Patrick Leigh Fermor RIP

The Grauniad reports on the death of adventurer  and writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, aged 96.  I recount a story about him and an ode by Horace, here.
Fermor attended Kit Marlowe’s old school, King’s School Canterbury, together with Alan Watts, who apparently wrote his first book about Zen Buddhism while still at school.   Fermor famously was expelled from this school.
 

Poem: This World

Today’s poem is by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), New England transcendentalist, and written about 1862.

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy – don’t know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

Reference:
Brenda Hillman (Editor) [1995]: Emily Dickinson: Poems. Boston, MA, USA: Shambhala.

Poem: Orchids

Shi Tao (c. 1642-1707) was an artist, poet and scholar born into a high aristocratic family during the last days of the Ming Dynasty.  After the overthrow of the Ming in 1644 and the establishment of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, Shi Tao was raised and lived initially as a Buddhist monk. This poem is #4 from an illustrated album of 12 poems and paintings, 6 landscapes and 6 flowers, called Returning Home, published in 1695.  The brush styles of the calligraphy and the paintings match the mood of the respective poems in a superb fusion of text, image and idea.  Orchids are associated with “virtuous gentlemen” in Chinese literature, and with the friendship between them.  The last lines of the poem allude to the difficult political times in which the poem was written.  Clicking on the image will reveal the brambles Shi Tao has placed amidst the orchids.

Orchids
Words from a sympathetic heart
Are as fragrant as orchids;
Like orchids in feeling,
They are agreeable and always joyous;
You should wear these orchids
To protect yourself from the spring chill;
When the spring winds are cold,
Who can say you are safe?

Reference:
Wen Fong [1976]: Returning Home. Tao-Chi’s Album of Landscapes and Flowers. New York, NY, USA: George Braziller.  The translation is due to Wen Fong.

Santayana on Stickney

George Santayana was friends with Joe Trumbull Stickney.  In 1952, five decades after Stickney died from a brain tumour, Santayana wrote a letter about their friendship to William Kirkwood.  The letter is reproduced in facsimile in M. Kirkwood’s life of Santayana (1961, pp. 234-235).

Via di Santo Stefano Rotundo, 6
Rome, May 27, 1952
To Professor Wm. A. Kirkwood, Ph. D.
Trinity College, Toronto
Dear Sir,
It was a happy impulse that prompted you to think that the books you speak of and their annotations, and especially the lines in praise of Homer written by my friend Stickney would interest me. They have called up vividly in my mind the quality of his mind, although the verses represent a much earlier feeling for the classics, and a more conventional mood than he had in the years when we had our frequent moral fencing bouts; for there was a contrary drift in our views in spite of great sympathy in our tastes and pursuits. These verses are signed Sept. 15/ 90. Now Stickney graduated at Harvard in 1895, so that five years earlier he must have been about 17 years old. This explains to me the tone of the verses and also the fact that they advance line by line, seldom or never running over and breaking the next line at the cesura or before it, as he would surely have done in his maturity, when he doted on the dramatic interruptions of Shakespeare’s lines in Antony and Cleopatra in particular, and in all the later plays in general. [page break]
I see clearly the greater mastery and strength of impassioned drama, if impassioned drama is what you are in sympathy with; but I like to warn dogmatic critics of what a more naive art achieves in its impartial and peaceful labour and the risk that overcharged movement or surpluses [?] runs of drowning in its deathbed [?] waters. Every form of art has its charm and is appropriate in its place; but it is moral cramp to admit only one form of art to be legitimate or important. The reminder of this old debate that I had with Stickney who enlightened me more (precisely about the abuse of rhetoric) than I ever could enlighten him about the relativity of everything has been a pleasant reminder of younger days: although I am not sure that much progress towards reason and justice has been made since by critical opinion.
With best thanks and regards
Yours sincerely
G. Santayana

Reference:
M. M. Kirkwood [1961]:  Santayana:  Saint of the Imagination.  Toronto, Canada:  University of Toronto Press.
Previous posts on George Santayana here, and Joe Stickney here.

