Category Archives: notes on poems

Derek Walcott becomes the volcano

(Orlando, FL) I’ve settled on a poem with which to express homage to the late Derek Walcott: his “Volcano” (1976)

Joyce was afraid of thunder
but lions roared at his funeral
from the Zurich zoo.
Was it Trieste or Zurich?
No matter. These are legends, as much
as the death of Joyce is a legend,
or the strong rumour that Conrad
is dead, and that Victory is ironic.
On the edge of the night-horizon
from this beach house on the cliffs
there are now, till dawn,
two glares from the miles-out-
at-sea derricks; they are like
the glow of the cigar
and the glow of the volcano
at Victory‘s end.
One could abandon writing
for the slow-burning signals
of the great, to be, instead,
their ideal reader, ruminative,
voracious, making the love of masterpieces
superior to attempting
to repeat or outdo them,
and be the greatest reader in the world.
At least it requires awe,
which has been lost to our time;
so many people have seen everything,
so many people can predict,
so many refuse to enter the silence
of victory, the indolence
that burns at the core,
so many are no more than
erect ash, like the cigar,
so many take thunder for granted.
How common is the lightning,
how lost the leviathans
we no longer look for!
There were giants in those days.
In those days they made good cigars.
I must read more carefully.

Two of “the great” are named in this poem: Joyce and Conrad. Joyce is a foil for Walcott: an exiled former subject of the British Empire who wrote Ulysses, to which Walcott, from a different Atlantic island, replied with Omeros. It turns out that lions did roar at Joyce’s funeral, and one can risk the pathetic fallacy that they roared for the master’s passing.

I don’t know Conrad’s novel Victoria, but Wikipedia suggests why Walcott might like it (as long as it can be read as “ironic”). Apparently, it describes yet another colonial island-outpost, this one in the Pacific, from European and subaltern perspectives–offering that double vision that fascinates Walcott. And according to Walcott, it ends with two lights shining on the ocean horizon, one a cigar and one a volcano. Seeing a similar pair of lights on the sea off his Caribbean home, Walcott imagines them as messages from Conrad, who is only “rumored” to be dead because his words still speak.

Walcott, the future Nobelist, has every right to place himself in these men’s company. He strives to write great works, to make his own mark. The poem relates a moment, however, when he considers whether it might be better to devote himself to reading: in fact, to become the “ideal reader.” That is a ruminative life, more modest, quieter, although Walcott’s character still compels him to be the “greatest reader in the world.”

“Volcano” adopts a rhetoric of decline. “Awe … has been lost in our time”; “so many take thunder for granted.” But I think the narrator pokes a little fun at himself for that mood when he says, “In those days they made good cigars.” It’s not really that culture has declined and all the great ones have passed. That’s simply what a person feels when he or she pledges, “I must read more carefully.”

With Walcott gone now, I’d like to think of him as a light from far offshore, sending his slow-burning signals for a long time to come. Best to enjoy them, not try to outdo them, because they really don’t make writers like Derek Walcott any more.

Walter de la Mare, Fare Well

Derek Walcott says that he always “cherished” the poem “Fare Well” by Walter de la Mare “because of its melody and its plaintiveness.” I think Walcott proceeds to recite it from memory rather than read it, because his spoken rendition differs in very minor respects from the printed versions that I have found online (“or” instead of “nor”, “dost” instead of “wouldst”). Walcott’s recommendation is enough for me, so I offer de la Mare’s text below:

Fare Well

When I lie where shades of darkness
Shall no more assail mine eyes,
Nor the rain make lamentation
When the wind sighs;
How will fare the world whose wonder
Was the very proof of me?
Memory fades, must the remembered
Perishing be?

Oh, when this my dust surrenders
Hand, foot, lip, to dust again,
May these loved and loving faces
Please other men!
May the rusting harvest hedgerow
Still the Traveller’s Joy entwine,
And as happy children gather
Posies once mine.

Look thy last on all things lovely,
Every hour. Let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
Till to delight
Thou have paid thy utmost blessing;
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
In other days.

It’s quite straightforward, but I’ll add a few notes.

