Monday, July 26, 2010

Language as human nature

Languages, of course, are human creations, tools we invent and hone to suit our needs. Simply showing that speakers of different languages think differently doesn't tell us whether it's language that shapes thought or the other way around. To demonstrate the causal role of language, what's needed are studies that directly manipulate language and look for effects in cognition.  Lera Boroditsky in WSJ
This story in the Wall Street Journal was the most tweeted story of the past weekend. Nothing surprising there, the relationship of language to thought, lexis to logos, has long been investigated and reflected upon and is probably fundamental to our experience of the world. The discipline of philology seems relevant here, and reading seems highly relevant to philology. That is to say, when we read (especially if, along with Nietzsche, we read slowly), we make the effort to apprehend the sense of words, the play of figures, the relations of characters, the structure of the narrative, the allusions and debts owed to previous texts, i.e., tradition. We call upon our knowledge of grammar as well as of rhetoric, logic, history and culture. In Horace's "Epistle to the Pisos," the line between a strictly textual property, such as meter, and an extra-textual realm, such as the growing power and complexity of the Roman state, is not merely thin, but becomes a membrane in which the music of the Carmen and the manners of society are interrelated parts of some larger whole.

All of which is just to say we happily tweet about our metaphors, our languages, and our world, but to get beyond received ideas about such subjects takes some care, some reading, and some time. When Prof. Boroditsky writes:
Language is a uniquely human gift. When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature.
we nod in assent, but we also should continue to ask: if language is part of what makes us human, what is the proper way for we humans to "study language"? We can remark on different patterns, and linguistic structures found in diverse tongues, and make inferences about how different native speakers experience the world differently. That begs the question of translation, the carrying over of meaning from one tongue to another, which begs in turn the more basic question of meaning, its provenance, nature, action, and relation to what is real. One thing's clear: there's far more to language, and to human nature, than time sequencing and the direction one writes in. For some far-reaching aspects of language we literally may have no words.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Herrick and Wilmot

For Robert Herrick, the samples include:

Delight in Disorder

To the Virgins That Make Much of Time

Corinna's Going a-Maying

Upon Julia's Clothes


Robert Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

Could I but make my wishes previous hit insolent next hit
And force some image of a false content?
But they like mee bashfull and humble growne
Hover att distance about Beautyes throne
There worship and admire and then they dye
Daring noe more Lay Hold of her than I. Reason to worth beares a submissive spirritt
But Fooles can bee familliar with merritt.
Who but that Blundring blockhead Phaeton
Could e're have thought to drive about the Sun.
Just such another durst make Love to you
Whom not ambition led but dullness drew,
Noe Am'rous thought would his dull heart incline
But he would have a passion, for 'twas fine
That, a new suite, and what hee next must say,
Runs in his Idle head the live Long day.
Hard hearted saint, since 'tis your will to Bee
Soe unrelenting pittiless to mee
Regardless of A Love soe many yeares
Preserv'd twix't Lingring hopes and awfull feares
Such feares in Lovers Breasts high vallue claimes
And such expiring martyrs feele in flames.
My hopes your selfe contriv'd with cruell care
Through gentle smiles to leade mee to despaire,
Tis some releife in my extreame distress
My rivall is Below your power to Bless.

More Rochester can be found here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Some links to Herbert

Thanks to my friend Kia Penso, an ardent admirer of 17th Century English lyrics, we now have a link to all of George Herbert's The Temple. The Table of Contents is here. In an email, Kia recommended several poems, including Affliction (I), which a few of us were enthralled by the other day. Here's Kia's brief list, with links to the individual poems:

Affliction (i) "When first thou didst entice to thee my heart")

Another poem, quite long, entitled the Perirrhanterium, precedes the Temple and seems to offer the reader instructions on preparing to enter  it. The word [fr. Gk perirranth, to besprinkle] is rare : "an instrument used for sprinkling holy water, esp. upon the newly baptised, or the font used for such."