Philosophy as a creative art

I quoted poet Don Paterson on what he saw as Shakespeare’s use of the act of poetry-writing to learn what he intended to say in the poem being written.    And now, here is poet and philosopher George Santayana writing to William James in the same vein on philosophy:

If philosophy were the attempt to solve a given problem, I should see reason to be discouraged about its success; but it strikes me that it is [page-break] rather an attempt to express a half-undiscovered reality, just as art is, and that two different renderings, if they are expressive, far from cancelling each other add to each other’s value . . . I confess I do not see why we should be so vehemently curious about the absolute truth, which is not to be made or altered by our discovery of it.  But philosophy seems to me to be its own reward, and its justification lies in the delight and dignity of the art itself.” [Letter to William James, 1887-12-15, quoted in Kirkwood 1961, pp. 43-44.]

Reference:
M. M. Kirkwood [1961]: Santayana:  Saint of the Imagination.  Toronto, Canada:  University of Toronto Press.

Poetry as process, not product

I have remarked before on the mistake of assessing visual art as product rather than as process, for example, here and here.    Today’s Grauniad carries a fascinating article by poet and jazz musician Don Paterson on Shakespeare’s sonnets, which makes the same point about his poetry:

I wanted to say something to counteract the perception of Shakespeare’s compositional method as a kind of lyric soduku, and put in a word for the kind of glorious, messy procedure I’m quite certain it was, whatever the crystalline and symmetrical beauty of the final results. Like most poets, Shakespeare uses the poem as way of working out what he’s thinking, not as a means of reporting that thought. Often he’ll start with nothing more than a hangover, a fever and a bad night spent being tormented by the spectre of his absent lover. Then he’ll use the sonnet as a way of making sense of it all – a way, first, to extract a logic from pain, and then a comfort from that logic, however warped it might be. Form, in other words, allows him to draw some assuagement from the very source of the agony itself.”

Continue reading ‘Poetry as process, not product’

Poem: Sonnet II

A poem George Santayana wrote on the early death in 1893 of his close friend, Warwick Potter, who apparently died in Brest of cholera caught after being weakened due to severe sea-sickness experienced while yachting. More about Potter here.

Sonnet II, from “To W.P.”
With you a part of me hath passed away;
For in the peopled forest of my mind
A tree made leafless by this wintry wind
Shall never don again its green array.
Chapel and fireside, country road and bay,
Have something of their friendliness resigned;
Another, if I would, I could not find,
And I am grown much older in a day.
But yet I treasure in my memory
Your gift of charity, and young heart’s ease,
And the dear honour of your amity;
For these once mine, my life is rich with these.
And I scarce know which part may greater be,–
What I keep of you, or you rob from me.

Previous posts of poetry are here.

Caute on Marechera


You did not have to visit many bars or nightclubs in downtown Harare in the early 1980s before encountering the late Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987), Zimbabwean novelist and poet.    I knew him slightly, as did anyone who was willing to share a drink with him and enjoy (or endure) a stimulating late-night argument on politics or literature.   Some of his writing, for all its coarse language, is powerful and sublime (in the tradition of Burroughs and Genet), and David Caute, in a book I have just read, argues correctly that he was a great writer.  The book also captures his personality well,  even if it gives the impression that Caute thinks the work forgives the man.  It does not.  As a person, Marechera was a victim of  his addictions and perhaps also of a psychosis – mercurial, abusive, racist, foul-mouthed, illogical, self-destructive, and paranoid:   not someone who was nice to be around for very long.     Nothing forgives such poor behaviour, not even great writing.
As always when I read David Caute, I am reminded of Graham Greene:  both are writers who grapple with the major moral questions and issues of our time, yet both write in the sloppiest of language, insincere and vague, and have the tinnest of ears.  Woolly writing might be evidence of woolly thinking or evidence of malice aforethought (perhaps attempting to hide or obfuscate something, as Orwell argued); it could also be evidence of insufficient thinking.  In any case, Greene’s and Caute’s arguments are often undone and undermined by their style.  We only get as far as page 6 of Caute’s book on Marechera, for example, before we stumble over:

Piled high at the central counter of the Book Fair are copies of his [Marechera’s] new book, Mindblast, published by College Press of Harare, an orange coloured paperback with a surrealist design involving a humanized cat and a black in a space helmet.”

