Monday, September 01, 2014

Reading lists

A current trend is for Facebook people to draft lists of ten books that have influenced them. On balance this seems a good idea, because the lists contain items that one did not know about, or items that one had meant to read but hadn't gotten around to. Yet I doubt that I will take advantage of this accumulation of advice, even in the leisure of my retirement, because I have too many unread books lingering about the apartment as it is. 

Still, I was struck by two things in the lists. Most of the items chosen are fiction and most are recent. Fiction of course allows us to peer into the lives of others and compare them with our own. This is particularly important for thoughtful persons, such as those making up the lists now, who have not been satisfied with simply adopting an identity that is handed out to them, but have, rightly, engaged in the challenging effort of self-fashioning. I suppose that the same point applies to recent works. Still, I wonder why there is no mention of Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Karl Marx, Dickens, Tennyson, and Alfred Kinsey, to name just a few. 

Of course, it would be pretentious to cite such authors as influences when they have not been. But shouldn't they be? In my youth there was something called the Great Books Program. People would join clubs and struggle to understand these formidable works. That was, I suppose, a preoccupation of an older generation, my own. Younger people, if the sample I am reading is representative, seem to have a different approach.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

False friends

Quite a while back, I made my living as a translator and translation editor, working from texts in French, German, and Italian.  In doing this work one must be aware of the pitfalls of "false friends," words which resemble English-language terms, but which have a different meaning.  For example, in Italian patente does not a document certifying one's rights to an invention, but simply a driver's license. In Spanish embarazada does not signify some mild psychological discomfort, but that one is pregnant.

The dangers of false friends lie everywhere in the field of translation.  In what follows, though, I have concentrated on the German and French realms.  First, these languages are still, despite the growing dominance of English, the vehicles of academic and scientific writing - not fine literature.  Second, each has a special relationship to English.  German and English grew out of a common Germanic ancestor, and there are still numerous cognates attesting to this link.  For its part, French has supplied as much as 30% of the English vocabulary; we simply could not do with such words as table and chair; family and cousin; judge and jury - all stem from French.

TYPOLOGY OF FALSE FRIENDS
SERENDIPITY
1,  Similarities that are serendipitous, with no genetic connection (noncognates).  Ex.  Spanish misa, (religious) mass vs. Japanese misa, beautiful assistant.  Such phantom links can also occur in two related languages, as German Fahrt and English fart
FALSE FRIENDS WHERE THERE IS A GENETIC RELATIONSHIP
2. Narrowing of meaning of one cognate.  Ex. English deer, vs. German Tier, animal.  Conversely, German Bein, leg, formerly had the broader meaning of English bone.  Extreme narrowing with overtones of obscenity is seen in German After, buttocks, i.e. posterior..
3.  Selective reception of one semantic field where several occur in the source language. Ex. French hôtel which can mean 1) a large public building, as in hôtel de ville and hôtel-Dieu; 2) town house (hôtel particulier); and 3) place of lodging.  Only the last has carried over into English.
4. Differential borrowing from a third language.  Ex. German Depot means deposit, warehouse, but not train station.  (The common source is French dépot.)
5.  Semantic drift, sometimes narrow as with French demander/English demand; and sometimes broad, as English to bless, and French blesser, to wound, which have opposite meanings.  Yet both of the latter derive from Germanic words for blood letting.
6.  Homonyms in the source language, not replicated in the target language.  Ex. German Akt, legal procedure, or act as in a play vs. Akt, nude.
7.   Products of faulty borrowing.  Ex. English bra, feminine undergarment vs. French bras, arm.  The actual source is French brassière, armlet.
8.  Pressure from a dominant language, which sometimes turns false friends into "true" friends over time. For instance, traditionally in Spanish, editar meant publish, not edit, but sometime in the mid or late 20th century it evolved to also include the English meaning.  Traditionally in Spanish medical terminology, ántrax meant carbuncle and carbunco meant anthrax. But then there were all those news stories about anthrax a few years ago, and Spanish-language news sources consistently used the wrong word: ántrax, which has pretty much now become the Spanish-speaking layperson's name for "anthrax." Medical writers are now in a muddle about whether to just give in and reverse the traditional terminology.  (I owe these examples to Steven Cappy.)
9.  Borrowing plus apocape (clipping).  An example has already been seen in bra, above.  In French itself, one finds foot (for football) and smoking (for smoking jacket - also found in German and French.

