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One of England’s Freedoms

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — an amused defense of sacred measures such as the foot, yard, and acre — against the atheistic and idolatrous metric system ]
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You can trudge uphill, you can run up hill and down dale as the saying goes, you may march from pillar to post, church spire to spire, you may follow ancient foot- or bridle-paths or ley lines — all these, if pursued on foot, are covered by the word rambling, and in England, if you follow well-trodden or half forgotten paths, it’s your right. It is one of England’s freedoms.

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Sam Knight, in the New Yorker a couple of days ago, The Search for England’s Forgotten Footpaths:

Nineteen years ago, the British government passed one of its periodic laws to manage how people move through the countryside. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act created a new “right to roam” on common land, opening up three million acres of mountains and moor, heath and down, to cyclists, climbers, and dog walkers. It also set an ambitious goal: to record every public path crisscrossing England and Wales… [ .. ]

Between them, England and Wales have around a hundred and forty thousand miles of footpaths, of which around ten per cent are impassable at any time, with another ten thousand miles that are thought to have dropped off maps or otherwise misplaced. Finding them all again is like reconstructing the roots of a tree.

Now that’s all numbers, and numbers are, d’oh, quantitative. The thing is, walks in the English countryside are primarily qualitative affairs, with mud, styles to clamber across, flash thunderstorms and after-storm greenery, oaks with mistletoe or a thousand rooks high in their branches, willows, snails, birdsong, conversation with a friend or two.. Plato, Brahms, Ann Patchett, Feynmann, Hitchcock, .. with picnics and sandwiches along the way..

Freedom!

Qualitative beats quantitative all to smithereens.

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If you look at the photo that accompanies Sam Knight‘s New Yorker piece [above], it belies the “unremarkable walk in the English countryside” mentioned in its caption — clear on the horizon is Glastonbury Tor, hardly an unremarkable location for English walkers.

Ever since my friend the late British hedgerow philosopher John Michell [above] — hedgerow and British Museum Reading Room philosopher, that is — wrote his startling best-seller The View Over Atlantis [below] —

— ever since that book appeared, new-agers and ramblers have rambled along ley lines and in search of standing stones — I was one such rambler, along with Michell himself and our mutual friend, the photographer Gabi Nasemann, though I fear I was the slowest and most complaining in our small party — where was I? — Glastonbury Tor has been a sort of seekers’ central for those whose imaginations project ley lines — equivalent to Chinese dragon-paths — across the actual lay of the land.

Another friend, Lex Neale, penned this piece, Glastonbury: King Arthur’s Field, giving an overview of Glastonbury and the supposed zodiac spread out around it —

for my then guru’s in-house magazine, lo these many years ago. By then I was in America. And we were young.

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Why do I so love my memories of John Michell?

He was a William Blake returned, wrong by the mechanical standards of the age, right in imaginative reach.

It was in the Spring 1978 issue of CoEvolution Quarterly that I first read the text of John‘s A Defence of Sacred Measures. He’d published it as a pamphlet — the first in a series of “Radical Traditionalist Papers” to which our mutual friend the recently deceased Heathcote Willians also contributed — Heathcote {below] —

do watch this clip, it’ll only take three minutes of your lifetime, and they’ll be three minutes well-spent! —

— and Stewart Brand must have snagged it for CoEQ. Anyway, you can get the gist from the full title, in the format the pamphlet gave it, as you may have seen at the head of this post:

I’m deeply grateful to Zenpundit friend Grurray for pointing me to that cover and the full text of John‘s essay, which my own web searching hadn’t turned up. Grurray took particular pleasure in this excerpt:

the use of the foot locates the centre of the world within each individual, and encourages him to arrange his kingdom after the best possible model, the cosmic order. The ancient method of acquiring this model was not astronomy but initiation

For myself, it’s John‘s description of the cubit and sundry other measures — and their rationale — that gets me:

Cloth is sold by the cubit, the distance from elbow to finger tip, and other such units as the span and handbreadth were formerly used which have now generally become obsolete. Of course no two people have the same bodily dimensions, and the canonical man has never existed save as an idea or archetype. These traditional units are not, however, imprecise or inaccurate. Ancient societies regarded their standards of measure as their most sacred possessions and they have been preserved with extreme accuracy from the earliest times. A craftsman soon learns to what extent the parts of his own body deviate from the conventional standard and adjusts accordingly.

