Nature’s roughest production

Three centuries ago, risking one’s life to climb a mountain would have been considered tantamount to lunacy. The notion barely existed, indeed, that wild landscape might hold any sort of appeal. To the orthodox seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century imagination, natural scenery was appreciated largely for the extent to which it spoke of agricultural fecundity. Meadows, orchards, grazing fields, the rich sillion of crop lands — these were the ideal components of a landscape. Tamed landscapes, in other words, were attractive: landscapes which had had a human order imposed upon them by the plough, the hedgerow and the ditch. As late as 1791 William Gilpin noted that ‘the generality of people’ found wilderness dislikeable. ‘These are few,’ he continued, ‘who do not prefer the busy scenes of cultivation to the greatest of nature’s rough productions.’ Mountains, nature’s roughest productions, were not only agriculturally intractable, they were also aesthetically repellent: it was felt that their irregular and gargantuan outlines upset the natural spirit-level of the mind.

— Robert McFarlane

A sillion is a furrow made by a plow.

Good Criticism

The injunction “Resist not evil but overcome evil with good” may in many spheres of life by impossible to obey literally, but in the sphere of the arts it is common sense. Bad art is always with us, but any given work of art is always bad in a period way; the particular kind of badness it exhibits will pass away to be succeeded by some other kind. It is unnecessary, therefore, to attack it, because it will perish anyway. Had Macaulay never written his review of Robert Montgomery, we would not today be still under the illusion that Montgomery was a great poet. The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.

— Auden

A Survey of Eden

All the judgments, aesthetic or moral, that we pass, however objective we try to make them, are in part a rationalization and in part a corrective discipline of our subjective wishes. So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing literary criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his judgments.

— Auden

He then goes on to provide a questionnaire, to be administered to all literary critics, which seeks to define their definition of paradise. Text in bold is the question itself, followed by Auden’s own answer to his question, which he provides in the interest of disclosure.

  • Landscape
    Limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small regvion of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast.
  • Climate
  • Ethnic origin of inhabitants
    Highly varied as in the United States, but with a slight nordic predominance.
  • Language
    Of mixed origins like English, but highly inflected.
  • Weights & Measures
    Irregular and Complicated. No decimal system.
  • Religion
    Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way. Lots of local saints.
  • Size of Capital
    Plato’s ideal figure, 5004, about right.
  • Form of Government
    Absolute monarchy, elected for life by lot.
  • Sources of Natural Power
    Wind, water, peat, coal. No oil.
  • Economic Activities
    Lead mining, coal mining, chemical factories, paper mills, sheep farming, truck farming, greenhouse horticulture.
  • Means of transport
    Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, canal barges, balloons. No automobiles or airplanes.
  • Architecture
    State: Baroque. Ecclesiastical: Romanesque or Byzantine. Domestic: Eighteenth Cneutyr British or American Colonial.
  • Domestic Furniture and Equipment
    Victorian except for kitchens and bathrooms which are as full of modern gadgets as possible.
  • Formal Dress
    The fashion of Paris in the 1830’s and ’40’s.
  • Sources of Public Information
    Gossip. Technical and learned periodicals but no newspapers.
  • Public Statues
    Confined to famous defunct chefs.
  • Public Entertainments
    Religious Processions, Brass Bands, Opera, Classical Ballet. No movies, radio or television.

It does end up being pretty revealing. I wonder if any other critics ever filled out the questionnaire.

The Value of a Dictionary

Though a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some readings are obviously “truer” than others, some doubtful, some obviously false, and some, like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why, for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiefce imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways.

— Auden

Good taste

Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.

— Auden

Too High & Too Steep

I found a lot to remember from David Williams’ history of Seattle, and its interminable battle with topography, Too High & Too Steep. One thing is that the tideflats which used to make up all of Sodo and the South part of the city, including both stadia and Harbor Island, were not (as I’d always been told) made up of fill from dredging out the canal at the North end of Lake Washington, or even the Denny regrade. In fact, this area was created with material from a failed and scandalous attempt to cut a channel through Beacon hill, in order to unite South Lake Washington with Elliot Bay.

Although the value of made land in the former tideflats had increased at least tenfold since Semple’s project began, not everyone supported the South Canal. Opponents claimed that Semple actually had no plan to build his canal; instead, he was misleading the public and only blasting away at Beacon Hill to create material to fill the tideflats, which he intended to sell. Ironically, those who opposed the canal supported filling in the tideflats; what they didn’t approve of was that Semple used a public project to benefit himself. In addition, many of Semple’s opponents, including Burke, supported and owned property near where a north canal could be built (where the modern ship canal now exists).

Yielding to public opinion and the north-canal plan’s powerful supporters, the city council voted to turn off the supply of water that Semple needed to run his hydraulic cannons. By the end of 1904, notes Semple’s biographer, weeds were growing in the chasm on Beacon Hill. Semple’s decision to try to cut through Beacon Hill ultimately had been his downfall. IN may 1905, he was forced to resign as president of the Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Company, though the company continued to exist and, by 1917, had filled in 92 percent of the tideflats. No more work would be done ever again on the proposed South Canal through Beacon Hill, but if you look, you can still find two infrastructure elements from Semple’s misguided scheme.

To see the first, go to the spider’s web of ramps and overpasses that connect the Spoke Street Viaduct and Interstate 5 to Columbia Way and Beacon Hill. Engineers chose this spot to build the interchange because it is where Semple had started his canal, creating a large, unoccupied gap that eventually provided the easiest access up to the hill. The second is down on the flats. In contrast to the typical blocks measuring more than seven hundred feet long, South Hinds and South Horton Streets are just three hundred feet apart. They are so anomalously close because they mark the north and south boundaries of what was to be Semple’s Canal Waterway, which would have run from the East Waterway to his canal through Beacon Hill.