Category Archives: reading

Nexial Institute

A couple of days ago I happened upon Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books (Georges Perec). Since I’ve been working on Arranging in the Auxiliary Library in the barn for at least a month, it seemed a no-brainer to order. And today along comes email from John-the-son asking about the Nexial Institute, which several of us [consider that we] invented and elected ourselves to in about 1973. His question:

So I’ve always assumed that this idea had some particular vision or principles behind it, but I also get the impression it may have been a joke. Perhaps both.

Have you done any writing about what was or was not within this set of ideas? I figured this included several others from … grad school days? Or early Acadia?

Did you ever do anything formal with this Institute? Or particular ideas that propelled the conservations surrounding it?

I replied

I’ve got queries out to the original perpetrators (Kent, Shel, Mom) and I’ll be interested to see their takes. For me the Significance of the Nexial Institute has remained …well… Significant, and I’d even claim that everything I’ve done since 1973 is somehow rooted in the basic notions of everything connected to everything, of Systems, of the Dynamical. But I suppose it was basically a joke, or perhaps more accurately a Joke.

Kent’s response fingered the origin of ‘Nexial’ from A.E. van Vogt’s sci-fi The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which I don’t think I have ever read (and so have ordered…). Wikipedia:

The main protagonist of the novel is Dr. Elliott Grosvenor, the only Nexialist on board (a new discipline depicted as taking an actively generalist approach towards science). It is Grosvenor’s training and application of Nexialism rather than the more narrow-minded approaches of the individual scientific and military minds of his other shipmates that consistently prove more effective against the hostile encounters both from outside and within the Space Beagle.

And here’s John’s response to my response:

Got it… But did it have as a part of the germ, the inversion of all that complexity, of the observer influencing what was observed, and of the realization that follows that your every intention, conscious and otherwise, is responsible for influencing the “outside” world, just as it is imperfectly creating the illusion of that objectivity within consciousness, replete with ungraspable biases? The unknown knowns that constrain our very conception of what is possible and real? Oh, the paralysis that comes from that realization of interconnectivity, when you realize that every yarn you pull at will bring worlds crashing down and others springing into existence, barely or not even perceptible. The only ways forward I perceive from there is either to blindly follow the habituated momentum (karma) that was put into place before such a realization until the yawning chasm of awareness undilates again, OR fall into nihilism OR to consciously create an intention (art?) which requires an underlying faith that it will come about, and that circumstances will co-incide to bring it about, if the intention is aligned across consciousness, and circumstances will throw cascading obstacles if the different levels of intentions are incoherent or at cross-purposes?

um… probably, what with the amount of consciousness-expanding consumption that was going on?

So this comes from the “duh” perspective of yes, “yeah sure, dad” everything is connected “so what?”

So there’s the next Challenge, unpacking all of that. At the moment, all I have to contribute is the conviction that “a lot of my present-day library could be woven in”, and some photos of a few shelves from the barn to suggest some of what I can draw upon:

technology
technology

anthropology
anthropology

landscapes
landscapes

information
information

(Those categories are approximate and partial and provisional…)

Equinoctal meta-tation


It’s been a busy fortnight of explorations:

And then yesterday along comes email from John the Son with this challenge:

On the subject of cats in Sarawak, have you read [Paolo Bacigalupi’s] ‘the windup girl‘ it’s very evocative and the GMO cats are everpresent. I’m very curious of your perspective on this vision of southeast Asia in the somewhat near future. And of the tensions between the Malay and Chinese immigrants that are cited as a brutal(future) history in the book.
I remember you saying that each of the four groups thought the others were disgusting for different reasons: the Muslims, the Chinese, the Malay and the westerners…

into the answer of which is packed a vast morass of entangled Information. I did read The Windup Girl when it first came out, then passed the book along to my (much-missed since 2016) friend Hutch (whose Thai connections were deep), so I snagged it via Kindle and am reading it again to see what I might have thought before and what I think now.


John’s question dropped me right into Professor mode, to wrangling what I “know” and/or what I have thought I knew over a broad canvas, thinking about what I’d have to weave into any …explication… of the dimensions of a satisfying answer to the question. That’s great sport, in which I’ve lived for a good 55+ years—and which I should have lived in those 60 years ago days of Harvard /opportunities/, but needed then to (a) invent for myself, and (b) develop the requisite background to begin to practise. And of course I’m still learning how to do those things, and how to think about them.


