Monthly Archives: September 2007

Wish I Were Here — Oh, I Am

It’s a lovely, foggy Maine morning; in a little while, we’ll get together with Margaret’s family to celebrate her mom’s birthday; it’s great.

Meanwhile, if you can’t enjoy the Maine fall weather and scenery, you can catch up on the Language Log (here, then here, then here, then here &#8212) thread that exposes your Crockus, which gets more wildly entertaining with each revelation. (Short starter: evidently Margaret’s Crockus is bigger than mine. . . .) I hope Dan Hodgins responds to the next query by saying “I am Oz. . . ” or “You got trouble right here in Crockus City. . . .”

Season Winding Down

Surely everyone who reads this blog has been waiting in polite quiet to hear how my fantasy baseball team has been doing this year, after last season’s heartbreaking last-day-of-the-season half-point loss (Frank summarized it on the league message board thusly: “In the end, AKMA came up .5 standing points short of 1st place. That’s not the whole story, however. The DDs [my team, the Cambridge Doubledomes] could have gained back the .5 points with 1 RBI, 1 SB, or 1 K. They would have passed the Swamprats with 1 more W in the pitching column. That’s about as close as it gets”).

This year the disheartened Doubledomes have lingered in the nether reaches of the league, clinging to seventh place (out of eight) or stumbling into last place for a few days. In the past couple of weeks, though, we have staged an atypical rush to the top, reaching a moderately solid fifth place thus far, and not out of reach of fourth. There’s absolutely no hope of catching Frank’s first-place Dead Sea Squirrels.

My pitching fell short in wins; despite being at or near the top of the league in ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts, my guys are struggling to avoid finishing last in wins. Go figure. [Correction: This is incorrect; I just checked, and although my team had its ups and downs, our win total is actually pretty healthy, though not as strong as the other pitching stats might lead one to expect.] I had a hot-starting reliever in Al Reyes, but he fell off the table midseason, and he was my only closer (I missed out on the “bid on a Toronto closer in the second week of the season” derby, having picked the wrong guy a week early). As a result, I used my dodgy pitchers more, and was stuck with a very disappointing, over-priced Mike Mussina.

Travis Hafner and Vlad Guerrero had good seasons, but without as many home runs as I was paying them for. If they had hit even close to what I expected, I’d be several places higher in home runs, and probably better in runs scored and RBIs too. The guys I was counting on for miscellaneous stolen bases stayed at first, and none of them scored runs or batted any in (if it weren’t for Guerrero, I’d be dead in the water). So fifth place works for me, given what these slackers did this year.

Hey, at least we’re not going to get edged out of first place by one lousy RBI or steal or strikeout or win.

In a few minutes, we’re leaving Princeton for Maine, to wish Margaret’s mother a happy birthday. I’ll catch you later.

Progress Report

I’ve gotten the ball rolling on the technology essay; now I need to organize the subtopics, so that it flows intelligibly. But I had been seriously blocked by not knowing how the chapter would begin, and now I have a viable beginning from which to work. Once I get a little further, I may post it in google Docs, for interested parties to ruin hack make helpful suggestions.

Two Encounters

With Michael Suarez, S. J., in which he quoted from John Vanbrugh’s The Provok’d Wife Act I, scene i:

Belinda: Drown husbands! for your’s is a provoking fellow: as he went out just now, I prayed him to tell me what time of day ’twas; and he asked me if I took him for the church clock, that was obliged to tell all the parish.

Lady Brute: He has been saying some good obliging things to me, too. In short, Belinda, he has used me so barbarously of late, that I could almost resolve to play the downright wife, and cuckold him.

Belinda: That would be downright, indeed.

Lady Brute: Why, after all, there’s more to be said for’t than you’d imagine, child. He is the first aggressor, not I.

Belinda: Ah! but, you know, we must return good for evil.

Lady Brute: That may be a mistake in the translation.

Michael suggests that this is early evidence for a common sentiment that the Bible (“return good for evil”) might be subject to divergent, erroneous translation traditions. I’m intrigued, not fully convinced, but delighted with the example anyway

And I had lunch yesterday with Nicole Engard, the Metadata Librarian in Princeton Seminary’s Special Collections. I was curious to know what PTS was up to in embracing the digital trajectory of libraries, and Nicole had encouraging words about both ehr present responsibilities and the future that Steve Crocco, head librarian, envisions.

La Misère Du Littéral

Margaret and I have been wincing and groaning and rolling our eyes so much over the past few weeks that someone’s liable to lock us up — honestly, though, it concerns not our psychological stability, but the many and various invidious ways that people deploy the term “literal.”

(Not “literally,” this time anyway.)

Margaret’s working on the theology of hope, which involves attention to eschatology. When writers expatiate on the future, however, they demonstrate a terrible tendency to lay claim to authoritative use of “literal.” Fred Clark has pointed to the problem with “literal” in The Worst Books Ever Written (with extra credit for invoking the Muggletonians, a favorite digression in my lectures on Revelation or on the Montanists). Margaret notices that opponents of TWBEW frequently assert contrary “literal” readings that likewise depart markedly from what “literal” ordinarily denotes. And my engagements with hermeneutics and Anglican miasma constantly encounter people who claim that the literal or plain sense of words justify their side of an argument — as though their adversaries were arguing that “pizza” should be construed as “happily” and “bless” as “second-hand tennis shoes.”