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Oh, you may think this all a pretentious, anachronistic attempt to revive a moribund system. But consider this, from the LA Times in 1999:

NASA lost its $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter because spacecraft engineers failed to convert from English to metric measurements when exchanging vital data before the craft was launched, space agency officials said Thursday.

A navigation team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used the metric system of millimeters and meters in its calculations, while Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, which designed and built the spacecraft, provided crucial acceleration data in the English system of inches, feet and pounds.

As a result, JPL engineers mistook acceleration readings measured in English units of pound-seconds for a metric measure of force called newton-seconds.

In a sense, the spacecraft was lost in translation.

The Times assumes the correct procedure would have been “to convert from English to metric measurements” — but who says? One might equally argue the translation should have gone from metric to English.. the mother tongue, so to speak.

John Michell would lead us along that path..

Wishing ZP readers a Merry Christmas

Tuesday, December 25th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — with a poem by Richard Wilbur ]
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TWO VOICES IN A MEADOW
by Richard Wilbur

A Milkweed

Anonymous as cherubs
Over the crib of God,
White seeds are floating
Out of my burst pod.
What power had I
Before I learned to yield?
Shatter me, great wind:
I shall possess the field.

A Stone

As casual as cow-dung
Under the crib of God,
I lie where chance would have me,
Up to the ears in sod.
Why should I move? To move
Befits a light desire.
The sill of Heaven would founder,
Did such as I aspire.

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I was listening to a podcast with Stephen Mitchell discussing this poem, and then his own translation of the Odyssey, and was struck by these two comments on the music of poetry — echoing my love of Bach and my interest in counterpoint and stereophony:

You can read a translation by somebody who’s really good and say, Ah, that’s got to be done by so and so, in the same way that you hear a bit of Goldberg Variations and you know that’s Glenn Gould or Murray Perahia..

The poet of the original poem, whether or not anonymous, is listening to something, and the listening eventually becomes the words, so it’s not something, if a poem is really good, it’s not something in a sense he’s creating, it is creating through him, or her, and that’s what becomes the poem. So in the same way, a really good translator is listening, but it’s stereophonic, so in one ear he has the original poem in the original language, and in the other ear, there’s pure, you could say pure longing, or pure silence, where nothing is happening and he cannot force it and will not force it, and then at a certain point, the English words form by themselves, as that counterpoint to the original language, and then it’s done.

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BTW:

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With this simple, humble poem set in a field — not in a manger, mind you, but in a field, any field pretty much, though there are crib-nativity echoes in each stanza — we at Zenpundit wish all our readers the happiest of holiday seasons, in whatever tradition you each may follow..

A chess tactic and its Trump/Putin similar

Saturday, July 14th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — companion to A soccer tactic and its parliamentary analog ]
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Trump and Putin are on their respective ways to a meet in Helsinki. This post offers a chess angle on the importance of symmetry as a technique Putin happily uses on Trump and others. Symmetry is already a keen interest of mine in the arts, where it is a prime key to beauty. In chess, too, and it would seem in diplomacy and strategy, symmetry matters.

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Here’s the game in which Bobby Fischer kills Robert Byrne in an astounding 21 moves:

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What’s of interest to us here is the symmetry at move 11, shown here in two diagrams:

where the blue lines annotate the symmetries in files a, b, c, d, g, and h

and here:

where the red center-line serves as a mirror for those symmetrical files, their positions highlighted in green.

And here’s the site’s comment on symmetry:

It’s quite often the case that in very symmetrical positions such as this one, things go about very slowly, it’s often a bit of a maneuvering game, not a lot of, let’s say, great tactics, or fireworks, things of course can change, but there’s a great amount of symmetry here..

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Well, chess is the game of strategy par eminence, isn’t it? Here’s a quote I just used in my metaphors collection:

Brian Williams: Putin does the most rudimentary things, like mirroring, which communications experts will tell you is a way to kind of endearing yourself to your guest.
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Clint Watts: [agreeing] Ingratiate and mirror.