That’s true for all of my Entanglements with subject matter

  • photography
  • music
  • geography/landscape
  • words
  • The Computer
  • food
  • curiosity [about things not already listed…]

…and so I’ve been exploring the Southeast Asia territory of my mental and bibliographic Catalog, to figure out how to set about providing enough of the relevant background to make a sensible answer (i.e., to Inform the Others Against Their Will). There’s a sequence to the exposition, starting with physical geography, ecology, at least a millennium of human demography, and then finally history… covering the whole of what JOM Broek has summarized as

an area of transit and transition … [with a long history of] foreign intrusions … culturally a low-pressure area … recipients rather than donors of culture … ethnic and political fragmentation—a kind of Asian Balkans.

There’s plenty to quibble over in that summary, but it serves to indicate the diversity that has to be accounted for, understood, and fairly characterized.


That’s a term-long class to even contemplate. But wouldn’t it be fun to … no, it wouldn’t, or rather YES it would but only in the imagination. No names, no pack drill, no papers to write and read, no grades to turn in.

So here’s the first page I wrote:

The first thing I’d say is how arbitrary the national boundaries of Southeast Asia are [essentially colonial legacy] and how complex ethnic identities are within each of the current-day nations. Labels like ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, ‘Thai’, ‘Burmese’, ‘Indonesian’ project an image of homogeneity within the labels that is at best false-by-oversimplification. There’s an interesting analogy to explore in the shadow theatre so widespread across Southeast Asia; another is the music of gongs, present everywhere as shimmering sound, but in both cases built on illusion: the shadows of the puppets are insubstantial, flickering, turned into narrative by the words of the puppet-master storytellers; the striking of gongs rendered musical and comprehensible as evanescent layers each of which is a pretty simple repetition of a pattern. Somewhere under those visual and aural realizations is a profound syncretism of … Hindu and Buddhist influences, Muslim notions, a Western European and Colonial imposition of “order”, bits of Chinese high and low traditions … and all of that overlaid on a persisting base of indigenous animisms—enormously complex worlds of spirits and ghosts and shamanic manipulations. Add a murky history of trade and gene flows, and natural and anthropogenic ecologies, and human entanglement with plant and animal life, and rising falling seas. And make it equatorial, and subject to annual monsoon/dry cycles…


And there you have the stage set. For next class, please read………

(at least two classes on rice… and there’s rubber… and oil palm… and and and)

Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company

Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia

and so on.

Fungi and Education

The London Review of Books is a continual delight, every issue replete with surprises and challenges, lambent writing, and things I had no idea I was interested in until I started reading. This week’s case in point: a review by Francis Gooding of Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds And Shape Our Futures, which I was reading and listening to (via Audible) about a year ago. This (summarizing “what we know of mycelium and its habits”) is from the last paragraph:

The explosive growth of interconnections, the development of flexible new relationships, the filling of spaces with a tangle of new pathways, novel and powerful exchanges and flows of information coursing through an electrically excitable network: what else but this would a fungus do if it really did seize hold of your mind… an entanglement of intimate, sudden, pulsing fresh connections between the things around it?

What a marvelous characterization of Education, I thought, and how very like what I experienced (mostly outside of classes…) with friends in the halcyon days of 1969-1971 at Stanford, and now and again in the years since (though the “electrically excitable network” didn’t really bloom until the 1990s), and mostly on my own in 16 years of retirement. Perhaps the greatest pleasure is never knowing when and in what modality the next inspiration will present itself, but they keep coming.

Krazy

I often have the experience of being inspired by something I read or see to order a book (used via Amazon, most often), but when it arrives I don’t recall the details of the inspiration, having by then moved on to yet more inspirations… Today’s case in point is Louis Kronenberger’s Quality: Its Image in the Arts (1969), which turns out to have a very interesting chapter on Photography by Walker Evans (which I had read about a couple of weeks ago in Svetlana Alpers’ Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch (2020), and was, as I now reconstruct it, the source of the inspiration to order). The Kronenberger book has chapters by a variety of mid-20th century luminaries (Virgil Thompson on Music, Gilbert Seldes on Popular Arts, Milton Glaser on Graphics, Ada Louise Huxtable on Architecture, Eliza beth Hardwick on Literature…), some of which are a bit musty a half century later (though their points of view are memorable to those of us who were there then). There are lots of wonderful illustrations, some very familiar and others quite new to me. One that especially delights me is this from George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, ca. 1922 (that is, nearly a century ago):