A black what, Dr Caute?  A black what?  I guess you mean a black person.  Just two sentences later, though,  you speak of,  “An effusive white executive of College Press . . .” So, let me get this right  – white people are important enough to have nouns to denote them, but black people not, eh?  Hmmm.
Although the effect is racist, I am sure Caute is not deliberately being racist in his use of language here, but rather just sloppy.    But the sloppy expression, here as elsewhere, leads one to doubt his sincerity and/or his ear.   Of course, someone who spent a lot of time in the company of white Rhodesians could easily forget how offensive the first usage sounds (and is); and we know from Caute’s earlier books that he spent a lot of time in the company of white Rhodesians.
Pressing on, on page 43 we read:

Such rhetoric counts for little against the current surplus of maize, tobacco and beef which only the commercial farmers can guarantee.”

Well, actually, no, Dr Caute.  Tobacco and beef were in surplus at the time referred to (1984) due to commercial (ie, mainly white-owned) farms.  But maize was in surplus because the avowedly Marxist government of Robert Mugabe used the price mechanism when it came to power to encourage communal farmers  (ie, subsistence black farmers) to produce and sell surplus maize crops.   This was something so very remarkable – the country in food surplus for its staple food almost immediately after 13 years of civil war and 90 years of insurrection, and because of the fast responsiveness of peasant farmers   – that all the papers were full of it.  Surely Caute must have heard.  (See Herbst 1990 for an account.)  And even beef production was boosted by contributions from communal farmers, particularly after the Government decided not to prosecute the many illegal butcheries competing against the state-owned meat-processing monopoly, the Cold Storage Commission.  (One may wonder why a socialist government would not support its own state enterprise against privately-owned competitors until one learns that many members of the Cabinet had financial stakes in the competing butcheries.)
Is the sloppiness in Caute’s sentence then due to Orwellian sleight-of-hand – seeking to promote a case that was factually incorrect – or just  due to insufficiently-careful thought?   I suspect the latter, although it is throwaway lines like this – as it happens, lines so common in the conversation of white Rhodesians in the 1980s – that make me ponder  the sincerity of Caute’s writing.
And, finally, Caute seems eager to berate the left and liberals for their failure to call attention to Robert Mugabe’s ethnic cleansing in Matebeleland in 1982-84, the Gukurahundi campaign.  Certainly more could have been said and done, especially publicly, to oppose this.  But why is only one side of politics to blame?  Both the US and the UK had conservative administrations at the time, both of which (particularly Thatcher’s) made strong representations to Mugabe over the fate of several white Zimbabwe  Air Force officers detained and tortured in 1982.   These governments did not make nearly such strong representations over the fate of the victims of the Gukurahundi. Perhaps Mugabe was right to accuse the west of racism on this.  And Mugabe’s military campaign in Matabeleland was not launched for no reason:  As Caute must know, South Africa and its white Rhodesian friends were engaged in a campaign of terrorist violence against Zimbabwe from its inception, with terrorist bombings throughout the 1980s.   The Independence Arch he describes traveling under on the way to Harare Airport was in fact the second arch built to commemorate Independence:  the first had been blown up shortly after it was built.   And even Joshua Nkomo admitted (at a press conference following his dismissal from Cabinet in February 1982) that he had asked South Africa for assistance to stage a coup after Independence.  While Mugabe’s 5th Brigade was certainly engaged in brutal and genocidal murder and rape, the campaign was not against an imaginary enemy.
Although evil may triumph when good people do nothing, from the fact of the triumph of evil it is invalid to infer that nothing was done to oppose it by good people.  Where are the mentions in Caute’s account of the strong, high-level and repeated Catholic opposition (both clerical and lay) to Mugabe’s campaign?  Where is the mention, in the statement that Mugabe detained people using renewals of Smith’s emergency powers regulations, of the independent review panel established by ZANU(PF) stalwart Herbert Ushewokunze when Minister for Home Affairs, the Detention Review Tribunal, to consider the cases of people detained without trial?  The members of this panel included independent lawyers, some of whom were white and liberal.    Some people, even some of the people Caute seems to excoriate, were doing their best to stop or ameliorate the evil at the time.
References:
David Caute [1986/2009]:  Marechera and the Colonel:  A Zimbabwean Writer and the Claims of the State. London, UK:  Totterdown Books. Revised edition, 2009.
Jeffrey Herbst [1990]: State Politics in Zimbabwe. Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press. Perspectives on Southern Africa Series, Volume 45.

