Saturday, June 25, 2016

Locus Focus

The Scriptorium of the Abbey
The Name of the Rose

by Umberto Eco

The abundance of windows meant that the great room was cheered by a constant diffused light, even on a winter afternoon. The panes were not colored like church windows, and the lead-framed squares of clear glass allowed the light to enter in the purest possible fashion.... I have seen at other times and in other places many scriptoria, but none where there shone so luminously, in the outpouring of physical light which made the room glow, the spiritual principle that light incarnates, radiance, source of all beauty and learning, inseparable attribute of that proportion the room embodied.

The obvious feature of the Abbey in Eco's The Name of the Rose is the library, but the scriptorium is its heart. The library, as we discover through the book, is really a sort of tomb of books, but it is in the scriptorium that books are alive. It is there that monks read the books of the library -- when they are allowed them -- and it is there that monks copy books that come into the Abbey, increasing the library and the Abbey's wealth. It is also in the scriptorium that the books themselves come alive, changing from mere words on the page to works of delightful art, full of color and picture and even, whatever some might wish, laughter.

Our first experience of this scriptorium is of light. Medieval scriptoria were quite diverse, as Adso implies, with the only constants being that they needed to be situated so as not to disturb prayer, the main purpose of the monastery, and that they be suitable for writing. The designers of this scriptorium have built theirs so that monks work above all in an abundance of clear sunlight, despite being indoors.

Thomas Aquinas says that light is what makes something manifest for a cognitive power, and Adso certainly agrees with this: the physical light is a symbol of intellectual light, each making it possible to see, and thus making it possible for us to experience the beautiful, which is what pleases on being seen. And the response of the mind to beauty, Adso notes, is peace.

But first impressions are sometimes misleading. The scriptorium, so filled with light, is, like everything else in the Abbey, a place of secrets, because it is linked to the library. And we see something of this in another visit to the scriptorium.

We reached the scriptorium, emerging from the south tower. Venantius's desk was directly opposite. The room was so vast that, as we moved, we illuminated only a few yards of the wall at a time. We hoped no one was in the court, to see the light through the windows. The desk appeared to be in order, but William bent at once to examine the pages on the shelf below, and he cried out in dismay.

It is in the scriptorium that the catalog of books in the library is kept, and the death of Venantius, on the trail of a book, gives the scriptorium a different, and more sinister, complexion. The scriptorium is not just a place of life and light; it is where the conspiratorial secrets of the library spill out into the world, and those secrets can bring darkness and death....

And that, of course, makes it fit with the Conspiratorial Corners theme Enbrethiliel is finishing up.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Music on My Mind

Ralph Stanley, "O Death". Stanley, one of the bluegrass greats, died yesterday at the age of 89.

Maronite Year LV

I have noted previously that where one finds a notable feast on a day other than Sunday in the Maronite calendar, this often means that it is received from elsewhere -- usually either because its date was established so early that it has never been changed, or because its existence in the calendar is due to the influence of another calendar at some point in Maronite history. This is part of the explanation for the fact that a number of Maronite feasts double, with a Sunday feast at some point and a fixed feast at another. The primary feast for the Nativity of John the Baptist is in the Season of Announcement, the Sunday of the Birth of John the Baptizer. But it is also often celebrated in summer, as well, when the Latin Church celebrates it.

Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist
Galatians 4:21-5:1; Luke 1:57-66

O Lord our God, today Judean hills ring out
with news of a mystical birth;
on this day, Zechariah and Elizabeth
despite age announce a new son.
His name shall be John, for God is truly gracious!
He is not the One awaited,
but he announces the One for whom prophets hoped.

O voice preaching in the wilderness,
fill our wilderness with your good news!

We gather at the banks of the river of grace,
waiting, O John, for precious news,
listening to your announcement of our Lord Christ.
From your birth you were a great sign.
A seed takes root in the desert; it bears sweet fruit,
for the word in the wilderness
prepares the way for the Word who is born of God.

O great forerunner of the Word of God,
bring a sign to those who wander lost!

Zechariah and Elizabeth exulted;
Judean hills rejoiced with them;
the Church sings hymns for the birth of God's own herald.
Prophets and angels saw this truth:
one will prepare the way for our great salvation,
who will point to the coming One,
the One who will shake the foundations of the earth.

O child of wonder, infant of grace,
bring us news of our Savior's coming!