  • The “melody” that Walcott admires could be parsed as six rhyming couplets (AA, BB, CC) with 15 syllables before each rhyming word, arranged in in a pattern of trochee, trochee, trochee, spondee [line break], trochee, trochee, anapest [line break], trochee, spondee. It could be easily set to music.
  • De la Mare introduces some surprises. You would think that once you’re dead and buried, what you’ll miss is light. The narrator says instead that you will no longer see “shades of darkness,” which is true enough. A.E. Hausman Housman read the poem in a version with a misprint: “rustling” instead of “rusting harvest hedgerow.” Housman knew right away that the original must have read “rusting,” because the sound of wind in leaves is a cliché and unrelated to the poem’s theme, whereas “rusting” evokes autumnal colors and an imminent fall.
  •  “Wonder” is “the proof of” the narrator. Does “proof” mean a test that the narrator faced, or evidence that the narrator lived?
  • I take it the “thou” addressed in the third stanza is a reader after the narrator has died. We are to appreciate the beauty of the world as if it were about to pass and remember that those who have passed appreciated it before us.

aphorisms, proverbs, maxims, and the purpose of this blog

If you search the Internet for “aphorisms,” you’ll find a mix of authors, from Lao Tze to Jean Baudrillard.

Some are literary figures who are eminently quotable–good at writing short, memorable passages that stand on their own even if they were originally composed for longer poems or continuous narratives. Oscar Wilde, Dorthy Parker, and Emerson are just a few examples of people called “aphorists” because they are pithy and witty.

Other books of aphorisms are lists of sentences or very short passages that are intended to be serious and wise. The biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the Greek collections of accumulated sayings attributed to Pythagoras and the Delphic Oracle, and the sutras of the Hindu tradition are examples. When these statements take the form of imperative sentences (“Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men”), they can be called maxims. When they sound more like generalizations about the world (“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”), they are better named proverbs.

A philosophy professor friend of mine once disclosed his profession to the person sitting next to him on an airplane. “Oh, you are a philosopher,” the neighbor said. “What are your sayings?” He was thinking of traditions in which philosophy means explicit wisdom, and wisdom is succinct and quotable. Needless to say, that is not what professional philosophy is today.

Once collections of short, pithy sayings are treasured as wisdom (a thesaurus means a “treasury”), it becomes possible to write collections that look like proverbs but are more idiosyncratic, personal, and perhaps ironic or subversive. La Rochefoucauld exploits the subversive potential of the genre when he writes in the format of the biblical Book of Proverbs but gives advice like, “If we had no faults we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.”  Erasmus collects real wisdom in some of his books (Adagia, Apophthegmata), but he puts strings of quotable falsehoods in the mouth of the Fool in the Praise of Folly. It is never clear where the author stands. James Geary collects current examples of aphoristic writers in this tradition.

By the way, the root of “aphorism” is the Greek verb for dividing, defining, or setting limits (ultimately from horos, boundary). In the New Testament, the verb aphorizo is used for dividing the damned from the saved and for excommunicating sinners. I think “aphorism” means division because each one is disconnected from the next (not because their content is necessarily about distinctions). In contrast, the Sanskrit word sutra means “string” or “thread.” Both traditions refer to distinct fragments of text that are loosely strung together without explicit transitions. The Greek word emphasizes the distinction among these items; the Sanskrit stresses their connectedness.

Francis Bacon and Friedrich Nietzsche epitomize a different tradition. They are highly critical empiricists who use the aphoristic form to shake their readers’ assumptions and demand their readers’ creative attention.

Bacon begins his book Novum Organum (“or, true suggestions for the interpretation of nature”) by decrying two categories of thinkers. On one hand, some have “presumed to dogmatize on Nature,” inventing or borrowing a theory, trying to explain everything in terms of that theory, and “bringing others to their [preconceived] opinion.” On the other hand, some have succumbed to the “despair of skepticism” and are known only for their “complaints and indignation at the difficulty of inquiry.” The third course is to observe and experiment with nature, one piece at a time, striving always to challenge our prior assumptions. Having proposed that course, Bacon then offers a series of numbered “Aphorisms on the Interpretation of Nature and the Empire of Man.”

Why aphorisms? Arguably, because Bacon is highly suspicious of grand theories that organize everything neatly and prevent us from noticing what is actually happening. So he is suspicious of the logical connective tissue that would turn individual propositions into larger arguments. He prefers to list specific propositions and encourage the reader to consider each one on its merits and to put them together only tentatively. We must stop to think about the logical relationship, if any, among Bacon’s thoughts. The form thus befits its substance.