President Trump openly says If you say to me that you like me, then I like you. He’s just opening the door for this. Putin has done this with other world leaders. .. You want to build rapport with President Bush, talk about religion and the Christian Orthodox church. you do these things to build and ingratiate and build a mirror relationship with the target.

I’m not saying there’s a direct parallel between the chess comment and the Brian Williams / Clint Watts conversation, which just scratches the surface of the communications stragegy of mirroring and similar techniques, and their relevance to the immadiate situation with Trump on his way to Helsinki to meet Putin

with only two translators in the room

— just that the emphasis on symmetry in the celebrated Fischer chess match gives us a clue to the possible importance of symmetry in crucial strategic situations in general — and thus to the coming week’s Trump / Putin situation.

Sunday surprise — literal rainfall ancient and modern

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — a DoubleQuote in the arts ]
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Guillaume Apollinaire:

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Il pleut

Il pleut des voix de femmes comme si elles étaient mortes même dans le souvenir
c’est vous aussi qu’il pleut merveilleuses rencontres de ma vie ô gouttelettes
et ces nuages cabrés se prennent à hennir tout un univers de villes auriculaires
écoute s’il pleut tandis que le regret et le dédain pleurent une ancienne musique
écoute tomber les liens qui te retiennent en haut et en bas.

Roger Shattuck, brilliant author of The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France) translates:

It’s Raining

It’s raining women’s voices as if they had died even in memory
And it’s raining you as well marvellous encounters of my life O little drops
Those rearing clouds begin to neigh a whole universe of auricular cities
Listen if it rains while regret and disdain weep to an ancient music
Listen to the bonds fall off which hold you above and below

As Edward Hirsch comments at Poetry Foundation:

The slanting lines of Apollinaire’s poem create the sensation of rain running downward across a windowpane. Graphic form and verbal music come together as each long vertical line becomes a rhythmic unit of meaning

— which is itself a verbal / visual DoubleQuote!

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Code running downward..

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This was brought to mind by the magnificent title sequence of the Le Carré thriller The Night Manager:

essentially completing a second DoubleQuote with those falling droplets. those rising bubbles — and there are several filmic equivalents of DoubleQuotes graphic matches aka match cuts — in the sequence itself: bomb cloud > martini, tea cups >machine gun, contrails > pearls..

I’m always happy to see more Le Carré on film..

Added notes: Shakespeare as Ozymandias

Friday, September 16th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — how Bill Benzon and Will Shakespeare lead me to Angus Wilson and Ruth Ozeki ]
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Comments are now closed on my fairly recent post, Triangulation: Hoboken, Ramesses II, Ozymandias, so I can’t add there to the strand of the discussion that dealt with Shakespeare‘s language becoming barnacle-encrusted with time and our lack of knowledge, but today was something of a red-letter day for me, so I’ll start from there

I’d suggested:

Shakespeare has reached the point where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has a Shakespeare translation project:

OSF is commissioning 36 playwrights and pairing them with dramaturgs to translate 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English between now and December 31, 2018. By seeking out a diverse set of playwrights (more than half writers of color and more than half women), we hope to bring fresh voices and perspectives to the rigorous work of translation. Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content. Our hope is to have 39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions.

I’m not sure, but as we decolonialize and globalize culture (world music, eg), I suspect that English adds national streams from Barbados, Mumbai, Brooklyn, Adelaide, Louisiana and hiphop to its already rich mix, and that a Shakespeare using the spectrum of the language available in London today as keenly as Wm S used the spectrum available in London in his own day would appear no less neologistic and extraordinary than his older namesake. And then throw in an oligarch’ daughter speaking Russian, as Katherine speaks French in Henry V III.2, explaining as Katherine does, “I cannot speak your England”…

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That’s “past is prologue”. Today, blog-friend Bill Benzon posted a brief squib that ties in with this — and here my advanture begins:

McWhorter on Shakespeare: Should he be rewritten in modern English?