Now, Herriman himself is an interesting character, subject of the biography Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White (2016), and “a visionary whose influence helped shape popular culture for decades after his death… you may never look at the zigzag on Charlie Brown’s t-shirt again without remembering that it was Charles Schulz’s tribute to the Navaho designs that recurred in Herriman’s work…” (from the Amazon blurb). I retrieved it from the Auxiliary Library in the barn and started reading it again.

And Herriman drew the cartoons for Archy & Mehitabel (written by Don Marquis):

i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
i wake the world from sleep
as i caper and sing and leap
when i sing my wild free tune
wotthehell wotthehell
under the blear eyed moon
i am pelted with cast off shoon
but wotthehell wotthehell

(and see What Kittens? for more from A&M)

Egregores and the Egregious

An early morning riffle through this week’s New Yorker produces a marvelous collision of Americas. The first is a two-page spread advertisement for Sensei Lānaʻi, a “Four Seasons Resort” which proposes “Elevating Wellness into Wellbeing”:




This is the single most offensive ad I’ve encountered so far this year, and maybe ever. You owe yourself a close reading of the text:



I then turned a couple of pages to arrive at The Talk of the Town, the lead piece of which is Adam Gopnik’s “Fault Lines” which begins

Readers of “Through the Looking-Glass” may recall the plight of the Bread-and-Butterfly, which, as the Gnat explains to Alice, can live only on weak tea with cream in it. “Supposing it couldn’t find any?” Alice asks. “Then it would die, of course,” the Gnat answers. “That must happen very often,” Alice reflects. “It always happens,” the Gnat admits dolefully.

Gopnik goes on to consider America’s current crisis of democracy, and says

The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.

…Keeping a republic is a matter not of preserving it like pickles but of working it like dough—which sounds like something you’d serve alongside very weak tea. But it is the essential diet to feed our democracy if we are to make what always happens, for a little while longer, happily unhappen.

What a juxtaposition: the utter crass ME-ness of Larry Ellison’s Lānaʻi (“Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison bought 98% of the island of Lanai in 2012 for an estimated $300 million…”) with Gopnik’s rendition of our current slide toward the “default condition of humankind.” But Gopnik tells only a part of the story, which includes Lewis Carroll’s discription of the fatal anatomy of the Bread-and-Butterfly:

its wings are thin slices of bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.

Thus, if the Bread-and-Butterfly did find its weak tea with cream, it would die as its head dissolved; if it didn’t find its weak tea with cream, it would starve. The Bread-and-Butterfly is, as Gregory Bateson noted, a classic example of the Double Bind:

the essence of a double bind is two conflicting demands, each on a different logical level, neither of which can be ignored or escaped. This leaves the subject torn both ways, so that whichever demand he or she tries to meet, the other demand cannot be met. “I must do it, but I can’t do it” is a typical description of the double-bind experience.

Hobson’s Choice is another common trope, in which the Choice is between something and nothing. Both are all too present in today’s world.

Somewhere in the searching and reading that this conjunction provoked, I stumbled upon a term that was new to me: egregore, “powerful autonomous psychic entities created by a collective group mind.” Egregores: The Occult Entities That Watch Over Human Destiny

sustained by belief, ritual, and sacrifice and relies upon the devotion of a group of people, from a small coven to an entire nation, for its existence. An egregore that receives enough sustenance can take on a life of its own, becoming an independent deity with powers its believers can use to further their own spiritual advancement and material desires… provides instructions on how to identify egregores, free yourself from a parasitic and destructive collective entity, and destroy an egregore, should the need arise. Revealing how egregores form the foundation of nearly all human interactions, the author shows how egregores have moved into popular culture and media–underscoring the importance of intense selectivity in the information we accept and the ways we perceive the world and our place in it. (from the Amazon precis)

How very like the ‘Trumpism’ that seems to stalk the land and contribute to that “current crisis of democracy.”

Eeeek…

And A Pseudoethnography of Egregores. Quite enough for a Monday.