Nietzsche’s earliest works are essays distinguished by their highly quotable passages yet also connected into rhetorically powerful wholes, with beginnings, transitions, and conclusions. With Human All Too Human (1878) Nietzsche shifts to a new genre that then occupies almost all of his energy for the rest of his life: collections of aphorisms. Like all his later books except ZarathustraHuman All Too Human is a set of numbered passages that range from a single sentence to a few pages in length.

Although Nietzsche’s style is influenced by aphoristic authors after Bacon (La Rochefoucauld, whom he cites in aphorism #35; Pascal; Lichtenberg, and others), the opening of Human, All Too Human takes us back to Bacon. Nietzsche, too, wants to shake his readers out of their “habitual opinions and approved customs.” He too is fascinated by people’s cognitive biases and limitations and suspicious of generalizations. In the very first aphorism of his first aphoristic volume, Nietzsche writes: “in fact, I myself do not believe that anybody ever looked into the world with a distrust as deep as mine.” I think he is hinting why his book will not offer a connected argument. A string of distinct ideas avoids the pretentiousness or naïveté implied by a larger whole.

Here Nietzsche almost sounds like one of the skeptics whom Bacon decries for dropping the effort to understand nature because they understand our limits all too well. But they are just complainers. Nietzsche, echoing the distinctions of Novum Organum, insists that he takes “pleasure in externals, superficialities, the near, the accessible, in all things possessed of color, skin and seeming.” That is not the same as Bacon’s path–striving to understand the phenomena–but Nietzsche sees it as the next step. He is moving beyond Baconian empirical science into his own “gay science.” (And in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche insists, “We do not know half enough about Lord Bacon—the first realist in all the highest sense of the word—to know what he did, what he willed and what he experienced in his inmost soul.”)

A final tradition consists of authors who have left collections of numbered and loosely connected passages–string-like sutras–because death or some other contingency prevented them from pulling these fragments into more coherent works. An inspiration for Bacon may have been Hippocrates, the ancient physician who called for close observation. Hippocrates’ writings (other than the Hippocratic Oath) read like aphorisms for a contingent reason: he didn’t write them. They are collections of fragmentary Greek texts about medicine wrongly attributed to him.

I am not sure to what degree Novalis wanted to write connected arguments, but we have his fragmentary notes in the condition that he left them when he died of consumption; both his tragic youthful death and his aphoristic style seem to match the content of his thought. A century later, Kafka also died of TB, leaving 109 aphorisms on philosophical topics.

And then there’s Wittgenstein, all of whose major works consist of short numbered passages without explicit connections. After he died, Elizabeth Anscombe and Georg Henrik von Wright published

a collection of fragments made by Wittgenstein himself and left by him in a box-file. They were for the most part cut from extensive typescripts of his, other copes of which still exist …

Often fragments on the same topic were clipped together; but there were also a large number lying loose in the box. …

We … came to the the conclusion that this box contained remarks which Wittgenstein regarded as particularly useful and intended to weave into finished work if places for them should appear. Now we know that his method of composition was in part to make an arrangement of such short, almost independent pieces as, in the enormous quantity that he wrote, he was fairly satisfied with.

They published this book under the title Zettel, which I think it an unpretentious work for snippet or cutting. But a cutting is also what an aphorism is. A clipped-together packet of snippings from typescript also bears a distant resemblance to a string of beads, a sutra. 

The word “cutting” could also have a more organic sense. In his 1948 poem “Cuttings,” Theodore Roethke evokes their generative potential:

Sticks-in-a-drowse over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;

One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.

To be sure, Roethke wrote a much darker second poem with the same title, emphasizing the pain of growth and rebirth. April is the cruelest month, and all. But I’d like to stress the latent promise of things that are clipped and piled together in conditions favorable to regeneration. In fact, that hope explains why I have been moved to write 3,123 posts on this blog (which is yet another word to compare with aphorism, sutra, maxim, and the others cited here). If I believe anything, it’s that we are too strongly influenced by grand conceptions that simplify and block our progress, yet we do need ambitious ideas. So let’s let them emerge from close, responsive, joyful engagement with people and their creations, taken one at a time.

game theory, naval warfare, and Derek Walcott

I am in Washington, DC but remembering our winter vacation in Les Saintes, near Guadeloupe, because I am reading Derek Walcott’s astoundingly good epic, Omeros.