McWhorter has argued that Shakespeare’s language is so difficult that it should be “adjusted” into modern English for modern readers and theatre-goers. I’m sympathetic. Yesterday I started watching the Zeferelli movie version of Hamlet, with Mel Gibson in the title role and Glenn Close as Gertrude, and at times the language just lost me. Here’s a podcast where he discusses the subject with John Lynch.

Here’s a post at The New Republic where McWhorter makes his case. I quoted passages from that post in an old post at The Valve and it generated a bit of discussion, including a comment from Kent Richmond, who has rendered five plays into modern English.

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McWhorter‘s piece — Will Shakespeare’s Come And Gone: Does The Bard’s Poetry Reach Us Like August Wilson’s? Come On–really? — gives us a sense of what we’re missing when he describes present day audiences in terms borrowed from Alfred Harbage as “reverently unreceptive” — seen in the theater lobby afterwards, “gratified that they have come, and gratified that they now may go.”

And he explains something of what we are missing, in Hamlet for instance:

“Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.” First of all, thought to Shakespeare meant “plan,” not just mental activity. Thus “Give thy thoughts no tongue” meant “Don’t show your hand,” not just “button up.” “Nor any unproportion’d thought his act” – whose act? Who does the his refer to? To a modern listener this is the sort of opaque little splotch we must just let by, which in combination with the thousands of others over three hours leaves us yearning for a drink or a pillow. Actually, his could refer to things as well as men in earlier English. And act meant “execution”: the phrase meant “Do not act on your intentions until they are well proportioned, i.e. completely thought out,” not just “Don’t be a silly-billy.”

At the end, the famous “Neither a borrower or a lender be, / “For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” Did Shakespeare suppose that the reason one shouldn’t borrow is because it interferes with the raising of livestock? Actually, husbandry meant “thrift” at the time. It will say that in the footnotes of a Hamlet book; but at the theatre, you don’t have that with you.

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All that led me to Kent Richmond, and I wanted to hear his voice, which gives Miranda in The Tempest these lines:

If through your magic, dearest father, you’ve
Made the wild waters roar, now let them rest.
The sky looks set to pour down stinking tar,
But then the sea, climbing the cheeks of heaven,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! A splendid vessel,
Which no doubt had some noble creature in her,
Dashed all to pieces! O, their cries knocked hard
Against my heart itself! Poor souls, they perished.
Had I the power of a god, I would
Have sunk the sea beneath the earth before
It could have swallowed up the good ship and
The souls that were her cargo.

Intelligible, yes, in a way that Shakepeare’s version may no longer be, and way better than a crude “version” for students of study notes — but not something that encourages me to see Richmond’s version of the play.

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But wait — McWhorter’s title doesn’t mention Richmond, it merntions August Wilson, and his piece opens:

Reading the deserved critical huzzahs for the current production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has me thinking about a bee always in my bonnet.

I don’t know Wilson, and I hold much of modern “poetry” in disrespect, but I go searching with little hope in my back pocket, and lo —

It is August in Pittsburgh, 1911. The sun falls out of heaven like a stone. The fires of the steel mill rage with a combined sense of industry and progress. Barges loaded with coal and iron ore trudge up the river to the mill towns that dot the Monongahela and return with fresh, hard, gleaming steel. The city flexes its muscles. Men throw countless bridges across the rivers, lay roads, and carve tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses.

From the deep and the near South, the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrive dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking in their chest with a song worth singing. They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope, marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.

Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble, to give clear and luminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy.

My God, the language! The warmth and depth of voice!

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And somehow, from there, after hearing Phylicia Rashad reading some of those words from “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”, I find myself listening for the first time to another voice, that of the novelist Ruth Ozeki, reading from her book, A Tale for the Time Being. I’d learned a week or two back that the novel had resonance with the great Zen master Dogen, whose Mountains and Rivers sutra I greatly admire and enjoy:

Since the virtues of the mountain are high and broad, the spiritual power to ride the clouds is always mastered from the mountains, and the marvelous ability to follow the wind is inevitably liberated from the mountains.

Here’s Ozeki, herself a zen priest — skip the beginning intros, start at around the 9’35” point, or at 11’17” where her actual reading from the book begins:

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Again, such a voice! Two such voices in one day, new to me! Today I consider the world with fresh and thankful eyes.


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