“How many bards gild the lapses of time!” exclaims Keats. Why “gild the lapses”? Because Latin lapsus is a glide.


Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, . . .

The first two lines are parallel: both start with a prepositional phrase “Of . . .”; “Forbidden” goes with “Disobedience,” “taste” with “Fruit.” There is chiasmus as well: “Forbidden Tree” with “Fruit,” “mortal taste” with “Man’s First Disobedience.” (Other features too may contribute to the comparison.) What is more remarkable is that as far as syntax is concerned, the first line could be omitted: if it were absent, the second would serve alone to complete the imperative “Sing,” with a somewhat different subject for the Muse. The poem begins twice. Why is this? Two reasons suggest themselves, formal in different ways.

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μὴ μὰν ἀσπουδί γε καὶ ἀκλειῶς ἀπολοίμην,
ἀλλὰ μέγα ῥέξας τι καὶ ἐσσομένοισι πυθέσθαι.

Iliad 22.304–305

Berlin, November 6 [, 1940]

Roosevelt has been re-elected for a third term! It is a resounding slap for Hitler and Ribbentrop and the whole Nazi regime. For despite Willkie’s almost outdoing the President in his promises to work for Britain’s victory, the Nazis ardently wished the Republican candidate to win. Nazi bigwigs made no secret of this in private, though Goebbels made the press ignore the election so as not to give the Democrats the advantage of saying that the Nazis were for Willkie.

William L. Shirer
Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934­–1941

These are notes to pp. 1-11 and 21-49 of Artin’s classic—”the last corrected printing of the 1944 second revised edition,” republished by Dover in 1998—to assist the study of his account of Galois theory as far as the Fundamental Theorem. In some places I have followed Artin’s revised German edition (Teubner, 1959), which seems not to have been translated into English. I hope that any mistakes that may be noticed will be brought to my attention.

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Examples may be found every day of a fool who is no coward; examples may be found occasionally of a fool who is not cunning; but it may reasonably be doubted whether there is a producible instance anywhere of a fool who is not cruel.

Wilkie Collins, No Name

In the title Ode on a Grecian Urn the word on may indicate location as well as subject. Depicted on the artifact that this song seems to be about is the performance of a song, which is sounded to the spirit by unheard pipes that are directed to “play on.” Are the two songs distinguishable? For that matter, a pipe is also a wine-cask, thus urn-like; vessel and instrument were brought together by Master Ford: “I think I shall drink in pipe-wine first with him [viz. Falstaff]: I’ll make him dance.” Compare the ambiguity in a title like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The White Knight alone could disentangle such threads.

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He’ll hear no tone
      Of the maiden he loves so well!
No telephone
      Communicates with his cell!

That Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was one of the best writers of the last century, the small part of his work that has so far appeared in English translation is quite sufficient to establish. Here is a little puzzle from his Letter Killers Club, written in the 1920s and now available in English as an NYRB Classic, translated by Joanne Turnbull. (The Russian word translated “letter” in the title refers to letters of the alphabet, not missives, etc.)

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Chapter 6

The Artist as Sophist

There is another side to Odysseus, that of the wandering sophist. Beginning from this aspect of the hero, we can identify the characteristic by which Baudelaire is corrupted and undone, as once his ancestor Euripides too suffered condemnation at the hands of a judging god.

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Chapter 5

Comic Recovery of the Hero-Artist

In contrast to the tragic heroes of the last chapter, Homer’s Odysseus has the power to counter death-in-life, to recover from the compulsion of events and win through to life, thus surpassing even the deeds of Heracles.

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Part II

Fate of the Artist

 Chapter 4

Tragic Descent of Artist and Hero

The death-in-life imposed by necessity is contamination: of soul by body across the boundary marked by the neck; by prostitution in the wide sense, specifically that of the artist pandering to an audience. Pentheus and Achilles are performers destroyed by this.

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Chapter 3

Necessity Suffered and Overcome

As bondage to fate, necessity represents the intrusion of death into life, as in a procession of slaves or a Baudelairean cortège; this is the transgression at work in hysteria. Suffering the bondage and overcoming it, Heracles stands for virtue now gone.

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Chapter 2

The Dual Grip of Necessity

Baudelaire’s “terrible hand of hysteria” indicates that hysteria is driven by necessity. This is fitting, since the former is rooted in conflict, while the latter is dual, indeed in conflict with itself, inasmuch as it promotes life and death at once.

