Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens. Friedrich von Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III, vi


This page consists of fugitive remarks, desultory observations, and uncoordinated generalisations arising out of the work in progress. When their stupidity has grown intolerable they will be expunged. Spot the deliberate mistakes.

Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder: "Wise men" Cato used to say, "profit far more from the example of fools than the other way round. They learn to avoid the fools' mistakes, whereas the fools do not imitate the successes of the wise."

Quote by Aidan Chambers, author, ex-monk, now agnostic: "What I believe now ....... is that language is God ....... 'In the beginning was the Word'". [Sunday Telegraph, London, 16 July 2000]. Back to commentary 2.

The Word was probably , or OM, pronounced AUM. "The sound AUM is made of the guttural A, the labial U, and the nasal M, forming the triangle which physically delimits all the possibilities of articulation." Alain Daniélou, Hindu Polytheism, RKP 1964, p.39. The omphalos is a stone in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, believed to be the middle point, hub, or navel, of the earth. The hub of Hinduism, the world's most ancient religion, appears to be adoration of the linga, or spiritual phallus.

In an account of Hinduism, which opens the second part of The Hutchinson Encyclopedia of Living Faiths, edited by Professor R.C.Zaehner, Helicon 1993, A.L.Basham refers, p.218, to "Ramakrishna's famous dictum that 'all religions are one'." On p.249 Basham further notes the important influence of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1834-86) in the revival of Hindu self-respect. In 1871, writes Basham, "this very saintly mystic began to study other religions ... The result of his experiments may be summed up in the slogan: 'All religions are one'. According to Ramakrishna, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastriansim, all repeated the same message, all led back to the same truth which was perceived by the mystic --- the oneness of all things in the Universal Spirit." But this perception was anticipated a century earlier by William Blake, who executed the little etching shown here in 1788.


"Obviously, the safest remedy for our ills would be to abolish language ...... language appears to be one of the main reasons, perhaps the main reason, why the disruptive forces have always been stronger than the cohesive forces in our species." Arthur Koestler, The Urge to Self-destruction, in The Heel of Achilles, Essays 1968-1973, Hutchinson 1974, p.21. In other words, language is itself the caesura, which binds and divides.

"As it was during the Paleolithic, human communication is limited, despite technology, by linguistic barriers ... Difficult as it is to resolve the problem, it is only a matter of time before we have automatic translation of a reasonable quality. Perhaps we will be able to learn to speak in a less ambiguous way .... Decreasing language ambiguity may reduce the chances of writing good poetry, and perhaps a remedy could be found for that ....". L.L.Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples and Languages, Penguin Press 2000, p.207. I doubt it, Professor. But who knows: for an automatic, and risible, translation of the site version into German, click here.

Try Arthur Koestler's Literature and the Law of Diminishing Returns, 1969, also available in The Heel of Achilles. Here is a sample: "The German word for composing poetry is dichten --- to compress. But compression can also operate in semantic space, by squeezing several meanings, or levels of meaning, into a single statement. Freud thought this was the essence of poetry; Empson's 'seven types of ambiguity' are variations on the same theme." (p.130).

The seafarer's position often strikes me as existential, & Sartre, Camus et al have relevance. Camus' comment on suicide has stuck with me since I first read it, about 1959. His aphorisms are all exceedingly attractive. Try his remarks on religion. And this is a good one: "Politics .... are shaped by men without ideals and without greatness. Men who have greatness within them don't concern themselves with politics." Cf e e cummings on the politician.

The forces of history are alternately centrifugal and centripetal: not a pendulum, but an oscillation. Alterius non sit qui suus esse potest. Perhaps this only applies to European history, and only for the last two millenia. The conflict is not between left and right, but between personal freedom and totalitarianism, independence and central planning, revealed and natural religion, the one and the many. "Lo, the poor Indian! Whose untutor'd mind/Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind". A.Pope, An Essay on Man, ll.99-100. For untutored read untrammelled.

