technology at one time contributed to the use of language in the sense that it led to the growth of written language.  Increasing sophistication in the use of tools to increase agriculture and the production of goods resulted in an increase in communities and transactions between them and individuals, which in turn fostered the development of means of written communication to express law and memorialize commercial transactions and eventually treaties, the use of numbers and signs to represent them, etc.  Or so it's traditionally thought.

Now technology promotes the devolution of written language.  Thus we're developing a kind of shorthand, a restricted form of English employing letters as words by virtue of the way they sound ("you" becomes "u"), the use of abbreviations which have become instantly recognizable (e.g. "lol"), and emojis.  The day will come, I predict (for all I know it may be here) when poetry, prose, lyrics are crafted on the basis of such devices of language; we may develop a new kind of hieroglyphic language. 

Old English died out long ago.  What will be come of the English of today?  The chances of it being superseded as it superseded other languages are slim, I believe, but its users and their technology could well render it radically different from what it is now.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Pardons and Pandering

In our Glorious Republic, the authority of the president to grant pardons is itself granted by the Constitution.  It is granted in Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of that remarkable document, which article, section and clause as well provides that the president shall be the commander in chief of the army and navy of the United States. and also indicates that the president has what are normally referred to as "executive powers."  The pardon power is simply stated.  The president "shall have the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."

The pardon power is sometimes treated as silly, as in the case of traditional pardons issued to a single turkey each Thanksgiving.  Harry Truman is shown exercising that power, above.  Speaking as a lawyer who has practiced for decades, this power is one that has always concerned me.  I have no idea when or why presidents began pardoning turkeys, but wish that they had been given power to pardon turkeys only.  For example, the Constitution could be amended to say presidents  "have the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States by turkeys."

Granted, the drafters of the Constitution likely didn't anticipate that a person as ignorant and corrupt as the current office holder would be elected, or even could be elected.  Granted also that the power to pardon has been deemed to be one of the powers held by heads of state such as kings and emperors of the past.  Even so, I find it hard to think of such a power, left unlimited as it seems to be in the Constitution (except in cases of impeachment), as providing for anything but corruption and favoritism.

Fortunately, the power has been tempered by custom and practice.  Usually, the power is reserved until the end of a president's term of office, when presumably there would be fewer pockets to line, less political bills to pay.  Possibly, the president may even by that time have learned something about the misuse of power and the benefits of being circumspect.  Also, the Justice Department is usually consulted in the process.  Consideration is given to whether the public welfare would be benefited or at least unharmed if a pardon was granted, whether the sentence imposed was severe, whether the person pardoned has expressed remorse, whether evidence indicates conviction was tainted in some manner, and such other aspects of a case as might occur to a reasonable person trying to make a reasonable decision.

Sadly, in this most recent case the pardoner is neither reasonable nor, it would seem, interested in making a reasonable decision.  It seems that the president failed to consult with the Justice Department beyond asking it to drop charges (as it seems is his wont).  It seems indeed that very little was considered beyond the fact that person pardoned was an avid fan of the president, held views similar to those held by him regarding immigration,, was elderly. and was the kind of person admired by those who admire and support the president. 

Even a more competent or less corrupt president might be expected to favor pardoning friends, families and allies, however, and be tempted to use the pardon power to their benefit.  The fact that kings and emperors of the past had such power would seem to me to be more a reason to withhold it than assign it to any one person, most kings and emperors having been less than wise.  It would be best if there was no such power.  But it's likely that this power will not be revoked by Constitutional amendment, and the best that can be expected is a limitation of the power.

If the drafters of the Constitution were unable to envision the mess we are in now, or predict that so sorry a person would one day hold the office of president, their lack of foresight is unfortunate but understandable.  Men of the kind they were didn't consort with men of the kind we have now in office.  We, though, cannot be excused if we expect anything better from such a man, who may be expected to pardon his friends and family if it is found that they engaged in criminal conduct, and especially to pardon himself should it prove expedient.

We may hope that no other such person will become president  in the future, but to expect that will be the case is foolish.  If we're capable of electing our current president, we're capable of electing most anyone.  So, I think the public welfare would be served if the pardon power was expressly restricted to certain limited types of crime, that certain standards be met and that a president be required to consult with Congress before a pardon is granted.

The Executive Branch has become too powerful in various respects, especially when it comes to exercising war powers.  Limitations on that power are needed if we must expect that in the future unworthy and incompetent folk will be elected president.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Statues and History

Statues have been much in the news, lately.  Not the one pictured above, but others.  The one pictured above is of Henry IV of France.  Not very popular among his people while he lived, he was honored after his death for his achievements.  His statue as well as those of other kings was torn down during the French Revolution.  It was rebuilt, however, in 1818, and continues to stand where it stands now, as pictured.

I've never been much inspired by statues, or even interested in them, except as works of art or as historical artifacts.  I mean by "historical artifacts" in the case of statues those which tell us something about a period of history.  Those are generally ancient, and sometimes religious.

The statues in the news these days, which people are inclined to remove or destroy, and which other people wish to preserve and keep in situ, are statues which are of Confederate generals or heroes. Like statues of Union generals and heroes, they themselves tell us nothing significant about history.  Neither are they works of art.  They depict people who lived, who are considered significant figures of history by those that erect them.  They're generally meant to honor those they depict.

Those like our increasingly tiresome president who consider them part of our history are mistaken, I think, unless they mean to say that they've been in place for some time, which is so trivial a statement I assume that it isn't intended.  When we speak of the history of the United States, I don't think we refer to statues.

For good or ill, I tend to ignore such statues.  I know they're there when I encounter them, I may know without encountering them that they stand in certain places.  I'm not interested in them.  They may be taken down for all I care, or they may remain for all I care.  They don't inspire any kind of emotion in me, or at least have not in the past.

For my part, I think there's nothing admirable about the Confederacy.  So, I find it hard to understand why such statues exist.  Those who are depicted by them may have been skillful military commanders; they may have been brave.  But, they used that skill and courage in the service of a rebellion against their country, and in the service of a regime which had as its purpose the preservation of a horrible, contemptible, institution. 

I therefore am not in the least concerned by their removal.  And I think it unreasonable to claim, as some apparently do, that it's important that they remain.  To the extent they have any significance, they are significant only as symbolic of a pro-slavery rebellion against lawful authority.  Those who think that should be honored are unworthy.  Those who think it should not be honored are right.

It interesting to note, though, that these statues may come to have historical significance depending on what happens now that there's an outcry against them.  If they're torn down or removed, it may reflect a change in our perception of our history, which will in itself be historic.  On the other hand, it they're permitted to stand or their removal is prohibited, it may reflect a perpetuation of what has been--in my case--indifference and what has been in other cases an admiration of, and perhaps nostalgia for, a hateful institution or a fundamentally racist ideology.

Does the history of the statue of Henry IV suggest, however, that statues will be erected, removed, and re-erected as times and people change?  Does our idea of what is or is not honorable or admirable change over time?  It certainly has in the past.  In this case, it should not.