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This is the first of six posts constituting a single essay in six chapters, one per post. References are written according to the following scheme: §2.4 is the fourth section of chapter 2; footnotes are numbered afresh with each chapter, so within chapter 2, n. 5 refers to the fifth footnote of that chapter, while n. 3.5 refers to the fifth footnote of chapter 3.


Necessity and Hysteria: Ancient Light on Baudelaire

 τέχνη δ’ ἀνάγκης ἀσθενεστέρα μακρῶι.
Art is far weaker than necessity.
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

Beholding a poor old saltimbanque at a street fair, the narrator of Baudelaire’s prose poem “Le Vieux Saltimbanque” perceives contrast and is moved to hysteria:[1]

     Partout la joie, le gain, la débauche; partout la certitude du pain pour les lendemains; partout l’explosion frénétique de la vitalité. Ici la misère absolue, la misère affublée, pour comble d’horreur, de haillons comiques, où la nécessité, bien plus que l’art, avait introduit le contraste. Il ne riait pas, le misérable! Il ne pleurait pas, il ne dansait pas, il ne gesticulait pas, il ne criait pas; il ne chantait aucune chanson, ni gaie ni lamentable, il n’implorait pas. Il était muet et immobile. Il avait renoncé, il avait abdiqué. Sa destinée était faite.
     Mais quel regard profond, inoubliable, il promenait sur la foule et les lumières, dont le flot mouvant s’arrêtait à quelques pas de sa répulsive misère! Je sentis ma gorge serrée par la main terrible de l’hystérie, et il me sembla que mes regards étaient offusqués par ces larmes rebelles qui ne veulent pas tomber.

     Everywhere joy, winning, debauchery; everywhere the certainty of bread for the days to come; every­where the frenzied explosion of vitality. Here absolute misery, misery rigged out, to top off the horror, with comical rags, in which necessity, much more than art, had introduced the contrast. He wasn’t laughing, the miserable creature! He wasn’t weeping, he wasn’t dancing, he wasn’t gesticulating, he wasn’t shouting; he sang no song, neither gay nor woeful, he did not implore. He was mute and motionless. He had renounced, he had abdicated. His fate was settled.
     But what a gaze, deep, unforgettable, he was passing over the crowd and the lights, whose moving flood stopped a few steps from his repulsive misery! I felt my throat gripped by the terrible hand of hysteria, and my gaze seemed obscured by those rebellious tears that do not want to fall. [2]

The present essay considers the connection between necessity, which crowns the height of horror in the figure of the saltimbanque, and hysteria, which the sight of him brings about. The first three chapters offer evidence to support a certain view of that connection, the fourth relates it to a modern theory of the poet as actor, the fifth examines a Homeric analogue, and the last finds in sophistry the poet’s downfall. The argument is laid out in the introductions to the several chapters. My chief aim is to bring some classical (Greek and Roman) writings to bear on this subject; there is no attempt to trace Baudelaire’s sources. For readers of Baudelaire who may be unfamiliar with the ancients, I have provided full citations to classical works.[3]

Part I

Hysteria and Necessity

Chapter 1

Hysteria as a Product of Conflict and Transgression

After a brief description of hysteria, it is explained in this chapter that the disorder can be characterized as the product of conflict resulting from the actual or potential transgression of a boundary—between life and death, speaking most generally.

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I wish that everyone would read Isaiah Berlin’s “short credo,” A Message to the 21st Century, and take it to heart. It can be found here.

This post rests nowhere. Its only excuse is its theme.

The first extended simile in Paradise Lost compares Satan to

                                          that Sea-beast
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumb’ring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Seamen tell,
With fixed Anchor in his scaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delays:
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning Lake….

As first the passage deserves special attention. “Of Man’s First Disobedience,” the poem begins, and it aims to establish itself as first—before what Homer tells, before every classical myth. When we reach Leviathan there has already been speech (In the beginning was the Word), but action is now heralded by the incidental tale of the Pilot’s error; the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor commence with a like story. What does it signify here? It is obliquely cautionary: a reader seduced by the fallen angel will but repeat the experience of Eve; no stability is in Satan, the leviathan that the Lord will punish.[1]

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In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong… we tortured some folks… it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those [other] folks had, and a lot of those folks were workin’ hard under enormous pressure….