Three Farmers again

It was almost 7 years ago that I wrote a blog post about my fascination with August Sander’s “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance”

and Richard Powers’ marvelous book (published in 1985) with the same title, which constructs an epic reading of the photograph. A couple of weeks ago the book was released as an Audible book, and I’ve been listening to it and re-reading my 1987 paperback too. The book has lost nothing of its power in those 33 years since I first read it.

That post followed one a week before, written while I was reading Powers’ Orfeo (2014), which contains this bit of insight:

…people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement. They visit the birthplaces of Civil War generals. They practice the euphonium. They learn tai chi or collect Petoskey stones or photograph rock formations in the shape of human faces… (Orfeo, page 2 or so)

In 2014 I wasn’t seeking rock faces (though that was the first year we visited Brittany, and I did photograph megaliths), but it was about that time that I discovered the 12th Imam on a rock in Martinsville, and that was probably the beginning of my engagement with faces in rocks:


12th Imam as first discovered

Since then I’ve done thousands of rock portraits, and just today we did an expedition to Marshall Point and I collected these:

9xi2030

9xi2031

9xi2032

9xi2018

9xi2048

9xi2053

9xi2016

self/no-self

“I” (me, my, etc.) figures prominently in this blog and in the thinking that precedes the construction of an entry. This seems a fact to acknowledge, rather than a failing to expunge or an error to vitiate, and reflects the personal nature of its contents, which emerge as a catalog of mental states and doings and projects, mostly quotidian and only occasionally nudging into territory of the sublime or transcendent. The author is no Bodhisattva:

no Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego-identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality

as Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz puts it in his Foreword to the Shambhala 1969 version of The Diamond Sutra.

My citation of Minor White’s dictum

The photographer projects himself
into everything he sees,
identifying himself with
everything
in order to know and feel it better

All photographs are
self-portraits.

(which ended a post that followed a post on the Dude abiding, which itself harked back to discussion of the Convivial question of the previous week…) evinced this response from one of my Convivial interlocutors:

Which raises the question of the “self” if every _______ is a self-portrait. Assuming, of course, that there is a self. Or are there more than one “selves?” Nobody seems to agree on any of these possibilities.

Hm. I thought. Well, I’m a self, conscious of constructing myself over a lifetime, in continuing inner dialog that continues to be constructive, and aware that sometime it will all cease. But meanwhile it’s not an illusion, but rather a performance space in which various plays are enacted, alone and with others. I can be self-critical, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-involved… but those are choices made. I can also attend to the broader performances outside my own little theater of the mind, and choose to participate, or not. Choose to display and communicate, or not. Have close alliances with others, or not. Engage with external stimuli and events, or not. That choosing is done from within the wheelhouse of the mind, where attention may be directed as I choose.

And what’s the point of it all? It’s continuously interesting as a story with episodic complexities and pleasures/gratifications. My own performance space is happy, untrammeled, little bothered by slings and arrows of tragedy, suffering, dissatisfaction. In short, felicitous. Just why and how I’m not sure, perhaps more by “luck” and ultimately chance of the initial draw than by any inherent virtue, or any karmic head start.

I am at home in the Sensorium, attentive to Umwelt. The Dude abides.

I can imagine that there might not be “an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality” just as I can imagine breathing into my toes, shoulder blades, etc., or that the rocks are peopled. It’s the imagining in which I take refuge.

All of that stuff emerges in the contemporaneous context of reading Madeleine Thien’s Poems Without an ‘I’ in the October 8th issue of NYRB, a review of 3 books on classical Chinese poetry, a subject in which I didn’t know I was interested. She avers that “The essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable” (which set off a kerfuffle among linguists) and continues

the dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface. Cheng observes that the writing system “has refused to be simply a support for the spoken language: its development has been characterized by a constant struggle to assure for itself both autonomy and freedom of combination.” To add to the constellations of meaning within any given poem, the disciplines of poetry, calligraphy, and painting are not considered distinct but rather facets of a single complete art.

Hinton notes that the Chinese language is not constructed around “a center of identity”; each time we see an “I” in a translation of Tang poetry, it was almost certainly not in the original text. Chinese grammar—a genderless and verb-tense-less system in which past, present, and future are inferred by context—allows for a complex blurring of subjectivities, which is not just a side effect but a fundamental aspect of the language. In Chinese poetry, fiction, and philosophy, the “I” is not the nerve center from which thought and knowledge begin.

