Sunday, September 23, 2018


I've been reading an academic book on poetry by William Logan, Dickinson's Nerves, Frost's Woods: Poetry in the Shadow of the Past. Logan discusses particular poems both in technical terms and in contextual terms, referencing the lives of the authors and what a poem might have meant to them. This is more or less how I look at poems, so I like the way Logan goes about his job, but, unfortunately, there aren't many poems in the book that register much with me. I have had the same approach with poems such as "A Woman Meets an Old Lover," by Denise Levertov. Taken literally, that poem is about Levertov meeting a former lover, one who got her pregnant. They did not marry, she had an abortion, and they each married someone else, continuing their affair for decades. The poem is about seeing him late in life, when he is ill. It is hard to know how far one ought to go contextualizing poems this way, but to some extent it is necessary if you want to understand a poem fully. The risk of this approach is that you might strip a poem of its artistic effectiveness, thus there are limits to the usefulness of this kind of deconstruction. I will keep the book on hand and peruse it occasionally, but I won't write a full commentary on it.

I've ordered Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, by Sabine Hossenfelder. I think this book will be relevant to one of my favorite topics, namely, the sociology of academia. So far on this blog, I've written about the sociology of American literary culture, but the same concepts can be applied to all areas of academia. Ever since I read Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty, I've been thinking about why economists have focused on exotic mathematical models while often eschewing basic empirical research such as that conducted by Piketty. When I was a philosophy student, I wondered what formal logic had to do with philosophy, and when I was in graduate school, I saw little connection between mathematical logic and philosophy. I now think that there are multiple reasons for the insertion of mathematics into other disciplines, some valid and some not. Most of the valid ones are obvious: you can't do engineering without math, and statistical models are useful in many fields. The problems arise, I think, when the perception of precision becomes paramount. Thus, in philosophy, in Principia Mathematica (1910), Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell attempted to create a basis in formal logic for mathematics. This work was largely ignored by mathematicians and later disproven by mathematician Kurt Gödel. I'm not sure what purpose, if any, Principia served in philosophy, yet formal logic is still considered an important component in the field. Generally, I think that the perception of precision has driven the ascent of mathematics in many disciplines, which would not be a problem in itself were it not for the fact that mathematics alone is insufficient to advance many of those fields. In a sociological sense, my theory is that the members of various professions actively protect their jobs by becoming the gatekeepers with respect to the requirements for entering their fields. Even if knowledge of advanced mathematics plays little or no role in being a productive member of a field, it can become a useful screening tool for those who are already established and part of the status quo. Moreover, a focus on higher mathematics might disguise the fact that other difficult conceptual problems aren't being addressed at all. There is also the inappropriate attribution of prestige to fields that are mathematics-intensive, with the presumption that only the most intellectually talented people can do that sort of work. My view is that different people have different intellectual skills, and that mathematical skill doesn't preempt the others, though it may be necessary in many fields. I have no idea what Hossenfelder will have to say about this, but I have no prima facie reason to doubt that even physics may have become too mathematical.

The more I think about it, the more the idea of the sociology of academia seems interesting to me. It seems fairly clear that the stakeholders in American literary culture have set themselves up as the gatekeepers who determine what is good and what is bad writing; they entrench themselves in various ways, which makes their removal problematic. In economics, universities seem to favor mathematically proficient PhDs who eschew empirical research and favor economic models that are agreeable to outside sponsors. Economists as a group show little or no interest in the welfare of the public and are wedded to philosophical ideas dating from Adam Smith that seem increasingly obsolete as we enter late-stage capitalism, with a systemic reduction in the number of jobs available due to technological advances. My point here is that what is often presented as pure research in one form or another, one discipline to the next, is not at all exempt from various prejudices, individual or organizational, which reflect, ultimately, our biological provenance. Being in a field which requires clear thinking does not necessarily imply that the organizations that engage in it are pursuing their objectives in an entirely rational manner. If you compared English departments to economics departments and other departments, there is no reason to think that you wouldn't find something like oligopolies at work. In retrospect, I find it odd how the selection of faculty in various academic departments at my undergraduate college occurred. There was a religious leaning in the Philosophy Department that I wasn't able to comprehend fully until later; in a sense, the emphasis was on theology, not philosophy, and no explanation was ever given. And in that department, as in many others, the instruction suffered as a result of the backgrounds of the faculty: for the most part, they were good students who liked the academic environment but had no particular training or talent in teaching. The sociology of academia is a wide-open field that might one day answer broad, challenging questions such as how universities came to become bastions of political correctness.

We're getting some really cool weather, and the vegetable garden barely escaped a frost this morning. The temperature was 35 degrees in the yard, and there was frost on the field below us.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Garden Party and Other Stories

This volume, which includes several of the later short stories of Katherine Mansfield, has turned out to be better than I expected. Mansfield is unusually strong in the observation of people and in the divining of their thoughts, while also rendering physical details with precise language and an economy of words. I found the opening paragraphs of At the Bay a pleasure to read:

Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began. The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was a beach and where was the sea. A heavy dew had fallen. The grass was blue. Big drops hung on the bushes and just did not fall; the silvery, fluffy toi-toi was limp on its long stalks, and all the marigolds and the pinks in the bungalow gardens were bowed to the earth with wetness. Drenched were the cold fuchsias, round pearls of dew lay on the nasturtium leaves. It looked as though the sea had beaten up softly in the darkness, as though one immense wave had come rippling, rippling – how far? Perhaps if you had waked up in the middle of the night you might have seen a big fish flicking in at the window and gone again...

Ah, aah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sounds of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, slipping between the smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again; and there was the splashing of big drops on large leaves, and something else – what was it? – a faint stirring and shaking, the snapping of a twig and then such a silence that it seemed someone was listening.

I think what makes Mansfield especially compelling to me is her talent that realistically combines physical description with the thoughts and feelings of her characters. Most of them are girls or young women, though she throws in a few boys, men and older women. She captures fleeting situations with stunning accuracy. When Mansfield was writing, the short story was going through a metamorphosis. The short stories of the nineteenth century were often quite long, like short novels. In Mansfield's day, very short vignettes became popular. These stories don't have real plots, and most of them are like snapshots of an era. The lengthier ones engage in slightly longer sequences of events, but show no signs of breaking out into narratives that might become novels. I think Mansfield does a much better job showing how her characters are relating to their environments than most writers are capable. Actually, I liked some of the shorter ones best: Miss BrillMr. and Mrs. DoveThe Voyage and The Singing Lesson. The title story, The Garden Party, isn't bad; it contains a coming-of-age episode, in which a girl has an unsettling first exposure to class differences.

Mansfield grew up in an upper-middle-class New Zealand family, completed her schooling in England and moved there. Apparently, she led a rather wild and reckless life in England, sleeping with all kinds of people, both men and women, and marrying twice, finally contracting tuberculosis, which killed her in 1923 at the age of thirty-four.  You would never know it from these stories, which seem careful and conservative by current standards. It seems a little odd that someone who felt stifled by bourgeois life in New Zealand, as did Simone de Beauvoir a few years later in France, would dutifully record it with such respect. I suspect that if she had lived longer she would have written more radical things. There is probably no way of knowing whether she might have produced a good novel. However, on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, I think she is as good as Flaubert or anyone, and certainly better than most of the writers with whom I'm familiar. She probably did not have the intellectual range of George Eliot, but her writing had an elegance that I'm sure George Eliot would admire. I think that Virginia Woolf was rightly jealous. Mansfield expressed herself eloquently without resorting to any of the gimmicks that have become commonplace in contemporary literature.

Friday, September 14, 2018


The arrival of fall is palpable here. Suddenly the nights turn cool, dew drenches everything and the skies are clear again. Last night I got my best view ever of Mars, which is close to Earth at the moment. I could clearly see the ice sheet at its south pole. Many of my favorites are visible now, and Orion is up by 3:00 AM. I am planning more viewing tonight. Hurricane Florence is headed this way, and the clouds will be back in a few days.

