Thursday, December 26, 2013

Marine Corps training and photography

I was only in the Marine Corps for three years, but they were from the age of 17 to 20, and many of the things I was taught back then I still consider useful and important.  Perhaps I’ve mentioned some place that my experience as a rifle instructor applies to photography.  "Hold them and squeeze them" applies to snapping a shutter as well as pulling a trigger.  Also, I am accumulating cameras and lenses in the same way I used to accumulate guns:  A battery comprises a gun for every purpose one can reasonably imagine.  I don’t accumulate guns any longer, but I am building something like a battery with cameras and lenses.  Guns, will never wear out if they are properly cared for, but that isn’t necessarily true of DSLR cameras. They have only been around for a little more than a decade; so it is too soon to tell; so to be on the safe side, and if the price is right, it is prudent to back up the cameras one is especially fond of. 

Also, I am constantly reminded that I never felt especially comfortable with a new handgun unless I had fired perhaps a thousand rounds through it, over a period of time, of course.  I feel the same sort of thing in regard to cameras.  I need to spend a lot of time with each camera before I feel adept with it.  I was perhaps up around 10,000 shots each with the E-1 and E-520 before I decided the Olympus DSLR cameras were pretty good.  And thanks to the influence of marketing, plenty of camera users were willing to unload their "obsolete" Olympus cameras with 100 to 500 shutter actuations in order to "upgrade".  Why should I buy a new camera, whether an EM-1 or any other new camera when there is a thoroughly tried and proven camera available with just about everything the new camera has minus the bugs and in near new condition?

My “battery” rationale may be fairly weak.  I do like to try new systems, but have no wish to try the latest and greatest according to marketeers and their reviews.  I'm a hiker and when Olympus quit making DSLRs I found the Pentax K-20D, K-7 and K-5 to my liking.

As to the Micro 4/3, for the most part that is too new a system form me to switch to or try in any big way.  I did however find an EPL3 on sale with the 14-42 kit lens for $199 and couldn't resist that.  I've probably put about 500 shutter actuations on it and can think of niche situations where I'll be happy with this light-weight little thing.  Choosing an EM-1 over a K-5 is another matter.  I already have the K-5 and don't find the EM-1 at all tempting, even if the price were comparable to a K-5, which it isn't.  I was acquiring only Olympus DSLRs, but when Olympus quit making them I began adding Pentax DSLRs, and the camera I'm most likely to buy next isn't the K-3 but the K-5ii or K-5iis.

I have added a third system when I acquired the EPL3.  I like the idea of being able to look down into the articulated LCD screen in the manner of the old Kodak Duaflex camera.  I don't have any "gritty streets" to walk in order to photograph "gritty street people," but I do find some interesting scenes when I'm not on a hike; so I fancy the EPL3 will come in handy.  Maybe one day if the price drops low enough I'll acquire the EPL5.  Will Olympus make an EPL7???

Sunday, December 8, 2013

On Olympus Cameras and Philosophy

I have over a few years gotten immersed in the goings on of an Olympus DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) forum.  I have a number of these Olympus DSLRs (which are in the 4/3 format) and all the lenses I need.  No doubt I could have become equally attached to any of the brands.  They are all good, but I chose Olympus.  And then Olympus decided to quit making DSLRs. 

Olympus-forum angst hit almost everyone.  I argued for a while that the existing cameras weren’t going to wear out anytime soon, but one could prudently ward off running out by buying backups at low prices from eBay, KEH, and elsewhere.  One need never run out of them even if one lived another 100 years.  But I discovered that there was an emotional price to pay for hunkering down with the old stuff.  It was akin to hiding out some place and waiting to die.  One needed a future.

Olympus came out with mirrorless cameras in the Micro-4/3 format and these cameras got better and better.  They were a small step up from Point and Shoot cameras in size but they had interchangeable lenses.  The lenses weren’t quite as good as the old 4/3 format lenses but Olympus compensated for their flaws with software.  Many refused to buy the early Micro-4/3 cameras because they didn’t have OVFs (Optical Viewfinders); so Olympus created an EVF (Electronic Viewfinder) that simulated the OVF.  Many Olympus users made the transition to the micro cameras, but not all.  I was one who didn’t.

Why didn’t I make the transition?  Since the early micro cameras didn’t have viewfinders, one needed to focus a camera by looking at the LCD screen in “Live View.”  I never liked the Live View approach.   I prefer the Optical Viewfinder.  So I chose Pentax to obtain my “future.”  Beginning with their K-20D camera they made relatively light weight (compared to the Olympus E-3) rugged, good performing DSLRs, and the announced intention was that they would continue to do so.  I didn’t get rid of my old Olympus cameras and lenses.  They are still functional and I still like them, but I acquired Pentax K-20D, K-7 and K-5 cameras and a selection of lenses suitable for hiking.  I had become a “two-system” user, Olympus 4/3 and Pentax DSLRs.

It is difficult to avoid “brand loyalty.”  There are Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax loyalists as well as others.  One tends to “ride for the brand.”  Loyalty is not usually as extreme as that found in response to British Soccer teams, but some of the Micro-4/3 people are approaching that level.  Micro evangelists came after many of us on the Olympus 4/3 forum urging us to get with it, buy the Olympus micro cameras and support the brand (Olympus).  One doesn’t become a “traitor” if one adds a second brand.  Many 4/3 users have done that. They refer to their Canon or Sony cameras and I have met several Olympus users on the Pentax forum.  But in the view of the Micro evangelists one needs to support the Olympus brand as well.

Years ago I started work at Douglas Aircraft Company and we competed against McDonnell Aircraft company.  I remember riding for the Douglas brand back then; but then Douglas merged with McDonnell and I was subsequently working for McDonnell Douglas.  After that we competed against Boeing.  I was riding for the McDonnell Douglas brand although I never shook off the irony of it.  And then Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas and I seamlessly began working for Boeing.   I can’t say I ever (mentally) rode for the Boeing brand because the real Boeing was in Seattle whereas I worked on the C-17 program (which was begun by McDonnell Douglas) in Long Beach. 

Companies, whether Boeing or Olympus strive to develop a loyal base, but the people who run the companies are more cynical about loyalty.  They are willing to merge or sell a company if those acts will enhance their individual portfolios.  A tried and true method of enhancing a company’s stock price is to lay off as many employees as possible.   The loyalty of the laid off employees doesn’t influence that decision.

I am not cynical about owning Olympus 4/3 and Pentax cameras and lenses.  I enjoy taking them on hikes.  I make a selection depending upon the weather and whim and head out on a hike with the dogs.  But I am cynical about the baying of the micro evangelists who (to continue the metaphor) snap and snarl at anyone not furthering the Olympus bottom line.  They perhaps fear that not enough people will buy the micro 4/3 cameras and Olympus will discontinue those as well; so they treat the Old Timers as semi-retarded and in the need of direction which they feel eminently qualified to provide. 

I was offended by these micro-hounds; so I probed about the forum to take the emotional temperature of the other Old Timers.  I discovered that they didn’t care.  Yeah, they are bothered a bit, but they just hit their delete buttons and move on.  They urge me to do the same. 

Years ago I was influenced by Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.  They strove not to be affected by matters they could do nothing about.           They purportedly were quite successful.  I agree with the Stoics and do indeed strive not to be affected by matters I can do nothing about, but unlike Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus I have not been very successful. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Photos from an E-1 after a reset

On 11-5-13 I bought my third (not counting the two I gave my son) E-1. It had some marring and damage on the bottom and I had a question about whether the quoted shutter count was correct; so I've been testing it day after day on hikes. On my previous outing with this camera the reds were overwhelming and I had to back them off with Lightroom 5 in PP; so I did a factory reset and then used the settings that I had on my #1 E-1 except for one thing. I was reading Wrotniak's review of the E-1 last night and he wrote that the automatic setting for White Balance was excellent; so I tried that today and did not end up happy with it. It turned the sand ash-colored; so I won't use that again.

But I wondered as I often have how uniform these cameras are. We know some of every camera run, no matter the manufacturer, are rejects; so why not lesser problems that get sent along to the user. Perhaps Wrotniak's E-1 did do better with the WB set at Auto, but my E-1 clearly did not.

The photos for today are in the "The Newish Old E-1" gallery on the photo site, 12 of them, photos 271 through 282.  Photos 275, 276 and 277 show a bit of water.  We had some rain yesterday, not much, but San Jacinto drains what it can into little reservoirs like the one you see here.  The ducks like it.

I took photo 272 as a test, a house or trailer some distance away, using the 18-180 lens set at 180mm and hand held.  I had a discussion with someone about the value of Image Stabilization.  The E-1 doesn't have any and I'm of the opinion that it doesn't need it.  I did correct the WB in PP and I might have sharpened the photo a bit but I didn't use any noise reduction.  The photo looks fine to me, and I remain unconvinced that I need IS.

Also, along with criticism of the inadequacies of the E-1 (which I discovered on my own to be untrue -- at least to the extent that my eyes provide me with evidence), I have been happily using the Olympus 18-180 lens, an ideal lens for a hiker, at least this hiker because he doesn't like taking more than one lens on a hike.  Someone gave the 18-180 lens a bad review early on which scared a lot of people away, but I like it.  Most of the photos, perhaps all, that I've taken in "the Newish Old E-1" with my #3 E-1 were taken with my 18-180.

Perhaps my 18-180 is a particularly good copy, or perhaps I could run it through all the tests the reviewers put it through and find that it is a piece of junk -- but I don't know how to do those tests. I'm just a simple hiker.

