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On Squaring the Circle

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron ]

This post, the first of several at our temporary Zenpunditry.Wordpress backup site — make a note of the URL — while ZP itself was down for a week, also contained an announcement of that problem, now no longer required.
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I don’t have anything earth-shattering to report by way of an immanent apocalypse, but my interest in form got nicely tweaked yesterday when I finished watching the movie of Faulkner‘s As I lay Dying — which uses a lot of split screen work that reminded me of my collection of DoubleQuotes in the Wild…

Image

But anyway, I was saying…

I finished the film, stunned and impressed, and went to look see if I could find a copy of the book (I thought it was a short story) online, and came across what to me is the most exquisite short paragraph devoted to form — the second para in As I Lay Dying

The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laidby cotton, to the cottonhouse in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cottonhouse at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again, worn so by feet in fading precision.

Such awesome beauty there, squaring the circle, circling the square — and for me, the recollection too of John Donne doing a similar rounded squaring:

At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go…

Such exquisite geometries both great writers offer us.

I suggest it’s because they have an eye for form — they look or the shapes, the patterns in things — they’re constantly scanning, constantly practicing pattern-recognition.

Which as you know, is an desirable cognitive skill in analytic work — one of the way to connect the dots.

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Matrioshka forensics

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — it still takes a live human to see what the human eye cannot see but the machine can ]
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This would appear to be (one version of) the state of the art in facial recognition:

Image within image within image — the gentleman on the right is more or less recognizable as a reflection in the eye of the gentleman on the left — thus giving new potential meaning to the phrase “you are the apple of my eye” (cf Zechariah 2:8, also Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream III.ii.102 ff., and Stevie Wonder, You Are The Sunshine Of My Life).

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Or — to switch disciplines while remaining with the matrioshka form, because such patterns are of interest to the inquiring mind — as Gary Snyder puts it in his marvelous poem, One Should Not Speak to a Skilled Hunter:

The secret.
and the secret hidden deep in that.

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For another version of the state of the art in facial recognition, see: Where’s Ms. Waldo?. Aloha!

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Serpent logics: the marathon

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — oh, the sheer delightful drudgery of finding patterns everywhere ]
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I’ll start this post, as I did the previous one to which this is a sort of appendix, with a (deeply strange, tell me about it) example of the…

Matrioshka pattern:


That’s a piece of jewelry made out of disembodied pieces of Barbies from the extraordinary designer’s mind of Margaux Lange, FWIW.

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This post is the hard core follow up to my earlier piece today, Serpent logics: a ramble, and offers you the chance to laugh and groan your way through all the other “patterns” I’ve been collecting over the last few months. My hope is that repeated (over)exposure to these patterns will make the same patterns leap out at you when you encounter them in “real life”.

Most of the examples you run across may prove humorous — but if you’re monitoring news feeds for serious matters, my hunch is that you’ll find some of them helpful in grasping “big pictures” or gestalts, noting analomalies and seeing parallels you might otherwise have missed.

Have at it!

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Here’s another Matrioshka, from the structural end of lit crit that my friend Wm. Benzon attacks with gusto over at New Savannah:

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Enantiodromia:

You’ll recall this is the pattern where something turns into its opposite… as described in this quote from the movie Prozac Nation:

I dream about all the things I wish I’d said.
The opposite of what came out of my mouth.
I wish I’d said
“Please forgive me. Please help me.
I know I have no right to behave this way?”

Here are a few examples…

Ahmed Akkari Repents Violent Opposition to Danish Cartoons Lampooning Islam:

After a Danish newspaper published cartoons satirizing the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, Ahmed Akkari spearheaded protests that ultimately cost the lives of 200 people. Now he says he’s sorry. Michael Moynihan on what changed Akkari’s mind.

That’s impressive!

That one’s run of the media mill…

And this one’s from my delightful, delicious boss, Danielle LaPorte:

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A friend sent me this:

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Let’s just plough ahead…

Nominalism:

Nominalism is the category where the distinction between a word and what it represents gets blurry — a very significant distinction in some cases —

How’s this for naming your donkey after your President?

Consider this one, another instance of nominalism in action, from the French justice system:

A mother who sent her three-year-old son Jihad to school wearing a sweater with the words “I am a bomb” on the front, along with his name and ‘Born on September 11th’ on the back, was handed a suspended jail sentence on Friday for “glorifying a crime”. A court of appeal in the city of Nimes, southern France, convicted Jihad’s mother Bouchra Bagour and his uncle Zeyad for “glorifying a crime” in relation to the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11th 2001.

