Archive for History

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Language and Meaning

Language and meaning

I have just returned from a brief trip to Korea. I had learned the Hangul alphabet, but my vocabulary was limited to some rudimentary phrases. I could read but I could not understand. This led to some thoughts about language and meaning. My posting will take a roundabout course, beginning with a Korean scholar from the Silla dynasty. Be patient: I shall try to find some meaning before the day is done.

Choe Chi Won (857-925?)

At the age of 12, Choe Chi Won (Hangul 최치원; Chinese 崔致遠; literary name 孤雲, Go-un, “Lonely Cloud”) was sent from Korea to study in Xian (Chang’an), the capital of the Tang dynasty in China. There he learnt the practices of Confucianism and the arts of poetry and calligraphy. He passed the Imperial Examination at the young age of 22 years, and rose quickly through the ranks of the Chinese Civil Service.

However, the Tang dynasty (618-907) was slowly coming to its end. In 874, Huang Chao had initiated a rebellion against the Emperor. By 880 he had taken control of the capital and assumed the throne, calling himself the “Emperor of Qi.” Choe served as the secretary to the Tang general Gao Pien in his campaign against Huang Chao. By 884, the rebellion was finally defeated and the Tang emperor Xizong reinstated in Xian.

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Giving Offence

tout est pardonne xbCharlie Hebdo

A great outpouring of sympathy and solidarity followed the assassination of the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo. A million people gathered in Paris in silent protest. The motto Je suis Charlie was promoted across the world. The magazine refused to restrain its irreverence. The cover of its first issue after the attack showed the Prophet forgiving the blasphemy against him (Tout est pardonné) and supporting Je suis Charlie.

Nevertheless, most Western newspapers did not reprint either this cover or the earlier cartoons that had precipitated the assassinations. Their rationale was that these would unnecessarily offend those who believe that any depiction of the Prophet is sacrilegious. For example, despite the opposition of some of its own journalists, the Toronto Star decided not to publish the cartoons:

We could run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. There is a strong news rationale for doing so. But there are important reasons of principle not to do it. Just as we would not publish racist or pornographic images, we will exercise our judgment not to print the cartoons.
We will not print them because we have too much respect for fellow Canadians of Muslim background. We will not send a message that their way of being Canadian is less acceptable or less valuable than that of any other citizen. (Cruikshank, 2015).

The opposing viewpoint is that the act of terrorism itself justifies the further publication of the offending material. Otherwise we would be submitting to censorship by intimidation rather than by principle:

If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. (Douthat, 2015)

As the weeks passed, there has also been some acknowledgment of the offence (e.g. Tariq Ali, 2015). Not that this could in any way justify the violence. Just that in a civil society one should respect the beliefs of others. Not to do so, particularly when the others are in a minority, is to demean them. It is far better to mock those in power than those without.

Furthermore, the vaunted freedom to satirize the beliefs and actions of Muslims is clearly out of balance with the strict limitations placed on any criticism of Jewish beliefs or history. It is far easier to defame that Prophet than to deny the Holocaust.

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Fakes

The human mind creates pictures, tells stories, and invents explanations. Sometimes these activities are closely linked to a real world, sometimes they rise freely from the imagination. Nevertheless they are usually attuned in some way to truth. Science creates testable hypotheses for what might happen. Art is much less closely tied to the real world but still helps us to understand it.

For various reasons human beings also create false things. The intention is to deceive. The motives are various. Sometimes the fraudster is looking for personal gain. Sometimes she wishes to make others look like fools. Sometimes he just does it because it is possible. This post considers three famous fakes.

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Cosmos Mariner

The poet Conrad Aiken was born in 1889 in Savannah, Georgia. When Aiken was 11 years old, his father, a respected surgeon, shot his wife and then committed suicide. Trying to distance himself from the experience in the third person, Conrad later recounted his discovery of the bodies:

[A]fter the desultory early morning quarrel, came the half stifled scream, and then the sound of his father’s voice counting three, and the two loud pistol-shots; and he had tiptoed into the dark room, where the two bodies lay motionless and apart, and, finding them dead, found himself possessed of them forever. (Aiken, 1952, p 302).

Aiken was taken into the care of his aunt, Jane Delano Kempton, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and later lived with an uncle, William Tillinghast, a college librarian at Harvard. After graduating from Middlesex Preparatory School in Concord, Aiken was admitted to Harvard University in 1907, where he became a friend of T. S. Eliot.

aikenxxAfter leaving Harvard in 1912, Aiken decided to devote his life to poetry. Though much more prolific than Eliot, Aiken never achieved his colleague’s popularity. Many of Aiken’s poems are long and discursive. They might perhaps have benefited from an editor like Ezra Pound, who was so effective in separating out the gold in Eliot’s verse (Eliot, 1922/1971). Aiken published more than 30 volumes of poetry, several novels, many short stories and two autobiographical memoirs. Despite receiving the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and serving as the Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress, Aiken became “one of the country’s best-known and least-read poets and men of letters” (Butscher, 1988, p xvii).