10. Invented “foreign” words as seen in some instances of Denglish (Germanified garbled English).  Ex. Handy, cell phone; Dressman, male model.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Salvation history and Islam

 In a brilliant book, ”Meaning in History,” that appeared seventy-five years ago, Karl Löwith traced the emergence of the dispensationalist view of history in early Christian times. This concept viewed history as not cyclical, nor merely a random succession, but an orderly succession of divinely ordained events - events leading to the Endtime, which would be characterized by the Restoration of All Things. Historians of religion term this overall concept - which it must be conceded is an ambitious one - the Heilsgeschichte or Salvation History,

Bur Löwith did not stop there, He proceeded to showe how this concept was secularized in the early modern period to yield the idea of progress. No longer divinely guided, the pattern was clear, Hence, what has been termed the Whig Theory of History which views liberal concepts of progress as unfolding logically and inevitabilty, notwithstanding a few twists and turns along the way.

Of course the earlier religious view did not die out. Indeed it sometimes combined in interesting ways with the Whig concept.

Here is an example that has proved influential. In 1857 a unitarian minister and prominent transcendentalist issued a collection of “Ten Sermons on Religion.” In the third of these one finds the following. “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”


This seems to be the origin of Martin Luther King’s well-known comment during our own times about the arc of the moral universe.

So far, few have taken up the task of showing how these concepts migrated into the world of al-Islam. It is natural that they would do so, given Muhammad’s formative contacts with Christian thinkers in northern Arabia, where Christianity was then dominant.

I borrow some of the following observations from Gottfried Hagen, professor of Turkish studies at the University of Michigan. He begins by observing that aspects of the Salvation History concept can be detected in most major religions. The Qur’an replaced the unorganic historical glimmerings of the primitive Arabians with a new concept of history in which its temporal extension was finite and bounded. Creation marked the beginning; the Last Judgment the end point of history. Outside of this sequence there is nothing; we dwell in a closed system. Looking back over time, we can discern a progressive series of revelations from a succession of Prophets stretching from Adam to Muhammad. According to the Ismailites, there are seven epochs of Prophets with Muhammad appearing in the sixth. The nature of the seventh remains unknown.

The role of the Islamic communities in the perspective of this salvation history is clear. In a succession of steps it must shorten the distance that separates it from the ideal situation of Islam. Premodern Islam has not always been clear about some of the details. Professor Hagen notes that some modern Muslim scholars have been receptive to the notions of Heilsgeschichte as outlined by Löwith. Of course they needed to reconcile the essentially progressive aspects of the theory with the traditionalist imperative of returning to the original purity of primordial Islam.

In all this, the inevitable triumph of Islam as the sole world religion is presupposed. Ideally, this beneficent state should come into being through the gradual enlightenment and conversion of unbelievers. Yet according to some - as we are seeing now in the Middle East - it may be deemed necessary to hasten the process by violence and ethnic cleansing.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Jeff Koons

After much procrastination (because my previous history with the artist’s work is mixed), I finally took in the big Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Even on a weekday morning the line to pay was long (though I was able to get in straightaway as a handicapped person). Inside, the crowds had an almost carnivalesque exuberance - with many small children (some pieces not being exactly suitable for them).

The objects benefited by being grouped thematically. Let me get my pet peeves out of the way directly, I detest the vacuum cleaners and volley balls in their glass cases. Ostensibly an exercise in the institutional theory of art (“if it’s shown in a museum, it is art”), these monstrosities cut a poor figure compared with their models, the iconic readymades of Marcel Duchamp.