Are people who keep old Olympus cameras nuts?

Psychologically we are all products of something, some underlying ideas, some inclinations, skills, faults. In my case I was an engineer for 39 years in Douglas which merged with McDonnell which was bought out by Boeing. My emphasis, if I had one was Systems Engineering, how things fit together to make the system work, but also whether the old system needed to be tweaked or was some vendor just trying to talk us into something.

In my retirement I have tended to take a hard look at the sales-jobs of reviewers (who get paid, many of them, by camera and equipment companies) and the magazines who seem almost entirely funded by camera and equipment companies. On this forum I see "nuts" panting after the very latest and wonder, "does he really need something that the latest has that his current camera doesn't?"

It's hard not to be influenced by "the latest is better" syndrome. It was only recently that I "dared" use ISO 800 on my E-1 because as any fool could plainly tell me, the E-1 was way too noisy at that ISO. But one recent foggy, cloudy morning I was out there hiking with just an E-1 so what was I going to do? I shot about 75 or so photos, all at ISO 800 and they were all fine. I uploaded ten of them to my "The Newish Old E-1" gallery in   I would defy even Ben Herrmann's eagle eye to tell which ones were shot at ISO 800.

Do I need a faster AF?  I would have difficulty accepting the AF speeds of the E-10 or E-20 but the E-1 is fine for what I do, i.e., shoot photos on hikes.  Every once in a while one of my Ridgebacks or Duffy will chase a rabbit in clear view and I'll only get 3 or 4 shots and think I should have had the camera set at C rather than S.  Or perhaps I should have a camera with movie capability, but I do have cameras capable of those things and have never used them: The occasion either hasn't presented itself or I don't think about which buttons to push until the excitement has run around a bend and into the brush.  So the E-1 can miss the good shots as well as any of my later cameras.

Returning to psychology, there is a valid reason for being involved with a camera company that does build newer and newer cameras.  One can feel more optimism about the future than if one is firmly committed to cameras and lenses a camera company no longer builds, especially to a camera, the E-1, that the company won't even support.  One can compensate by buying more than one E-1 (I have three), but one can also connect to another system.  Ben has purchased cameras from several different companies.  In my case, when I need to feel optimistic, I can take my Pentax K-5 for a hike and dream about the K-3.

An E-1 in the threat of rain

I've been using my possibly abused E-1 which has a superb mirror and sensor and therefore may only have the small number of clicks (800) advertised. Because of doubts about that camera I started a gallery for comparison. One can see it at "The Newish Old E-1."  I posted some earlier E-1 photos and then quite a number with this questionable camera.  In retrospect and despite the damage to the underside of the camera, I'm happy with it.

But I decided to return to my mint E-1 to put things in perspective.  However, the prospect for the day was rain and the sky was very dark.  In the past I would have taken my E-3 and 14-54II but decided to go ahead with my plan.  It never rained, but the sky was so heavily overcast I left the E-1 at ISO 800 for the entire outing.

You can see the shots I took this morning, at least 10 of them, in "The Newish Old E-1" gallery, photos 261 to 270.  I did very minor PP on some of them with Lightroom 5, a bit of noise control in some cases and a bit more exposure in some others, but that was it.

In recent photos I was having to do quite a bit more PP with my damaged E-1.  I used the same settings on my mint E-1 this morning and the photos were fine.  The problem with the damaged E-1 was that the red tint was overwhelming.  I had to back off on that with Lightroom to get a more normal look, but I didn't have to do that this morning with my mint E-1.  Since they are set the same I've decided to do a factory reset on my damaged one.

Photo 264 is a bit strange.  Something caught and ate a hawk, but the lower feathers are intact.  Someone else, apparently came along and set some sticks next to the feathers reminding me of an Indian ritual.  I didn't disturb it.

Luminous Dust on an Overcast Day

The last 10 photos in the "The Newish Old E-1" gallery from the above site were taken this morning.  Especially interesting, at least to me, is photo 235.  It shows Duffy kicking up some dust on the river levee which isn't especially interesting in itself except this morning the dust became luminous.

The photo was taken shortly after dawn under a heavily overcast sky.  I had the E-1 set at ISO 800 not really expecting much at that setting but all the ISO 800 shots came out well and I can't account for that either.  I was using the Olympus 18-180mm lens and the focal length of this shot was 86mm.

I'd be interested in any theories.

The Newish Old Olympus E-1

Even though, as Colin is often seen to say, this is a gear forum, someone often pops up and says something along the lines of, "Do all you guys just talk about gear?  Don't any of you take photos?"  Such a comment will usually convict someone enough to post a few photos.  In reference to recent E-1 talk I was self-convicted.  I now have three E-1s; surely I've taken a few photos with them.  I decided to create a separate gallery on my photos site (which can be found at ) called "The Newish Old E-1"

It wasn't until 2011 that I started indicating what camera I was using in my photo catalog; so that is where I started looking for E-1 photos and posting some of the more interesting ones.  My most recently-purchased and slightly damaged E-1 was the subject of a recent thread.  Photos taken with that camera are numbers 219 through 233.  If I go out again tomorrow I'll use that camera again.

Some milestones:  My dog Ginger (with the red collar) died in December of 2012.  My dog Sage (with the blue collar) died in September of 2013.  I have just little black Duffy at the moment but am expecting an adult Ridgeback at the beginning of next month.

I didn't do any additional PP of photos before posting them in this gallery.  Some of the earlier ones have a lot more noise than I would tolerate today.

I also gave a lot of thought to why I liked the E-1.  If I was simply concerned about gear, then why wouldn't I prefer to take out my K-5 which produces better IQ and is much better at high ISO settings.  The answer is that I am not just concerned about those things. I don't just want to record highlights of hikes.  I look for the interesting shot and the E-1 seems to have the soul for such an approach to photography.  Fie on high ISO settings and technically advanced IQ!  The E-1 for the person who can't paint but has an eye for a fine painting, who sees the beauty in his every path and stops sometimes to let his E-1 take it in.

Not that I have done great things I hasten to add, but I have striven now and again toward them.  I don't spend a lot of time in PP.  I get home from a hike tired, want to take a nap, but put my photos in lightroom anyway.  After my nap I edit them a bit and usually don't see any I want to post to my photo site; so I create a slide show on my computer and look at them over and over a few times.  Usually a few will eventually seem interesting enough to post.

Red Hawk Down

Not that far into our morning’s hike something crashed through a tree and in a flurry of wings and feathers landed on the ground near Duffy and me. It was (perhaps) a Red Tailed Hawk, probably a fledgling that was just learning to fly. Since it was right next to us it probably figured that there was no point in trying to fly away since that hadn’t worked all that well for him thus far.

You can see these photos at in “The Newish Old E-1” gallery, photos 244 to 255. When the hawk crashed to the ground Duffy ran toward it but soon changed his mind about getting too close. Photos 244, 245, and 246 show him warily walking around the hawk. After that (since I was using an 18-180mm lens) I decided to get some closeups. In photo 255 I noticed the Hawk looking menacingly at something. I took the camera from my eye and noticed that Duffy had decided to approach the hawk more closely and the hawk’s menacing stare said “better not.”

I called Duffy away. “Time to go. Let’s leave the hawk alone.”

A bit later I saw a Red Tailed Hawk in a tree, photos 256, 257 and 258. The Hawk was unfortunately on the other side of some branches so I couldn't see it very well, and a few seconds after 258 it flew off. I doubt that it was the same hawk that we encountered on the ground. In photo 252 you can see banding on the hawks tail that is an indication (according to what I read) that it is young, but I already guessed that.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sage in a dream


Last night I dreamt I was walking through a strange neighborhood, through back alleys and streets.  At last I got to where I was going, someone’s house that Susan and I were visiting.  Susan showed up a few minutes later by car and I asked, “Where’s Sage?”

She said, “I thought she was with you,” and began talking to the people we had come to visit, but I was worried.  I kept looking out the door to see if she was out there.  Finally, I announced, but no one seemed to pay attention, “I’m going to find her.”

I began walking back the way I had come.  I didn’t walk too terribly far before I entered a park.  It wasn’t a huge park but one like they have in San Jacinto, an obligation park that builders must create before they are given permission to build.  This one was surrounded by hedges and as I entered I could see a number of dogs.  Additional dogs popped up from behind hedges to look at me.  A huge shaggy reddish dog was the most formidable.  He was as large as an Irish Wolfhound and didn’t seem friendly, but I had no time to waste.  I kept walking until I reached the edge of the park and standing outside its boundaries was Sage.  Her head was down.  She’d come a long way and been through some brush which was clinging to her coat.  I was overjoyed and rushed out of the park as she sat there and hugged her.
And then I woke.  It took me a couple of seconds to realize that Sage had died two months ago.  Her being dead and the memory of the dream were together for a moment.  I didn’t long to have her back because that would have meant a restoration of her suffering.  By the time she gave way to her pain it was late Saturday and the vet was closed.  The vet was closed Sunday as well and also the next day which was a holiday.  I would have spared Sage that if I could, but the world and nature were inflexible.  And then it seemed that instead of a longing to have her restored to me, I was being given in my dream an opportunity to say good bye to her.

Later I thought of Dante and wondered about the significance of Sage being outside the park.  She and I had never been to a dog-park.  We hiked mostly at the river and if we went for walks it was at night when we rarely encountered anyone, and if we encountered a stray dog that seemed aggressive toward Sage, she discourage its intentions, whatever they were. 
Was the park a purgatorio or a paradiso?  If either, Sage was outside. 