The “literal” sense, or the “plain sense,” or whatever one might call it, just doesn’t do an honest day’s work when invoked in controversy. That’s as true now as it was in 1628:

That therefore in these both curious and unhappy differences, which have for so many hundred years, in different times and places, exercised the Church of Christ, we will, that all further curious search be laid aside, and these disputes shut up in God’s promises, as they be generally set forth to us in the Holy Scriptures, and the general meaning of the Articles of the Church of England according to them. And that no man hereafter shall either print, or preach, to draw the Article aside any way, but shall submit to it in the plain and full meaning thereof: and shall not put his own sense or comment to be the meaning of the Article, but shall take it in the literal and grammatical sense.

(I know I’ve quoted that before, from The King’s Declaration Prefixed to the Articles of Religion of November 1628, but it remains as true now as it did then and when I’ve quoted it before.) “Literal” doesn’t function to disprove what an interlocutor proposes; it doesn’t provide a bulwark against misinterpretation; it doesn’t unveil (apokaluptô, “reveal”) the supposed real meaning of words or phrases. There’s no there there. “Literal” always operates only within groups that already share the premise that such-and-such is a literal sense, or that have not already set down stakes for a contrary position.

Where the refernce of a word or phrased has been dispute, loud assertions about what it “literally” means have no pertinence; the meaning is what’s in question. Most claims about what something or other “literally” means should be recast as arguments that readers ought to construe such-and-such literally as X, or that a reading that proposes X as the literal sense of the text provides the best, soundest, most illuminating reading of the text. By the same token, readers who ascribe figurative, allegorical, or metaphorical sense to particular expressions have not taken flight from reality; they assert that the best, most fitting, most illuminating, most persuasive reading of the text emphasizes aspects of the text that extend beyond the literal.

The “literal” sense of these texts is hardly ever what people care about — they usually care about the tropological (ethical implications) or anagogical (implications about the shape of the future) or allegorical (doctrinal implications), which for various reasons they conflate with the literal. Alas, the literal sense isn’t equipped to fulfill their aspirations — so they whip the poor, bare, lexical-grammatical unit like Balaam’s ass, trying to force it to do what it can not. And like Balaam, they’re wrong.

We use “literal” or “plain sense” most soundly when it is trivial, when it’s not in dispute; we used it almost as soundly when we use it in grammatical or syntactical argument, where clear warrants and conventions provide a shared framework within which to work toward assent; we use the terms foolishly and ineffectually when — as is most common — we use tham as rhetorical arm-twisting (or cheer-leading) to assert that we’re uniquely correct in contexts where “literal” or “plain meaning” is precisely what’s disputed.

Eat This

A correspondent just sent me a meditation which began from with a quotation from John of Fame, a Benedictine hermit, which I must share here:

Study then, mortal, to know Christ: to learn your Saviour. His body hanging on the cross, is a book, opened before your eyes. The words of this book are Christ’s actions. as well as his suffering and passion, for everything that he did serves for our instruction. His wounds are the letters or characters, the firve chief wounds being the five vowels and the others the consonants of your book. . . .
So eat this book which in your mouth and understanding shall be sweet, but which will make your belly bitter, that is to say your memory, because he that increases knowledge increases sorrow too.

I’ll be quoting this in some article or presentation, I’m sure.

Canons To The Extraordinary

Yesterday morning Margaret and I talked over the New York Times Book Review retrospective on Allan Bloom’s dyspeptic screed in defense of Western Civilization, The Closing of the American Mind. As an advocate for classical learning, I take offense at Bloom’s scattershot demagoguery; while something has indeed been lost in an economy of knowledge wherein (according to the article) more than half of U.S. undergrads major in business, health, education, or computer science, Bloom casts blame on every figure and cause he dislikes, without making the discriminations that justify pretensions to intellectual high ground.

Margaret and I winced at the comparable figures for English and history majors: 1.6 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively. And experience suggests that even the one percent who devote the major part of their undergraduate studies to these topics have not necessarily drunk deep at the Pierian spring. “There’s a reason,” I always exhorted my undergraduate students back when I was teaching college, “that the job fair posters always say “All majors welcome.’ That means, “We’re not looking only for business majors.’ It means your future employers would rather hear you sound sharp, excited, and well-informed about a subject in which you excelled because you cared about it, than to hear you sound formulaic and predictable on the basis of business courses which you took out of a sense that you had to get a salable degree.” So far as I know, my exhortations made no difference (to students who were otherwise inclined toward a business degree; I do know that some of my students from those days took other exhortations and encouragements to heart).

Tonic for an abraded soul, then, to read the dialogue of Tom Matrullo and Phil Cubeta, two admirable souls and (I am honored to say) of my dearest online friends. The American Mind is not closing — but the particular doors and windows by which some inhabitants have gotten used to admitting fresh air may have been painted shut. Would that one of Phil’s philathropists recognized the value proposition of supporting liberal education, with an eye to such benefits as their colloquy exemplifies!