The classic nominalist image — with which I’d compare and contrast the French three-year-old with the unfortunate name and tsee-shirt — is Magritte’s cdelebrated “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”:

And here’s one final nominalist example:

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The spiral:

Here’s a potential downwards spiral, for those watching India:

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Straight parallelism:

This one’s from Jonathan Franzen:

And meanwhile the overheating of the atmosphere, meanwhile the calamitous overuse of antibiotics by agribusiness, meanwhile the widespread tinkering with cell nucleii, which may well prove to be as disastrous as tinkering with atomic nucleii. And, yes, the thermonuclear warheads are still in their silos and subs.

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Simple Opposition:

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Some of these categories seem pretty fluid — or to put that another way, some of these examples might fit with equal ease into several doifferent categories. Here’s another oppositional class:

Arms crossed:

From Ezra Klein and Evan Solta blogging at WaPo’s Wonkbook: The Republican Party’s problem, in two sentences:

It would be a disaster for the party to shut down the government over Obamacare. But it’s good for every individual Republican politician to support shutting down the government over Obamacare.

A great “values” juxtaposition:

And hey, nice phrasing:

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Here’s an example of one of the central patterns of violence and justice:

Tit for Tat:

[ the account this tweet came from, which was a media outlet for Shabaab, has since been closed — hence the less than euqal graphical appearance of this particular tweet… ]

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And here, without too much further ado, is a whole concatenation of…

Serpents biting their tails:

[ … and that last one of Nein‘s appears to have been withdrawn from circulation ]

This one I love for its lesson on biblical pick-and-choose:

This one is also a DoubleQuote:

when closely followed by:

And this one really bites:

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To close the series out with more of a bang than a whimper, here’s Serpent bites Tail with apocalypse & gameplay for additional spice:

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Strategy, Winston Churchill, and the power of positive thinking

Monday, October 7th, 2013

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Winston Churchill had terrible parents.

Randolph Churchill was a Tory meteor who shot brightly across British politics only to die of syphilitic inanity by age 45. The elder Churchill’s attitude towards his firstborn was cold and dismissive: while he may never have said anything as chilly as Arthur Wellesley’s mother (“my ugly boy Arthur was food for powder and nothing more”), Randolph Churchill agreed with Ann Wesley’s sentiments enough to pack young Winston off to Sandhurst to become cannon fodder.

Randolph Churchill

Randolph Churchill

Jennie Jerome was an American heiress who spent most of her time pursuing (and being pursued) by high London society. Winning Mum of the Year was item 113 on her 100 item todo list. When his mother finally allowed him to develop a personal relationship with her deep into his twenties, Churchill described their relationship as more brother-sister than mother-son.

Jennie Jerome Churchill

Jennie Jerome Churchill

Churchill reacted to his parental deep freeze by idealizing mum and dad. If the beacon of maternal love in Churchill’s memoirs will never be mistaken for the real Jennie Jerome Churchill, Churchill ignored the incongruity. If the romanticized father he worshipped bore only a slight resemblance to the real Randolph Churchill, Churchill’s desire for the approval of this shade conjured by his own vast imagination was enough to spur him to great deeds. Asked later in life what his greatest regret was, Churchill surprised one interviewer by wistfully wishing that Randolph Churchill had lived to see his son’s career success. Churchill even had a dream starring Randolph Churchill in 1947, 50 years after his father’s died. His father’s ghost appeared and interrogated Churchill about happenings in the world since his death. Churchill got to most of early 20th century history but, tellingly, he didn’t have enough time to tell his father of his key role in those events before the dream ended.

Churchill’s eager over-imaginings not only gave him wonderful parents but other equally sustaining fictions. Churchill believed in (and almost willed into existence) a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland that was as strong and vital in the early 20th century as it was under Pitt or Temple. In reality, the Britain of Churchill’s time was a run-down and dispirited shadow of glory, more fixated on bread and butter at home than dash and destiny abroad. In Churchill’s imagination, the Britain of 1940 was a Tyrannosaur among sheep. In reality, it was a dodo among eagles and bears.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

Lawrence Freedman has argued that Churchill’s strategy in 1940-1941 is vastly different from the strategy contemporary strategic studies holds up as an ideal. His strategy was the triumph of hope over experience, one of the great fantasy spectaculars of the 20th century. His soldiers were tired, his people were dispirited, his aircraft carriers carried biplanes, his generals were mulish, and his empire was restive. The only anchors in reality for Churchill’s strategy were the inability of Nazis to march over or part the English Channel and American reluctance to see faltering Britain replaced by revanchist Germany. All else was theater.

