In the Land of Invented Languages

For the most part, when I’m looking for something to read I stick to well-trodden paths. Usually, that means the Western canon of literature, though even among recent writers or non-fiction I tend to stick to authors with an established reputation, like Tim O’Brien or Christopher Clark. Occasionally, though, I do take the road less travelled by, and though I’ve never found anything life-changing this way, it has provided some of the books I’ve simply enjoyed the most, like Samuel Fussell’s Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, Eric Talmadge’s Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath, or W. H. Matthews’s Mazes & Labyrinths. Another just-finished work to add to this list is Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages, so I thought I’d share it as a recommendation and offer a few brief thoughts about it.

When one thinks of invented languages – or perhaps more accurately, if one thinks of them at all – the first to come to mind are typically either J. R. R. Tolkien’s world-building that became the basis for The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek’s Klingon, or perhaps Esperanto. All three do receive attention here, including a full chapter each for the latter two, but Okrent covers a wide variety of languages, with special focus on five, adding John Wilkins’s philosophical language, Blissymbolics, and Loglan together with its daughter-language Lojban. Each of these represents an era in the history of invented languages, and acts as a prototype for general approaches and goals. For example, Wilkins’s effort and Loglan both attempted to encourage clear thinking by doing away with the ambiguity of language, Esperanto hoped to encourage world peace by providing a common language for all people, and Klingon was created to add realism to a work of fiction.…

Read More In the Land of Invented Languages

Poems in Motion: Your Name and 5 Centimetres per Second

Those who care about spoilers should note that I’ll be discussing the endings and several plot points of both Your Name and 5 Centimetres per Second. I generally don’t care about spoilers, but will say that Your Name is more enjoyable if you don’t know whether it has a happy ending or not (and remember, Shinkai Makoto isn’t afraid of downers) or the twist partway through. If you just want a recommendation, both are worth watching, 5cm especially.

There’s been a ton of hype over Shinkai Makoto’s most recent film, Your Name, ever since its release last year. I saw it a few days ago, and though I don’t think it lives up to the hype I enjoyed it well enough and would even say it’s Shinkai’s best movie since 5 Centimetres per Second. Thinking about the movie, though, I couldn’t help comparing it to 5cm. On the surface, they don’t seem very comparable; 5cm is a very grounded movie, and rather minimalist in its plot and characterisation, whereas Your Name falls firmly into the speculative fiction genre, and though the plot isn’t complex compared to many SF stories, 5cm could be adequately summarised in a few sentences whereas this needs quite a bit more space to explain.…

Read More Poems in Motion: Your Name and 5 Centimetres per Second

Eighth Friend: Some Scottish Guy, “Edward, Edward”

Now, this is a bit awkward, because I don’t even know the name of today’s friend. All I do know is that he was a Scottish balladeer, and that this poem was collected in Thomas Percy’s 1765 collection Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Whoever our poet was, he lives on through his work, which is certainly worth something. The poem for today is “Edward, Edward,” which I first encountered in high school, alongside “Sir Patrick Spens.” I’ve remembered many individual lines ever since, which given the amount of repetition meant that I had decent chunks of the poem committed to memory before I even began this project. The old-fashioned Scottish spelling is a little confusing at first, but not too bad. Checking RPO’s notes may not be a bad idea, though, if this is your first time reading the poem.

Why dois your brand sae drap wi’ bluid,
Edward, Edward?
Why dois your brand sae drap wi’ bluid?
And why sae sad gang ye, O?
O, I hae killed my hauke sae guid,
Mither, mither,
O, I hae killed my hauke sae guid,
And I had nae mair bot hee, O.

Your haukis bluid was nevir sae reid,
Edward, Edward,
Your haukis bluid was nevir sae reid,
My deir son I tell thee, O.
O, I hae killed my reid-roan steid,
Mither, mither,
O, I hae killed my reid-roan steid,
That erst was sae fair and frie, O.…

Read More Eighth Friend: Some Scottish Guy, “Edward, Edward”

Olympic Level Poetry: Pindar’s Odes

After covering Sappho a couple weeks ago, I figured I’d move on to another of Greece’s most famous poets, Pindar. Fortunately, his work is much better preserved than the poetess of Lesbos, as we have several dozen of his poems. He made his name writing odes for the victors of the four Panhellenic games, the Olympian being the most famous of these, but also including the Isthmian, Nemean, and Pythian. To be specific, these odes were choral lyrics, which means that they were sung with musical accompaniment. Unfortunately, as far as I’m aware, we have little idea of what this music would’ve sounded like, so the words must stand on their own.