— ****** *****, 8/1/14

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Is there a thesis somewhere out there on The Influence of Giono on McCarthy? I chanced to read Giono’s The Horseman on the Roof (Le Hussard sur le toit) right after McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and found so much likeness between them that the latter began to seem a reworking of the former. I wonder if it is. Let me note some of the similarities.

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The term light-year looks like an adjective-noun combination naming a kind of year. Instead it denotes a distance, how far light travels in a year. Can the deceptive name be justified?

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The most frivolous compositions may have deep roots. In a letter (circa 1897) to his stepmother Lucy Housman, A. E. Housman muses,

Perhaps I myself may write a Hymn-book for use in the Salvation Army:

There is Hallelujah Hannah
    Walking backwards down the lane,
And I hear the loud Hosanna
    Of regenerated Jane;
And Lieutenant Isabella
    In the centre of them comes,
Dealing blows with her umbrella
    On the trumpets and the drums.

Or again:

“Hallelujah!” was the only observation
That escaped Lieutenant-Colonel Mary Jane,
When she tumbled off the platform in the station,
And was cut in little pieces by the train.
    Mary Jane, the train is through yer:
    Hallelujah, Hallelujah!
We will gather up the fragments that remain.

It seems to come quite easy.

The last line of the second hymn will be recognized as quoting John 6.12, where the (first) miracle of the loaves and fishes is treated. After the feast, Jesus “said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” Similar language is found in the other gospels. But there is a far more ancient source for the two hymns together, namely the Bacchae of Euripides. In what follows I will give references (not exhaustive) by line numbers of that play.

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This is a version of an elementary lecture I gave recently. At the end some questions raised or implied but not answered in the lecture are posed as exercises; these are cited along the way as Q1, Q2, etc. Some of them are less gentle than the lecture.

If symbols are not legible, refreshing the page usually restores them.

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This is poem no. XXXII of A Shropshire Lad.

     From far, from eve and morning
        And yon twelve-winded sky,
     The stuff of life to knit me
        Blew hither: here am I.

     Now—for a breath I tarry
        Nor yet disperse apart—
     Take my hand quick and tell me,
        What have you in your heart.

     Speak now, and I will answer;
        How shall I help you, say;
     Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
        I take my endless way.

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Note. Considerable Greek is quoted here, but all of it is translated.

No sooner is Medea assured of sanctuary in Athens than she exclaims to the women of the chorus,

      νῦν καλλίνικοι τῶν ἐμῶν ἐχθρῶν, φίλαι,
      γενησόμεσθα… (764)[1]

      now victorious over my enemies, friends,
      will I be….

Here the form of the word translated “friends” shows them to be female and the persons addressed.[2] I have kept the interesting Greek placement of “enemies” and “friends” at the cost of some awkwardness and unclarity, which may not have been worth paying, because in the Greek the syntactical roles of the adjacent nouns are sharply distinguished by their different cases. Another translation:

      now glorious victory over my enemies, dear ladies,
      will I have…

A little later, having laid out her plans, Medea justifies them in an echoing line (it ends with the same two words):

      οὐ γὰρ γελᾶσθαι τλητὸν ἐξ ἐχθρῶν, φίλαι. (797)

      For it is not endurable to be laughed at by one’s enemies, friends.

Victory for herself will deny laughter to her enemies, and in the Greek the first part of this line (the five syllables before the caesura), meaning literally “for not to be laughed at,” takes the place of the corresponding part of the previous line (the five syllables before the caesura, with the same scansion), meaning “now victorious.”

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ἀλλ’ ἦ καὶ σοφὸς λέληθας ὤν;

Is Death also among the sophists?

The part I like best—I don’t say it’s the best thing in the book absolutely, I don’t have an argument to establish that—is in Chapter 28, when Jane Eyre finds herself “face to face with Necessity” at what she will call “the sordid village” (and why sordid, exactly? because corrupt and mean in more than one sense). “Amongst the romantic hills … a hamlet and a spire” seem to promise well, situated by a green valley with a stream running through it, even if the scene summons the hitherto superior traveler to “strive to live and bend to toil like the rest.”

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The “1” in the title of this post is to egg me on to follow it with more notes on details and themes in plays of Euripides.[1]

The Nurse opens the play.

