Bad Metaphors, Inexactitude

“In turning the pages of one of the papers containing such a light and unsympathetic treatment of Tennyson, my eye catches the following sentence:

By the light of modern science and thought, we are in a position to see that each normal human being in some way repeats historically the life of the human race.

“This is a very typical modern assertion; that is, it is an assertion for which there is not and never has been a single spot or speck of proof. We know precious little about what the life of the human race has been; and none of our scientific conjectures about it bear the remotest resemblance to the actual growth of a child.

“According to this theory, a baby begins by chipping flints and rubbing sticks together to find fire. One so often sees babies doing this. About the age of five the child, before the delighted eyes of his parents, founds a village community. By the time he is eleven it has become a small city state, the replica of ancient Athens. Encouraged by this, the boy proceeds, and before he is fourteen has founded the Roman Empire. But now his parents have a serious set-back. Having watched him so far, not only with pleasure, but with a very natural surprise, they must strengthen themselves to endure the spectacle of decay. They have now to watch their child going through the decline of the Western Empire and the Dark Ages. They see the invasion of the Huns and that of the Norsemen chasing each other across his expressive face. He seems a little happier after he has ‘repeated’ the Battle of Chalons and the unsuccessful Siege of Paris ; and by the time he comes to the twelfth century, his boyish face is as bright as it was of old when he was ‘repeating’ Pericles or Camillus.

“I have no space to follow this remarkable demonstration of how history repeats itself in the youth; how he grows dismal at twenty-three to represent the end of Medievalism, brightens because the Renaissance is coming, darkens again with the disputes of the later Reformation, broadens placidly through the thirties as the rational eighteenth century, till at last, about forty-three, he gives a great yell and begins to burn the house down, as a symbol of the French Revolution. Such (we shall all agree) is the ordinary development of a boy.

“Now, seriously, does anyone believe a word of such bosh? Does anyone think that a child will repeat the periods of human history? Does anyone ever allow for a daughter in the Stone Age, or excuse a son because he is in the fourth century B.c. Yet the writer who lays down this splendid and staggering lie calmly says that ‘by the light of modern science and thought we are in a position to see that it is true.

“‘Seeing’ is a strong word to use of our conviction that icebergs are in the north, or that the earth goes round the sun. Yet anybody can use it of any casual or crazy biological fancy seen in some newspaper or suggested in some debating club. This is the rooted weakness of our time. Science, which means exactitude, has become the mother of all inexactitude.”

— Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity

[note: paragraph breaks here are mine, since in the original text the whole thing was one giant paragraph that I found hard to read.]

Humanism, its Legacy

“No humanist is now remembered as a philosopher. They jeer and do not refute. The schoolman advanced, and supported, propositions about things: the humanist replied that his words were inelegant… Words like realitas and identificatio were condemned not because they had no use but because Cicero had not used them. The medieval philosophy is still read as philosophy, the history as history, the songs as songs: the hymns are still in use. The ‘barbarous’ books have survived in the only sense that really matters: they are used as their authors meant them to be used. It would be hard to think of one single text in humanists’ Latin, except the Utopia, of which we can say the same. Petrarch’s Latin poetry, Politian, Buchanan, even sweet Sannazarus, even Erasmus himself, are hardly ever opened except for an historical purpose. We read the humanists, in fact, only to learn about humanism; we read the ‘barbarous’ authors in order to be instructed or delighted about any theme they choose to handle.”

— C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century

I don’t take a side on this issue. I have no particular feelings on humanism. I appreciate the sick burn.

Poetry

Three quotes by Paul Valéry about poets, poems, and poetry:

“A man is a poet if the difficulties inherent in his art provide him with ideas; he is not a poet if they deprive him of ideas.”

“To write regular verses destroys an infinite number of fine possibilities, but at the same time it suggests a multitude of distant and totally unexpected thoughts.”

“In poetry everything which must be said is almost impossible to say well.”

Usually, quotes like that (about poetry and what it means) are insufferable. In this specific case, they were quoted by Auden in A Certain World, which gives them a lot more credit.

Science Fiction, its Origins

“Hitherto, except in exploration fantasies, the fantastic element was brought in by magic… but by the end of the last century it had become difficult to squeeze even a momentary belief out of magic any longer. It occurred to me that instead of the usual interview with the devil or a magician, an ingenious use of scientific patter might with advantage be substituted… I simply brought the fetish up to date, and made it as near actual theory as possible.”