Although I don't read it that much and rarely post comments on it, I have come to further appreciate 3 Quarks Daily. S. Abbas Raza makes excellent selections of math and science articles, Morgan Meis makes good literary selections, Azra Raza makes good medical selections, and Jim Culleny makes good poetry selections. They have a significant advantage over websites that only post articles written for pay. I believe that the fact that contributors there don't get paid makes their selections less inbred and better rounded than those on sites attempting to sustain commercially profitable operations. At 3 Quarks Daily, the articles are considered on their own merits, independent of the fact that some editor has space that needs to be filled, a particular image to maintain and egos to soothe. Thus, I decided to donate $500 to them. I received a nice email from S. Abbas Raza, who invited me to visit him if I'm ever in northern Italy.

On the genealogical front, I have resolved a disagreement over the identity of a person in the old group photograph. He is definitely my great-grandfather. I have two photographs of him. In one (the one posted here), he is near the center, the patriarch, with his wife, four children, their spouses and the grandchildren, in Athens in about 1930. In the other, he is posing with my grandfather in Richmond, Indiana in about 1910. I was able to find the passenger log with a detailed description of his trip from Bursa, Turkey to the Starr Piano Company in Richmond, Indiana on September 20, 1910. People who research their family histories often look for some glorious past. In my family, this great-grandfather would be my claim to fame. He started multiple businesses, became wealthy, kept my grandfather out of the Turkish army, orchestrated the escape of the family from the Armenian massacres in Turkey in 1915, and became a philanthropist who helped Armenian refugees in Greece. My cousin also tells me that this family once included a bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Over the years, I have come to identify more with my Armenian side than with my English side. This has little to do with cultural heritage and more to do with ethnic characteristics and intelligence. While my English side had some business successes, my Armenian side was wealthier and more sophisticated. When my mother moved to England, she was appalled by her mother-in-law, whom she considered crude and vulgar. Moreover, there is an ineffable toughness and resourcefulness in the Armenian side that I don't see in the English, or, for that matter, amongst most Americans. I feel more at home with tough-minded people and become impatient with English milquetoasts and American conformists. I have found that, although I am not an aggressive or ambitious person, I was better able to weather the few adverse circumstances I faced than most. In fact, my fate seems to have been to pair up with less-stable people and provide them with ballast. At times I get fed up with people who are feeble or mentally ill – who would be more interesting to me if they could fend for themselves better and display less of their baggage.

I have been reading a little Katherine Mansfield and will probably comment on that next.

Thursday, September 6, 2018


One of the disadvantages of buying cheap used books online is that they take a long time to deliver. I have a couple on order that should arrive soon. Because I've become pickier about what I read, I am more often lacking any book that I want to bother with. For most of my life, I finished every book that I started, because I didn't have complete confidence in my reading ability, knowledge or taste; there was always the chance that a book would be of value in a way that I could not anticipate. More recently, having had ample time to survey the terrain, but still recognizing that I am not omniscient, I have become less tolerant of a writer's inadequacies and stylistic tics when they don't appeal to me, and I don't hesitate to stop reading a book if I decide that it has a significant deficiency of one sort or another. Probably my preference for clear, thoughtful prose, my distaste for literary fads, and the increasingly lower quality of editing have all contributed to my growing impatience. If you like my writing style, you may still occasionally find me too opinionated, but you will have to recognize that I make a real effort to get to the point, and, if nothing else, this is a courtesy to readers, whom I try not to torture with incoherent rambling. In any case, I am now finishing only about 70% of the books that I start, and this leaves me with reading downtime. I also have growing piles of books that I dislike and am donating to the library unfinished.