In the channel with three islets christened “Les Saintes”
in a mild sunrise the ninth ship of the French line
flashed fire at The Marlborough, but swift pennants

from Rodney’s flagship resignalled his set design
to break from the classic pattern … (XV)

Walcott is referring here to a major naval battle in 1782. When we saw the dioramas of the battle in the local history museum, I wondered why the “classic pattern” was for enemy fleets to form neat parallel lines and blast away at each other.


Was this some kind of courtly custom of the Baroque era? (Walcott writes, “the young midshipman … thought there was no war  /as courtly as a sea-battle.”) I think game theory offers a better explanation. The opposing players chose the best available strategies, each on the assumption that his opponent would make the best choice for him–which is what game theorists call a Nash Equilibrium.

Recall that sailing vessels cannot maneuver with perfect control because they are driven by the wind. Most of their lethal fire is directed from their sides. If they independently choose their own courses during a battle, they can easily get in each others’ way. In principle, each could be given complex directions from some central point, but inter-ship communication was badly limited before radio. It therefore made the most sense to set one simple rule that would guarantee coordination. The inflexible rule of the Royal Navy was to form a line of evenly spaced vessels.

Lord Howe’s Explanatory Instructions (1799) explained, “The chief purposes for which a fleet is formed in line of battle are: that the ships may be able to assist and support each other in action; that they may not be exposed to the fire of the enemy’s ships greater in number than themselves; and that every ship may be able to fire on the enemy without risk of firing into the ships of her own fleet.”

If one fleet had a good reason to form a line of evenly spaced ships, so did its opponent. Both wanted to sail in front of the other’s line, or “cross the T,” so as to be able to rake the enemy’s ships without receiving fire in return. But if two fleets are both trying to cross in front of each other, what you get is a pair of parallel lines.

The result of such a battle was pretty predictable, a function of the number of guns on each side. That meant that a clearly smaller fleet had a strong incentive to avoid battle or, if forced into it, to break the line and take a chance at prevailing in a chaotic melee. A melee could also develop by accident as a result of weather conditions, geographical obstacles, or sheer chaos. At the Battle of the Saintes (1782), the lines got mixed up. Walcott says this was Admiral Rodney’s plan, his “set design.” Wikipedia says the reason was a gusty wind that broke up the lines. Whether by chance or design, the Royal Navy ended up killing 8,000 French to their own losses of just 243 men.

Trafalgar (1805) was another famous counterexample. Nelson deliberately swooped in to break the enemy line, despite the grave risk of being raked by their broadsides, because he had a much greater incentive than the Franco-Spanish fleet to achieve a decisive result that day and was willing to take his chances. Nelson played the chicken game and didn’t swerve, for which he paid with his life but gets to stand on top of a huge column in central London to this day.

In 1913, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill faced the accusation that he had impugned the traditions of the Royal Navy. He replied: “And what are they? Rum, sodomy and the lash.” Maybe he should have said, ” … and the Nash.”

See also the gift economy of Beowulf and some thoughts about game theory.

empathy: good or bad?

I am speaking next week on a panel about empathy:

“Generative Empathies” (Rabb Room, Lincoln Filene Hall, Tufts University, March 30, 12 pm) with …

  • Amahl Bishara, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Tufts
  • Doris Sommer, Ira Jewell Williams, Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and Literature and Director, Cultural Agents Initiative, Harvard University
  • Peter Levine, Associate Dean for Research, Tisch College

I don’t know quite what to say yet, but I am inclined to raise the following points.

First, for a very long time, writers have argued that sad stories generate empathy and improve the character. From his dismal exile on the shore of the Black Sea, the poet Ovid addresses a soldier friend in these lines:

Is it true? When you heard of my misfortune
From a distant land, was your heart sad?
You can hide and shrink to say it, Graecinus,
But if I know you well, it was sad.
Revolting cruelty does not fit your type,
And even less your avocation. For
The liberal arts, your highest concern,
Soften the chest so that harshness escapes.
— Ex Ponto, 1.6 (my trans.)

Ovid presumes that his story will soften the gruff Roman’s heart, especially because it comes in the form of a poem and the soldier is a devotee of the artes ingenuae: the liberal arts, or literally, the freeborn arts. The poem will work because the reader has been habituated by many previous poems to dislike cruelty. Apparently, “ingenuae” has aristocratic connotations, and so Ovid’s phrase for the “liberal arts” implies a higher class of people who have been civilized or humanized by the arts.