— H.G. Wells

Wells claims that he had a notion to paint the old tropes of fantasy with a new, scientific veneer, without substantively changing them, and this sidestep is where science fiction emerged from fantasy. Not an auspicious birth. Feels about right, though; SF always seemed to be a flavor of fantasy.

Ken and Robin’s List of Mandatory Westerns

Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff is one of the most consistently worthwhile podcasts, full stop. They cover a broad, characterizing set of topics bent in the direction of tabletop gaming, but from time to time they depart from that subject to cover food, books, history, or cinema, and always seem to make at least a few insightful points when they do.

They’ve done two episodes so far about important films in the Western genre, and I realized that I hadn’t seen quite a few of them. Here, I’ve transcribed their lists, along with the more quotable parts of their encapsulations.

The ✓ character indicates whether I’ve seen it or not. I wouldn’t have painstakingly typed this up if I didn’t intend to watch them all.

Westerns 101

From Episode 191 (Starting at 00:46:40)

Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) ✓

Robin: If you’re going to start with a western, you’re going to start with John Ford, and you’re going to have two films… two epochal westerns, one featuring John Wayne as a young man, one featuring him as an old man. One classical, the other revisionist.

Ken: I would argue that The Searchers is not revisionist, that in fact it is ‘visionist’. It is the fundamental agon of the western — and has been since the silent days — that every man who picks up the gun becomes a barbarian unfit for civilization, but the only way to stop barbarism is to pick up the gun. It is this great conflict that is at the heart of westerns as far back as Hell’s Hinges* (1916)… and it is again part of the searchers as you see that John Wayne’s character, because he is capable of hunting down the Comanche, is also incapable of civilized existence, and that is the] same decision that he makes in Stagecoach.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) ✓

Ken: The Searchers, in addition to being the second greatest film ever made, is one of the four gospels of the western, along with another John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which is the film which very clearly lays out the agon of the western.

High Noon (1952) ✓

Ken: Frank Miller is coming to town, and the town cannot be roused to prevent it. Gary Cooper begins to realize that he is the only barbarian left in the town, and he has a choice to make.

Ken: It plays out the morality of the western in an absolutely clear, but never tiresome fashion.

Rio Bravo(1959) ✓

Robin: Hawkes saw [High Noon] and said, ‘I don’t like that Gary Cooper’s going around asking all the townsfolk for help’.

Shane (1953) ✓

Ken: Westerns are always about that moment that the frontier is about to go away, and the western will stop being relevant… which provides ever more mythic depth to the thing, because they’re simultaneously super historically-located, and super mythological. It’s a great illustration of what Eliade calls the illud tempus, the mythical time. Shane is about that moment in mythical time when one guy has to face down Jack Palance.

Unforgiven (1992) ✓

It’s not new, it’s once more about a former bad guy, a sort of Jack Palance character, who has decided to go straight, and can’t do it, because he’s freakin’ Jack Palance, only in this case he’s Clint Eastwood.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) ✓

Ken: Unforgiven is the spot at which you move from the original western toward the revisionist western (people call it revisionist, but it’s not, because it still makes the same decisions about civilization and barbarism). If you want a real revisionist western by Clint Eastwood, look at The Outlaw Josey Wales, which is a great movie, and is 100% on the side of barbarians, on the side of outlaws.

The Naked Spur (1953) ✓

Robin: It’s pulsating with repressed ’50s lust, and like all of these movies, gives you a much different Jimmy Stewart than you think you know if you just know It’s a Wonderful Life, and his doddering appearances in later films. As in Vertigo, there’s something deep, and dark, and strange in the James Stewart that we see in all these Anthony Mann westerns.

The Wild Bunch (1969) ✓

Ken: …About a band of outlaws, and the end of the west closing down on them and crushing them.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) ✓

Robin: Unlike other stars of his caliber, Fonda had not played a villain.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) ✓

Ken: The epistle from the virtuous pagan samurai.

Ken: A movie in which everything works, and it works much better than you would imagine it possibly could have if someone had told you, ‘hey, John Sturges remade The Seven Samurai, only with cowboys.'”

Seven Men From Now (1956)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) ✓

Ken: All great testaments need to close down with an apocalypse.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Westerns 201

From Episode 199 (00:17:40)

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) ✓

Ken: It made a huge impression on me, because it’s about a guy who is — as far as my eight year-old self could tell — fundamentally unkillable, and he goes around, and he sort of monstrously kills a bunch of people, and more and more people try to kill him, and it can’t be done.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Robin: There are other westerns that overlay a completely different perspective on top of the standard western chassis. For example, you’ve got your psychosexual western…

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Ken and Robin: A den of scum and villainy … in bright technicolor.

