‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Saturday 28 March 2020

Viral Phenomenologies: Update

There's a lot of vagueness about the Virus, of course, and a great deal we don't know. My university closed its doors to face-to-face teaching halfway through the 17th March. I was in work that day: gave an hour-long 10-o'clock lecture to a room containing about a third of its usual audience and then scurried back to run an office hour. I received the official shut-down email before my 12 noon seminar (I went down to let the students know, but only one solitary individual had actually turned up; the rest had received the same email as me and wisely absented themselves). The thing is, assuming Coronavirus arrived in the UK mid-Jan, which I understand is the most likely date, and factoring-in that my university has a large cohort of international students, it is as close to certain as makes no odds that I have been exposed to Covid-19. Of course I don't physically touch my students (yeah yeah, laugh it up fuzzball), but I do touch many doorhandles and other surfaces they have touched, and I only started obsessively washing my hands, and taking the necessary pains to keep my wandering fingers from exploring my face, at some point in March. So long story short: yikes.

I worry in the ways that we all worry, but with the added considerations that I'm a fiftysomething geezer in poor respiratory health (I don't smoke, but I've had lifelong and occasionally acute asthma), so it seems to me I really don't want to be getting this bug. I mean, obviously I don't want anyone in my family getting this bug, but my wife is a fair bit younger and in much better health than I am, and our kids are, well, kids and it seems they are less at risk for that reason. My asthma is pretty well controlled by modern drugs, but my lungs are not strong. So far, and touch wood, I don't seem to have picked it up. This coming Tuesday will be 14 days since my last trip into work, and whilst that's not an absolute cut-off (14 days incubation is, so far as I can see, a guess by the medical authorities, although an informed and conservative one; plus, in the last week and a half I have been out twice for groceries) I'll start to breath a little easier [hah!] if we reach that deadline without me succumbing.

But wait: what if I've had the virus already and happened to be one of the nonsymptomatic ones? Or what if the virus is waiting, like a sniper, until the lockdown eases and then it bags me? Impossible to know, either way of course. That's part of the insidiousness of pandemics: the way their reality trades in probabilities, not certainties, and for whatever evolutionary or other reason, we are not well fitted-up to calculate and process a world of probabilities. We prefer the lineaments of a world where striking this white billiard ball to hit that red billiard ball will cause that red billiard ball to shoot off in that direction. This isn't how viruses present, phenomenologically.

Still, roll-on Tuesday. I don't mean to sound like I'm bragging, but the home lockdown doesn't bother me. Or hasn't yet. It's early days I know, and saying so is probably a hostage to fortune, but: relieved from the obligation to go out, staying inside a house in which there are tens of thousands of books to read ... this is very far from being Alcatraz, for me. It's going harder on my more extravert and gregarious wife, who I fear is starting to feel the walls closing in, somewhat. And our two kids (one eighteen, the other twelve) are bouncing around more than a little. What can I say? We have their best interests at heart. In the words of Fauxlip Larkin:
They lock you down, your mum and dad.
They really mean to, and they do.
They stop you seeing all your mates
And stop those mates from seeing you.

But they are locked down in their turn
By governmental dictats from
A P.M. with a soppy gurn
And experts looking dour and glum.

We're in this for the long haul, guys,
All isolating, each to each.
Stay inside, healthy, cool and wise,
And don’t go popping down the beach.
I'm well aware we're better off than many. We're in a house and the house has a garden; I'm still on salary; there are, as I say, tens of thousands of books here. We're all in the same boat, nationally (globally, indeed) and there's nothing special about me. Unless I get the bug and it kills me, in which case I will have the unappealing distinction that our collective mortality shines, darkly and always individually, upon us all sooner or later. But here's hoping: the second one.

Saturday 14 March 2020

How Many Did Justinian Kill?

A trillion. You read that right.