At the moment, I'm in a flurry of genealogical activity. When I first had my DNA analyzed, I was able to identify two distant living English relatives, whom I contacted, but no Armenian relatives. My closest match, other than my sister, did not reply to my email, which went to her husband. I recently figured out who she was by googling her husband and finding out his wife's name. From there I found information about where she works and who her parents are. She is an assistant professor of Spanish in California. Her father is a retired businessman who was born in England and grew up in South Africa. Her mother was born in Greece, but her family moved to South Africa in 1946. After her parents married and had children in South Africa, the family moved to Southern California in 1981. The real clincher for me was a photo of her mother, who looks a lot like my mother. It turns out that the assistant professor is the granddaughter of the next girl to the right of my mother in the Athens family photo that I posted earlier. Her maternal great-grandmother was my maternal grandfather's sister. We are still debating about who everyone is in that photo, but I think I have it figured out.

I have been attempting more stargazing, but this has been the worst year for viewing since I started five years ago. On a good night, you can see the Milky Way clearly, and that has happened only twice this year. Nevertheless, I always enjoy viewing on a clear night, and we had one recently.

It looks as if we are having the last hot day of the year, and I'm looking forward to a cool fall.

Saturday, September 1, 2018


I am alone in the house again for a few days, though I may have preferred going on a short trip myself. Since 2016, when I visited Washington and Maine, I haven't left Vermont at all except to chauffeur my partner to and from the Amtrak station in Port Henry, New York, on the opposite shore of Lake Champlain. Possibly we will make a trip to Montreal soon. It is only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from here, and it would make a nice change to be in a French-speaking environment again. The only drawback is that it's a city, and I tend to avoid those now.

August turned out to be fairly normal here weather-wise, and my tomatoes are exceptionally healthy after a hot July. The lack of rain protected the plants from various fungi that usually would have affected them by now. At the moment it looks as if they're going to be churning out tomatoes into October. There have been bear problems in the area this summer, and I just noticed that our bird feeder pole was slightly bent; on close inspection, there are indentations on both sides of one of the nyjer tubes that resemble bite marks; they are about five feet off the ground, which an adult bear could reach standing on its hind legs. There are also some droppings in the yard that could be from a bear. For the last few years I've stopped putting out suet and sunflower seeds from April to December, since the bears like them. I leave nyjer out all year to feed the numerous goldfinches, and the bears haven't shown any interest in it. However, bears have good memories and return to places where they've found food previously. It is said that they remember garbage pickup days in different locations and use that information when searching for food. Fortunately, black bears generally avoid contact with humans, but if they become habituated to food sources near people, they can become dangerous.

I just watched the eulogies delivered by George W. Bush and Barack Obama for John McCain. Surprisingly, Bush's was much better-written, and he delivered it quite effectively, though obviously he didn't write it himself. Obama's speeches, though less rambling than those of most politicians, are rarely succinct, and he tends to cover the same terrain from one to the next. He uses a slightly preachy tone that I don't appreciate at all. I'm not a McCain fan, given his militaristic point of view and his conservatism, but at least he represented social cohesion and didn't practice the kind of polarizing politics that now dominates Congress. People with military training often seem to think like automatons and are ill-suited to other careers; coming, as McCain did, from a military family, involves multigenerational brainwashing, which, I think, is an irremediable disaster. Fortunately, both Bush and Obama made veiled references to the fact that John McCain was a vastly better person than Donald Trump. I can imagine him watching them on TV and seething; in situations like this, there is nothing that Trump can do to make up for his absence of character. Moreover, one senses that his opposition is beginning to gain momentum, and that the drumbeat for Trump's removal is becoming audible. Bernie Sanders is having a rally on the green in Middlebury on Monday – perhaps I'll attend.

I haven't had much luck coming up with anything to read. Journals and diaries don't seem likely to pan out. Therefore, I've decided to fill in a gap in my knowledge and read some short stories by Katherine Mansfield. She only lived to the age of 34, and therefore didn't produce much of an opus. However, she was a contemporary and acquaintance of both D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and is supposed to be an early practitioner of modernist fiction. I'm not sure whether I'll like her writing, but have read descriptions that make it seem appealing. I don't like Virginia Woolf at all, and Mansfield may be more interesting. I've put off reading Rousseau's biography until winter.