O Lord our Light, you enlighten the universe;
You glorify Your holy saints.
When you come in glory, the righteous will rejoice.
They are the columns of Your Church;
like fresh springs they irrigate the world with new life;
they are waters that refresh all;
they rise in splendor like the towering cedars.

O Savior, through Your prophets' prayers
make us worthy of Your holy Church!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Reasonable Complaining

We live in a society in which it is very easy to find people complaining; and, what is more, people take themselves as being entitled to do so. But it's also fairly easy to recognize that not all complaints are reasonable complaints.

In certain kinds of legal systems there is a concept known as standing or locus standi: in order to bring a lawsuit, you need to have standing. The exact doctrine of standing varies somewhat from legal system to legal system, and can also vary according to the case, but there are often common themes. A fairly basic kind of standing has three elements, which can be roughly stated in the following way:

(1) Injury in fact: there is a genuine (legal) harm, one that is specific and actual.
(2) Causal relation: the harm is genuinely an effect of the specific behavior being challenged.
(3) Redressability: the legal action can reasonably be regarded as able to provide appropriate relief for the harm.

There have been attempts here and there in recent decades to argue that doctrines of standing are out of date, but I actually think that they are just specific forms of a more general set of principles concerning reasonable complaint and protest. That is to say, I think legal standing, and the above three elements especially, can be justified as preventing courts from wasting time on complaints that by their nature are unreasonable; precise details might need, and perhaps often do need, adjustment for this or that specifically legal reason, but the general structure is quite necessary. (There are other reasons for a doctrine of standing, including its value in limiting government overreach, but they are less relevant for my purposes here.)

Thus, I think one can generalize the notion of locus standi to cover all complaining of any kind; complaint without locus standi is unreasonable complaint. And, as with the above basic notion of legal standing, three principles seem to stand out as quite necessary for rational behavior. They can be formulated in a positive or a negative way.

(1) Reasonable complaint is about what is genuinely harmful. / Complaints about things that do not actually harm are unreasonable.
(2) Reasonable complaint depends on the fact that a harm is genuinely an effect of that about which one is complaining. / Complaints about things that do not actually cause the harm are unreasonable.
(3) Reasonable complaint is connected to solution of problems. / Complaints about things that cannot be remedied, or that are divorced from any remedy, are unreasonable.

There might be some pushback on the third, but it is in fact true that people often criticize complaints about the inevitable or the incorrigible, and it is difficult to give any account of the practical rationality of complaining about what one cannot change. As to complaints in cases where the problem could be solved but in which the complaint has nothing to do with actually solving the problem, people often criticize this, too, and allowing it creates a number of problems in practice (e.g., people interfering with actual solutions by their incessant complaining, or exasperating people who are actually looking for real solutions).

Thus one can assess the reasonableness of complaints by looking to see whether they have locus standi: Is the thing complained about a real harm, and why? Is the thing complained about really the cause of the harm, and why? Is the complaint contributing to a real practical solution to the problem? (It hardly needs to be said that complaining on the internet often fails these tests. Some of that which does could, perhaps, be taken as mere venting, which is the kind of action that is not reasonable in itself, but at least arguably could be reasonable in a particular context. And not all unreasonable action is morally culpable, of course; some of it is just itself a harmless waste of time. But we all know that it would be difficult to stretch considerations like these very far.)

Some points:

(1) This account is about complaint. Not all critique or criticism is complaint; there can be a considerable difference, in fact, between criticizing a position and complaining about it. However, I think there's reason to hold that the above principles of reasonable complaint are themselves specific forms of even more general principles of reasonable criticism. Even so, it is a matter for inquiry whether there are kinds of criticism sufficiently different from complaint to operate under very different kinds of principles.

(2) The above principles are almost certainly not exhaustive. There are many things to consider in reasonable action -- honesty, moderation, fortitude, appropriateness to context, justice -- and while some of the basic principles of these might reduce to the above three, I see no reason to think that they all do.

(3) As noted above, unreasonable complaint is not itself something that it is necessarily reasonable to complain about. Complaint may be unreasonable but harmless; or it may be unreasonable, but any harms associated with it are, for all we know, not associated with it at all; or it may be pointless to complain about. But this is going to be something that can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. And, of course, merely because a case of unreasonable complaining is not harmful doesn't make it any more reasonable.

The Rowdiest Council

Today in the Maronite calendar is the memorial for the Fathers of the Holy and Ecumenical Council of Ephesus. The third ecumenical council was as close to being a free-for-all as a council can be.