Poem: Mendelssohn Concerto

Following this salute to the Moscow Seven, a poem by one of the seven, Vadim Delone (1947-1983, pictured in Paris in 1982), written in 1965, presumably following a performance of Mendelssohn’s E minor violin concerto (translation my own, with help from a Russian-English dictionary, a strong coffee, and Google Translate):

Mendelssohn Concerto
Outside indefinite and sleepy
Autumn rain rustled monotone.
The wind howled and rushed in with a groan
At the sound of a violin, a concerto of Mendelssohn.
I have long been used so painfully,
How long I have not sat sleepless,
So tired and so passive,
Since escaping to a concerto of Mendelssohn.
Running a telephone wire,
Voice of my pain betrayed involuntarily,
You asked me nervously –
What happened to you, what is it?
I could not have answered in monosyllables,
If you even thus groan,
What sounded in the night anxiously
The tempestuous strings of Mendelssohn.
Moscow 1965

Notes and References (Updated 2010-08-08):
All poetry loses in translation.  Working on this poem, I learn that the Russian word for violin, skripka, is close to the word for creak or squeak or rasp, skrip.  In an earlier version, I translated the last line of the poem as “Fiddling passionate Mendelssohn”, but this does not capture the original’s double meaning of violin-playing and rasping.   I am very grateful to violist Lev Zhurbin for suggesting what is now the last line.  With no folk violin tradition in Russia (unlike in Moldova or the Ukraine), there is no equivalent Russian word to the English word “fiddle”.
Websites (in Russian) devoted to Delone are here and here.
Another poem about a violin, Joe Stickney’s This is the Violin, is here.    Other posts in this series are here.

Five minutes of freedom

Jane Gregory, speaking in 2004, on the necessary conditions for a public sphere:

To qualify as a public, a group of people needs four characteristics. First, it should be open to all and any: there are no entry qualifications. Secondly, the people must come together freely. But it is not enough to simply hang out – sheep do that. The third characteristic is common action. Sheep sometimes all point in the same direction and eat grass, but they still do not qualify as a public, because they lack the fourth characteristic, which is speech. To qualify as a public, a group must be made up of people who have come together freely, and their common action is determined through speech: that is, through discussion, the group determines a course of action which it then follows. When this happens, it creates a public sphere.

There is no public sphere in a totalitarian regime – for there, there is insufficient freedom of action; and difference is not tolerated. So there are strong links between the idea of a public sphere and democracy.”

I would add that most totalitarian states often force their citizens to participate in public events, thus violating two basic human rights:  the right not to associate and the right not to listen.