Here is another classic source for the idea that writing generates empathy:

  1. And early in the morning, he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
  2. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
  3. They say [sic] unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
  4. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
  5. This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote [or drew] on the ground.
  6. So when they continued asking him, he lifted himself up, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
  7. And again he stooped down, and wrote [not drew] on the ground.
  8. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
  9. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?
  10. She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more (John, 8:2?11)

What was Jesus writing? One answer: something concrete about the specific Woman, which made the scribes and Pharisees think about her (and about themselves) instead of applying the abstract law.

For centuries in the English-speaking world, to enter the ranks of the civilized and humane meant reading Shakespeare. One possible reason: Shakespeare’s special capacity for empathy, which is related to his refusal to push arguments of his own. Keats found in Shakespeare the quality that he called “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Other critics have noted Shakespeare’s remarkable ability not to speak on his own behalf, from his own perspective, or in support of his own positions. Coleridge called this skill “myriad-mindedness,” and Matthew Arnold said that Shakespeare was “free from our questions.” Hazlitt said that the “striking peculiarity of [Shakespeare’s] mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds–so that it contained a universe of feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another. He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men.”

So we have a model of the humane and sensitive educated person as one who has been habituated by the reading of moving stories to be empathetic and thus to show mercy or otherwise depart from harsh decisions.

This model conflicts with the idea that a just person knows the truth and obeys the consequences.  St. Augustine recalls his sinful younger self enjoying the theater, where he was “forced to learn I don’t know what wanderings of Aeneas, oblivious to my own, and to lament the dead Dido, because she killed herself for love, while meanwhile with dry eyes I endured my miserable self dying among these things before you, God, my life. … In the theaters I took pleasure along with the lovers when they used each other for vice, even though their behavior was just the imaginary sport of a play, and when they parted I was sad along with them, as if I were really compassionate; yet I enjoyed both parts.”  At the moment of his conversion, Augustine hears a voice saying, “take up and read, take up and read.” He understands this as a command to open the Bible at random. The first words he finds are those of Paul: “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof” [Rom. 13:13?14]. Augustine recalls: “I wanted to read no further, nor was there need” (Conf., 1.13.20; Conf. 3.2.3.; Conf., 8.12.29).

This is a model of the just person as one who is unmoved by inappropriate empathy and who avoids reading texts that might make him sympathize with sin. Although he is a very different kind of person from Augustine, Judge Richard A. Posner writes in “Against Ethical Criticism” that “empathy is amoral.”

Imaginative literature can engender in its readers emotional responses to experiences that they have not had. We read King Lear and feel how–or some approximation to how–a failing king feels, the wicked bastard feels, the evil daughters, the good daughter, the blinded earl, the faithful retainer, the corrupt retainer, the fool, all feel. We experience simulacra of the agony of madness and the pang of early death in Hamlet, the depths of mutual misunderstanding in The Secret Agent, the loneliness of command in Billy Budd, the triumph of the will in Yeats’s late poetry. This is the empathy-inducing role of literature of which [Hilary] Putnam and [Martha] Nussbaum speak. But empathy is amoral. The mind that you work your way into, learning to see the world from its perspective, may be the mind of a Meursault [from The Stranger], an Edmund [from Lear], a Lafcadio [the lion?], a Macbeth, a Tamerlane, a torturer, a sadist, even a Hitler (Richard Hughes’s The Fox in the Attic).

Empathy can even undermine justice. It can make the empathetic person feel more virtuous without doing anything, and it can even strengthen his position in a conflict by making him look better to third parties. This can be true of sincere empathy. I believe, for instance, that the median Israeli voter has achieved some empathy for Palestinians, and that feeling both blunts the urgency of justice and makes Israel look better than it should in the eyes of the world. Note the applause in this speech by Barack Obama in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013:

I — I’m going off script here for a second, but before I — before I came here, I — I met with a — a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons.

I honestly believe that if — if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed. (Applause.) I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do. (Applause.) I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. (Cheers, applause.) I believe that. (Cheers, applause.)

In sum: I don’t think empathy will suffice on its own. It must be connected somehow with justice and with actually taking just action. If you favor systematic moral theories, than you may recommend using one or more general moral premises that distinguish good empathy from bad empathy. A feeling of empathy will not be a reliable guide to right action, only an urge that you must critically assess in other terms.

If, like me, you are skeptical about organized moral theories and believe that empathetic responses can convey truths about the world, then you will view an empathetic response as a valid source of guidance. But not as the only kind of valid input: relatively abstract and impersonal considerations must also apply.