One day years ago at the river, Sage chased after a rabbit and disappeared.   After a bit I turned around to look for her but couldn’t find her.  I called as I searched.  I was sure that by that time she had given up chasing the rabbit and was looking for Ginger and me, but we couldn’t find each other.  At last I returned to the Jeep to see if she would eventually come back there, and after about 20 minutes she did: very hot and with tongue lolling.  That happened one more time a few weeks later.  But after that I would wait at the spot where Sage left us.  I wouldn’t continue on until I could see her again, and she could see me.  

If my losing Sage in the dream had really happened then I would have taken her back to the house we were visiting and put her in the back seat of Susan’s car to wait for us.  But the dream ended there.  Not only did it end but it seemed the fitting end.  I didn’t wake up thinking that Sage should have followed me anyplace else.  We were together again for just that one last time, and then I woke. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Lewis Carroll, the deviant photographer

Actually, the title of Edmund Wilson’s article was “C. L. Dodgson: The Poet-Logician,” but Wilson has very little to say about Dodgson’s poetry, a bit more about his achievements as a logician and quite a lot about his fondness for little girls.  Had I heard that before?  I can’t be sure but it didn’t sound utterly unfamiliar.  What was new to me was the idea that Dodgson was an accomplished photographer.  Helmet Gernsheim wrote Lewis Carroll Photographer in 1950.  I stopped reading, looked the book up on Amazon, found a paperback copy in “like new” condition for $3.95 and ordered it.  Turning back to Wilson I read that “Mr. Gernsheim considers Dodgson ‘the most outstanding photographer of children of the nineteenth century’ and after Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘probably the most distinguished amateur portraitist of the mid-Victorian era.’” 

Reading some reviews of Gernsheim’s book it seems that many in the 20th century were convinced that Lewis Carroll was a pedophile.  Wilson considered that and thought not, at least not one that acted upon his thoughts.  But wasn’t he acting upon his thoughts by taking photos of these little girls, some of them nude.  Wilson observed that no one would be able to get away with such behavior in the 20th century – nor in the 21st century I would add. 

Wilson admired Through the Looking-Glass: The Life of Lewis Carroll by Florence Becker Lennon.  He notes its faults then writes, “But this study is, nevertheless, the best thing that has yet been written about Lewis Carroll.  The literary criticism is excellent; the psychological insight sometimes brilliant; and Mrs. Lennon has brought together, from the most scattered and various sources, a good deal of information.  The impression that she actually conveys was what Dodgson’s existence was like is more convincing than some of her theories.  Mrs. Lennon believes that Charles Dodgson was intimidated by his clergyman father, so that he felt himself obliged to take orders and never dared question the creed of the Church.  She seems to believe that he might otherwise have developed as an important original thinker.  She also worries about what she regards as his frustrated sexual life: if he had only, she sighs, been capable of a mature attachment for a woman which would have freed him from his passion for little girls!”

In regard to Dodgson’s novel Sylvie and Bruno, Wilson writes, “Mrs. Lennon has, I believe, been the first to point out the exact and complicate parallels between the dreams and actualities that make this book psychologically interesting . . . but the novel for grown-ups is otherwise childish; and in mathematics and logic, according to the expert opinions cited by Mrs. Lennon, he either ignored or had never discovered the more advanced work in these fields, and did not perhaps get even so far as in his exploration of dreams.”

Wilson wrote his initial article in 1932; later, collecting it in the volume The Shores of Light, published in 1952 he added to it, primarily perhaps because of the publication of Gernsheim’s Lewis Carroll Photographer in 1950 and of Lennon’s Victoria through the Looking Glass: The Life of Lewis Carroll in 1945.

The originality of Dodgson might qualify him as “great” in the mind of F. R. Leavis as well although I don’t recall mention of Dodgson in anything I’ve read by Leavis.  Both Leavis and Wilson would I’m sure consider William Blake “great” and their opinions would be shared by Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye and many others, but what if Blake’s originality were fueled by madness?  And what if Dodgson’s were fueled by arrested development?

We know that any writer’s work is influenced by his presuppositions.  Perhaps these presuppositions are based on childhood lessons, teachings and things a person hears or reads, but perhaps sometimes they are developed out of madness or other influences deviating from the “norm.”  On a scale of greatness where the greatest gets 100, shouldn’t we penalize such writers as Blake and Dodgson if their “originality” was to some extent due to their arrested or perverted development?   I’m inclined to penalize them, but I’m not sure I’m right in doing so . . . or, madness in any case would have to be so qualified that any penalizing would have to be severely questioned.  I’m thinking now of bipolar disorder which used to be called manic-depressive.  We all have ups and downs and writers can be expected to write when they are up and feeling good or perhaps down and feeling so depressed that only writing out of their depression can bring them relief.  If we concede that it is okay to write when we are feeling like it and that it is equally okay to not write when we don’t feel like it then that puts into question any penalty applied to a manic-depressive.  And if we don’t penalize a manic-depressive, how do we justify penalizing a paranoiac or a schizophrenic?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

T. S. Eliot, Prufrock and critics

I have recently read several critical essays that discuss Eliot. Edmund Wilson in his essay "The Historical Interpretation of Literature" for example; he begins by describing what he will not be discussing in his essay, and he uses T. S. Eliot as his example:

"To begin with, it will be worth while to say something about the kind of criticism which seems to be furthest removed from this. There is a kind of comparative criticism which tends to be non-historical. The essays of T. S. Eliot, which have had such an immense influence in our time, are, for example fundamentally non-historical. Eliot sees, or tries to see, the whole of literature, so far as he is acquainted with it, spread out before him under the aspect of eternity. He then compares the work of different periods and countries, and tries to draw from it general conclusions about what literature ought to be. He understands, of course, that our point of view in connection with literature changes, and he has what seems to me a very sound conception of the whole body of writing of the past as something to which new works are continually being added, and which is not thereby merely increased in bulk but modified as a whole – so that Sophocles is no longer precisely what he was for Aristotle, or Shakespeare what he was for Ben Jonson or for Dryden or for Dr. Johnson, on account of all the later literature that has intervened between them and us. Yet at every point of this continual accretion, the whole field may be surveyed, as it were, spread out before the critic. The critic tries to see it as God might; he calls the books to a Day of Judgment. And, looking at things in this way, he may arrive at interesting and valuable conclusions which could hardly be reached by approaching them in any other way. Eliot was able to see, for example – what I believe had never been noticed before – that the French Symbolist poetry of the nineteenth century had certain fundamental resemblances to the English poetry of the age of Donne. Another kind of critic would draw certain historical conclusions from these purely esthetic findings, as the Russian D. S. Mirsky did; but Eliot does not draw them.”

These seem impressive achievements, to “have a very sound conception of the whole body of writing of the past” and to draw the connection esthetically between the French Symbolists and the metaphysical poetry of the nineteenth century. But perhaps at the same time, in the manner of our lowering our estimation of the skills of a magician once we learn how his trick was performed, is not our admiration of Eliot’s most famous poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock lessened by learning the “self-distrustful attitudes of Prufrock owe their definition largely to Laforgue, and there the technical debt shows itself; it shows itself in the ironical transitions, and also in the handling of the verse”?

The previous quote is from F. R. Leavis New Bearings in English Poetry, 1932. Leavis would disagree with my suggestion that Eliot’s having been influenced by Laforgue lessens the Prufrock achievement. He goes on to say that this Laforgue influence “has been made too much of by some critics: French moves so differently from English that to learn from French verse an English poet must be strongly original. And to learn as Mr. Eliot leant in general from Laforgue is to be original to the point of genius. Already in the collection of 1917 he is himself as only a major poet can be.”

Leavis seems more generous than Northrop Frye who in 1963 (T. S. Eliot) writes “Prufrock and Other Observations also appeared in 1917, showing the influence of Laforgue, most markedly in the lunar symbolism and the use of ironic dialogue.”

Which brings us to the “overwhelming question” why did Eliot who wrote this poem in 1915 present himself as an old man? He was only 37 or 38 at the time. The answer may be that the idea of an old man who had measured out his life with coffee spoons allowed him to present a dramatis persona as he thought Laforgue might, if Laforgue wrote in English.

Harold Bloom’s view, based on his A Map of Misreading might say that T. S. Eliot has nothing to be ashamed of and his readers ought not to think less of him for having been influenced by Laforgue. Every poet is influenced by some preceding poet – as far as we know – at least in modern times.   I think here of Edward Fitzgerald and his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, except in Fitzgerald’s case he never again did anything that measured up to his Rubaiyat whereas the critics I’ve read think despite its fame Prufrock doesn’t measure up to “The Wasteland” and “The Four Quartets.” 

Fitzgerald as well as Eliot might have balked at my comparison.  “Fitzgerald never claimed to be a poet.  ‘I have not,’ he confessed, ‘the strong inward call, nor cruel-sweet pangs of parturition, that prove the birth of anything bigger than a mouse.’”  But like Eliot he was also a critic: “. . . he thought himself a good judge of poetry and art.  As such, he did not ‘care for’ In Memoriam, classed The Ring and the Book ‘among the absurdist books ever written by a gifted Man’, and called it ‘a national Absurdity’ to devote a whole room in the National Gallery to pictures by Turner.  With such self-confidence in criticism, he became a bold improver of other people’s poetry.  He ‘distilled many pretty little poems out of long ones’ written by his friend Bernard Barton (1849), and having ‘sunk, reduced, altered, and replaced’ what he found unsatisfactory in Six Dramas of Calderon (1853), he applied similar treatment to the work of three Persian poets Jami, Attar, and Omar Khayyam (1856-9), and to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (1865).”