Εἴθ’ ὤφελ’ Ἀργοῦς μὴ διαπτάσθαι σκάφος
Κόλχων ἐς αἶαν κυανέας Συμπληγάδας…

Eith’ ōphel’ Argous mē diaptasthai skaphos
Kolkhōn es aian kuaneas Sumplēgadas…

If only the hull of the Argo had not flown through
the dark-blue Clashers to the land of the Colchians…

Alone of the 44 substantially complete plays we have by (or attributed to) Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, this one opens with a wish that its story had never begun. The Nurse looks back to the voyage of the Argo, and even before that to the felling of the pines that yielded the oars for the heroes to ply. She would have them still standing; she would undo the whole epic. The reason is the faithlessness of Jason, and the suffering this is causing her mistress and the whole household. Of course, as to what Medea may do the Nurse has only vague fears.

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In Plato’s Gorgias Socrates accuses Polus of trying to frighten him: “You are trying to make my flesh creep,” he says (473d), all of which is expressed in Greek by the single word mormoluttēi (μορμολύττῃ), a form of the curious verb mormoluttomai (μορμολύττομαι).[1] Its first element is from Mormō (or Mormōn, Μορμώ(ν)), a female hobgoblin invoked by nurses and mothers to scare children—a practice condemned in the Republic, where Socrates says that mothers should not “terrify their children with harmful tales,” such at least as speak evil of the gods (381e, trans. Shorey). The second element of the verb suggests, and possibly derives from, the root lutt– or luss-, which means rage or madness.

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In Whose Body?, the first of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels, the hero sees the solution all at once:

       And then it happened—the thing he had been half-unconsciously expecting. It happened suddenly, surely, as unmistakably, as sunrise. He remembered—not one thing, nor another thing, nor a logical succession of things, but everything—the whole thing, perfect, complete, in all its dimensions as it were and instantaneously; as if he stood outside the world and saw it suspended in infinitely dimensional space. He no longer needed to reason about it, or even to think about it. He knew it.

       There is a game in which one is presented with a jumble of letters and is required to make a word out of them, as thus:


       The slow way of solving the problem is to try out all the permutations and combinations in turn, throwing away impossible conjunctions of letters, as:




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Strange name! A version of the historical name, they say, of a king of pre-Roman Britain. But what does its sound suggest?

If sound is at issue, we naturally think of cymbal, which the OED carefully defines as “One of a pair of concave plates of brass or bronze, which are struck together to produce a sharp ringing sound. Also used singly and struck with a drumstick or the like. Till late in the 18th c. apparently known only as the name of ancient and foreign instruments of the type described (esp. as mentioned in the Bible).” In obedience to this last comment, Shakespeare writes in Coriolanus, “The trumpets, sackbuts, psalteries and fifes, / Tabors and cymbals [Symboles, in the First Folio] and the shouting Romans” (5.4.50). Cymbeline too is set in ancient times, although they have some modern features, and contains Roman (and Briton) clashing enough — “The noise is round about us” (4.4.1) — as well as some sweeter music. The word cymbal derives from Greek kumbē, which Liddell & Scott say is the hollow of a vessel: a drinking-cup or bowl, and also a boat. (A boat, apparently, in Sophocles, Fragment 127: “Are you voyaging to the land on horses or in boats (kumbaisi)?”) “Hollow,” by the way, is a fine hollow-sounding word which Shakespeare often uses to good effect, and it can certainly be argued that in this play seemingly solid gold reveals its hollowness.

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Similarity is a relation, more or less formal, depending on context. We naturally associate similar things, as in rhyming; and especially as having similar uses, for need detects likeness: necessity is the mother of resemblance. Euclidean geometry, which is much concerned with shape, does away with “similarity” in the general sense, narrowing its meaning to mere “sameness of shape.” In certain contexts, as with words and living things, it is “relatedness” that can be reduced to a fairly precise meaning: “relation by descent,” which can (as a rule, in principle) be exactly diagrammed. Without losing the useful breadth of “similarity” in these contexts—admitting, therefore, such categories as appearance, sound, shape, function, behavior—one can try to limit it to refer to properties which can be measured. In the case of living things, the modes of classification by (familial) relatedness and (measurable) similarity have respectively been given the unlovely names of cladistics (referring to branching of a genealogical tree) and phenetics (referring to appearance).