Even without the tune, though, my understanding is that the original Greek is still impressive. Pindar was widely respected in his own time, enough so that the victors of the games were willing to pay him for his work (including, as a side note, our old friend Hiero), and many poets since have admired him and even borrowed his style. Horace is the most famous example, but in English we also have Ben Jonson and Thomas Gray, among others. Edith Hamilton, in her book The Greek Way, also praises his odes highly, but notes that they’re extremely difficult to translate. Poet Abraham Cowley, another author of “Pindarics” in English, similarly noted that “If a man should undertake to translate Pindar word for word, it would be thought that one Mad man had translated another.” We’ll return to the issue of translation shortly.

Read More Olympic Level Poetry: Pindar’s Odes

Seventh Friend: James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, “On Himself, upon Hearing What was his Sentence”

Today in the United States, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving, commemorating that well-known story of Native Americans helping out a bunch of proto-Yankee Puritans… Well, that was nice of them, I must give credit for that, but if the Natives had seen the future they may have followed the example of the friend we’re meeting today and done something far more laudable: not feeding Puritans, but fighting them.

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, is one of my favourite of the Cavalier poets. Part of the reason, of course, is his poetry; I especially like “My Dear and Only Love,” which is a good romantic poem in its own right, and the specific imagery he uses to describe a loyal relationship between husband and wife, monarchy, is apt but today has the added satisfaction of political incorrectness. He also, of course, supported the Royalist cause in the English Civil War. Interestingly, though, he was a Covenanter, and as such opposed King Charles I insofar as the King attempted to impose Anglican forms of worship on Scotland. However, he insisted throughout his life that he was both a Covenanter and loyal to the monarchy, and in 1644, with the Civil War underway, he was appointed lieutenant-general and won several victories in Scotland. Unfortunately, the Royalists lost, Charles I was martyred, and so Montrose fled to the Continent, but returned to Scotland in 1650 with a force of about 1,200 men. That invasion failed and he was ultimately captured and hanged.

Before his execution, though, he did write one more poem, “On Himself, upon Hearing What was his Sentence,” which is the one I’ve chosen to memorise:

Let them bestow on ev’ry airth a limb;
Open all my veins, that I may swim
To Thee, my Saviour, in that crimson lake;
Then place my parboil’d head upon a stake,
Scatter my ashes, throw them in the air:
Lord (since Thou know’st where all these atoms are)
I’m hopeful once Thou’lt recollect my dust,
And confident thou’lt raise me with the just.

An “airth,” by the way, is a quarter of the compass.

So, normally, I’d call that sort of imagery melodramatic, but from someone who knows he actually is about to die, all I can say is that this how one faces death like a man. The gory touches are justified, since according to the Montrose Society, “After he was dead his head, his arms and his legs were cut off, the head placed on a spike on the Tolbooth where he had spent his last hours, his other limbs were placed in the [four] major cities of Scotland in places of prominence.” So, as it happened, they basically did “bestow on ev’ry airth a limb.” Nonetheless, as he was led to the gallows and saw the gibbet he simply asked, “How long am I to hang here?” As if he had an appointment or something afterwards. His last words were “God have mercy on this afflicted land.”

This is a fine poem in its own right, but it’s this background story that makes it especially interesting. I doubt I need to stress the point, but there’s also a moral example here on how to behave when you’re seemingly defeated – but also never to lose hope. In 1650 the Royalist cause seemed lost, but ten years later, in 1660, the Puritan Interregnum ended and the monarchy was restored. Today the monarchist cause is again in poor shape, but the one way to guarantee that we lose is to give up. So, “Viriliter agite, et confortamini” –  act manfully, and be strengthened. In the worse case, you’ll have the opportunity to leave behind an immortal death poem.…

Read More Seventh Friend: James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, “On Himself, upon Hearing What was his Sentence”

Plato’s Dialogues: Lesser Hippias

I’m sure that the mother of Lesser Hippias loves him just as much as Greater Hippias, which is good because no one else seems to like this dialogue. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, in their introduction to it, say “This dialogue can be ascribed to Plato only because it always has been, from Aristotle’s days on. It is inferior to all the others.” That opening sentence isn’t just them being gratuitously insulting, either, as there has been some doubt over whether Lesser Hippias is authentic or not. Benjamin Jowett, though he ultimately does accept it as genuine, places it among Plato’s doubtful works, alongside Menexenus and First Alcibiades. His full comments are worth reading, but he says that one mark against it is that it’s of lesser quality than Plato’s undoubtedly genuine work, which sometimes signals the work of either a counterfeiter or a lesser follower whose work was mistakenly ascribed to the master.