Plutarch: "The Romans did not think it proper that anyone should be left free to follow his personal preferences and appetites, whether in marriage, the begetting of children, the regulation of his daily life, or the entertainment of his friends, without a large measure of surveillance and control". Life of Cato the Elder. Do we discern here the seed of the supervisory impulse of all subsequent states and religions? Is this the ancestor of the Thought Police? Is anything more oppressive than bureaucracy?

Professor E.G.Stanley: "In one view ... the history of scholarship is a history of error, and looked at that way the search for paganism comes near the centre of any historical account of Anglo-Saxon scholarship of the last hundred and fifty years." Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past, D.S.Brewer 2000, p.110; first published in book form as The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism, 1975. With more time on my hands I might embark on a search for paganism, English, Saxon, Jutish, Celtic, Classical, Hebraic, Renaissance, or what you will, through the works of say, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Gray, Thomson, or Milton (for God's sake). Doesn't paganism just mean "country matters"? There's a lot of it about, and it's never been away.

Marshall McLuhan wrote that Universities…"will do 'research' on anything … (that's paid for) …. 'Publish or Perish' is the …. motto. To get published they must be dull, and stupid and harmless. …. Hook that situation to the split between teacher and administrator within the (universities). The very character of bureaucratic administration automatically screens out all those who are capable of doing any other sort of work. The teachers are hated by the administrators, and despised as deluded suckers cut off from the central pap of our culture. An administrator in a bureaucratic world is a man who can feel big by merging his nonentity in an abstraction. A real person in touch with real things inspires terror in him. The teachers: they are people of lowly origins and no cultural background or tradition. They take a dim view of themselves as persons out of touch with the extrovert drives of their own world. They have no tradition which would enable them to be critics of their own world. They have a temperament which prefers a quiet simple life, but no insights into anything at all. They distrust any of their number who has ideas." Letter to Ezra Pound; Toronto; June 22 1951.

"Scholars get their knowledge with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields." Robert Frost.

"All the evidence shows that teaching grammatical rules in school has no effect on students' actual performance in speech or writing. In other words, grammatical performance seems to be based on implicit grammatical knowledge, which is unaffected by explicit teaching." Courtney B.Cazden, Language Problems for Education in Language as a Human Problem, ed Einar Haugen & Morton Bloomfield, Lutterworth Press 1975, p.138.

"Every man knows in his heart," he said, "that nothing is worth doing." He is Professor de Worms, the man who was Friday in The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K.Chesterton, Chapter VI.

"Endless labour, all along; endless labour to be wrong." Dr.Johnson, I presume. Scholarship and authority in a nutshell. "I am an authority on English," the man in the white suit said .... "...there is one question that my colleague Quant and I have been debating .... On the evidence of the Liverpool find of Christmas Cards, in which occurred such couplets as:

Just to hope the day keeps fine
For you and yours this Christmas
I hope this stocking's in your line
When stars shine bright this Christmas

I hold that "Christmas-time was often pronounced Christmas-tine, and that this is a dialect version of the older Christmas-tide. Quant denies this, with a warmth that is unusual in him." "Quant is right." From Seven Days in New Crete, also titled Watch the North Wind Rise, Robert Graves, Cassell 1949, pp 1-2. This exchange challenges translation, and is omitted in the Swedish version.

"The voice of history", Gibbon intones, "is often little more than the organ of hatred or flattery". A.J.P.Taylor has remarked that history is only a version of events. It is not possible to view the past except through the eyes of the present. In other words, history is constantly being rewritten to conform to present perceptions and knowledge. It is an interpretation, a translation; and as these pages show, a new translation is necessary every decade. Even the "invariant core" of all past translations can be shown to be wrong.

"Do I believe in Free Will? Of course I believe in Free Will. I have no choice." Attributed to Isaac Bashevis Singer.

"Life, my old shipmate, life", [said the Captain] "at any moment and in any view, is as dangerous as a sinking ship; and yet it is man's handsome fashion to carry umbrellas, to wear india-rubber overshoes, to begin vast works, and to conduct himself in every way as if he might hope to be eternal." The Sinking Ship, R.L.Stevenson.

The seafarer's argument can be reduced to this: Life is a voyage. For many and perhaps most of us it can seem hard and unjust. Its outcome is uncertain, and all we know is that we will die, by adl oþþe yldo oþþe ecghete. We need faith --- we have no choice. "Then she [Philosophy, personified] said ..... I assert that there is no such thing as chance, and I declare that chance is just an empty word [inanem vocem] with no real meaning. For what place can be left for purposelessness when God puts all things in order? ..... There is [free will] she said, for there can be no rational nature that is not endowed with free will ....." See Boethius [here]. Seems self-contradictory, somehow.

  Sea-piece, presented by Peter Monamy


The ambition of Parvulesco (the novelist), was to "devenir immortel, et puis mourir", in Last Gasp, by Truffaut/Godard, 1959.

In socio-cultural, historical, theological, philosophical, literary terms (if the pre-Columbians will forgive me), the relationship of America to Europe closely resembles the relationship of Central and Western Europe to Scandinavia. Europe is the womb of modern America, and Scandinavia, as Jordanes noted, is the womb of modern Europe. The relationship is more Oedipal than maternal.

Why did Christianity (sic) triumph in Europe for 1500 years? Because, in its practical form, it was the product of an unholy union between the visionary asceticism of the Eastern Mediterranean and the centralised corporate control skills of Rome. The tensions set up by these unhappy bedfellows persist to this day, but perhaps a new and unfathomable order has already begun.

From Travesties, by Tom Stoppard, Faber 1975, p 35: "All poetry is a reshuffling of a pack of picture cards, and all poets are cheats." Remark in the mouth of Tristan Tzara.

Man's mind is so constructed (and his languages are manifestations of its imprisoning construction) that every verbal expression implies its opposite. There is therefore no light without dark; no good without evil; no love without fear; no pleasure without disgust. Suffering is needed for beauty, and evil for the perception of good. Can mathematics free him?

"With every day .... I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two." Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case, R.L.Stevenson.

"Mr Thatcher, the trouble is you don't realise you're talking to two people." Charles Foster Kane.

"All generalisations are wrong, including this one." Author unknown. But would Newton have been able to frame his Laws, had he not been a Unitarian? Did Einstein reduce the workings of the Universe to a single equation? It's the grain of exception to all law that makes the irritant that zieht uns an.

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity... Never lose a holy curiosity." Albert Einstein.

A.Einstein also said, in 1929: "Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. ... I do not believe we can have any freedom at all in the philosophical sense, for we act not only under external compulsion but also by inner necessity. ... To ponder interminably over the reason for one's own existence or the meaning of life in general seems to me, from an objective point of view, to be sheer folly. ... I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modelled after our own --- a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbour such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism." From Living Philosophies.

"I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore .... whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." Sir Isaac Newton, 1642-1727.

"Cultural transmission occurs necessarily in two steps: an idea must first be communicated and then it must be accepted. Any communication can be misunderstood, forgotten, or simply be made in an unconvincing way. In general, no innovation is assured of success. Often, something must be repeated to meet a favorable reception." L.L.Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples and Languages, Penguin Press 2000, p.180. "What I tell you three times is true." Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark, Macmillan 1876.

"Truth is born into this world only with pangs and tribulations, and every fresh truth is received unwillingly. To expect the world to receive a new truth, or even an old truth, without challenging it, is to look for one of those miracles which do not occur" (from an interview with Dr Alfred Russel Wallace published posthumously in 1913). See his page here.

In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is a slave, and a pariah. Acknowledgements to H.G.Wells.

From Moses and Monotheism, The Hogarth Press 1940, p.89: "With the audacity of one who has little or nothing to lose I propose ....." The ego belongs to Sigmund Freud. In this book Freud proposes that Moses was an Egyptian, and constructs a theory "which places Moses the Egyptian in Ikhnaton's era" and derives "from the political state the country was in at that time his decision to protect the Jewish people, and recognizes as the Aton religion the religion he gave to his people or with which he burdened them, which had just been abolished in Egypt itself"; p.50. Certain writers have lately gone further, and asserted that Akhenaton actually was Moses, but this may be taking audacity a shade too far. Still, since none of us have anything to lose, what is the point of not being audacious?

"...... great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act." Said of Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, at his funeral, by his colleague, Daniel Gooch. Vorwärts, Racker, wollt ihr ewig leben? Frederick the Great, 1757. Even the bureaucrat expires.

"The truth ... is that to the dilettante the thing is the end, while to the professional as such it is the means; and only he who is directly interested in a thing, and occupies himself with it from love of it, will pursue it with entire seriousness. It is from such as these, and not from wage-earners, that the greatest things have always come." Arthur Schopenhauer, 1851

The Seafarer poet and his poem are permeated by the reflections of Boethius [click here for notes and quotes by Julia Bolton Holloway]. I had been suspecting this for some time, and now (Aug 1, 2000) that I am reading Boethius: the Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy, by Henry Chadwick, OUP, 1981, Dean of Christ Church, Master of Peterhouse, etc., I am certain of it. In fact, the more I think about it, the more The Seafarer appears to me to express the very essence of Boethius. Chadwick's book impresses me as a model of superior scholarship, brief, elegant, informative, precise.

I started to compile a roll of seafarers. This notion concentrated the mind on defining their qualities. The list included few saints or proselytising missionaries, but several serious sinners: goodness seemed only incidental, since the desire for survival is a trait of the self-reliant. They were people who knew their fate was clouded, committed to journey on strange seas alone, whose faith lay in asking the question, for no full answer would be given. Who embarked on enterprises of pitch and moment, but only when the odds were against them. After thinking of King Alfred, Leif the Lucky, Harald the Hard, Wallace the Guardian, Galileo, Latimer, Drake, Bruno, Raleigh, Newton, Charles XII, John Harrison the Clock Maker, Joshua Slocum, Engineer Andrée, James Harrison (my great-grandfather), Anna Liljedahl, Bobby Fischer, and so on, I gave up, since everyone will have a personal list. I should note, however, that Anna Liljedahl, born 1889, left the little Swedish town of Västervik in 1902, as a result of religious persecution. An orphan, aged 13, she embarked for the New World, her entire temporal wealth contained in a satchel on her back. Anna died a grandmother, but her satchel survives. On it are embroidered the words Herren förser. "The Lord will provide".

Having just (27th August 2001) read transcripts of a couple of recent raving radio interviews with Bobby Fischer, I now have serious, very serious, doubts about him. Still, just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Your paranoia ensures it.

Somewhere I read that no nation is indigenous to the land it now occupies. All tribes came from somewhere else, except for the Egyptians. No one knows where they came from, and perhaps they were always there. DNA may answer.

  One of the most barbarous of recent pseudo-scholarly innovations has to be the substitution of CE and BCE for AD and BC. This vogue is insulting, not only to Christianity, but also to the chronologies of other faiths, Jewish, Moslem, and many others. Common Era? Common to who? Why not go the whole hog, take a cue from Huxley's Brave New World: start a new reckoning from 1900 and call it Year One of Our Ford. Anything before that would be BF, since, as Henry is said to have said, "History is Bunk". The CE advocates presumably think Christianity is bunk as well.

Some wondering souls, fit though few, wandering this site, might suppose that I have it in for, eg, Graves and/or Pound, or even Nabokov. Not so. These persons, like any who resolve to live by the pen, are admirable. In fact, since they are poets, in verse or prose, they are heroes. They know they go where gold is worthless. "The property of money is that it has no properties." Magnus Florin, Cirkulation, Bonniers 2001 AD, or 101 AF.

Others may imagine me a practising religionist, of uncertain persuasion. Such is not the case. I doubt, therefore I am. Contemplation of The Seafarer has, however, I confess, focussed my mind on these ultimate things. No doubt the relentless approach of the anfloga has had something to do with it. "But hark! My pulse, like a soft drum/Beats my approach, tells thee I come." Well said, Bishop King! But how can the members of any sect or schism suppose that they, and they alone, have been selected for exclusive possession of the answer?

Quote, from Diary of a Man in Despair, by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, Duckworth 2000, p 193: "Cogi non potest quisquis mori scit --- He who knows how to die can never be enslaved".

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Last sentence of The Great Gatsby, 1925, by F.Scott Fitzgerald.

A Rough Voyage in the Hebrides
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