I am reminded of a moment of courage on 25 August 1968, when seven Soviet citizens, shestidesiatniki (people of the 60s), staged a brave public protest at Lobnoye Mesto in Red Square, Moscow, at the military invasion of Czechoslovakia by forces of the Warsaw Pact.   The seven (and one baby) were:  Konstantin Babitsky (mathematician and linguist), Larisa Bogoraz (linguist, then married to Yuli Daniel), Vadim Delone (also written “Delaunay”, language student and poet), Vladimir Dremlyuga (construction worker), Victor Fainberg (mathematician), Natalia Gorbanevskaya (poet, with baby), and Pavel Litvinov (mathematics teacher, and grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov).  The protest lasted only long enough for the 7 adults to unwrap banners and to surprise onlookers.  The protesters were soon set-upon and beaten by “bystanders” – plain clothes police, male and female – who  then bundled them into vehicles of the state security organs.  Ms Gorbanevskaya and baby were later released, and Fainberg declared insane and sent to an asylum.

The other five faced trial later in 1968, and were each found guilty.   They were sent either to internal exile or to prison (Delone and Dremlyuga) for 1-3 years; Dremlyuga was given additional time while in prison, and ended up serving 6 years.  At his trial, Delone said that the prison sentence of almost three years was worth the “five minutes of freedom” he had experienced during the protest.

Delone (born 1947) was a member of a prominent intellectual family, great-great-great-grandson of a French doctor, Pierre Delaunay, who had resettled in Russia after Napoleon’s defeat.   Delone was the great-grandson of a professor of physics, Nikolai Borisovich Delone (grandson of Pierre Delaunay), and grandson of a more prominent mathematician, Boris Nikolaevich Delaunay (1890-1980), and son of physicist Nikolai Delone (1926-2008).  In 1907, at the age of 17, Boris N. Delaunay organized the first gliding circle in Kiev, with his friend Igor Sikorski, who was later famous for his helicopters.   B. N. Delaunay was also a composer and artist as a young man, of sufficient talent that he could easily have pursued these careers.   In addition, he was one of the outstanding mountaineers of the USSR, and a mountain and other features near Mount Belukha in the Altai range are named for him.

Boris N. Delaunay was primarily a geometer – although he also contributed to number theory and to algebra – and invented Delaunay triangulation.  He was a co-organizer of the first Soviet Mathematics Olympiad, a mathematics competition for high-school students, in 1934.   One of his students was Aleksandr D. Alexandrov (1912-1999), founder of the Leningrad School of Geometry (which studies the differential geometry of curvature in manifolds, and the geometry of space-time).   Vadim Delone also showed mathematical promise and was selected to attend Moskovskaya Srednyaya Fiz Mat Shkola #2, Moscow Central Special High School No. 2 for Physics and Mathematics (now the Lyceum “Second School”). This school, established in 1958 for mathematically-gifted teenagers, was famously liberal and tolerant of dissent. (Indeed, so much so that in 1971-72, well after Delone had left, the school was purged by the CPSU.  See Hedrick Smith’s 1975 account here.  Other special schools in Moscow focused on mathematics are #57 and #179. In London, in 2014, King’s College London established a free school, King’s Maths School, modelled on FizMatShkola #2.)  Vadim Delone lived with Alexandrov when, serving out a one-year suspended sentence which required him to leave Moscow, he studied at university in Novosibirsk, Siberia.   At some risk to his own academic career, Alexandrov twice bravely visited Vadim Delone while he was in prison.

Delone’s wife, Irina Belgorodkaya, was also active in dissident circles, being arrested both in 1969 and again in 1973, and was sentenced to prison terms each time.  She was the daughter of a senior KGB official.  After his release in 1971 and hers in 1975, Delone and his wife emigrated to France in 1975, and he continued to write poetry.   In 1983, at the age of just 35, he died of cardiac arrest.   Given his youth, and the long lives of his father and grandfather, one has to wonder if this event was the dark work of an organ of Soviet state security.  According to then-KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov’s report to the Central Committee of the CPSU on the Moscow Seven’s protest in September 1968, Delone was the key link between the community of dissident poets and writers on the one hand, and that of mathematicians and physicists on the other.    Andropov even alleges that physicist Andrei Sakharov’s support for dissident activities was due to Delone’s personal persuasion, and that Delone lived from a so-called private fund, money from voluntary tithes paid by writers and scientists to support dissidents.   (Sharing of incomes in this way sounds suspiciously like socialism, which the state in the USSR always determined to maintain a monopoly of.)  That Andropov reported on this protest to the Central Committee, and less than a month after the event, indicates the seriousness with which this particular group of dissidents was viewed by the authorities.  That the childen of the nomenklatura, the intelligentsia, and even the KGB should be involved in these activities no doubt added to the concern.  If the KGB actually believed the statements Andropov made about Delone to the Central Committee, they would certainly have strong motivation to arrange his early death.

