Monthly Archives: November 2012

Reasons for seasons, a la Francais

How to explain the seasons to French people.

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Marginalia, no.278

It is true of ideas, as of men, that they cannot fight unless they occupy the same ground: ideas that rush toward each other on different levels of apprehension will pass without conflict or mutual injury because they never establish contact, never collide.

~ Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the 18th-Century Philosophers

This is perhaps not what Blake had in mind when he wrote that “opposition is true friendship,” but the phrase comes to mind. The outright infidel is always a stranger, reasoning from alien assumptions to alien conclusions. You are a ghost to his knife. The heretic, however, is always dear – a brother, child, friend – and draws blood.

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Reading Notes: Richard Holmes

Consider the following two quotations – the first from Humphry Davy and the second from Thomas Carlyle – and ask yourself how we get from the one to the other:

“Imagination, as well as reason, is necessary to perfection in the philosophic [i.e. scientific] mind. A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery.”

“The progress of science is to destroy Wonder…”

To what degree are the aims of science aligned with those of art? When and why did they begin to diverge? These are some of the questions explored in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, an expertly guided tour of the era of “romantic science,” when scientists were still philosophers and philosophers were artists, when discoveries were made (according to the myth) by flashes of insight and obscure inspiration, and when the possibility of scientific horror first began to suggest itself.

We start in 1769 with the young Joseph Banks in Tahiti, there in the capacity of gentleman naturalist assigned to Cook’s expedition to observe the transit of Venus. With his treasury of journals, specimens, and anthropological observations, he returns (just barely) to England and moves from notable disillusionment to notable accomplishment. As vigorous, long-lived president of the Royal Society, Banks becomes the patron spirit of the age, and the rest of the book.

In addition to Banks, Holmes spends a lot of his time with William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus; with his sister Caroline; with Mungo Park in Africa; and with Humphry Davy, who does for the science of chemistry what the Herschels do for astronomy. We’re also given glimpses of George III, Linnaeus, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin, a whole host of balloonists, Dr Johnson, Horace Walpole, Gilbert White, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy and Mary Shelley, and – as the new scientific generation comes into its own – Michael Faraday, John Herschel, and the young Charles Darwin.

I’m not a specialist or historian of the period, but I loved every page of this book, and I learned something new on every page. Like a more successful Dr Frankenstein, Holmes has knit together a lost era, but reanimated it so convincingly and compellingly that its questioning spirit, its anxieties, and its sense of wonder become our own again.

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Art and Sex and Very Small Birds

When breeding season is over the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) flies down from the inland mountains to the coast where the best tasting insects buzz all winter long. Kinglets are, in Peterson’s phrase, “tiny mites of birds,” about the size of hummingbirds but stouter, olive-gray with white wing bars and eye-rings. We saw a female Kinglet this past weekend, hovering in the boughs and snapping at invisible gnats. She was so compact and perfect, so happy and quick and undistractable, I could have watched her for hours.

Certain people think they’re being very Darwinian when they boil down the various behaviors of organisms to a bare procreative calculus. They apply their formula not only to wild animals but to humans too. “Why do termites and leopards and people do thus-and-such?” they ask. And the answer is always the same: In order to increase the chance of mating and passing on their genes. The way they describe it, it’s almost as if our genes were parasites with minds of their own, and what we innocently regard as our volitional self was nothing but an obliging host.

In Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson lampoons the way this idea is sometimes applied to creative endeavors: “What is art? It is a means of attracting mates, even though artists may have felt that it was an exploration of experience, of the possibilities of communication, and of the extraordinary collaboration of eye and hand.” She continues: “So, it would seem, the first thing to know about art, whatever the account of its motives and origins, is that its maker is self-deceived. Leonardo and Rembrandt may have thought they were competent inquirers in their own right, but we moderns know better.”

I share Robinson’s frustration, but I don’t like to underestimate our capacity for self-deception either, and I wonder if there isn’t after all a connection – though maybe a different sort of connection – between our mating and our making. It’s fun at least to ask how human history and culture might have differed if we were the sort of species that restricted lovemaking to set seasons. What if, like Regulus calendula, our hormones cooled after a brief fever and we were spared for nine or ten months at a time from the constant distraction of sex?

There’s really no saying what a circumscribed mating season might have meant for us. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if under those circumstances our urge toward artistic activity cooled too and the making of art was reduced to the same two or three month span as the begetting of children. Not because making art only serves to help us attract mates and pass on our genes, but because the energies behind artistic creation and procreation both express, and promise the satisfaction of, a single intellectual longing.

A half hour after our audience with the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, my wife and I went walking in the hills. It was sunset and the deer were stepping into the meadows. Soft pink and orange clouds – afterthoughts of a Pacific storm – floated above us like colored paper lamps. Talking as we went, I felt as sharp a pleasure in handling ideas as I felt in watching the light change and in smelling the wet earth. It was one of those fully integrated moments the blessing of which I can feel for years and which have so far prevented me from thinking too poorly of the universe.

Walking like this, as any walker can tell you, has a way of stirring up new ideas or making old ones feel fresh again. I found that I was suddenly in love with the old idea – the commonsensical notion, really – that all experience is particular experience. I was in love, more precisely, with my own experience – not merely of the present moment, but of my personal experience of experience, the sense of being my own self and being subject to sensory and intellectual impressions in the particular way that I am.

The human mind is a prism (or mirror or lamp) in which light is gathered and split in characteristic ways. The perceptive faculty may be the same from one person to another, but the instruments are calibrated differently. When we see through these eyes, hear through these ears, touch with these hands, and understand by this mind, there is a personal quality of perception that we can’t bear to think might one day be extinguished. The death of an individual, when the individual is our self, is felt as the extinction of a species.

The desire to prevent the total loss of our own native perception is, I think, what unites both procreation and the arts. By each we seek to establish kinships. If not me, then someone like me. If not mine, then an experience like mine. Children inherit not only physical characteristics but, to varying degrees, the texture of our perceptive faculties. They split the light, if not in the same way as we do, at least in a very similar way. Likewise, through art we try to reproduce the quality of our own vision in others. We craft relics of ourselves, images of the light as we saw it, records of the song as we heard it, in the hope that someone else might discover them and be able, at least briefly, to see and hear like we did.


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Marginalia, no.277

Happy are they whom privacy makes innocent, who deal so with men in this world, that they are not afraid to meet them in the next, who when they die, make no commotion among the dead.

~ Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall

A beatitude of anonymity. I am torn, day to day, between the comical lust for my name to live on the lips of future generations (for what accomplishments, I don’t know), and the more comfortable ambition of passing unremarked into death and fertilizing some convenient tree. I like most trees better than I like most people.

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Three Against Antiquity

“Men have been kept back as by a kind of enchantment from progress in the sciences by a reverence for antiquity… The opinion touching it which men entertain is quite a negligent one, and scarcely consonant with the word itself. For the old age of the world is to be accounted the true antiquity; and this is the attribute of our own times, not of that earlier age of the world in which the ancients lived.”

~ Francis Bacon, Novum Organum

“Those whom we call the ancients are really those who lived in the youth of the world, and the true infancy of man; and as we have added the experience of the ages between us and them to what they knew, it is only in ourselves that is to be found that antiquity which we venerate in others.”

~ Pascal, Pensees

“Properly understood, the question of the pre-eminence of the ancients or the moderns comes down to this: were there once larger trees growing in the countryside than there are today? If there were, then Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes can never be equaled in our time. But if our trees are as tall as those of past times, then Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes can be equaled.”

~ Fontenelle, Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns

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