The relevance of Herbert in the context of Milton and the British Protestant imagination is clear. Take, for example, these two stanzas from The Holy Communion:

Before that sinne turn’d flesh to stone,

And all our lump to leaven;
A fervent sigh might well have blown
Our innocent earth to heaven.

For sure when Adam did not know
To sinne, or sinne to smother;
He might to heav’n from Paradise go,
As from one room t’another.

More on Herbert here. Many thanks to Kia, who blogs at Gall and Gumption.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is the Classics Group about to be claimed for the avant-garde?

According to the Guardian, the new thing is slow reading:
a literary revolution is at hand. First we had slow food, then slow travel. Now, those campaigns are joined by a slow-reading movement – a disparate bunch of academics and intellectuals who want us to take our time while reading, and re-reading. They ask us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical texts, and the ability to process them fully.
A few associated links:

Lance Fletcher, founder of The Academy of Slow Reading, points us to Nietzsche.

And here's a blog apparently devoted to slow reading.

Here's Fletcher on the process:
The intention of the teaching of slow reading (which, as I said, is what I understand philosophy to be) is to subvert the customary mode of reading. Its intention is to afford students (i.e. those who make us the gift of their listening) some critical access to their own interpretive activity.
Newsweek was not slow in picking it up, and found a professor who says:
"schools should encourage old-fashioned exercises such as reading aloud."
What a concept!

[The Classics Group has been meeting in Sarasota for some ten years, reading aloud complete works from the ancients - Homer, Virgil, Plutarch, Horace, Genesis, Samuel I and II - along with works of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and others. With no tutors or presenters, we read and enjoy, attending to texts, pausing to observe, comment, question, or simply take them in with relish and, occasionally, vinegar.]

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Undoing Donne

As we noted last time, Donne's poems often take the form of arguments, playing upon wit, logic, and verbal fireworks to make a case to a petitioned recipient.

It's also noteworthy that his poems often spring to life with a command:

Batter my heart, three-person'd God...

Death, be not proud...

For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love...

Mark but this flea, and mark in this...

The imperative launches the poem, but after reading the entirety of the poem's argument, one understands that the poem must begin there because the poet is under pressure from some predicament which is becoming more and more intolerable - the girl won't sleep with him; the world won't let them love, etc.

That is, the poet knows he's right, he sees, more clearly than others, how much his cause has reason -- it is the reason of superior love, of the rightness of two matched souls, of the need to have defenses broken. There is a "pent-upness" to the poetic energy -- it begins, like the BP oil pipe, by bursting -- steam is rising and expanding, and must be released.

Donne more than any other poet made the expostulation one of his signature opening gambits -- all the feeling of the poem is present at the beginning - the stanzas unpack it, turn it into a rhetorical performance, but they don't really add anything to that initial thrust - the totality of the feeling, and of the poet's feeling, is there before he opens his mouth.

Underlying this head of steam is the poet's vision of perfect love, ideal desire. There would be little point in begging three-personed God to batter his heart if Donne did not believe something lies between him and a more perfect union. The poet's seeming impatience with things can come into play because the obstacles he encounters are, he is sure, neither immovable, nor infinite.

In the case of The Flea, the obstacle is the lover's will - her crushing the life out of the insect merely opens another avenue of rhetorical assault; in Batter my heart, the situation is perhaps more complex, since the obstacle is Donne himself - he's confronting his will, his unsusceptibility to the force and logic and wit of any argument, including his own poem. Here he's sort of at his wit's end - demanding brutal relief from his own intransigence -- relief that a multi-personed divine entity can -- no, must -- bring, if it is to come at all.

And that's again part of the motive for the expostulatory opening: for Donne, the defenses his art must overcome are less in the addressee than in the one demanding relief. He begs to be delivered of the very defenses that occasion the address he's giving. If relief were ever to come, would it then relieve him of the poetic impetus? If the poem were truly to persuade its destined auditor (we readers are never that recipient - we're simply allowed in as spectators) it would undo the occasion of its own outburst.