The whole business of translation has amused me ever since high school Latin, and Thien’s characterization of David Hinton’s approach is elegant:

Hinton’s translations have always gone against the grain. He has been building, translation by translation, an English language for a Chinese conceptual world. His versions get closest to what makes Du Fu sublime for Chinese readers. He isn’t afraid to baffle us; the gaps remind us that we are only guests here, and that the poems do—indeed should—hover a bit beyond our grasp.

So does all this sort out the self/no-self question? Um, no, but it surely puts me on one side of the chasm.

contra Sherlock

Today I was listening to Stephen Fry’s reading of Sherlock Holmes as I walked, and was diverted by this bit of Holmes’ practical philosophy:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
(from A Study in Scarlet)

This is just about the diametrical opposite to what I’ve thought all these years, the antithesis to my patron saint Hugh of St. Victor’s dictum:

Omnia disce,
videbus postea nihil esse superfluum

(Learn everything,
you will see later that nothing is superfluous)

(and see my Goals and Methods of Teaching as summarized 25 years ago)

It’s the curation of stuff that makes the difference between the lumber-filled brain-attic and the well-oiled engines of synthesis and retrieval to which one aspires. I (seem to have to) learn this lesson anew whenever I try to make sense of one of my collections, and each pass reveals new interrelations I hadn’t noticed or fully appreciated before.

Convivium: Attachment

This week I think I’ll try a different approach to posing a Question for Convivial consideration, stating it in its general form and then providing a backstory to how it arose and what I think about it. Here goes:

We’re told that Attachment is a fons et origo of Suffering, with the implication that we shouldn’t BE Attached, or should shed Attachments. Of course there can be Attachment to immaterial as well as material, to notions as easily as to stuff.

So on the one hand one might Ask: how to be/become NOT Attached?

But perhaps the more useful question to mull is: what are one’s own Attachments, what’s their history, how does one understand their importance in one’s life?

Personally, my consideration of this Question has led to the realization that I don’t wish to shed Attachments, but that I enjoy the active engagement with their curation, with the working out for myself of those Attachments’ designs and architectures. This won’t surprise anybody who has been following along, nor will the scope of convolutions and serendipities that are the background to its posing.

Here’s how the Convivial Question-making seems to unfold: I’m reading in one or more books, attending to their main threads, and up pops a Relation to something we’ve discussed before—often quite tangential, but pointed enough to get written down, and thus to provoke further wondering. Other books come off the shelves, google searches may ensue, bits of summary of findings and thoughts get written down, and so it goes.

The impetus for today’s Question was a story from the New Yorker’s Annals of Gastronomy, 2 August: How a Cheese Goes Extinct, By Ruby Tandoh

…By July of that year, the farm ceased production, and Holbrook’s cheeses—Old Ford, Cardo, Sleightlett, and Tymsboro—slipped out of the living tradition and into the pages of history. A cheese is just one small piece of the world—one lump of microbe-riddled milk curds—but each is an endpoint of centuries of tradition. Some disappear for months or years; others never return. The cheesemonger and writer Ned Palmer told me that, when a cheese is lost, “Your grief reaches back into the past—into decades and centuries and millennia of culture. You feel all of that.”

When you talk with cheese aficionados, it doesn’t usually take long for the conversation to veer this way: away from curds, whey, and mold, and toward matters of life and death. With the zeal of nineteenth-century naturalists, they discuss great lineages and endangered species, painstakingly cataloguing those cheeses that are thriving and those that are lost to history. In his classic The Great British Cheese Book, from 1982, Major Patrick Rance—a monocled founding father of modern British cheese—intersperses his tales of surviving regional cheeses with obituaries for those that never made it so far, going as far as to describe their disappearance as extinction. Under “Extinct cheeses of the Midlands and East Anglia,” Rance pays his respects to a lost Newmarket cheese, “a 40lb marigold-coloured cheese,” pressed under cloth and rubbed with salt and cream, the recipe for which was unearthed in a 1774 housekeeping manual.