Hard to keep your hands clean when running a large empire over many decades, of course. But did Justinian the Great, Byzantine emperor, really kill so many? Here's the relevant bit from chapter 18 of the Anekdota, or ‘Secret History’, of Procopius:
And that he was no human being, but, as has been suggested, some manner of demon in human form, one might infer by making an estimate of the magnitude of the ills which he inflicted upon mankind. For it is in the degree by which a man's deeds are surpassingly great that the power of the doer becomes evident. Now to state exactly the number of those who were destroyed by him would never be possible, I think, for anyone soever, or for God. For one might more quickly, I think, count all grains of sand than the vast number whom this Emperor destroyed. But making an approximate estimate of the extent of territory which has become to be destitute of inhabitants, I should say that a trillion people perished.
That's the 1935 Loeb translation. The translator/editor, H. B. Dewing, notes that the Greek translated as a trillion is literally ‘a myriad myriad of myriads’, adding ‘the “cube of ten thousand” is not the language of exact computation, and Procopius is trying to make out a strong case against Justinian.’ No shit. A trillion is the number a kid reaches for when he wants to emphasise the magnitude of a given thing.

But let's imagine it was true. How might we frame it, as history or (better) as fiction? A planet vastly more populous than it is, even in the overcrowded twenty-first century; a world in which humans live cheek by jowl, perhaps because, as with the Biblical patriarchs, people live hideously elongated lives. And here comes Justinian, to cull the overcrowding, to reduce human lifespans to their present levels and sweep away billions upon billions into the afterlife. No wonder the Eastern Orthodox Church made him a saint.

Thursday 12 March 2020

O lux mentis! o lucens veritas!

Saint Augustine (glossing John 1:5), cropping up unexpectedly in Shelley’s ‘To A Skylark’:
Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not.
Although actually, if I come to think of it: maybe not so unexpectedly after all.

Augustine's third exposition of Psalm 103, there.

Wednesday 11 March 2020

On "Silent Spring"s Silences

Carson's titular silence is that of the birds, of course, their song stifled by pesticides: either they have been killed directly by the poisons we are pumping into the environment, or they have been starved by the fact that our poisons have killed off all the insects, their food, indiscriminately. Carson's 1962 book, very influential on subsequent culture and society, remains a powerful read today. It didn't create ‘eco-criticism’ or ‘Environmentalism’ from whole cloth, but its enormous success certainly added momentum to what, in the 60s, they called ‘ecology’. Carson's skill as a writer leavens what might, in other hands, have been a merely drily factual, or (worse) a hectoring or preachy, work; to read Silent Spring is potently to feel how polluting industrial pesticides can be. Nor do I wish to position myself as someone, as it might be, in opposition to environmentalism. That is, honestly, the last place I wish to go, down amongst the scums and bums of climate-change denial and anti-environmentalism. DDT was backed by wads of big-business money, no question; and its indiscriminate use had, as Carson demonstrates, a range of deleterious consequences. Her work was one factor that led to the creation of the American EPA, and the worldwide banning of DDT. Carson argues for alternate modes of pest control in our farming, and talks about the possibilities of biological controls, but actually what has happened is that other pesticides have been developed. Most farmers use them unless they are producing that luxury good, ‘organic food’, for which some affluent consumers are prepared to pay a premium. Not everyone sees the banning of DDT as an unallowed good, mind:

That uptick, on the right side of that graph? That's mosquitos bouncing back, after many years of being rather well controlled by DDT. Nowadays 300 million people get malaria annually and about a million die, the vast majority of these (80% and up) being children under the age of 5. Their voices, we might say, are doubly silenced, by being the children of the globally poorest, and by being dead. Eight hundred thousand dead children. It's the sort of statistic that numbs the brain. It shouldn't though; it ought to set the brain on fire. [Update: Peter Erwin, in the comments below, challenges this point and provides evidence for a different take.]

Here is Carson's rather finely-written opening chapter:
1. A Fable for Tomorrow

THERE WAS ONCE a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings.

Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler's eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and fall people traveled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. So it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns. Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example— where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs— the litters were small and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit. The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. Anglers no longer visited them, for all the fish had died.

In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams. No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.