Several of the Moscow Seven were honoured in August 2008 by the Government of the Czech Republic, but as far as I am aware, no honour or recognition has yet been given them by the Soviet or Russian Governments.   Although my gesture will likely have little impact on the world, I salute their courage here.

I have translated a poem of Delone’s here.   An index to posts on The Matherati is here.

References:

M. V. Ammosov [2009]:  Nikolai Borisovich Delone in my Life.  Laser Physics, 19 (8): 1488-1490.

Yuri Andropov [1968]: The Demonstration in Red Square Against the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. Report to the Central Committee of the CPSU, 1968-09-20. See below.

N. P. Dolbilin [2011]: Boris Nikolaevich Delone (Delaunay): Life and Work. Proceedings of the Steklov Institute of Mathematics, 275: 1-14.  Published in Russian in Trudy Matematicheskogo Instituta imeni V. A. Steklov, 2011, 275:  7-21.  Pre-print here.

Jane Gregory [2004]:  Subtle signs that divide the public from the privateThe Independent, 2004-05-20.
Hedrick Smith [1975]:  The Russians.  Crown.  pp. 211-213.

APPENDIX

Andropov Reoport to the Central Committee of the CPSU on the protests in Red Square. (20 September 1968)
In characterizing the political views of the participants of the group, in particular DELONE, our source notes that the latter, “calling himself a bitter opponent of Soviet authority, fiercely detests communists, the communist ideology, and is entirely in agreement with the views of Djilas. In analyzing the activities . . . of the group, he (DELONE) explained that they do not have a definite program or charter, as in a formally organized political opposition, but they are all of the common opinion that our society is not developing normally, that it lacks freedom of speech and press, that a harsh censorship is operating, that it is impossible to express one’s opinions and thoughts, that democratic liberties are repressed. The activity of this group and its propaganda have developed mainly within a circle of writers, poets, but it is also enveloping a broad circle of people working in the sphere of mathematics and physics. They have conducted agitation among many scholars with the objective of inducing them to sign letters, protests, and declarations that have been compiled by the more active participants in this kind of activity, Petr IAKIR and Pavel LITVINOV. These people are the core around which the above group has been formed . . .. IAKIR and LITVINOV were the most active agents in the so-called “samizdat.”
This same source, in noting the condition of the arrested DELONE in this group, declared: “DELONE . . . has access to a circle of prominent scientists, academicians, who regarded him as one of their own, and in that way he served . . . to link the group with the scientific community, having influence on the latter and conducting active propaganda among them. Among his acquaintances he named academician Sakharov, who was initially cautious and distrustful of the activities of IAKIR, LITVINOV, and their group; he wavered in his position and judgments, but gradually, under the influence of DELONE’s explanations, he began to sign various documents of the group. . . ; [he also named] LEONTOVICH, whose views coincide with those of the group. In DELONE’s words, many of the educated community share their views, but are cautious, fearful of losing their jobs and being expelled from the party.” . . . [more details on DELONE]

Agents’ reports indicate that the participants of the group, LITVINOV, DREMLIUGA, AND DELONE, have not been engaged in useful labor for an extended period, and have used the means of the so-called “private fund,” which their group created from the contributions of individual representatives in the creative intelligentsia and scientists.
The prisoner DELONE told our source: “We are assisted by monetary funds from the intelligentsia, highly paid academicians, writers, who share the views of the Iakir-Litvinov group . . . [Sic] We have the right to demand money, [because] we are the functionaries, while they share our views, [but] fear for their skins, so let them support us with money.”