The cheese story ties in with ongoing reading of Alexander Langlands’ Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, one aspect of which is (on my part) a rather romantic engagement with (indeed, an Attachment to) technologies and lexicons of the past, and with the mysteries of Mastery of materials and processes, which may be (at least for me) anchors to windward against the storms of the Modern that perpetually threaten to swamp us. Among other books in this ilk are Robert Persig’s perennial and always-worth-revisiting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (which first appeared in 1974) and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2010). And Glassman and Fields Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters traverses much of the same territory.

I have a 50+ year engagement with the history (well, histories) of technology, broadly defined and ranging from poky sticks and string and rock-smashing through all manner of materials and mechanisms and clevernesses, all the way to today’s frontiers with nano-scale materials. All of this territory is of the mind, and wanders through human proclivities and imagination and dexterity and inventiveness, and not excepting mistakes and unforeseen consequences. A lot of territory, and spangled throughout with the by-now-familiar assemblage of this-and-that from reading and chance encounter and excavations of past enthusuasms and lines of inquiry… it’s what I do. Two extended examples from the past:

  • At the behest of this line of inquiry, yesterday I quarried a 1991 project from the archives, a design for “A Reference Collection for the Executive Offices of the Society for the History of Technology” that I produced for a Library School course taught by Jay Lucker, who was MIT’s Librarian. The first 10 pages read well even 29 years later and after a vast upheaval in the library world, and Jay Lucker’s comments warm the heart. The 434 items listed and annotated would provide several lifetimes of reading…

  • See also my Technology weblet, built before there were blogs and illustrating my approach to distributable digital note-making of 20+ years ago: the 1998/1999 scheme for a History of Technology course at Washington and Lee. See also electronic version of the Syllabus and notes for my presentation on the course to the Virginia Collegiate Honors Council, September 1998. There’s probably a lot of linkrot, but the implicit method is clear enough.

and another Convivial wonderment

The incoming Freshman class of September 1961 was assigned CP Snow’s The Two Cultures (based on his 1959 Rede Lecture). An excerpt of the original lecture:

I believe the intellectual life of the whole of
western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups. When I say the
intellectual life, I mean to include also a large part of our practical life, because
I should be the last person to suggest the two can at the deepest level be
distinguished. I shall come back to the practical life a little later. Two polar
groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no
one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there
were no others. I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild
puzzlement, some time in the 1930s: “Have you noticed how the word
‘intellectual’ is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which
certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me. It
does seem rather odd, don’t y’know?”.

Literary intellectuals at one pole—at the other scientists, and as the most
representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual
incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and
dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted
image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of
emotion, they can’t find much common ground. Non-scientists tend to think of
scientists as brash and boastful. They hear Mr. T. S. Eliot, who just for these
illustrations we can take as an archetypal figure, saying about his attempts to
revive verse-drama that we can hope for very little, but that he would feel
content if he and his co-workers could prepare the ground for a new Kyd or a
new Greene. That is the tone, restricted and constrained, with which literary
intellectuals are at home: it is the subdued voice of their culture. Then they hear
a much louder voice, that of another archetypal figure, Rutherford, trumpeting:
“This is the heroic age of science! This is the Elizabethan age!” Many of us
heard that, and a good many other statements beside which that was mild; and
we weren’t left in any doubt whom Rutherford was casting for the role of
Shakespeare. What is hard for the literary intellectuals to understand,
imaginatively or intellectually, is that he was absolutely right.
And compare “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a
whimper—incidentally, one of the least likely scientific prophecies ever
made—compare that with Rutherford’s famous repartee, “Lucky fellow,
Rutherford, always on the crest of the wave.” “Well, I made the wave, didn’t I?”
The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly
optimistic, unaware of man’s condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe
that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly
unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to
restrict both art and thought to the existential moment. And so on. Anyone with
a mild talent for invective could produce plenty of this kind of subterranean
back-chat. On each side there is some of it which is not entirely baseless. It is all
destructive. Much of it rests on misinterpretations which are dangerous. I should
like to deal with two of the most profound of these now, one on each side.

I regret to say that I punted: I didn’t read the book at the time, and I didn’t quite see why it would matter to me. Looking back, I see what I might have begun to think about if I had just made the effort. I could see, dimly, that Snow was on about two hostile camps, between which we might be supposed to choose. Or so I thought. Of course there was much more to it than simple four-legs-good-two-legs-bad (I had read Animal Farm…), with/against binary opposition.