Nestorius was a monk of Antioch who became famous for the quality of his sermons; because of this, the Emperor Theodosius II named him Patriarch of Constantinople in 428. Almost immediately he found himself dealing with a local dispute between those who claimed that Mary was Theotokos and those who thought it absurd and suggestive of Arianism to say that God had a human mother, because it suggested that the Son began to be. Nestorius proposed and tried to enforce a compromise in which Mary would be called Christotokos and not Theotokos, Christ-bearer rather than God-bearer. The controversy grew, because Nestorius does not seem to have been well liked by the populace, and the news began to spread. The ultimate result was a war of letters between St. Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, and Nestorius. Nestorius was absolutely not prepared for the fight; the strength and influence of Alexandria was immense, and Alexandrians were brawlers, not at all shy about fighting a matter out, and politically cunning, since life in Alexandria required the negotiation of perpetually shifting political alliances.

The great alliance between Rome and Alexandria which largely defines the early conciliar period of the Church had begun to crack in the reign of Cyril's predecessor and uncle, who had leveraged the alliance in a harassment campaign against St. John Chrysostom, but it was not yet broken. Cyril soon wrote to Pope Celestine I of Rome to ask for his decision on the question. Celestine held a synod and came down against Nestorius, authorizing Cyril to speak for Rome in the matter. It was all that Cyril needed to know that he was on sure ground. Constantinople had become increasingly important due to its connection to the Emperor, but against Alexandria and Rome together it was far outmatched.

So Nestorius took what was his only available option: he pushed the Emperor to summon the bishops of the Empire to a council. It is often forgotten that the initiative for the Council of Ephesus was Nestorian -- as far as Cyril was concerned, there could hardly have been any need for a council, since both Rome and Alexandria had spoken on the matter and agreed. It was Nestorius who pressed for a council to exonerate him and condemn Cyril. Nestorius, no doubt, thought that his hand was fairly strong, since he could count on the support of Antioch and the Emperor, and he seems always to have thought that his position was the only reasonable position, rejected by Cyril only because Cyril was obstinate. He was in many ways a thoroughgoing intellectual, fond of 'technically' and 'strictly speaking', and while he seems to have been quite charming personally (people who knew him directly often supported him quite loyally), his entire approach as patriarch was high-handed and condescending.

Theodosius called for a council to open on June 7, 431, in Ephesus. I'm not sure why this city in particular was chosen; perhaps it was intended as a minor concession to the other side, but Ephesus was actively hostile to anything suggestive of Nestorianism, and the bishop of Ephesus, Memnon, would refuse Nestorius entry into all the churches of Ephesus, citing the decisions of Rome and Alexandria. And when Cyril arrived, he took control of everything. The delegations from Rome and Antioch were late because of stormy weather, and Cyril wanted to open on time, but he was told by the imperial representative, Candidian, that it would be illegal to open the council without the reading of the Emperor's convocation letter, and that he should wait until the other delegations arrived. Cyril did wait, for two weeks, and then opened the council, anyway, on June 22, presiding over it as Patriarch of Alexandria and representative of Rome. When Candidian came in with the pro-Nestorian bishops protesting, Cyril had him read the Emperor's letter to the bishops to clarify a point, and then took that reading of the letter as the legal opening of the council.

The council summoned Nestorius, but Nestorius, complaining of harassment by the people of Ephesus, would not recognize any council that was led by Cyril. He refused the summons and was condemned and deposed by the council.

John, Patriarch of Antioch, arrived a few days afterward to find that the council had already started and, in fact, had already condemned Nestorius. Furious, he and Candidian opened a separate council and deposed Cyril and Memnon. Meanwhile, the Roman legation arrived, and, after giving the letters of Pope Celestine to Cyril's council and some brief investigation, they concluded that all that was required was that the documents of the first session be read aloud in their presence. That done, the legates then signed and made Rome's support of the condemnation of Nestorius official.

That in hand, Cyril now began to move against John of Antioch, summoning him to the council. When John refused, he was deposed. Other bishops attempted to take advantage of this -- the bishop of Jerusalem (unsuccessfully) and the bishop of Cyprus (successfully) tried to get the council to recognize its independence form Antioch. Canons were drawn up, and the council came to an end. Throughout the entire period, the Imperial representatives had difficulty keeping order, both sides complained of physical bullying, and the city stayed more or less in uproar mode the entire time.