Ken: It directly inverts the love triangle, in which there are these two weak men who are duelling for the love of a strong woman.

Forty Guns (1957)

The Professionals (1966)

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) ✓

Robin: Less about the theme of the western, and just about the texture of life in a western town, where the snow is deep and life is hard.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Ken: Looking at it as the ancestor — both chronologically and cinematically of the cavalry western — is a great way to watch it.

Terror in a Texas Town (1958)

Robin: This is a movie about what happens when a man has to pick up the harpoon.

Ken: Interesting, because the bad guy, the gunman, is in this case, hired by the evil developer, who’s trying to build out the valley into more civilization, and it’s the farmer who’s holding off the developer. That is a very common bit of the revisionist western mythology — that there is a sort of ‘set point’ for civilization, which is the small farmer, and that when ‘real’ civilization comes along, that’s bad news.

Robin: It’s the individual vs. capitalism.

Ken: ‘Individual vs. capitalism’ as opposed to ‘individual vs. the west’, or ‘individual vs. owlhoots’, and that’s one of the strong bits of the revisionist canon.

The Proposition (2005) ✓

Ken: Hillcoat has the sound guy have the gun sound happen before you see the gun fire. So, you’re always terrified by the gunplay, because you didn’t actually see the gun go off, but you still heard the gunshot.

The Shooting (1966)

Robin: If Antonioni had made a western and then cut 20 minutes out of it, you’d have The Shooting.

Fort Apache (1948)

Ken: John Wayne becomes the voice of reason and tolerance in a John Ford western, which all by itself is reason to watch it.

Robin: Basically, Western 215 is ‘watch all the John Ford movies that we haven’t mentioned.’

Medicine

“The most dramatic difference between high schools of today and those of my time is probably not in the curriculum but in the life expectancy of the students. Then, except for the common cold and chilblains any illness might easily be fatal. It was taken for granted that a fourth of July celebration would produce injuries and suffering ranging from powder burns to lockjaw. Quarantines were imposed for the more common ailments of diptheria, scarlet fever, and the like. Treatment consisted of a few simple medications and a nourishing diet while the victim and the family waited cure or death. Diagnosis was hardly exact. ‘Blood poisoning’ was a favorite phrase to cover a multitude of mishaps.”

— Dwight Eisenhower, At Ease: Stories I Tell my Friends

Complete Knowledge

“If the past were recoverable in its totality it would, after all, overwhelm the present.”
— John Hale

I had an idea years ago for a story where all the surviving archaeological secrets that complicate human history were suddenly revealed. Everything which the line of sight keeps hidden: the foundations of an ice age settlement swallowed by the sea; the staggered bones of a lost legion sunk into the desert; every unrecorded explorer’s grave hastily scratched into the tundra; the last surviving copy of a book we thought had burned.

From somewhere in the depths of space, a beam of coordinates is received by our telescopes, and in that instant the globe becomes a cemetary where the dead have risen from their graves. We can only guess at the source of the data, and its motives, but the result is paradoxical: history is broken by uncertainty once every secret is made manifest.

I read the Hale quote much later. It’s most likely I was thinking about this quote by Lovecraft:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Superciliousness

“In a moment of high drama, his aged father hurled himself on the ground at Gregory’s feet, and cried ‘My son, where are you going? Shall I ever see you again?’

‘It is written,’ Gregory answered, as he stepped over the obstacle, ‘ that thou shalt trample on the ass and the basilisk.’

Thus saying, he mounted his mule, which started to walk backwards. Eventually, another animal was brought, and the pope was able to start out for Marseille, the scribes, lawyers, engrossers, and bullatores of the Papal court dribbling along behind him with their piles of parchment, documents, seals, ribbons, and all the other material of the spider’s web that Avignon had woven around Christendom.”

— Frances Stonor Saunders, Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman

An engrosser is either someone who seeks to obtain a monopoly in a limited market, or someone who makes illuminated manuscripts. In the context of this sentence I would say that either meaning is equally likely. After a little research, I have no idea what a bullatore is, though it’s probably related to a bulla, which is the round seal used to stamp papal documents (bulls).

Starvation

“The killer targets the most innocent, the people who would never steal food, lie, cheat, break the law, or betray a friend. It was a phenomenon that the Italian writer Primo Levi identified after emerging from Auschwitz, when he wrote that he and his fellow survivors never wanted to see one another again after the war, because they had all done something of which they were ashamed.”

— Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy