Agreeable eye.

an eudæmonistarchives

November 2002

Litterae Humaniores

I know it is in bad taste to quote from one’s own letters, but this really is too absurd:

Am reading some of the letters exchanged by Mommsen1 and Wilamowitz,2 the latter always offering to be of service in scrounging up inscriptions. I do wish I could totter about Italy complaining about the lack of classical inscriptions and misplacing German friends…
Found out, too, that Mommsen’s a funny looking bird, with beady eyes and bad hair, while Wilamowitz looks the perfect Prussian. Curious, tho’, that I never knew Wilamowitz married Mommsen’s daughter. I wonder if she was a funny looking bird with beady eyes and bad hair. Hmmm — probably…
  1. Mommsen wrote a monumental history of ancient Rome—which is still read (or at least cited) to this day; he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1902. []
  2. Wilamowitz is perhaps the most important, most famous philologist the world has produced. See this review of a Wilamowitz bibliography; the best brief English-language introduction to Wilamowitz I could find on-line. Curious readers are encouraged to google for other sources. []

Pacem supplices petunt

Explorers of the past are never quite free. The past is their tyrant. It forbids them to know anything which it has not itself, consciously or otherwise, yielded to them.

– Marc Bloch (Apologie pour l’Histoire, ou Métier d’Historien, (194–)
From the translation of P. Putnam, p. 59.

  1. * Livy II.49.12, of the Veientes in the early fourth century before the common era; they had been driven back to their camp by the Romans, from whom they ‘on bended knees’ (supplices) sought peace. Doubtless Livy was not literal; an entire army of grovelling Veientes seems unlikely. One assumes they sent messengers.

Citation (2)

Mortals are easily tempted to pinch the life out of their neighbor’s buzzing glory, and think that such killing is no murder.

– George Eliot (Middlemarch, ch. 21)

And yet from the story itself the reader sees that Dorothea’s ‘buzzing glory’ about Casaubon is misguided, that he is a senseless, selfish old twig, and not much of a scholar, either (even if he would read the Germans). Is that, then, still ‘murder’ to set aright one who has gone astray? Yes—if the temptation to reprove is itself misguided, and is born, as here, from selfishness and spite.

A view (3)

Sunset, Grayfriars

I wonder, sometimes, when I will take pictures of the town and offer up something more interesting, or more varied, than ‘Sunset, Grayfriars.’

I am very fond of sunsets.

Codes of Misconduct

‘Entrance into the sanctuary is allowed:

From the unlawful things you are never clean.’

(A Greek inscription from the town of Lindos, third century AD {LSS 91}; bracketed material indicates the reading is in doubt)

Citation (3)

From The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry:

There be suche men that lyethe and makithe good visage and countenaunce to women afore hem, that scornithe and mockithe hem in her absence. And therefor it is harde to knowe the worlde that is now; and ther [for] the resones that y haue saide you, y partede and yede oute of the gardein, and fonde in my way .ij. prestes and .ij. clerkes that y had. And I saide to hem that y wolde make a boke of ensaumples, for to teche my doughtres, that thei might vnderstonde how thei shulde gouerne hem, and knowe good from euelle. And so y made hem extraie me ensaumples of the Bible and other bokes that y hade, as the gestis of kingges, the croniclez of Fraunce, Grece, of Inglonde, and of mani other straunge londes. And y made hem rede me eueri boke; And ther that y fonde a good ensaumple, y made extraie it oute. And thanne y made this boke. But y wolde not sette it in ryme, but in prose, forto abregge it, and that it might be beter and more pleinly to be understonde. And y made this boke for the gret loue that y hade to my saide doughtres, the whiche y loued as fader aught to loue his childe, Hauing hertely ioye to finde wayes to stere and turne hem to goodness and worshippe, and to loue and serue her creatoure, And to haue loue of her neigheboures and of the worlde.
(Fol. 1b, col. 1)

Found Objects

morning

England, 12 November, 7:24 a.m.

When I remember something I would rather forget, or when some unpleasant action or unwitting stupidity of mine forces its way forward into the present from the past, I think I don’t feel well. Oh happy past, which can so disorder the present.

A people that grows accustomed to sloppy writing is a people in process of losing grip on its empire and on itself. And this looseness and blowsiness is not anything as simple and scandalous as abrupt and disordered syntax. It concerns the relation of expression to meaning. Abrupt and disordered syntax can be at times very honest, and an elaborately constructed sentence can be at times merely an elaborate camouflage.

– Ezra Pound (ABC of Reading, p. 34)

Wednesday

terracotta figurine

Hellenistic figure of a mime
Louvre (from Rostovtzeff, SEHHW)

Seminar (1)

Of John the Baptist: ‘he was as clean as a baby.’

‘Stupidity is also a blemish.’

Rapid, fluid interchange: ‘ ‘No, not boring…’ ‘You have too good manners to say that.’ ‘Or indeed to feel it, in such a case as this.’ ’

The questioner’s voice wobbles across the scope of the query, his voice at a falsetto pitch of ignorance: ‘Then are these ritual baths for the, uh, incidental impurities that, uh, just come up?’

‘ ‘So they believed the temple would be rebuilt, then?’ ‘And how…’ ’

Inscriptiones Graecae

They took us into the store rooms of the Ashmolean, bright blue metal shelves crammed with funerary monuments, busts of Romans (or Sir Arthur Evans), and sculptures of every sort of absurdity. We are to look at inscriptions. And here we see an inscription from Smyrna; it is quite nice actually—the person carving it was quite skillful. It’s typical of Hellenistic inscriptions, you see, the letter forms. You have to be careful, but sometimes it helps to touch the stone, to feel where the letters might be…What do you notice especially? Ah, yes, the round letters are quite small; yes, the omicrons and omegas seem to hover, there, in the middle of the line. And here you see how the pi, there, the right vertical is only half as long as the left… Ah. At the end of the strokes—see, here—there are decorative turns; serifs, really.

Now let’s take a look at this one. Yes, it is quite dark, isn’t it. Local marble, from Crete. A treaty between Hierapytna and Priasnos. Oh, about the second century—so a little later than the one we were just looking at. And do the letter forms seem different to you? Hmm. Yes. The cross-bar on the alpha is curved down, as a decorative touch. On the mu as well. And see how the top and bottom bars of the sigma slant away—quite different from the other, where they were nearly parallel.

Now. I’m going to show you how to make a squeeze of an inscription. What you need is water, and paper—filter paper, like coffee filters, with a high fiber content, very strong and absorbant. Yes. And you’ll need a brush and sponge. Now what you’ve got to do is to make sure the surface of the inscription is covered in water—like that; then you press the paper against it, and make sure the paper is completely saturated. Then you’ve got to try to remove the air-pockets, yes, like that. No. Just tap the brush against the surface—see how it pushes the paper into the letters. What? Does it damage the inscription? Well, ah, yes, a little. One does not want to make very many squeezes of the same stone… Yes. There you’ve got it. Now we’ll leave that to dry. How long? Well, if you’re on site, in the heat and sun of Turkey or Greece—half an hour; here, we’ll have to leave it overnight…

Hall

light

Entrance, chair, sun, shadow.

Note to Self (2)

17 November 2002

My dearest M—

Heartfelt apologies for not writing sooner; as you know, I’ve been a bit busy. I am astonished to find that you have yet to make any new friends. Is there a reason for this, or are you simply idling? Philosophers through the millennia have pointed out the necessity of forming friendships, both for one’s health and for one’s happiness; and you know that—what’s your excuse? I had held out hopes that you were not socially benighted, but it appears you are more inept than even I had imagined. It sounds cruel, I know, but I am more than a little frustrated at your lack of amiability.

And then there’s the question of intelligence. A few people have told you you’re ‘smart’—I trust you’ve realized that this just means they can’t lie well enough to pay any other compliment such as, ‘gosh, you’re sweet,’ or ‘gee, you are really nice, you know?’ etc. because (setting aside, momentarily, your myriad failings in appearance and demeanor) you’re not that smart. Okay. Let’s rephrase: you’re an idiot, but your’re smart enough to see, to some extent, how much of an idiot you are. (I don’t mean you have a Socratic level of self-knowledge, either, so stop smirking.) You are merely clever. And of all human failings cleverness, I’ve come to find, is one of the worst. Nonetheless, I remain

Yours,
M.

Neither a borrower…

I have to remind myself it was only a book – mass-market paperback, pristine condition though bought used.

I lent it to an acquaintance; I do not say she was a friend, because she was not. She was an acquaintance. At the time I would have compared her to a whirlwind, for wherever she went chaos and confusion invariably followed. She had a talent for capturing the affection, the admiration, perhaps even the love of other people. Though lacking beauty in any strict sense of the word, her energy and heedlessness – a sort of helplessness born of irresponsibility – drew people to her. In this sense, she was attractive.

She had no difficulty in asking favors, either, and people almost instinctively granted them. That, in fact, was how I met her. She asked if she could sleep in my room, because she had forgotten her key and needed a place to stay until her roommate returned to open the door. At the time, I shrugged, having no objections. That was the first favor she asked, and it seems to me there were so many others I cannot remember them all.

There was, for instance, the time she came to dinner, uninvited, with the latest young man in tow. An eager puppy of a fellow, he was embarrassed to intrude, but so besotted with her he could not help but follow withersoever she led. At the time, the sight amused. I fed them rice and other foods, made them tea, and chatted idly over the sound of Prokofiev.