Mule

Mule

Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953. This is revealing: Churchill was a better writer than orthodox strategist. His delusions were as larger than life as his correct notions were. But Churchill’s resort to grand narrative was far more successful than strategic orthodoxy can capture or comprehend. More often than not, the strength of conviction behind a strategy’s more tenuous elements wins more in war than its tenuous connection to reality warrants.

Churchill’s strategy in childhood consisted of holding on to a series of deluded and contradictory beliefs about his parents in the hope that something good would turn up. Churchill’s strategy in World War II consisted of holding on to a series of deluded and contradictory beliefs about the British Empire in the hope that something would turn up. Self-appointed strategic professionals often diagnose a possible strategic outcome as impossible only to be confounded when someone clings to impossibility until the possible turns up. Mere clinging has a long and distinguished record of unmasking the impossible as only the improbable under the wrong circumstances and the all too probable under the right circumstances.

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Dawn and Decadence, Innovation, & The Face of Battle — top 3

Friday, October 4th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman]

From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, by Jacques Barzun

In a year where I’ve not been able to read as much as normal and with 89 days remaining in 2013, these three titles are the best so far. I’m not finished with Dawn, but it seems like the late Professor Barzun is an old friend (here is a video from 2010). Barzun’s opus was published when he was 93 and was almost ten years in the making. Dawn has been sitting on my shelves for four or five years and I’d started it two or three times only to get bogged down and lose interest. Well over half way finished and I’m pretty sure I’ll be rereading this title for years to come (co-blogger Lynn Rees reports he’s read it four times). Barzun’s scope covers the gamut: religion, literature, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, philosophy, and the aristocracy/life at court. Since many of these topics are interconnected he uses an ingenious method to assist the reader in keeping up. He uses this: (<page number)(page number>) to direct the reader to something previously discussed or something he will cover later. In the text, he will recommend “the book to read is” “the book to browse is” in brackets. I’ve found this method distracting as I’ve read three books he referenced since I started… Barzun also provides generous lift quotes in the margins to give the reader a flavor for a particular writer or idea/example. If the book had a traditional bibliography, I dare say it would cover a couple hundred pages–at least. Dawn has been a pleasure I’ve been taking in small doses and am in no hurry to finish. This is the best book of the genre that I’ve read.

Men, Machines and Modern Times, by Elting Morison

Elting Morison’s Men, Machines is reviewed at Amazon by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as “purely and simply one of the best books ever written on the process of innovation and the interaction of technology, culture, systems, and individual personalities.” I could not agree more. Morison’s book is a collection of essays dealing with change and man’s inherit but paradoxical reaction to it:

Yet, if human beings are attached to the known, to the realm of things as they are, they also, regrettably for their peace of mind, are incessantly attracted to the unknown and things as they might be. As Ecclesiastes glumly pointed out, men persist in disordering their settled ways and beliefs by seeing out many inventions…Change has always been a constant in human affairs…

From gunnery at sea to 19th Century railroads, Morison provides illustration after illustration of man, his institutions, and the almost universal resistance of both to change. Morison observes of inventors (real “disruptive thinkers’) [this was written in the early 1950’s]:

I once collected evidence on the lives of about thirty of these men who flourished in the nineteenth century. A surprising number turned out to be people with little formal education, who drank a good deal, who were careless with money, and who had trouble with wives or other women.

Morison devotes one essay to the characteristics and ills of a “bureau.” He describes the difficulty of getting anything accomplished within an average bureaucracy—largely because bureaucrats live for process and harmony. He says:

Taken together, a set of regulations provides a pattern of behavior for the energies bureaus are set up to regulate….Regulations are a way of keeping a system of energies working in harmony and balance…First it is easier to make a regulation than to abolish it.

Morison’s eighth and concluding essay provide Some Proposals for dealing with change and newness—in a word, solutions to many of the problems identified earlier. That said, only the most dedicated reader will complete the seventh (and longest) chapter, according the Morison, originally intended to be a book about the history of 19th Century American railroad innovation. Overall, I concur with Speaker Gingrich and highly recommend this title.

The Face of Battle, by John Keegan

A title needing no introduction at Zenpundit, I’ll only offer this title as one of the best books of the genre I’ve read. Keegan covers three battles across 500 years of history, Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme. In each, he brings alive the battlefield and provides the conditions faced by combatants—often up close and personal. Keegan’s scholarship, insight, and importantly, his humility in addressing a topic he admittedly had no first hand experience make this a must read for anyone in the profession of arms, and recommended for anyone seeking more insight into how we fight.

That’s a wrap, be back soon! 

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