. . . This town does not actually exist, but it might easily have a thousand counterparts in America or elsewhere in the world. I know of no community that has experienced all the misfortunes I describe. Yet everyone of these disasters has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them. A grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed, and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality we all shall know. What has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America? This book is an attempt to explain.
What this is, as a piece of prose, and in a word, is: pastoral. It takes its place in the long traditional of framing the countryside as an idealised, small-scale, inviting (‘a checkerboard of fields’; white clouds like ‘bloom’ in the blue sky; ‘shady pools where trout lay’) and above all authentic location. It was in the 1950s-60s that the global population shifted from more people living in ‘the countryside’ than in cities to the other way about, but you wouldn't get any sense of that from Carson. We get no sense that foxes are predominantly suburban animals nowadays, or that nature flourishes in metropolises in a thousand ways. I suppose it's that the city is not clean, in the sense that Carson values cleanness. I mean, urban living is clean, according to some important salients of that complicated term (it's a much more efficient mode of human habitus, for instance) but it's not uncluttered, spacious, unhurried, untechnological. It's not, in Carson's tacit reckoning, aboriginal: ‘so it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.’ Ah, the autochthonic farmers of America! It's not as if there were any other folk living in this spotless land before these settler housebuilders and barn-raisers arrived, after all. It's not as though a whole congeries of people, living not according to pastoral-agrarian but rather hunter-gatherer logics, were almost entirely obliterated by the gun and the smallpox germ: a deeply unclean business, here wholly occluded. So we might say: one of the silences in Silent Spring is the voice of the Native American, a figure nowhere mentioned in the volume.

Pastoral, as a mode, has a long a complicated history, from the more stylised and conventional idylls of classical antiquity, and their Renaissance and 18th-century imitation in poetry and painting (and, in the case of potemkin villages or Marie-Antoinette-esque cosplay, in real-life), through the reappraisal of pastoral as a more strenuous but spiritually beautiful mode of life in Wordsworth and his 19th-century imitators. By the 1960s countercultural ideas and hippy naturalism intertwined with art, both pop and narrative, that celebrated a small-scale agrarian life in specific opposition to the horrors of the machine and technology. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (published earlier, but a book that broke through into the mainstream in the 1960s with cheap paperback publication), pastoral in the same anti-machine, small-c-conservative manner, is similarly a hymn to spacious rural environments uncontaminated by, well, by inhabitants. Think how low-density the populations of Middle Earth are! Much quieter than the real world. There is a clamour in reality, but it is at least a human clamour; the noise of traffic is humans getting about, the city din is people being people, and although none of that has any place in Carson's vision of a deer silently padding across a mist-wreathed field, it seems to me a marvellous thing in its own right. I suppose I'm suggesting that Carson's silence possesses a complex valence, a thing to be deplored where the birds are concerned but, dialectally, celebrated on a human scale. I suppose I'm suggesting I don't agree.

Another anti-machine writer who saw a second-wind, a new vogue, in the 1960s and 1970s was D H Lawrence, and he too fundamentally disliked the mess that he took people to be. He liked individuals; he just disliked people in the mass, and his environmentalist vision was even more Year Zero than Carson's: “Don't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?” Me? No. As it happens, no I don't: I find it a totalitarian and indeed sociopathic thought. But perhaps that is just me.

Sunday 8 March 2020

Rudyard Kipling, "If And Only If"

Iff you can keep two premises in view
In every proposition, and not bodge it,
Iff you can carefully derive the true
Via both sides of biconditional logic;
Iff you can frame precisely all you state,
Distinguish logic from the vulgar fable,
Step cleanly through the XNOR gate
Lay placemats on your P ↔ Q truth-table;

Iff it's both necessary and sufficient
That you out-logic all your math-opponents;
Iff their old inference proves inefficient
Beside your à-la-mode, dense modus podens;
Iff you unpack the statement “P iff Q”
As “if P, then it's Q” and “if Q, P”,
or as “if not-P, then not-Q” linked to
The “if P, then Q” prior necessity;

Iff you draw Euler digrams to show
How logical relationships obtain,
Not caring that you bore both friend and foe
With such mathematical legerdemain;
Iff you define the unforgiving minute
As sixty seconds squeezed of all their fun,
Yours is the Math and everything that’s in it!
And—one thing more—you’re on your own, my son.