She often called on me, after that, to accompany them, as chaperone, and prevent the young man from making a scene or asking too many questions. It would not do, you see, if he made a fuss when she asked him to drive her to Boston, to visit one of her lovers at MIT. It would not do at all. A third (or perhaps a fourth?) was needed to diffuse the tension; and such was I. How could I mind, though, when they were young and vivacious, and the boy had such a beautiful neck?

She wanted to borrow the book, to read over the weekend. She was not what I would call a reader, for she read neither widely nor disrciminately, but she liked to have read what her friends had read – if the title piqued her interest. With no misgivings, I lent her the book.

When she returned the book a month later, I didn’t recognize it. The cover was mangled and torn, the pages dog-eared, thumbed (was that a spider I see squashed there at the cover – oh, it is, how nice), and the spine broken. All the life had gone out of it; the very words on the page seemed weary and plaintive, their phosphorescence worn away. The book, in its mute injury, seemed nearly as bitter and exhausted as that young man, the boy with the beautiful neck, who hadn’t even lasted the winter at her heels.

I didn’t get a chance to finish it, she said, I didn’t have time.

I handed the book back to her. Take all the time you need. I’ve finished with it long ago.

Queries

Dear C,

In response to your application ‘to be treated like a living, breathing human being for a change, and not some benumbed automaton’ we regret to inform you that all such positions are filled at the present time. This is by no means a reflection of your qualifications to be human. We have simply had an amazing group of candidates this year, and we assure you that the choices were not easy to make. Although we cannot offer you true humanity at present, we encourage you to apply again at some later date. Best wishes for your future success and happiness.

Sincerely,                    
The Management

Improbable places (1)

The room of Chinese Paintings
Ashmolean Museum, 1:26 p.m.

Improbable places (2)

The room of maps and diagrams
Library, 11:36 a.m.

The thing is

That it seems nothing is happening. I spend each and every day following the same routine, the dull rhythm of the week waxing and waning, more timely than the moon. Waking up at 5:30 in the morning, the darkness still swirling like the fog, I stumble, tumble down the stairs, make dark coffee and a bowl of muesli, ascend again carrying the bowl balanced on top of the coffeecup and read for two hours; e.g. Orientalism or Purity and Danger or De Officiis. Around seven-thirty-five I set aside the books, dress, wash the dishes, prepare for the day. By eight it’s light outside, people are waiting for the bus—I could see them, the faint and fuzzy outlines of knit caps and wool coats, if I looked out the window. Still, I read a bit more, then leave for the library at eight-twenty-five or so, a slow walk, watching traffic.

That I’m always too early for the library to open: readers not admitted before 9 a.m. says the sign in sententious san-serif. The guard leans back in his booth, thumbing a paper, watching the clock. At 8:57 there’s usually a line of old men in tweed jackets, hunch-backed from centuries of poor posture, and the young Germans, silent with scarves. And that woman, whom I’m afraid of, because she reminds me of myself. Always alone, twitchy, nervous, fully covered always with black skirts and jackets, her hair piled atop her head as she learned when she was Edwardian. She snaps her gum, though (which is anyhow forbidden) and talks to herself when others can see and swears at the staff, which I could never do—not openly at least.

That I spend the day migrating from library to lecture to library again, returning to my narrow room by way of the post-box, which is usually empty. That the most meaningful and complete thoughts I utter in the day are ‘please’ and ‘thank-you.’ That I could stumble after people, engage them in idle chit-chat, how’s the weather, it sure is cold, that I could coil around them like a serpent—but they seem so happy, and so beautiful, just as they are. And so we pass in silence.

A view (4)

Clouds, 2:30 p.m.

Compendium academicorum

Within this field, which no single scholar can create but which each scholar receives and in which he then finds a place for himself, the individual researcher makes his contribution. Such contributions, even for the exceptional genius, are strategies of redisposing material within the field. Even the scholar who unearths a once-lost manuscript produces the ‘found’ text in a context already prepared for it, for that is the real meaning of finding a new text.

– Edward Said (Orientalism, p. 273)

So you could imagine it like a spider and a vacuum cleaner — except you’ve got to imagine that the spider wants to be sucked into the vacuum cleaner. So there’s the spider on the carpet, the world, and then there’s the vacuum cleaner, which is the kingdom of god. Now there is that point where the spider has just entered the vacuum cleaner, but is not in fact in the dustbag — this might be called purity of heart. But the spider has not entered the kingdom of god until it has actually reached the dustbag, its journey is not complete until it’s in the dustbag — and that’s the point about salvation.

– Anonymous English Academic

prescriptive

For words have a weight beyond their meaning, the sound of the stithy drawing measure from the iron of Elizabethan poetry, skirting the Joycean quicksilver to forge a something other than consciousness—a feeling, then, a fear. The chthonic sibilance and uneven lisp hammering out associations and leaving nothing but the need to hear.

ego hoc feci mm–MMXIX · cc 2000–2019 M.F.C.