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If they were to invest the seaport of Syracuse, the Athenians had to build a wall that would surround it on the landward side. They were on the point of accomplishing this, when the Spartan Gylippus arrived with his forces just in time to interfere with the work, so effectively that the Syracusans were able to push their counter-wall past the Athenian line. Thus investment became impossible, and the task of the Athenians so much greater that it was to prove beyond their power. A dramatic moment, fate in the balance, “on a razor’s edge,” in Homeric phrase! —perhaps magnified for effect by the historian, in service to human vanity, which plumes itself on decisive action in crisis. παρὰ τοσοῦτον μὲν αἱ Συράκουσαι ἦλθον κινδύνου, comments Thucydides (7.2): So near to danger did Syracuse come, within so little distance of it, his expression fitting the narrowness of wall and time. He had used it once before (3.49), of the port of Mytilene, that one successfully walled in (3.18) and besieged by the Athenians but likewise saved by timely arrival, of word from Athens that the remaining townsfolk should be spared (a countermand anticipating the counter-wall).

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A reader of Ernest Rutherford’s famous paper “The Scattering of α and β Particles by Matter and the Structure of the Atom,” which reports the discovery of the atomic nucleus, may be perplexed by a couple of expressions at the beginning of §3. An explanation follows.

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Highly rates,

Freely grates.

Having entertained, in the last post, the possibility of transformation into a bird, I pass on to an indisputable instance thereof, with scholarly commentary appended.

“Of a man whom nothing could put out of his way, or dérouter in the least,” Harriet Cavendish reports this anecdote to her mother, the Duchess of Devonshire, in 1804.

To try him one night Lord Somebody and a large party at a house in the country made him dead drunk, rubbed him all over with sirrup, rolled him in a feather bed and then hid themselves in his room to watch his recovery. When he woke he walked slowly up to the glass, and, upon beholding himself, quietly said—“A bird, by God,” and went and sat down again.

“I nearly expired when I heard it,” writes Harriet. (The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose, ed. Frank Muir.)

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The terrible little peasant who haunts the dreams and visions of Anna Karenina receives full attention in Nabokov’s loving account of her story (see his Lectures on Russian Literature), which everyone should read—after the novel itself, of course: even the greatest commentators should hold their peace until a work has spoken. Then it goes without saying that this brief post is for those who know both of the books indicated by the title.

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In the third book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that just as poets ought to present character that is worthy of emulation, so also craftsmen (painters, sculptors, architects) should produce such works that “our young men, dwelling as it were in a salubrious region, may receive benefit from all things about them, whence the influence that emanates from works of beauty may waft itself to eye or ear like a breeze that brings from wholesome places health, and so from earliest childhood insensibly guide them to likeness, to friendship, to harmony with beautiful reason.” (Republic 401c–d, trans. Paul Shorey.) The breeze is aura (αὔρα), a word which elsewhere in Plato occurs in the phrase “the breeze of fortune,” which bloweth where it listeth.

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Poem or fragment, the following lines of Keats cannot be too much admired.

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d — see here it is
I hold it towards you —

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In Mackail’s Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology is the following one, of Demodocus.

Πάντες μὲν Κίλικες κακοὶ ἀνέρες· ἐν δὲ Κίλιξιν
     εἶς ἀγαθὸς Κίνυρης, καὶ Κινύρης δὲ Κίλιξ.

All the Cilicians are bad men; but among the Cilicians
     there’s one good one, Cinyras; but Cinyras too is a Cilician.

(My translation.) Mackail thinks it is imitated from similar epigrams of Phocylides, among which is this, which begins with attribution to the author.

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The name “stream of consciousness” was devised by William James; the thing itself is no doubt as old as the conscious brain. How and when did it achieve literary representation? Vladimir Nabokov claims that this “method of expression … a kind of record of a character’s mind running on and on, switching from one image or idea to another without any comment or explanation on the part of the author,” was invented by Tolstoy for the occasion of Anna Karenina’s last afternoon. There the device is in “rudimentary form,” whereas James Joyce will advance it “to an extreme stage of objective record” (Lectures on Russian Literature). But do we regard it as essential that the artist present the stream as inward? There seems no good reason to, since however disorderly the phenomenon inadequately called a “stream” may be, its presentation has in any case the linearity of speech. Abandoning this requirement, we can easily discover the “record of a mind” before Tolstoy. Dickens has it in Nicholas Nickleby.

Finally, in this last part, the lame Meter.

It was on the 4th of Messidor in the year VII that the standard meter, and with it the standard kilogram, were presented to the legislature. —What, Messidor? VII? Yes, the Republic had been inaugurated on September 22, 1792, and on that day (it was eventually decided) began Year I. Years of the Republic had twelve months of 30 days each, plus some festival days; and the months, each beginning around the 20th of an English month, were Vendémiaire (Vintage-y), Brumaire (Misty), Frimaire (Frosty), Nivôse (Snowy), Pluviôse (Rainy), Ventôse (Windy), Germinal (Bud-y), Floréal (Flowery), Prairial (Meadowy), Messidor (Harvest-giver), Thermidor (Heat-giver), Fructidor (Fruit-giver). These names, bestowed by Fabre d’Églantine, whose head was cut off for his pains, were probably thought more dignified and poetical than those contrived by Sir Gregory Gander for the English calendar:

Snowy, Flowy, Blowy,
Showery, Flowery, Bowery,
Hoppy, Croppy, Droppy,
Breezy, Sneezy, Freezy.

But they were hardly more exact. Besides, Sir Gregory kept his head. —Messidor began on June 20th, so the big day must have been June 23, 1799.

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It is by no means only the introduction of arbitrary subdivisions (mere arithmetical adjustment) that removes the “natural” unit of length from nature. No, the Earth itself refuses to sanction the aspirations of the founders of the metric system.

Since the 17th century it has been known that the length of a pendulum beating seconds varies with its location on the Earth; specifically, with the latitude. This is because the constant of proportionality between time and the square root of length depends on the acceleration of gravity g—the rate at which the speed of a freely falling body increases—and g varies with latitude. Hence if the pendulum is to deliver a unit of length, the arbitrary choice of the second of time must be supplemented by something still less justifiable: the selection of a place on the Earth to put the pendulum.

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In this part, “wretched matter” begins to assert itself.

If we want to measure length, we need a unit of length. Given such a unit, not only lengths, but areas and volumes as well, can be expressed in terms of it: foot, square foot, cubic foot. The founders of the new system desired a natural unit, one that would not depend upon an arbitrary choice, and that would be perpetually available in the natural world, so that it could readily be consulted in case of doubt. Neither criterion would be satisfied by (for example) the length of the king’s foot.

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Milton explained that rhyme was “the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meter,” so of course he didn’t need it. No more do I need his explanation, only his phrase, to introduce a delightful book, Les Origines du Système Métrique (The Origins of the Metric System), by Adrien Favre, Professeur au Lycée du Toulouse—which means a high-school teacher in a provincial city, then of a couple of hundred thousand people, far from Paris—published in 1931.

“Before the establishment of our Metric System,” he begins, “there reigned in France, among the units of measure, an incredible confusion.” Naming twenty-two of them, he invites us to think of Rabelais’s lists, and then reveals that the twenty-two were merely the subdivisions of the agrarian measures in one area of the country, Haute-Garonne—a place where, while the measures themselves had only five different names, these designated forty-three different actual measures.

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There is what there is, and there isn’t what there isn’t—so much for what; as for where, consider the things that are there, but not here. They are behind, or around the corner, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, imperceptible, inaccessible, ideal, suggested. How influential they may be! Democritean atoms (constitutive of the world); Platonic forms (casting a world of shadows); things in themselves (responsible for things natural); empty physical fields (space qualitative and quantitative). The past (gone, inescapable) and the future (not come, inevitable): what presses us behind, where we don’t see, or draws us ahead, where we’re not looking.  Whatever is under the surface, pictures for the mind’s eye, matter for intuition,….  “That which is properly thought, image, sentiment is always, in some way, a production of absent things.”

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As far as I know, this literary sub-genre, or sub-literary genre, is new.

A thrifty young thinker named Blaise
Took pains to preserve his pensées,
     But ere the fond hoarder
     Could set them in order,
He’d thoughtlessly spent all his days!

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of a good story, must be in want of a way in. Sometimes the solution comes in the form of an arresting initial phrase or sentence; and the best of these are the ones that contain in germ what is to follow. Thus it is hard to beat Shakespeare’s “Who’s there?” But there are more than a few familiar instances of striking starts and startling strikes.

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An untitled poem of 1854 by A. A. Fet, literally translated, goes something like this.

How cool it is here under the thick linden-tree—
the intense heat of midday has not been penetrating hither,
and hanging over me, thousands
of fragrant fans are swinging.

But there, in the distance, the burning air glitters,
wavering, as if drowsing.
So sharp and dry is the soporific and grating
ceaseless ringing of the grasshoppers.

Beyond the shadows of the branches the vault of heaven shows blue,
as if lightly shrouded in haze,
and, like dreams of slumbering nature,
wavy clouds pass by.

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La Rochefoucauld writes, “Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fixément”: “Neither the sun nor death can be stared at (looked at fixedly)” (Maxim 19, edition of 1678.)  In each case seeing would undo sight.  But impossibility is apt to be disregarded.  We may think of the peril of raising one’s eyes to the Sun King; or of a philosopher who, following Socrates, practices dying and being dead (Phaedo 64a), until he becomes unable to see life as others do.

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They form a pair.  Each feigns, the one in order to reveal, the other to conceal.  Irony desires a clever third party, to admire it; hypocrisy would have all its hearers equally dull.  Irony seeks advantage, if only self-satisfaction, from penetration of a cover; hypocrisy profits from whatever can be accomplished under it, if only self-deception.  Rejecting imposture, irony moves toward the goal of exposure; embracing it, hypocrisy maintains a constant presentation.  Irony attacks hypocrisy with sharp weapons of wit, hypocrisy repels it from a smooth armored surface.  Blaming through praise, irony leads on but intends finally to be seen through, hoping to exasperate and thereby undo; condemning fraudulence, hypocrisy claims the innocence of sincerity, hoping thereby to frustrate.  The ironist says what he or she does not mean; the hypocrite shows what he or she is not.  One employs irony, one is a hypocrite.

(This is a narrow account.  The many forms of irony include, for example, the ironic manner which a narrator may maintain throughout a long work, such as Don Quixote.  Hypocrisy may be more or less steadily conscious, and pass into mere unawareness of one’s condition, a state which Socrates tries to repair.)

A night (νύξ) in Homer is dark, especially in the Iliad, even black, murky, moonless (μέλαινα, ἐρεβεννή, ὀρφναίη, κελαινή, δνοφερή, σκοτομήνιος, ἐρεμνή).  It may be baneful, bad, sleepless, cold, a source of pain, especially in the Odyssey (ὀλοή, κακή, ἄυπνος, πηγυλίς, δυσκηδέα).  Black night will cover the earth, or a battle, perhaps drawn over it by a god; it enfolds the eyes of men slain.  In the night men and gods sleep or wake, dreams come, Zeus rains and blows, or thunders and devises evil; men feast, lie awake pondering, walk about to rouse others, or lament their dead; lions menace flocks, fires burn, ships sail or come to harbor, wanderers are a danger; Odysseus lies with Calypso, Penelope unravels her web.  There is one great nighttime adventure, the daring raid by Odysseus and Diomedes in Iliad 10.

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living’s progressive
of live dying’s progressive
of die they tell me

In “The Two-handed Engine and the Fatal Bellman: ‘Lycidas’ and ‘Macbeth’” (Notes and Queries, April 1979, 126–128), June Winter showed that “Milton in his passage about the corrupt clergy (Lycidas, 108–31) is invoking imagery used by Shakespeare in passages of Act II in Macbeth, a play about corruption in the state of Scotland.”  Before learning of her work, I had collected evidence that the poem was connected to Act III of Macbeth, and in such a way as to suggest the association of Milton, or the singer of Lycidas, with Macbeth, and Edward King, or Lycidas, with legitimate royalty and Banquo in particular.

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At the end of La Fontaine’s first fable, La Cigale et la fourmi [The Cicada and the Ant], the ant advises the cicada, who has sung all summer, “Eh bien! dansez maintenant.” [“Well! now dance.”].  Why dance?  To keep warm, of course; but (inasmuch as this is a death sentence) there is more: it is time for the cicada to enter the danse macabre, the procession led by Death—to dance her way into the grave.  Indeed, the word for “now” is main-tenant, which is “hand-holding.”