In the above (from page 101 of Victorian Poetry, Drama, and Miscellaneous Prose 1832-1890 by Paul Turner) Fitzgerald sounds as bold as Ezra Pound, another irascible improver of other people’s poetry, judge of what is good and bad in poetry but perhaps not as perceptive about his own poetry’s worth.  Pound did claim to be a poet, but there are not many today who would agree with him – although G. K. Chesterton called Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, “a great poem.” [page 134 of New Bearings]  Leavis seems to agree with him, but he would add that pound never wrote anything else as good.  He call’s “Mr Pound’s [Cantos his] Ring and the Book.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

William Blake, and lengthened Telomeres

Dean Ornish looked at Blackburn’s research showing that the shortening of telomeres, and therefore aging, is accelerated by emotional stress.  He decided to perform a test to see if the reduction of stress could lengthen ones telomeres.  Sure enough the test subject’s telomeres were lengthened.  Shortened telomeres reduces life span ergo lengthened telomeres is sure to increase life span. 

What must one do to get longer telomeres?  Exercise, eat mostly vegetables, and meditate.  There was a disclaimer at the end of the article to the effect that this test wasn’t performed to the highest scientific standards, but the results don’t really disagree with advice our doctors have been giving us for years: get plenty of exercise and don’t eat so much red meat.  The only new thing, at least to me, is the meditation. 

Years ago I was interested in Zen Buddhism and tried to meditate but never managed – it was way too boring.  However I’ve noticed that when I pick up a book and get caught up in the subject it is very relaxing  -- although I feel some stress, because of my Puritan ethic \ Superego which chides me for not doing things that have a practical and valuable objective..   Why don’t I do something useful before it is too late? 

Earlier I read an article by F. R Leavis on Blake, remembered I had Harold Bloom’s The Visionary Company which I set aside after page 35, reread his Preface, noticed he credits Northrup Frye for being his primary “source” or “influence” on the subject of Blake, and since I am very fond of Frye I ordered his Fearful Symmetry.  Normally I would expect loads of guilt for planning to read materials so patently un-useful.  But now, thanks to Ornish I need no longer feel guilty.  I can treat it all as meditation.

Friday, September 6, 2013

F. R. Leavis on Genius, etc

The above is a review by John Mullen of three books on F. R Leavis.  Leavis is not presented as addressing “genius” per se, but it is implicit and even mentioned once.  Leavis does not admire Dickens, but he does admire Hard Times:  “Dickens does not merit a chapter in The Great Tradition, but Hard Times, on its own, does. ‘If I am right,’ Leavis writes, ‘of all Dickens’s works it is the one that has all the strength of his genius, together with a strength no other of them can show – that of a completely serious work of art.’. . .”

One can therefore read this article, or the books it reviews, and take Leavis’ “great tradition” as an indication of who he believed were the geniuses of English literature – or moving to the idea (which Leavis would probably approve) that there are no geniuses only works that embody genius by talented writers. 

Leavis like Britain is considered by some to be irrelevant:  “Ellis begins his memoir by accepting that, for those now teaching English in schools or universities, ‘Leavis is an irrelevance.’ He certainly seemed an irrelevance to us as students in the late 1970s. We were about to be plunged into the giddy world of structuralism and deconstruction. If any of us had been recommended Leavis by an earnest English teacher, his authority would soon have been relinquished for Barthes and Derrida and Foucault. Some of the convictions that sustained him now seem odd relics. Hilliard details the mythologisation in Scrutiny of a lost world where labourers were creative artisans rather than alienated wage slaves. In particular Leavis recommended George Sturt’s 1923 study, The Wheelwright’s Shop, a paean to the fulfilment supposedly once found by the skilled worker in an organic community. Leavis mentions it again in ‘Luddites?’ as evidence of a relation between ‘cultural values’ and ‘economic fact’ that is ‘finally gone’.

“Yet that supposed ‘irrelevance’ is only apparent. All these books manage to suggest that Leavis reshaped ideas about the value of reading so completely that we do not notice it. He taught that every encounter with the greatest literature is completely fresh and demanding. In his early book How to Teach Reading he scorned ‘discussing literature in terms of Hamlet’s and Lamb’s personalities, Milton’s universe, Johnson’s conversation, Wordsworth’s philosophy, and Othello’s or Shelley’s private life’. We don’t have to reject all these topics to understand the value of clearing them away. Leavis bequeathed a confidence in the essential value of any intelligent reader’s intense engagement with the best literature. There is not exactly a Leavisite method to follow. As Collini rightly says, reading Leavis’s criticism one often gets the disconcerting sense that ‘the work of discrimination’ has already been done and that ‘the reader is merely being issued with a reminder of what was “plainly” the case.’ He is little interested in William Empson’s brand of close reading with its minute verbal explication. His critical writing often deploys extended quotation as if the best writing proves itself. But he had a virtue that would be rare among leading academic critics of a later generation: he found all that was valuable within the literary work rather than taking pride in his own critical ingenuity (in this respect at least, Byatt’s caricature seems wrong). Leavis taught his students that great literature is a test of the reader, endlessly renewable, and in this he seems both influential still and right.”

Thus, if we are sufficiently interested in the nature of genius as exemplified by British novelists and poets we would read Leavis to find out who he considers to be the great authors in the “Great Tradition.”  Leavis would say that if we read a great novel and don’t appreciate it then we are falling short of appreciating its genius probably because we ourselves fall far short of genius and are incapable of grasping what the author achieves.  That would be an intimidating conclusion if all those who developed lists of works in the Great Tradition agreed with each other.

Was Schumann a genius?

The above is a book review written by George Stauffer of Martin Geck’s biography of Schumann.  We learn that Schumann had every needed encouragement and benefit as a child:  “His father published and sold books, and Schumann demonstrated both literary and musical gifts at an early age. From adolescence onward, he consciously strove to become an “artist of genius,” writing his first curriculum vitae at age 14 and starting the lifelong habit of documenting the intimate details of his day-to-day activities through journals . . .”

Schumann’s symphonies fall short of Beethoven’s and his opera was no match for Wagner’s, but is that fair?  “His symphonies lacked the force and focus of Beethoven’s, and his chamber works seemed too formal. Impatient with Leipzig audiences and tired of the Neue Zeitschrift (he gave up the editorship in 1844), Schumann moved with his growing family to Dresden, where he fought escalating emotional problems by writing a series of contrapuntal piano works. In Dresden, Wagner held sway, however, and Schumann’s great effort at opera . . .  was no match for Lohengrin, which premiered in Dresden two months later. Must you beat out all the competition to be declared a genius? 

Also, Schumann guessed wrong about what the listening public wanted.  Must you guess right in order to be a genius? “The progressive composers—the “New German School”—advocated a more expressive, encompassing approach. Passions, moods, ethical attitudes, and even political stances were conveyed by extra-musical means (texts, programs, scenery, lighting) in amorphous structures shaped by the emotion of the moment. Brahms emerged as the standard-bearer of the conservatives; Liszt and Wagner led the New German School.

Ironically, both camps looked to Beethoven as their founder. His First, Second, Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies, with their clear-cut formal plans, served as the model for conservatives. His Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth, with their programmatic slants (the life of Napoleon, fate knocking at the door, country scenes, universal brotherhood), set the precedent for the progressives. Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann sought a middle ground. Schubert pursued a lyrical solution to the symphony, filling his works with gorgeous melodies that kept the structures afloat. Mendelssohn relied on a more formal approach, even turning to Bach-inspired chorales to hold his symphonies together.

“Like Liszt and Wagner, Schumann believed in the tone poem. But whereas Liszt and Wagner anchored their works in Teutonic myth, using music as a means to an end, Schumann grounded his pieces in everyday life, using inspiration as a means to music. Whether or not the quotidian translates into a compelling listening experience remains unclear, as Geck admits.

And like so many geniuses, or near geniuses, Schumann was psychotic; which Geck describes as being probably genetic.  But I here recall Joseph Epstein’s definition of Genius from his article “I dream of Genius ( ):  “Be he a genius of thought, art, science, or politics, a genius changes the way the rest of us hear or see or think about the world.”    Who better to change the way we see the world than someone who is nuts?  Consider also Nietzsche in Philosophy and Blake in poetry?  They are both excellent examples of the way they look at the world, but they were also mad.  I suppose one can argue that Nietzsche did his major work before he was incapacitated by his madness.  One can’t make that same argument about Blake. 

Perhaps this means, I speculate, that the whole idea of “genius” is mistaken and that it is really madness – related to normality but different in the same way that less talented mad people are.  Except these folk are routinely incarcerated or drugged to keep them from interfering with the rest of us.  But if one is talented enough we listen to his music, read his or her poetry and marvel at his geniuses.  I recall the day I read Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.  I read a review and rushed from work one noon hour to buy it from a local bookstore.  I read it in my car like an explosion.  But Sylvia wasn’t normal either.  So if we are perfectly sane – or nearly so – it may make no difference whether we are ever so smart, we can never be geniuses.



Did Russia mock Britain’s little Island?