Now, this makes it sound as if the dialogue sucks so badly that people don’t even believe it’s Plato’s, but Jowett gives it some deserved credit, even if it is weaker than all the others so far. For one thing, we have the return of Hippias, the great and wonderful, who in the course of his conversation with Socrates unabashedly calls himself a great arithmetician, geometrician, and astronomer. Socrates also recounts Hippias’ boasting from the recent Olympic games:

[Y]ou [i.e., Hippias] said that upon one occasion, when you went to the Olympic games, all that you had on your person was made by yourself. You began with your ring, which was of your own workmanship, and you said that you could engrave rings; and you had another seal which was also of your own workmanship, and a strigil and an oil flask, which you had made yourself; you said also that you had made the shoes which you had on your feet, and the cloak and the short tunic; but what appeared to us all most extraordinary and a proof of singular art, was the girdle of your tunic, which, you said, was as fine as the most costly Persian fabric, and of your own weaving; moreover, you told us that you had brought with you poems, epic, tragic, and dithyrambic, as well as prose writings of the most various kinds; and you said that your skill was also pre-eminent in the arts which I was just now mentioning, and in the true principles of rhythm and harmony and of orthography; and if I remember rightly, there were a great many other accomplishments in which you excelled. I have forgotten to mention your art of memory, which you regard as your special glory, and I dare say that I have forgotten many other things[.]

Typically, arrogant men annoy those around them with their self-praise and posturing, but at some point boasting becomes so over-the-top that it turns comical and even endearing. Yes, Hippias like everyone else comes out looking rather shabby after their rhetorical grappling matches in these works, and though I don’t think Plato wrote these dialogues as character assassinations, it is worth keeping in mind that as characters these men were written specifically so Socrates could dunk on them. We can also sympathise with his frustration in dealing with Socrates. He’s apparently willing to talk to anyone who wishes to question him, even though he knows how this conversation in particular is likely to go. “Socrates,” he says at one point, “you are always weaving the meshes of an argument, selecting the most difficult point, and fastening upon details instead of grappling with the matter in hand as a whole.” We can look at the full body of Plato’s works see why Socrates approaches these discussions as he does, but no doubt, it would look different if we were the ones getting the dialectical swirlie.…

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Lesser Hippias

New at Thermidor: “Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry”

I have  a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, “Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry.” As the title indicates, it covers the lyric poet Sappho and how to get the most out of her mostly poorly-preserved poems.

If you’re interested in other Classical poets, I’ve previously written about Hesiod, also at Thermidor, and the Homeric Hymns. Related to these is yet another Thermidor article, on Aristotle’s Poetics.

On a side note, I’m not especially good with titles so over here I often just use the title of whatever I’m reviewing, but writing elsewhere I feel the need to come up with something better. I haven’t been very successful at that, but I do rather like “Immortal Fragments.” Maybe this is where I turn it around and no longer have to settle for mediocre titles.…

Read More New at Thermidor: “Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry”

Which Translation of The Analects Should I Read?

So, let’s say you want to begin a study of Confucianism. One reasonable place to start is The Analects of Confucius, but once you decide to do that, you run into a problem – which translation do you use? The number of options can easily overwhelm a newcomer; collecting them somewhat casually, that is, just buying one as I come across it and not actively seeking them out, I own nine versions and have read eight. Which you choose does matter, too. Though the most common ones are all decent enough, each translator makes different stylistic choices which will affect how much you get from the book, both in terms of understanding and enjoyment.

So, I thought I’d offer some advice to those new to the Analects. The impetus is that I’ve just finished revising my Confucian Twitter bot, in which I consulted most of these translations. I should, though, offer a few caveats. First, Chinese is Greek to me; I can recognise some of the written characters that are shared with Japanese, but otherwise, I don’t speak the language and therefore I can only judge these translations on clarity and style, not accuracy. Second, I haven’t read every available translation, though I have read those that appear to be most popular. Missing are those by Edward Slingerland, W. E. Soothill (which I own but haven’t yet read), and Annping Chin; there are probably others, as well, but I may come back and update this post in the future when I do get around to them.

Now, what I’ll do here is begin with a few general observations and recommendations, then go through and offer specific comments on individual translators, along with samples of the same handful of passages. Specifically, I’ll use 1.1 (Book 1 Chapter 1), 1.2, 2.16, 7.8, 11.11, and 15.25 (note that different editions number the chapters slightly differently, so in some cases these will be a bit off).

If you just want a recommendation and don’t need the minutiae, I’ll say that Simon Leys is the most beginner-friendly, followed by D. C. Lau. Wing-Tsit Chan has the most well-rounded translation, but his version is part of a collection called A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, so he doesn’t include the entire work. It’s a large enough selection to give one a good idea of what the Analects are about, though, and if you’re interested in other works of Chinese philosophy then Chan provides an excellent starting-point.

Only one translation is outright bad, and that’s Leonard Lyall’s, which I’ve reviewed previously. I also would not recommend Ezra Pound’s as a first translation. Pound’s version is interesting and worth reading, but he’s very idiosyncratic, so save his for after you’ve read one or two others. Most of the rest will work well enough, though.