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Destroy the Old!

destroy the oldChina’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (无产阶级文化大革命 pinyin: Wúchǎnjiējí Wénhuà Dàgémìng) was one of the most terrifying periods in modern Chinese history. The revolution turned upon itself in a fury of denunciation and violence. The goal was to root out those who opposed the revolution. The result was a rampage of destruction. Everything old was to be done away with to make way for the new. Those associated with the old culture were punished or executed. The poster on the right (from Wikipedia) shows the Red Guard in action against symbols of religion, capitalism and culture. The slogan reads “Destroy the old world! Establish the new!” (打破旧世界 dǎ pò jiù shì jiè 创立新世界 chuàng lì xīn shì jiè ). The Cultural Revolution began in 1966, and did not really end until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Much of the old was destroyed; nothing new was created.

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Here I stand

The Diet of Worms was an assembly of the lords of the Holy Roman Empire called together by Emperor Charles V in 1521. One of the duties of the Diet was to consider whether the writings of Martin Luther were heretical. The Diet marked the point-of-no-return for the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s ringing statement “Here I stand” reclaimed the spiritual freedom of the individual. Henceforth each person could choose to interpret scripture and to commune with God without the necessary intervention of the church. However, Luther’s actual concept of freedom was far more complicated than this.

luther 1520Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk who studied, taught and preached at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, one of the states of the Holy Roman Empire. The engraving on the right by Lucas Cranach the Elder shows Luther in his monk’s attire. Cranach was the court painter for the Elector of Saxony. He knew Luther well and made several portraits of him. This engraving was used as a frontispiece for several of Luther’s early books. The Latin beneath the portrait states that Luther’s depiction of his thinking was eternal but Cranach’s portrait of his features only transient. At the bottom is a device used by Cranach as his signature – a winged serpent with a crown upon his head and a ruby ring in his mouth.

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States of Surveillance

snowdenIn June of 2013, TV screens were filled with the image of an articulate young man in a hotel room in Hong Kong. He was telling us that the US government was monitoring what we did on the phone and on the internet. The National Security Agency (NSA), he said (transcript),

targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default. It collects them in its system and it filters them and it analyses them and it measures them and it stores them for periods of time simply because that’s the easiest, most efficient, and most valuable way to achieve these ends.

 

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Sub Regno Cynarae

Sketch of Ernest Dowson by William Rothentstein in early 1890s

Sketch of Ernest Dowson by William Rothenstein in early 1890s

 

Ernest Dowson was born in 1867 into a prosperous family in London. His father owned a dock, but had more interest in literature than in business. Ernest spent two and a half years at Oxford, but he did not take a degree, leaving in 1888. The dock fell into debt, and the family became poor. His father took his own life in 1894, his mother following suit a few months later. Ernest Dowson became a homeless, alcoholic poet. He consorted with prostitutes. His most famous poem recalls the shadow of an earlier love:

 

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Subversive Poetry

frost 1913 x

Robert Frost, 1913

Many poems of Robert Frost (1874-1963) are remembered for something completely different from what the poet actually wrote. Frost’s meaning is often either opposite or orthogonal to what is initially understood.

One of Frost’s early poems is Wall Mending, published in 1914 as the first poem in North of Boston. Many remember the poem as claiming that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Walls serve to keep livestock away from crops. However, Frost points out to his neighbor that there is no need of the particular wall that they are mending:

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

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Freudian Legacies

Sigmund Freud made significant contributions to our understanding of how the human mind works (Gay, 1988). Recently, however, his ideas have come under intense criticism. Eysenck (1985), MacMillan (1991), Fisher and Greenberg (1995), Webster (1995), Andrews and Brewin (2000) and Gomez (2005) review the issues (with different degrees of politeness and different conclusions). This post comments on some of Freud’s contributions.

cerny freud

The photograph shows the Czech sculptor David Černý’s Hanging Man (1997) in its original location high above Husova Street in Prague. Copies have since been exhibited in various other cities. It is a life-size sculpture of Sigmund Freud, hanging from his right hand which grasps a beam projecting over the street. He seems unconcerned by his precarious position, his left hand remaining insouciantly in his pocket. Like most artists, Černý is noncommittal about the meaning of his art. According to some, the sculpture may represent the role of the intellectual in modern society. Freud goes often unattended, but when noticed he tends to shock. He considers ideas that are not grounded in the normal world; yet he is comfortable in his own thinking.

 

 

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