But its decisions held. Rome confirmed the decisions of the council for the West. Cyril reconciled with John, although only after much negotiation. And the question for the East then became, how strictly should we interpret the decisions of Ephesus? It would take another council a century later to answer that question.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Music on My Mind

Steve Martin with Steep Canyon Rangers, "Daddy Played the Banjo".

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Nicholas Cabasilas

Yesterday (June 20) was the feast of Nicholas Cabasilas for the Greek Orthodox. He is not, as far as I am aware, officially on any Catholic calendars, although it is not difficult to find Melkite Catholics who refer to him as St. Nicholas Cabasilas. Regardless, he is one of the truly great Byzantine theologians. He lived in the fourteenth century; we don't know exactly when he was born or died, but common dates given are 1321-1391. His uncle Nilus Cabasilas was the Archbishop of Thessalonica; he himself became an advisor to John Cantacuzenos. We do not know whether he was ever ordained as a priest, although it seems likely given his intimate familiarity with liturgical matters, but he did become a monk. Later hagiography often claims he succeeded his uncle as Archbishop of Thessalonica, but these claims are late, and it is often unclear how the dates would work out, so these claims may well be the result of an accidental confusion between Nicholas and his uncle.

From The Life in Christ, which is concerned with the sacraments (particularly baptism, chrismation, and eucharist):

Those who come over to Him He welcomes with the gifts which follow from His death and burial. He does not merely bestow a crown or give them some share in His glory, He gives them Himself, the Victor who is crowned with glory. When we come up from the water we bear the Saviour upon our souls, on our heads, on our eyes, in our very inward parts, on all our members--Him who is pure from sin, free from all corruption, just as He was when He rose again and appeared to His disciples, as He was taken up, as He will come again to demand the return of His treasure.

Thus we have been born; we have been stamped with Christ as though with some figure and shape.
[Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, DeCatanzaro, tr. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (Crestwood, NY: 1974) p. 62.]

From A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, which goes step by step through the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, one of the major liturgies of the Church:

The central act in the celebration of the holy mysteries is the transformation of the elements into the Divine Body and Blood; its aim is the sanctification of the faithful, who through these mysteries receive the remission of their sins and the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven. As a preparation for, and contribution to, this act and this purpose, we have prayer, psalms, and readings from Holy Scripture; in short, all the sacred acts and forms which are said and done before and after the consecration of the elements.
[Nicholas Cabasilas, A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, Hussey & McNulty, trs., St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (Crestword, NY: 1960) p. 25.]

Sacra di San Michele

Looking around, I find that the Sacra di San Michele has a very nice little set of virtual tours on its website. The Benedictines were removed in 1622 after a period of long decline, and as MrsD noted in previous comments, it has been maintained by the Rosminians since 1836. It has also been adopted as the monumental symbol of Piedmont, so the regional government has been actively working for the past two decades to renovate it.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Your Teeth Are Like Washed Sheep

The simile, of course, is a flattened version of one found in the Song of Songs (4:4,6:6). In his discussion of metaphor in Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language Umberto Eco notes that our first reaction to this is to think of sheep as shaggy, dripping, bleating, smelling. But, of course, the figure of speech is not arbitrary (he also considers 5:15):

Nevertheless, we can imagine how the biblical poet drops all those properties of sheep negatively identified above, so as to preserve only the characteristic of aequalitas numerosa, their splendid unity in variety -- as well as their whiteness. It is understood that the poet is able to do so because within his culture these most probably were the properties associated with sheep, at least within the poetic tradition. And it is also clear that the qualities chosen to define the beauty of a healthy and sturdy country girl, destined to tend to the flocks among the rocky Palestinian hills, single out her upright solidity (like that of columns), her unbroken state of perfection, in the same way that it is not so much the cylindrical shape of columns that is preeminently chosen as is their whiteness, instead, and their grace of line. [p. 101]

This is plausible and, I think, not correct. Moreover, it is not correct in a way that I think sheds light on Eco's approach to metaphor in general.

I have on my shelves somewhere a book that was a required text for a theology class I took in undergrad on Old Testament wisdom literature. It's one of those books that can't just let texts be texts, but must also add on top something for 'critical distance' or 'deconstruction' (as theologians have considered, it anyway), an identification of things you have to be suspicious of, like sexism and the like. And one of the critical comments the book makes on the Song of Songs is that its language is crypto-monarchist. The first time I ever read that, I found it hilariously funny, and I find it hilariously funny every time I think of it. (This is what theology texts are good for when they are not good for theology; they are almost as good as joke books.) The Song of Songs is obviously not 'crypto-monarchist' in its language because there is absolutely nothing 'crypto-' about it. It talks about kings. It talks about accoutrements of kings. It talks especially about wealth of kings. And it does it all out in light of day without even a smidgeon of an attempt to hide it.