Betsy and I were both in that Freshman class, though unbeknownst to one another, and likewise we were both in a Gen Ed class on Philosophy (along with maybe 300 others), taught by Rogers Albritton, in which I have to confess I drifted aimlessly, largely ignorant of how to read and how to listen. One of the readings was Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. A section I still recall (though don’t remember it as verse) describes the imagined atomic world:

     What seems to us the hardened and condensed
     Must be of atoms among themselves more hooked,
     Be held compacted deep within, as 'twere
     By branch-like atoms--of which sort the chief
     Are diamond stones, despisers of all blows,
     And stalwart flint and strength of solid iron,
     And brazen bars, which, budging hard in locks,
     Do grate and scream. But what are liquid, formed
     Of fluid body, they indeed must be
     Of elements more smooth and round--because
     Their globules severally will not cohere:
     To suck the poppy-seeds from palm of hand
     Is quite as easy as drinking water down,
     And they, once struck, roll like unto the same.
     But that thou seest among the things that flow
     Some bitter, as the brine of ocean is,
     Is not the least a marvel...
     For since 'tis fluid, smooth its atoms are
     And round, with painful rough ones mixed therein;
     Yet need not these be held together hooked:
     In fact, though rough, they're globular besides,
     Able at once to roll, and rasp the sense.
     And that the more thou mayst believe me here,
     That with smooth elements are mixed the rough
     (Whence Neptune's salt astringent body comes),
     There is a means to separate the twain,
     And thereupon dividedly to see
     How the sweet water, after filtering through
     So often underground, flows freshened forth
     Into some hollow; for it leaves above
     The primal germs of nauseating brine,
     Since cling the rough more readily in earth.
     Lastly, whatso thou markest to disperse
     Upon the instant--smoke, and cloud, and flame--
     Must not (even though not all of smooth and round)
     Be yet co-linked with atoms intertwined,
     That thus they can, without together cleaving,
     So pierce our body and so bore the rocks.
     Whatever we see...
     Given to senses, that thou must perceive
     They're not from linked but pointed elements.

What I couldn’t grasp in 1961 was that I was being introduced to how people thought, to the evolution of understanding that led to the present moment. I’ve been working on repairing my inattention ever since.

Alexander Boxer’s A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for Our Destiny in Data drifted into my ken a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been nibbling at it gradually, as a brick in the edifice of History of Science that I’ve been tracking for years. The book is full of surprises for me, the example of the moment being a discussion of oppositional schools of thought, Epicurean vs. Stoic in Boxer’s formulation, that contrasts Lucretius the materialist/skeptic/randomness-oriented Epicurean and Manilius the instantiator of the zodiacal elements of astrology (Stoic, or perhaps Pythagorean or Platonist), and advocate of divine intelligent-plan determinism. Boxer suggests that astrology is in effect Stoic astronomy, in which all can be analyzed mathematically. Manilius (of whom I had never heard) seems to have been the first to codify the characteristics associated with each of the 12 Signs of the Zodiac: Those born under the Sign of Virgo (“associated with the arts of writing, inquisitive and studious, adept with words and speech, held back by shyness…”) vs. [for example] those under Cancer (“associated with finance and international trade, grasping and miserly, shrewd and combative”) and so on. The newspaper horoscope version of all that is hokum and flim-flam, but in Boxer’s telling there’s much to tantalize. And I’ll have to confess that the description of Virgo characteristics is too close for complete comfort for this Virgo.

But what interests me is the proclivity for and predominance of oppositional thinking, this OR that, one or the other, for or against, right or wrong. It’s worth reflecting on how many witless binaries have blighted our lives, how often we are called upon to “Stand With” or to Oppose. John McIlwain’s comment is apposite: “Divinely ordained/fated, or simply a very complex machine – are these the only two metaphysical choices we have? We seem to still be struggling with these two alternatives, both of which free us from the responsibility of free choice. Either way, it’s not my fault!”

I seem to be sheltering in a metaphysics that is more organic/vitalist than ‘very complex machine’, a world of open systems and transduced energy and vast interconnectivities that we only dimly grasp and have, to our surprise, no dominion over.