I did not mind the sex scenes with Cicciolina, since sexual display is part of our culture now. Some of the bubble sculptures are quite enchanting. You can see yourself mirrored in the larger ones. There are quite a few good acrylic paintings.

In my view, the best pieces are the very latest ones, which play off classical sculpture. Centering this group is a superb knockoff of Bernini’s “Pluto and Proserpina.” Unlike most of the objects, which reference popular culture, these pieces work best with a knowledge of art history.

There are some photos of the artist in the basement. Jeff Koons is himself a Jeff Koons. His face is handsome but in a generic, almost plastic fashion. Maybe he retouched them to get this effect - or maybe that is just the way he is.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Islamofascists

Up to now I have shunned the epithet "Islamofascist" with reference to the current wave of jihadists (also reductively, and all-too conveniently labeled simply "terrorists"). I took exception because the current movement seemed to lack two crucial features of European fascism. These are 1) the maximum leader or führer; and 2) the glorification of a single nation - citadel of the "master race" - above all others. 

The current jihadist movement has up to now lacked a führer figure. However, IS seems to be nourishing a single leader or "caliph." Moreover, while the movement attracts followers from all over - most recently from India - it seems specifically focused on Arab nations - reconceived as THE Arab nation. Hence the term Islamofascism may be justified after all.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Political parties

The prospects for our two major political parties are unpromising. In the case of the Republicans that is surely an understatement. The elections later this year will prove a Pyrrhic victory, if that, for the small gains the Republicans are likely to make will further retard the necessary task of reforming that strange organization.

In my view, things are inauspicious for the Democrats as well. Barring some event that is now impossible to predict, Hillary Clinton will be our next president. She has shown little interest in domestic affairs, where our most pressing problems lie. Instead, she will probably devote most of her energies to addressing foreign countries, seeking to meddle in their affairs - ostensibly for their own good. These efforts will not be of the old military-attack model - hard power - but soft power, through the invocation of the neo-Wilsonian doctrine of the “right to protect.” Most of these interventions will produce little positive effect, except further to deplete our resources of energy and treasure.

The Democrats are counting on shifting demography to ensure their hegemony. However, managing the various interest groups - unions, academics, LGBT people, ethnic groups, and so forth - will prove a continuing challenge because the aspirations of these groups do not coincide. At present, these conflicts are masked by the need to resist the Old Guard, still perceived, not incorrectly, as the oppressor. Once that need fades, though, the conflicts and disputes will become more overt. Pressure points are too numerous for me to cite in this posting - though I may return to this theme later.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Liberals and conservatives

Every day Facebook provides me with a stream of vehement denunciations of Republicans and conservatives in general. I basically agree with these critiques, yet they make no dent on the mindset of the 40% or so of the population that clings to these beliefs. As a rule, the critiques fail to address the concerns, real or not, that conservatives have about liberal social engineering, the debt, immigration, gun control, and so forth. I certainly do not endorse Margaret Thatcher's apparent conviction that reality itself is conservative. Still, these liberal excoriations reveal a basic unwillingness even to try to understand. And that is not helpful.

Now that I have turned off just about everyone, let me proffer a view that is even more controversial. That is, that the incoherence of today's liberalism makes it difficult, perhaps impossible to counter the appeal of conservatism among its remaining adherents. Perhaps incoherence is the wrong word: better might be pluralism - a pluralism that accords, or may accord with today's complex society. 

Let us step back a bit, to the Fabian program of 100 years ago, which postulated that society can and should take a series of incremental steps towards greater fairness, equality, and compassion. And indeed it has taken these steps, to our universal benefit - no doubt about that. Yet the task of reform is almost done. In my view the ACA was an advance of this kind, but it needs to be replaced with single-payer. 

After that, though, what? The liberal establishment will have to attend to two things: defending the gains that have been won (not always an easy task); and arbitrating between the competing claims of the various interest groups that make up the Democratic Party (that is what pluralism means). Both of these challenges can probably be managed, but the task is not very inspiring.