Russian spokesmen deny that anyone said this, but the Telegraph suspects that someone did and in the enclosed video Cameron seems to think so as well.  Britain was called, if someone really did say it, “irrelevant.” 

I thought of Judy.  In the old days she would have popped up to correct my erroneous misperceptions and defend Britain.  In this case she doesn’t need to.  I support Cameron’s position.  Maybe Syria doesn’t really need to be bombed since they are only messing about within their own borders, but if one doesn’t bomb them and finds one will be considered irrelevant if one doesn’t, then a few bombs could clear that up nicely.  And, Cameron tells us in the video, he didn’t really say he wouldn’t bomb Syria, he just said he wanted a vote on a motion to vote on a proposal to vote on a motion, or something like that.  He is after all the Executive and can bomb Syria if he likes.

Which reminds me of Edmondson’s paraphrase from Civilization and its Discontents about our instinctual drive to mayhem and war:  “In general, to read a book or to write one is no substitute for burning down a library . . .” 

Judy or perhaps Mike might observe that I am sure to pop up when there is the prospect of a good war.  I thought about that.   A couple of years ago I accepted’s offer to check my DNA.  The results were that I am 40% British Isles, 40% Scandinavian, 11% Central European and 9% Southern European.  I can find plenty of evidence in the database of ancestors coming to the New World from the British Isles and further back of ancestors from Germany and Spain, but none whatsoever from any Scandinavian country.  That means, according to that my ancestors were Viking invaders who settled in the British Isles.  So while I am most recently 80% from the British Isles, 40% of that is from Viking settlers whom we all know to be extremely warlike, the other 40% is from non-Viking Brits who are merely “warlike.”  And then there are the warlike Germans, and ancestors sailing off from Spain to burn down Incan and Aztec libraries.

If I perk my ears at the sound of martial music, what of those who are still back in the British Isles being “suppressed” by leaders who tell them they can only read or write books and not burn down libraries?  Cameron must know that if he stresses how irrelevant Russia thinks they are and has another vote; Parliament will provide approval for bombing Syria.  No stinking Russian has the right to call us irrelevant. 

A few days ago I didn’t think bombing Syria was a good idea  We Brits and Americans are not at risk from anything they might do within Syria, despite the Chaney’s saying this will set a precedent for the use of WMDs and eventually result in their being used against us.  But if the Russians are going to call any of us irrelevant . . .

Thursday, September 5, 2013

On the Nature of Genius and Joseph Epstein

The above article by Joseph Epstein is an interesting description of things said, thought and written about “Genius” and intelligence.  We feel comfortable with the concept “intelligence,” having more or less ourselves and on occasions when we aren’t in competition with anyone probably know how much we have – unless we habitually lie to ourselves.  But if we do we can no longer turn to Sigmund Freud to find out why because, Epstein tells us, Freud is a failed genius – someone who was thought to be a genius for many years but now that his ideas have been discredited deemed a failure – along with Karl Marx.

Are the recipients of the Nobel Prize geniuses?  Epstein knew several of them and thought not.  He concludes that “it is always sensible to remember that in 1949 the Nobel Prize in medicine was given to Antonio Egas Moniz, a Portuguese surgeon, for developing the procedure known as the lobotomy.”

“Schopenhauer wrote: ‘A man of learning is a man who has learned a great deal; a man of genius, one from whom we learn something which the genius has learned from nobody.’”

“Who is and who is not an authentic genius is a question always up for dispute,” Epstein writes.  “Dante, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy are on most lists. So, too, among the ancients, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are the indisputable musical geniuses. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and Raphael make the cut in the visual arts. So in science do Euclid, Galen, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Darwin. In politics, Pericles, Alexander the Great, Julius and Augustus Caesar, Napoleon, Winston Churchill, and Mahatma Gandhi would seem to qualify, with Lenin and Hitler and Stalin and Mao Zedong falling into the category of evil geniuses.

I spent several months recently studying the American Civil War and tend to see things with its perspective.  By the end of this war several generals were considered geniuses, especially Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee.  In terms of what they individually accomplished they deserve this classification more than any other generals, although nothing said about the Civil War nowadays goes unchallenged.  But if we look at these generals we see how large a role chance played in their being given the opportunity to displace their abilities.  Also, their abilities were not initially evident.  They needed to make a few mistakes before they were able to display “genius.”  And early in the war no general was permitted that latitude. 

At the beginning of the war George B. McClellan was called “the Young Napoleon.”  He was thought to be the most talented general in the Union Army, but he didn’t move his inexperienced army quickly enough or win spectacular enough battles, so Lincoln replaced him.  By the time Lincoln appointed Grant to lead the Union army he had learned that he needed to allow his general the chance to make a few mistakes.  Would McClellan have won the war a couple of years earlier if Lincoln had allowed him that same latitude he allowed Grant?   Ethan Rafuse, in McClellan’s War, published in 2005 and some others argue persuasively that McClellan is today underrated. 

The Generals in the Civil War were all under orders.  Lincoln for the Union and Davis for the Confederacy looked at his pool of officers and with a few advisors decided whom to promote or demote.  Lincoln we say in retrospect did well when he promoted Grant.  Davis in the same sense did well when he promoted Robert E. Lee.  Were these the only generals who could have done well at that level?  We don’t know because many generals were never given the chance.  At the end of the war, for example, it was thought by many that Nathan Bedford Forrest could have functioned at the very highest level.  Others dispute this with great vehemence I hasten to add, but the pool of talent was much larger than the numbers given the chance to perform at that level.

I would same the same thing about many of the geniuses on Epstein’s list. Most wouldn’t have had a chance to rise to the level called “genius” if they had been born to poorer parents.  Many wouldn’t have done well if they had not “sold themselves” to those who had the decision-making power to enhance their advancement. 

Also, the conception of who the geniuses are seems to change with every age.  In the Romantic age for example, “The Romantics preferred their geniuses daring like Lord Byron; mystical like William Blake; and tragic like poor John Keats. For them, geniuses, simultaneously heroes and martyrs, were blessed with gifts for revelation, and cursed by being at odds with the culture of their time. The ideal type of genius for the romantic was the poet. Percy Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”; they were also prophets, who showed and revealed the sacred. Romantic critics—Henry Hazlitt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson—made the genius out to be above the law, a law unto himself, and in his own way a god.”

I tend to think that in a healthy society there is a pool of people who with the right education and encouragement, and the right occasion or emergency can rise to a level subsequent generations may term genius.  This pool is made up of potentially highly intelligent and highly talented people. 

In this age many of the highly intelligent may look up from the pool at the odds, look at who “succeeds” and who doesn’t and decide striving after “success” or “genius” isn’t worth the candle.  Nevertheless they are still out there in each generation available to be called upon if needed, and if the calling is phrased properly.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Freud, Mortality and Suicide

Mark Edmundson entitled his book The Death of Sigmund Freud, and indeed his book does focus on death’s approach and Freud’s attitude toward and preparation for his death.  Freud never freed himself or sought to free himself from his: cigars.  He smoked an average of 20 a day and he firmly believe that they gave him the ability to think clearly.  At some point probably in his late 60s a cancer was discovered in his upper jaw on the right side.  He ultimately more than 15 surgeries and eventually had part of his jaw removed and prosthesis installed which was necessary for him to work and eat but was very painful.  Also it needed to be cleaned regularly – the removal and cleaning taking about an hour.  He couldn’t do it himself so his daughter Anna helped him.  How could he get her to do such a disgusting thing?  How could she do it?  They made a pact to treat it as an impersonal medical procedure and managed.

Freud died at age 83 and was in almost constant pain from the time his cancer was discovered until his death.  For him living involved working, thinking, writing and reading; so the only pain reliever he would use was aspirin.  Eventually his jaw could no longer be operated upon and began to rot.  A hole appeared in his face and the rotting odor drew flies.  This is quite a disgusting story and Edmundson tells it in some detail because at some point Freud is going to say “enough” and have his doctor, who is also one of his followers administer excessive doses of morphine.   He lost his ability to talk clearly and so could no longer see patients.  He finished his last writing and while he could think he needed to do something with his thoughts but there was no longer any thing he could do, and he probably couldn’t think clearly because of the pain.  Finally he could no longer read.  I don’t know what that entailed, but perhaps he lost the ability to concentrate upon books he thought worthy of reading.  So he called in his faithful retainer and said, “’My dear Schur, you certainly remember our first talk.  You promised me then not to forsake me when the time comes.   Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense anymore.’

“Schur let Freud know that he had not forgotten the promise he made ‘Ich danke Ihnen,’ Freud said.  ‘I thank you,’ He told Schur to ‘talk it over with Anna, and if she thinks it’s right, make an end of it.’  Schur spoke to Anna and Anna sorrowfully concurred with her father’s wish.”

“That same day, Schur gave Freud an injection of three centigrams of morphine, a dose much stronger than he would have used if the objective had only been to relieve pain. . .  He gave Freud another injection that day, then a third on September 22.  Freud lapsed into a coma, but he held on to life.  Midnight came and on Saturday, September 23, Sigmund Freud was still alive. . . At three in the morning on Saturday, September 23, 1939, Sigmund Freud died from cancer and from Schur’s morphine overdoses.”

As I read this, my dog Sage was in the process of dying.  She can no longer eat or walk.  She can no longer come up into my study.  I have in the past struggled over when to take a dog to the vet to have administered some drug like that administered to Freud, but Sage is clearly at that point now.  I would take her to the vet today, but the office is probably closed for the holiday.  From time to time she struggles to get up, probably to go outside and relieve herself, but the best she can do is change positions.  I’ve placed towels and blankets underneath her and take comfort from the fact that she doesn’t seem to be in physical pain.  There has been evidence of “confusion.”  The last few days whenever she has been outside she has looked about her as though trying to recognize where she is, or perhaps it is as though she is seeing these familiar sights for the first time.  Sage has had a number of ailments, severe allergies, thyroid problems, and lastly renal failure.  If any of these involved pain, I couldn’t tell.  Up until just a few days ago Sage wanted to go with us at least on walks if no longer to the river.  If she was experiencing “torture,” she was enduring it well. 

On page 229 Edmundson draws our attention to Freud’s “farewell utterance: ‘Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense anymore.’

“Consider, by contrast, some other parting words.  Oscar Wilde, mortally ill in a Paris flophouse, announced, ‘I am in a duel to death with this wallpaper.  One of us has to go.’  Goethe cried out, enigmatically, movingly, ‘More light!’  John Maynard Keynes, looking back on a life that was not without its pleasures, said, ‘I wish that I had drunk more champagne.’  Standing on the scaffold, about to die, Sir Walter Raleigh proclaimed, ‘This is a sharp medicine, but a sure remedy for all evils.’  Picasso petitioned all and sundry to drink to him.  P T. Barnum, American to the last, as Freud would see it, inquired into that day’s circus receipts from Madison Square Garden.  At his own end, Freud was sober and correct: ‘Now it is nothing but torture.’”

Edmundson doesn’t examine the idea that Freud should have endured his torture, and “modern medicine” doesn’t consider that possibility either.  Instead, drugs are administered to enable the dying to endure the pain.  Whether that is a more humane approach I don’t know.  We don’t want to be seen as a nation that kills its old people, but if at some point “it is nothing but torture,” are we not torturing them instead?  Is torture more humane than death?  If the torture is of limited duration then, yes.  But if it is to go on and on, then many would at some point prefer death.

I was never captured by the North Koreans but I did have to sit through classes on what I was to do if captured.  I was also exposed to the idea that I might be tortured and should at all cost resist giving up military secrets.  In more recent times it now seems to be common knowledge that no one can resist torture indefinitely.  Eventually it will reduce the tortured to crying, screaming, willingness to do whatever the torturer wants.  This is one of the reasons for the “Need to Know” policy.  If you don’t know the secret, you can’t divulge it to the enemy.  In Freud’s case perhaps he was concerned over something like this – not divulging secrets but “crying or begging for relief” from the torture.   He wanted to go out with dignity and he couldn’t do that if he was tortured for too long.  Neither could he do that if he was drugged to the point that he no longer had control of himself. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Edmondson on The Death of Sigmund Freud

Early last month I referred to an article by Mark Edmundson, “The Ideal English Major”   And a couple of days later decided I disagreed with a lot what he said and was puzzled by much of the rest.  I sent for two of his books. The first was The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll, a Memoir.  It was a “coming of age” sort of thing so I set it aside.  The second was The Death of Sigmund Freud, Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism. 

I have a few quibbles with Edmundson’s text but as a final assessment decided he wrote a very entertaining and provocative book.  His “parallel lives,” Freud and Hitler, approach is very clever and perceptive.  Not only was Freud confronted by Hitler, by way of the Nazis in Austria in a physical way, but Freud advanced Psychoanalytical theories about the nature of “the Patriarch” which Hitler exemplified perhaps better than anyone in modern times. 

Freud spent his last years in England; which he loved above other countries.  He had the fame that he had never received in Austria.  Despite that he continued working on his Moses and Monotheism, a book he knew would antagonize Jews and Christians alike.  And here it seems that Edmundson is indicating that he finds in this book something beyond what has been described -- an even more subtle Freud and a kind of Freudianism worthy of being embraced by future followers (including it seems Edmundson himself).  Moses monotheism wasn’t simply “one God,” it was “one invisible God.”  God in Judaism had to be internalized and since he was this made the Jew more capable of dealing in abstract ideas than the non-Jew.  Jews make up a proportionally higher number of mathematicians, physicists and scientists in general as well as anything else requiring the ability to work well with abstractions.

While Edmondson doesn’t mention Fukuyama what he ends up describing is very like Fukuyama’s ending in The End of History and the Last Man.  Perhaps Liberal Democracy seems to be defeating all its competitors, but there is the Superman who may start history up again because “the Last Man” that lumpenproletariat Nietzsche describes is boring and worthless and incapable of being joined by the Ubermensch.  Freud said he never read Nietzsche because he was afraid he would find all his ideas in his writings, and his “Patriarch” sounds very like Nietzsche’s Ubermensch.  And the common people, both Nietzsche and Freud say, love him.

[From Edmundson page 241]  “Freud also warns against thinking that the fascist and fundamentalist are radically other.  Book after book, essay after essay, has come into the world trying to show what set the German Nazis apart from everyone else.  It was their political past, their culture, their military tradition; it was the debased Treaty of Versailles; it was the Depression of 1929.  The same scholarly ritual is visited on Japan . . .  We seem desperate to know how different these peoples are from ourselves.  Freud indicates that such thinking is delusory; we are all fascists, we are all fundamentalists, at least potentially.  Through authoritarianism we attain assurance and happiness – though of a certain sort.  It is only constant critical labor that keeps the worst political and religious possibilities from becoming fact. 

“Freud also suggests that fascism and fundamentalism, because of their amazing powers of attraction, will always constitute an emergency.  When a powerful or rich nation turns to either, something must be done, and the more quickly, the better.  One of the reasons that France and England may have been slow to act prior to the Second World War was that their statesmen did not understand the joy – no less a word should attach to it – that fascism offers people.  Inner strife dissolves and the people become powerful and strong.  They have never felt so good before and they will not readily give that feeling up.  Others see their joy and are drawn to it.  Such people make determined and potent foes.”

Edmundson, invoking Freud, is implying it seems to me that Fukuyama’s “end of history” should not have been emphasized in his book.  The “Last Man” cannot possibly be the ultimate last man because the Superman, the Patriarch, will always arise and give the people the joy of war.   There will always be clashes of civilizations because the people love war.

In referring to Islamic and Christian “patriarchal religions” that love nothing so much as a good war, Edmondson doesn’t deviate from history, but when he writes “The most powerful and most technologically advanced nation in the twenty-first century has a sizable constituency who wish for little so much as religious rule by the state, theocracy” he is misinformed.   That was advanced as a slur against Christianity a few years back but there was never anything to it.  The “constituency” referred to is called “Theonomy” by most, but there are other names.  It comprises a theological position maintained by a few theologians and their followers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America and a few others, but it was never a predominate or even very influential view in those denominations.  Also, it has never grown.  If Theonomy is what Edmondson is referring to it does not in my opinion comprise a “sizable constituency.” 

If on the other hand Edmondson is referring to those Christians who call themselves “Fundamentalists” then he is wrong if believes they seek “religious rule by the state, theocracy.”  They believe in the near-term return of Christ and have no interest in religious rule by the state which would involve Christians remaining on earth longer than their near-term eschatology provides. 

Edmundson weakened his book by bringing in Fundamentalism in near the end.  He wants to have Fundamentalism stand for something all men are tempted by but he doesn’t make that case.  A much better case exists for the Superman, e.g. Hitler.   But if Hitler is the ideal modern Patriarch/Ubermensch, what does that make Hitler’s ideal followers?  Certainly not Fundamentalists.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Britain not going to bomb Syria "for now"

Ian Morris’s title is Why the West Rules – For Now and not why the British or U.S. rules.  Nevertheless the Parliamentary debate over whether to bomb Assad’s Syria for using Chemical Weapons, at least the part I watched, seemed to pertain to unilateral action on the part of Britain.  Britain had the power to bomb Syria; it had the fourth largest military force in the world according to Cameron and could punish Syria for using WMDs if it chose to.  In the end, Parliament didn’t support that bombing and Cameron said that he would abide by Parliament’s decision.

Also interesting were the comments of Lord Ashdown who called himself an “old warhorse,” but only in the sense of wanting to back the U.S. as it chastised Syria. 

In this morning’s (Riverside) Press Enterprise Victor Davis Hanson opposed Western intervention in Syria for reasons of Western interest: “In terms of realpolitik, anti-Israeli Authoritarians are fighting to the death against anti-Israeli insurgents and terrorists.  Each is doing more damage to the other than Israel ever could – and in an unprecedented, grotesque fashion.  Who now is gassing Arab innocents?  Shooting Arab civilians in the streets?  Rounding up and executing Arab civilians?  Blowing up Arab houses? Answer: Either Arab dictators or radical Islamists.” 

In my opinion, Hanson is right.  It is in the best interest of Israel, the U.S. and Britain to let things play themselves out in Syria without Western interference.  Maybe Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” in regard to Chemical Weapons, but so what?  If we oppose him too strongly that could favor the Islamists and we know what they stand for.  Of course no one in Parliament or the Obama administration is thinking in those terms: a Liberal Administration by definition wouldn’t.  Such an administration prefers to act on “Humanitarian principle.”   Jimmy Carter acted on “Humanitarian principle” when he opposed the Shah.  And when the US withdrew its support of the Shah, or at least caused the Shah to no longer think he had US support, Khomeini was able to take over and institute the Islamist regime which became the greatest threat to the West in modern times.  Do we really want to do that same thing in Syria?

Of course I am getting off track here by discussing what ought to be done by the West rather than the fact that these decisions are even in the hands of the West, whether Britain or the US.  Britain “rules” some of the time, as the nation who has the fourth largest military force in the world might well do (in Morris & Ferguson terms), but it “rules” as an ally of its former colony who now has the largest military force in the world.  Both these “rules” might seem somewhat shaky at the present time: they were expensively exercised in Iraq and Afghanistan, and soldiers and tax payers are weary – “for now.” 

This doesn’t in any way represent a decline in Western power in my opinion.  If in regard to some future problem Western interests are more clearly at stake, then these two military powers, the US & Britain, will still be capable of acting decisively.  But such acts will more closely fit Huntington’s paradigm than they will Morris’s & Ferguson’s.  Ruling the waves is much more expensive and difficult than it used to be.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Ruling" in Austria and Syria

With Ian Morris’s term “rules” in mind – or more accurately not quite eliminated from mind I’ve been reading The Death of Sigmund Freud, Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism by Mark Edmundson.

On page 12 of his chapter “Vienna” Edmundson writes of Hitler’s confrontation with the Austrian chancellor, “’I have a historic mission,’ Hitler said, ‘and this mission I will fulfill because Providence has destined me to do so.  I thoroughly believe in the mission; it is my life . . . Look around you in Germany today, Herr Schuschnigg, and you will find that there is but one will.’  Hitler told the Austrian chancellor that his triumph was inevitable:  ‘I have made the greatest achievement in the history of Germany, greater than any other German.’  When Schuschnigg informed Hitler that France and England would not stand by and allow him to absorb Austria, the fuhrer laughed.”

I’m assuming without having read further in Morris’s book that his view of “Ruling” is something like that of Niall Ferguson’s in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, and Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire.  Regardless of whether Ferguson was correct in his evaluation of the U.S. there seems little disagreement that Britain once “ruled” a fair portion of the world up until the world wars of the 20th century.  Schuschnigg was invoking Britain’s prestige, France’s also, in his debate with Hitler.  Perhaps not Britain alone, but surely Britain and France, the “rulers” of the West, would not tolerate Hitler’s aggression against Austria.   Hitler laughed because he knew that Britain and France could not stand in his way.  Whatever ability to “rule” they may have had in earlier times, they would not be able to stop the Anschluss. 

But Hitler was ultimately wrong about Britain.  In the near term Britain had neither the will nor the power to stop Hitler’s ambitions,  but Hitler failed to realize that Britain could marshal many of its colonies and former colonies and allies in its support – not over his aggression against Austria but Hitler’s “mission creep” would eventually provoke an assemblage of heroes reminiscent of the forces that set sailed toward Troy that would effect his destruction.  

So in a sense Britain did “rule” in 1938.  Hitler, if he were wise wouldn’t have defied her.  Years later we know that Churchill in a sense handed off this baton of “rule” to Eisenhower in Indochina, but did the U.S. really see this matter of “ruling” and “empire” the way the British did?   And don’t we even at this very moment see evidence that Britain hasn’t utterly relinquished this power?  I am thinking of the Parliamentary debates over whether to bomb Syria over Assad’s use of Chemical Weapons. 

I watched for a couple of hours and failed to hear anyone question Britain’s right to bomb Syria.  The debate didn’t pertain to this right but upon whether Assad himself authorized the use of Chemical Weapons and whether enough time was being given to the inspectors to verify their use.  Unlike what happened under Tony Blair in regard to Iraq, Britain was not going to wait for the U.S. who was more interested in the Far East.  Action would be taken solely by Britain after they heard back from the U.N. inspectors.  If Assad violated the earlier injunction against WMDs he would be held accountable by Britain. 

This Parliamentary debate strikes me as especially interesting because Britain wasn’t concerning itself with any other nation or power beyond letting the inspectors do their job.  No one was arguing that they had a “dog in the Syrian fight.”  They wanted to “spank” Syria for using WMDs and had the power to do so.  Britain was once again “ruling the waves” – sort of.

Moving to the “Clash of Civilizations” perspective, Britain can get away with its action to “spank” Syria with its missiles only because the Islamic “Civilization” has no “core” nation.  Huntington assumed that the U.S. was the “core” nation of the Western Civilization, but here is Britain getting ready to perform that function once again.  Russia, the Core nation of the “Orthodox Civilization” opposes action in Syria but apparently has no intention of opposing Britain.  Neither does the Core nation of the Sinic Civilization, China. 

Also interesting is the implication that if Britain takes action it will do so for “humanitarian” reasons.  Killing people with WMDs is morally wrong.  In the 19th century, Britain was more interested in a “balance of power.”  If two potential enemies were not getting along that was fine with Britain as long as one didn’t utterly destroy the other.  It was all to the good for it they were fighting each other because while they were doing that they couldn’t fight against Britain.  The Realpolitik of “Balance of Power” if we were to introduce it into the British Parliament debate might be voiced as “they are killing each other off; so let’s stay out of their way and let them do it.” 

Hmmm.  I didn’t type fast enough.  The House of Commons had a vote and opposed military action.  Just what that means to David Cameron’s intentions I don’t know.  Can the executive branch of government ignore the House’s disagreement?  Of course there has to be another motion and another vote which will give Cameron time to present a stronger argument for action – if he has one. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Morris's ruling in a Huntington Clash

The title of Morris’s book is Why the West Rules – for Now, and the subtitle is “The Patterns of History, and what they reveal about the future.”  In the realm of Political Science I normally think there are only two paradigms: Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, and Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations.  But there is another, the British Empire paradigm, and I wonder if it isn’t more influential (although probably less respected) than either of the former ones. 

Morris is flip, superficial, he skips matters that bear upon his ideas, and as of page 95 he has yet to explain what he means by “Rules.”  I’m guessing that he means what the Churchill meant when he famously told Eisenhower something along the lines of ‘Britain is no longer able to police the world so it is going to have to be up to you in the future.”  Britain was able to project its power through its unsurpassed navy, but since Churchill passed that baton to Eisenhower only the U.S. is able to project military power (in a significant way) any place in the world.  That is only partially true and I find the term “rules” if my guess about what Morris means is accurate terribly misleading. 

Back in early 2009 I was in a debate with Michael Kuznetsov (in my blog), a patriotic Russian who lived in, or perhaps only worked in, Moscow.  He had a web site that boasted that the Russian Army was the greatest military force in the world.  Given his assumptions about that matter, he was right.  What he meant wasn’t the sort of projection of military force that Churchill and (perhaps) Morris meant but the ability to defend Russia against any sort of attack.  The U.S. could project a military force into Iraq and another into Afghanistan but we don’t possess the ability or will to project one into Russia.  We couldn’t project one into China either.  And we wouldn’t be willing to project a force into virtually any nation at the present time.  But at this point Huntington’s paradigm impinges upon (or perhaps supports) Morris’s:

While the U.S. has neither the means nor the will to successfully invade Russia, it does have the means and under a future president might have the will to defend a nation, even a former S.S.R., on Russia’s border – given provocative circumstances.  The same sort of thing is true in regard to China, even more so perhaps, because the U.S. has very strong ties to Taiwan and the official policy of China is that Taiwan is integral to the Chinese nation and not an independent entity.   The U.S. may back away from the problem if Taiwan initiates a confrontation, but if the Chinese mainland initiates it, the U.S. may very well support Taiwan militarily.  This sort of “Clash” fits into Huntington’s paradigm.  Core nations such as the U.S., China, and Russia will not engage in all-out war with each other in the future.  Instead there will be “clashes” along the borders of the various “Civilizations.” Core nations may or may not become involved in these clashes.  A Clash in Georgia, or Taiwan, for example would fit Huntington’s paradigm.

If my guess about what Morris is up to is accurate, what sort of “rule” does he imagine the U.S. is engaged in – or capable of?  My opinion of Morris’s theories hasn’t grown any since I read his introduction.  He may mean something as banal as the ability to project another military force into another Middle Easter nation such as Iran.  Again, Huntington does a better job of dealing with such a matter.  If Iran decided to hold much of the world hostage by closing the Straits of Hormuz, the U.S. in the past would have stepped in and opened them up again.  Much of the world is dependent up oil flowing through these straits.  But if we happened to have an isolationist president who refused to interfere with Iran, arguing that we have enough oil and gas to satisfy our own needs and needn’t come to the aid of other nations, then one of those other nations, perhaps China or Japan would open up the Straits with a military force of their own.  If China did it perhaps Morris would argue that “rule” had passed from the U.S. to China. 

But perhaps I am taking Morris more seriously than he intends.  He seems to be enjoying himself even as he frustrates me: [from page 95] “Rituals are notoriously culture-specific.  Depending on when and where you find yourself, it may be that the mighty ones will listen only if you pour the blood of a live white goat on the right side of this particular rock; or only if you take off your shoes, kneel down, and pray facing in that direction; or if you tell your misdeeds to a man in black who doesn’t have sex . . .”

Monday, August 19, 2013

Was this English Major really a Major???

I described the current challenge to my description of my engineering career to an engineering friend who wrote back, “You might find your career at DAC as "ordinary", but to many (most?) people a career at a top flight (no pun) company working on exciting hi-tech projects is far from ordinary. Imagine some guy working as a purchasing agent for Best Buy, as one of many examples.

“You have an exciting resume and most people with lots of time to post on the internet do not. I see this on the firearms forums, where I have become convinced that most participants in the discussions do not actually own or shoot guns; they are engaging in ritual fantasy and really do not have real working experience with the topic.”

That’s an interesting perspective – I previously had a thought something like that, that I had a certain sort of advantage by working at Douglas, McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing for all those years, but the thought was in regard to things I wrote or the way I approached debates in the forums.  But when I think of influences, I usually rank the Marine Corps at the top.  In one of the Civil War histories I read, the author said something like “most enlistees enlisted at about age 17 and 17 through the next few years are the most impressionable for any young man” -- something like that.  That period for me included my three years in the Marine Corps and without doubt I was affected by those years.  After that I stormed through four years of college as a Marine and not as I might have if I’d entered college right out of high school.  I was very aggressive (intellectually) in college and that aggressiveness extended into my first job after graduation: working at Douglas.  I started in a group where I assembled and rewrote engineering proposals going to the Air Force.  The Air Force had complained that Douglas Engineers were such poor writers that half the time the Air Force had no idea what was being proposed.  The Chief Engineer decided to hire some likely-sounding young men who could write in order to make these proposals presentable. 

That was fairly interesting for an English Major.  Old time Engineers didn’t appreciate young people telling them their work wasn’t up to snuff and if they could, chased them off.  “Get out of here.  I have work to do.”  But I was a Marine, a Buck Sergeant no less, and wouldn’t be chased.  Many of these encounters were like the sand-box fights one has as a young boy.  You knock each other down for a while, get up, shake hands and become good friends after that.  It wasn’t long before these old-timers were confiding in my about what they liked and didn’t like.  I had become one of them.

That happened at Santa Monica beginning August 1959.  I worked on Thor mostly, but when we won the Skybolt program I worked on that – no longer on proposals but mostly on something called the “Task Plan” which was to itemize and describe every element in the Skybolt Program.  By the time Skybolt was cancelled (Christmas 1962) there were just a couple of us left, we who were hired by the Chief Design Engineer because we could write.  Most who worked on Skybolt at that time were laid off but I was able to wangle a transfer to Long Beach to become a “Specification Engineer” on the DC-8.  More experienced Spec Engineers were working on the just-launched DC-9.  I was given a few airlines and was responsible for the “Delivery Specification” for each delivered airplane.  No airline accepted a baseline configuration; so changes had to be processed.  That was also one of my responsibilities. 

I didn’t like being a Spec Engineer and so wangled my way onto each new major proposal.  I worked on the C-5 proposal for almost two years.  We lost the proposal to Lockheed.  After that I was accepted back into the “Spec Group.”  By that time we were working on extended versions of the DC-8.  When the KC-10 came along I worked on proposal for that as well.  This time we won the program and I finally got a job I really liked: Program Engineer.  I worked for the Director of Engineering and did many of the wide variety of things necessary to the launching of a new program.  During our peak effort we had perhaps six Program Engineers to cover the various engineering tasks.   The tasks that were most memorable for me were the electronic systems.  I had to not only make the proposal to the Air Force but sit through the pricing and negotiations and then oversee the work and be a liaison with the Testing Division as we proved to the Air Force that our system worked.  A system that comes to mind was Rendezvous Guidance -- as one might imagine the “Rendezvous” system was of vital importance.  The KC-10 tanker and the planes it needed to refuel needed to be able to find each other, but enough of that.

Back to Edmundson:   Consider the final paragraph in his article :

“What we're talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you've passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you're ready to take up something else.”

Since I did what Edmundson is recommending, do I see these matters the same way he does?  Not quite.  If I had gone directly into college after High School and then been sent to Douglas Aircraft Company, I wonder if I would have succeeded any better than the myriad of Liberal Arts graduates who left Douglas as quickly as they could for more congenial work.  My Marine Corps experience said as much about who I was if not more than my English Major.  I was a Marine who could also write.  That identity was much more acceptable to board engineers and engineering managers than a mere English Major. 

Also, I didn’t “take up something else” as a matter of choice.  I didn’t say to myself, “now I’m ready to become an engineer.”  After I graduated from college I had bills, needed a job, looked around and couldn’t find one, went to the Bliss Employment Agency, was sent to Douglas Aircraft and began the aforementioned career with a good deal of reluctance which I buried, apparently successfully, for the nonce.  Is there any justification here for the boasting I was suspected of?   None that I can see.  But perhaps I should be more appreciative of my career than I am, for as my friend illustrated I might have ended up a Purchasing Agent for Best Buy . . . Nah!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Picking a few bones with Edmundson's English Major

This morning I found myself thinking about Edmundson’s article:

“The English major is, first of all, a reader. She's got a book pup-tented in front of her nose many hours a day; her Kindle glows softly late into the night. But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?”

When I first read his article I wanted to agree with him, but as of this morning, I can’t quite.  He says “there are readers and there are readers.”  Does he mean to break all readers into two categories, those who read to anesthetize themselves and those who read to become other people?  I do a lot of reading but don’t identify with either of these categories.   To ‘read to become someone else’ is his preferred category but doesn’t this smack of schizophrenia?  

I wonder if Edmundson has read Collingwood.  Collingwood says that the historian (and presumably the reader) should take stock of himself and strive to set his preconceptions aside as he studies his subject, but Collingwood doesn’t mention the self-gratification; which I gather Edmundson assumes when he describes the blessings of living multiple lives through reading.  Surely most good historians are going to enjoy their work, but do any of them “become other people”?

My wife has always loved to read biographies but I never saw any indication that she had become any of the people she read about.  In my recent study project, the American Civil War, I read a lot of biographies but never had the slightest inclination to become any of the military figures I read about – not even the generals I admired.  I admired Sheridan, Longstreet, and John Hood for example, but each one had flaws, and in a history forum when my admiration for these generals became clear, I was pounced upon (figuratively) because of those flaws.  I would argue that their virtues overshadowed their vices, but this was not something someone who read about these generals but didn’t like them as much as I did could agree with.

But maybe Edmundson has only literary  figures in mind.  However, in looking at the three figures Edmundson mentions, I wonder how one would set about becoming Jane Austen.  One of her biographers, Jan Fergus, wrote that information about Jane Austen is “famously scarce.”   Typically, her biographers provide the sketchy information available and then draw conclusions from the characters in her novels.  So shall Edmundson’s reader live Austen’s life through the sketchy biographical information or through her novels? 

Edmundson elaborates: “English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.” 

I don’t agree with this either.  Harold Bloom wrote a couple of books that touch upon this, The Map of Misreading comes to mind.  The reader, but perhaps only the creative reader, reads critically and thinks he can do better if he chooses to.  Bloom someplace sites artistic works that were demonstrations of a creative reader choosing to “do better.”  Perhaps not every English Major would do this, but those in Edmundson’s “ideal” category would at least feel this to the extent that they are not intimidated by what they read, and this is a long shot from wanting to live it. 

I have more appreciation for some of the other things Edmundson says, for example his response to Heidegger’s “language speaks man”:   “. . . Not all men, not all women: not by a long shot. Did language speak Shakespeare? Did language speak Spenser? Milton, Chaucer, Woolf, Emerson? No, not even close.”  I’m not sure where this Heidegger quote came from, but Heidegger didn’t believe language spoke for all men either – especially not himself.  He made up words to convey what he believed was his unique “speech,” i.e., philosophy.  But in general I take Edmundson’s meaning.  Most people, most likely, have no reason to be dissatisfied with the limits of language.  Creative people like those he mentions (including Heidegger) never feel constrained by the limits of language.  They get out of it more than the common reader thought was there – a bit more, perhaps, than Wordsworth’s ‘often thought but ne’er so well expressed.”

Further down Edmundson wrote, “The English major wants to use what he knows about language and what he's learning from books as a way to confront the hardest of questions. He uses these things to try to figure out how to live. His life is an open-ended work in progress, and it's never quite done, at least until he is. For to the English major, the questions of life are never closed. There's always another book to read; there's always another perspective to add.”   My most recent example of this is the American Civil War.  I believed it was the single-most formative event in U.S. history but I had never seriously studied it – until recently.  This was a “hard question” for me, that is, the war itself was extremely complicated.  One must study the major battles, read biographies of the important military and political figures, struggle through the important issues still being debated and then draw, or at least I drew only tentative conclusions.  But none of this pertained to how I lived my life.

Edmundson concludes with, “What we're talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you've passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you're ready to take up something else.” 

My stepfather, a truck driver, advised me to major in Engineering.  I rejected his “prudent advice” and majored in English.  Ironically I abandoned the course being urged upon me by college advisors, i.e., to get my PhD and teach, and instead became an engineer.  But would Edmundson say that my step-father was not a human being?  No one else in my family was an English Major or any other kind of a major – except one cousin who majored in nursing.  Were none of these human beings?   I don’t think Edmundson intends to be an elitist, but it is possibile to see a hint of that: the best thing one can achieve in college is to become an English Major.  Those who do not become English Majors let language speak through them and have only “one life to live.”  I’ve never watched the soap by that name but actors seem to be better examples of living other people’s lives.  Some actors devote major portions of their lives to being someone else.  I think of David Suchet being Hercule Poirot for example.  Did Suchet consider it a waste of time to spend so many years being Poirot?  I don’t have that impression.  He seems to have been happy doing being him. 

I wonder if Tom Selleck is happy being Jesse Stone.  Stone suffers from depression but manages to solve crimes in spite of it, but perhaps Selleck finds it appropriate to end his acting career on this depressed note.  Perhaps he realizes that acting, becoming another person, isn’t a very admirable thing to be.