Finally, a note on Romanisation. Translations from the past twenty-five years or so will typically use Pinyin; before that it varies, but Wade-Giles or some variation thereof are most common. I prefer Wade-Giles partly for aesthetic reasons and partly because it’s more intuitive for native speakers of English, but it’s not a major issue, so don’t worry about this aspect too much. It only becomes an issue when cross-referencing names and places with other translations or other works about China, because it’s not always obvious how to “convert” between systems. There are charts for Wade-Giles and Pinyin, though readers of James Legge will be in a tough spot, but usually these things aren’t too hard to figure out once you’ve used them for a while. If you plan to dive into relatively recent works about China, you may want to favour a translation that uses Pinyin to make your life a little easier.…

Read More Which Translation of The Analects Should I Read?

Plato’s Dialogues: Gorgias

We’ve spent a lot of time in the dialogues talking to and about Sophists, but Socrates has an awfully hard time figuring out exactly what a Sophist is and what they teach. In Protagoras, Socrates’ friend Hippocrates wants to take lessons from Protagoras, but when questioned can’t quite explain what he expects to learn, and Protagoras doesn’t really give a straight answer. In Greater Hippias, we’re able to gather from the greatest Sophist of them all (in his own estimation) that they are primarily concerned with public speaking. So, though Protagoras and Hippias do say that they teach a number of subjects, including moral instruction, their speciality is rhetoric.

For most of us that would be good enough, but of course, we’re hanging out with Socrates, and there’s no way “rhetoric” is an adequate answer here. What, exactly, is rhetoric? In Gorgias, we’re going to try to get at the truth of this, with not one, not two, but three interlocutors. First, we have the Sophist Gorgias (his friends called him “Gorgeous”), who I rather like. He may be a capital-S “Sophist,” but he’s not a small-s sophist. He’s quicker than Hippias in catching on to what Socrates wants to know from him, is more agreeable than Protagoras, and for the most part keeps his answers straightforward. Unfortunately, he has a couple of his groupies with him. One is Polus, who, when Socrates first asks what sort of art Gorgias would say he practices, gives a non-answer for him, blathering for a minute about how there are many arts and that Gorgias practices the greatest of them, without actually saying what that art is. Polus isn’t too grating, though, and is willing to concede defeat at some point. He’s a prince of a guy compared to the last interlocutor, Callicles, who, well, is a bit of a jerk, never conceding a point and getting pissy when it becomes clear that he’s totally outgunned by Socrates.

To the work itself, though. We begin with some of the runaround typical to Socratic dialogues. What is rhetoric? The art of using words, in particular to persuade others. Don’t other arts, like mathematics and medicine, also use words? Yes, but they use them only incidentally, and persuade people primarily through facts. In the parlance of a later age, we might say that words are accidental and not essential to mathematics and medicine, or only incidental to them.

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Gorgias

Sixth Friend: Vachel Lindsay, “Factory Windows are Always Broken”

I hope you brought a gift, because today is this friend’s birthday – Vachel Lindsay turns 138 years old today, having been born in Springfield, Illinois in 1879. Mr. Lindsay was quite popular early in his career, but his popularity began to decline later in his life and, unfortunately, has waned more since then. He started out selling self-published work on the streets, in New York in 1905 and during treks across the country on foot in 1906, ’08, and ’12. He caught a break when Poetry Magazine, at the time still new and already influential in the literary world, published “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” in 1913, and “The Congo,” which we’ll get to shortly, in 1914. Once his popularity took off, his tours and public performances were very successful, but his fame peaked early. His fortunes declined until, in 1931, he committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol.

Though his reputation never reached the heights of the mid- to late-1910’s, Mr. Lindsay has never been forgotten, either. Friend and fellow poet Edgar Lee Masters wrote a biography of him a few years after his death, and he still shows up in anthologies of American literature. One thing that may work against him is that his most famous poem, “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race,” also happens to be of the sort that requires a trigger warning these days, and was also fairly controversial even in his own lifetime. It’s not the one I memorised for the Hundred Friends project since it’s far too long, but it’s interesting enough that I’ll go ahead and excerpt a bit:


Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
     A deep rolling bass.
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, BOOM,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
I could not turn from their revel in derision.
     More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.
Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
     A rapidly piling climax of speed & racket.
And “BLOOD” screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors,
“BLOOD” screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors,
“Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”
A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
     With a philosophic pause.
From the mouth of the Congo
To the Mountains of the Moon.
Death is an Elephant,
Torch-eyed and horrible,
     Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre.
Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies,
BOOM, kill the Arabs,
BOOM, kill the white men,
Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
     Like the wind in the chimney.
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Listen to the creepy proclamation,
Blown through the lairs of the forest-nation,
Blown past the white-ants’ hill of clay,
Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play: —
“Be careful what you do,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
     All the “O” sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy. Light accents very light. Last line whispered.
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.”…

Read More Sixth Friend: Vachel Lindsay, “Factory Windows are Always Broken”