None of the figures of speech in the entire book are arbitrary; they all concern the things that make royalty wealthy and impressive. There is nothing in the work to suggest that aequalitas numerosa and whiteness were chosen because "within his culture these most probably were the properties associated with sheep, at least within the poetic tradition." It is of course, a sign that Eco is neither stupid nor sloppy that he adds that final phrase. In a society in which pastoral activities play a major role, it would hardly be the case that anyone could talk about sheep without having a very extensive familiarity with them, far more extensive than ours usually is. Most people today know that sheep are shaggy, bleating, smelling, only by hearsay. A few more have had occasional experiences of actual sheep, like myself (I had a pet lamb when I was a little boy). Only a very few people today have a familiarity with sheep that would match the kind of familiarity with sheep that would have been quite common in the poet's milieu. He would have known that they were shaggy, bleating, smelling, and more, and to a greater extent than we do. What is more, in the poet's actual culture it is extremely unlikely that in fact "unity in variety" and "whiteness" would be the most obvious properties associated with sheep, which would be food and clothing and the difference between wealth and poverty and between being poor and having nothing. Whiteness and unity in variety could hardly be more than minor properties in comparison. But Eco, being more careful than another might be, saves the claim with the final phrase. It's indeed possible that the poetic tradition tended to emphasize these properties when talking about sheep, if whiteness and unity-in-variety independently came up in poetry a lot. But there is no reason to think that this is operative in this case.

The order of events suggested by Eco's description is: talking about a girl, talking about teeth, teeth are white and numerously equal, sheep in poetry are white and numerously equal, her teeth are like sheep. But given the consistent pattern of figurative language throughout the work, it is much more likely that the order is something like this: he wants to describe a girl in terms of how impressively beautiful and worth valuing she is; this leads him to think of her in comparison with royal splendor and wealth; given that, the problem is to describe the girl in figures drawn from actual royal splendor and wealth; so he describes her nose, her legs, her belly, and, of course, comes to her teeth; what, from the domain of royal splendor and/or great wealth, has something in common with teeth?; he thinks through various things from that domain and comes up with the best fit -- flocks of sheep, white and many!; and so we get our simile. And where this is all going is that the girl is more valuable and wonderful than all of these signs of royal splendor and wealth, because she matches them all in one attractive little package. Given a choice between the extraordinary wealth represented by a flock of sheep with bright wool (and, as he goes on to say, pregnant with twins, which means the rich are getting richer) and the girl, what do you choose? The girl, of course. ("You look like a million bucks," he said, "the Rolls Royce of women, and your eyes are a mansion enough for anyone; and your kisses are sweeter than wine.") In short, the whiteness and numerous equality being selected out is almost certainly an effect of looking for an appropriate metaphor, not something simply received and applied.

This is all, of course, speculative reconstruction. There are a number of ways in which this line of thought could be varied. But, remember, we get a lot of figures of speech in the Song of Songs, and they do display thematic patterns. The explanation here easily adapts to her belly like a heap of wheat, her hair like a flock of goats, her neck and nose like a tower, her thighs like jewels, her navel like a bowl of wine, and, yes, her legs like marble columns. All of the similes develop within a larger set of metaphors, and to this extent there is a workman-like quality to them: you can identify the concern that selects what to look for.

This is precisely where Eco's account of metaphors is consistently weak. He likes to jump quickly to infinities, and then, to handle them, run to purely cultural explanations. But this does not lead to a very good explanation of most use of figures of speech, and it misses the most important thing, which is that the poet is not making up similes at random, but for a reason. Composing poetry is an extremely teleological affair: you have your ends, and you find your means for those ends. In the process you actively discover things that you weren't really expecting, but which happened to come along with the means that were available. It's like a master sculptor: he wants to sculpt Judith with the head of Holofernes, so he looks around for a marble of the right kind, and in sculpting he discovers features in the grain of the marble that he adapts to his use, and the choice of marble and the choice of the manner of adaptation are all governed by the end in view. Why does the poet go out of his way to mention that the sheep are ewes pregnant with twins? Was that what he was looking for from the beginning? No. Is it somehow a special feature of sheep as portrayed in standard poetic diction? Maybe, but that's not what explains its role here. It's an intensifier naturally arising as a possibility given that sheep were already selected, when you consider the end he had in view.

Rarely do we consider all properties when doing metaphors. Eco realizes this, but regularly tries to offload everything into culture, as if all the properties were really on the table and it's the arbitrary choices and historical contingencies of culture that narrow the focus. But this is backwards entirely. Why bring sheep in at all? Because there is already a reason for doing so. And that reason constrains and governs the properties selected out. Culture merely gives an order to the search by making some of those properties more likely to be called to mind than others; it suggests, while the poet does the actual selecting. When we deliberately choose a metaphor or simile, we are not picking them from an endless sea of possibilities; we have an end in view, and we usually only look at the things that are appropriate to that end; and from those possibilities we select the best fit we come across for that end. Only when we take into account the end in view do we get a real understanding of similes and metaphors.


Quotation from Umberto Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Indiana University Press (Bloomberg: 1984).

Seasonless, Herbless, Treeless, Manless, Lifeless

by George Gordon, Lord Byron

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went--and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires--and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings--the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other's face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain'd;
Forests were set on fire--but hour by hour
They fell and faded--and the crackling trunks
Extinguish'd with a crash--and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash'd their teeth and howl'd: the wild birds shriek'd,
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl'd
And twined themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless--they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again;--a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought--and that was death,
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails--men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assail'd their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish'd men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress--he died.
The crowd was famish'd by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap'd a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they raked up,
And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other's aspects--saw, and shriek'd, and died--
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful--was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless--
A lump of death--a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp'd
They slept on the abyss without a surge--
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon their mistress had expir'd before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them--She was the Universe.

In 1815, Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies erupted, massively, and the result was that 1816 was a year cold and dark. The sun was sometimes so blocked by particulate in the atmosphere that it burned red and one could see sunspots with the naked eye. It was the Year Without Summer, for summer never came. In some places, snow fell in June and late frost after late frost killed off crops, leading to a worldwide crisis as the price of what few staple crops survived soared sky high. Famine swept across Europe. The Yangtze Valley in China was flooded much of the year and tropical Taiwan had winter snow. Cholera swept through India due to a late monsoon that seemed never to stop raining.

Trying to pass an unpleasant summer, the Shelleys, Polidori, Byron, and others amused themselves in Switzerland with horror stories, leading to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Polidori's The Vampyre. And at some point during the year, Byron seems to have written the above apocalyptic poem.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fortnightly Book, June 19

Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.

There was some interest in reading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose a couple of weeks ago, so it makes sense to do it earlier rather than later. Ironically, the striking title has very little significance of itself -- it was deliberately chosen not to give away anything and to suggest possible meanings in such a way that it will never be possible to pin down the real meaning. And that is very much the theme of the book -- the medieval confidence in reason is breaking down and giving way to a modern perplexity that can never decide if the things we see in the world are really there or not. We follow the signs -- and at the end we find only more signs.

But, of course, that sounds quite bland, and The Name of the Rose is not a bland book, so it will be fun to re-read. And since it is Eco, the work is an epistemological thriller and turns on some finer points of semiotics and philosophy.

To set the mood, here is a lovely picture of the Sacra di San Michele, in the Susa Valley of Piedmont, Italy, which is widely thought to be Eco's inspiration for the Abbey:

La Sacra ammantata dalla neve

Maronite Year LIV

Sixth Sunday of Pentecost
1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27-30; Matthew 10:16-25

God made hosts of angels ranked in orders of fire,
and Seraphim crying, Holy, Holy, Holy!
For He said, Let there be light, and the light was good.
Thus He has blessed this day with the Spirit of joy,
for through His resurrection He formed His true Church,
His martyrs and virgins marching in ranks of fire,
nations beyond all count singing hymns before Him,
splendid in light and glory.

As a body is one despite its many parts,
as all the parts together form one whole body,
so by the Spirit we are united as one,
sharing without division one baptism and one hope.

This is the day of light; let us praise, let us thank,
let us magnify our Savior, Lord Jesus Christ,
who through His love for us saved us and set us free,
dying upon the Cross and rising from the Tomb.
At the end of days, He will come with hosts of fire,
overthrowing darkness and judging nations;
make us worthy to rejoice with Your holy saints,
one Church united with love.