Archive for the ‘C. The Thinker As Hero’ Category

Hillary Clinton: Policy Wonk and Reluctant Revolutionary

November 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Reagans with the Clintons.jpg

RT was 26 when this photograph was taken; Ronald Reagan was 76; Nancy Reagan, 65; Bill Clinton, 40; Hillary Clinton, 39. Wikipedia reports: In 1900, non-Hispanic whites comprised almost 97% of the population of the 10 largest American cities. By 2006, non-Hispanic whites had dwindled to a minority in 35 of the nation’s 50 largest cities. In 2000, the U.S. population stood at 281 million; today, it is estimated to be 324 million (a 15% increase). In 1990, 86% of the U.S. population was Christian; that figure has since dropped to 70%. Finally, the Pew Research Center reports that the purchasing power of American workers has remained essentially unchanged since 1964.

Certainly a lot to think about, and that is one of the reasons that RT supports Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s presidential election. The country is in the middle of a sweeping transformation that has generated deep-seated panic and anger among Americans. What is needed at a moment like this is clear thinking.

Of course, at some level, the United States has always been about change, hopefully in the form of progress, though our country’s history demonstrates that that can take its own sweet time. Something new is struggling to be born, but that is always the case.

Look hard at the usual answers. Don’t just create jobs, create prosperity. Don’t build a wall, create a just and generous guest worker program. Work to make sure that taxes pay for necessary services that individual states and private foundations, however wealthy, simply can’t afford to fund. Above all, work to create mutual understanding and cooperation, i.e., plain old goodwill. That is challenge and achievement enough.

We are all federalists, we are all republicans, as Thomas Jefferson once put it. If the other party’s candidate gets elected, exercise your right to protest, to have your grievances and opinions heard. But also do your best to hear and respond to the legitimate worries and priorities of the other side.

And by the way, RT urges everyone to vote. Take the day off, if you have to. Elections, after all, are important.

RT thinks that Hillary Clinton is by far the better candidate. Her abilities and achievements speak for themselves. But if Donald Trump should win on Tuesday, he will not go running to the post office to get a passport application. RT believes in the system, with all its flaws and failures. It has given us our first black president, and, he thinks, it will soon give us the first woman in the oval office. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. 

PhotoPresident Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton attending the Dinner Honoring the Nation’s Governors. 22 February 1987. Reagan Library Archives. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

On Turning 54 (or Notes Toward a Supreme Potato Chip)

June 10, 2014 4 comments

A couple of days ago, RT found himself in the local Books-a-Million. Now, RT has to admire anyone who sells books via a storefront; what with the competition from Amazon and company, the surge in self-publishing, and the efforts of the blogging community, margins are probably tighter than ever. And a quick inspection of the large shopping space revealed that BaM had an entirely respectable copy of Moby Dick on offer for under $20, Bart Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures and Lost Christianities tucked away on the far side of the store’s considerable selection of Bibles, and even a passable, though small, selection of poetry (heavy on Homer and The Inferno).

Wallace Stevens (and his essay, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction) didn’t make the cut. Much might be made of the absence, perhaps even the failure of American literature (and poetry, above all) to produce the story-epic-novel that will unite us all in its glorious vision of the world. Where is the American Dante?

But RT is reluctant to announce the death of American society just yet. He will gladly admit that while he is beginning to make progress on viewing the movie Cloud Atlas, he has now watched two of the Twilight Saga movies, thereby garnering an image of Kristin Stewart to accompany him as he continues his journey into the problematic heart of his fifties. Middle-aged men will be middle-aged men.

Or will we? Somewhere, hidden deep in his unconscious, RT still harbors a writer’s ambition. Fifty-fourth birthday be damned! This writer will continue his slow, plodding progress toward finishing Gilgamesh, toward publishing his mother’s memoirs, and toward whatever writing projects his reading might lead him. What’s on the bedside stand these days? The Gardens of Light, a novel about the life of the prophet Mani (definitely worth the read). RT will continue to write until he is found dead at his keyboard (or at least in the loving arms of Kristin Stewart). If a supreme fiction doesn’t exist, then we need to act as if there is one. Through the work of thousands and thousands of authors, we are making our way home.

In the meantime, a supreme potato chip will have to sustain us. There are worse fates.    RT

PhotographA Pile of The Real McCoy’s Potato Chips; author: Paul Hurst. WikiCmns; CC-By-SA-2.5, 2.0.


A Beautiful Memory from the WPA

April 14, 2014 3 comments

File:WPA SC.jpg


Who was Nancy Blair? RT can tell you from his genealogy research, finding information on women before WWII is the veritable search for a needle in a haystack. The fine image of NB above, along with its accompanying information, gives the question a certain urgency: Nancy Blair was the state supervisor of South Carolina’s WPA Library Project. As such, she was involved in literacy efforts (aimed at improving one of those perennially underperforming statistics in the United States).

RT might call Nancy Blair an unsung hero. Here are a couple of links to more information and images concerning NB’s work: Blazing the Way and Library Project Pictures.

RT sends his heartfelt thanks to the New Deal‘s Work Progress Administration for enabling a noble soul to do noble work.


PhotoNancy Blair, state supervisor of the South Carolina WPA Library Project, inspecting a model of a bookmobile. Author: WPA, South Carolina. Source: South Carolina State Library, South Carolina Public Library History, 1930 – 1945 collection. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


The Art of the Personal Essay (a book review)

September 13, 2013 4 comments


Food is a tricky thing. When we see a feast laid out before us, we naturally want to dive in and enjoy. But we might not be ready for the repast. Items that look familiar–chicken, say–turn out to be goose or some other unexpected dish; How are the courses seasoned–with salt, pepper, cumin, humor, anger, or fantasy? And do we really have to eat it all now? Couldn’t we put aside the caviar, or at least the foie gras, for later?

RT has been munching his way gradually through The Art of the Personal Essay (ed. Philip Lopate). It is a rich, rich meal, with a wide variety of authors and subjects: Max Beerbohm, Mary McCarthy (on American Communism in the 1930s), Michel de Montaigne (on love), Robert Louis Stevenson (on marriage); and Virginia Woolf (on the streets of London at night), among others.

There is much to satisfy a bored palate here–and much to challenge even an enthusiastic digestion. So far, RT’s favorite piece is Mary McCarthy’s “My Confession,” a droll, cutting, learned, and at times diffident essay on the social realities of being an American intellectual in the 30s and facing up to the realities of Communism in Russia. To what shall RT compare it? A Parisian Steak et Frites, perhaps: filling, substantial, and with enough spice to keep the reader turning the pages. This essay reminds RT of how hard it can be to fight a social/political trend (especially as a young person) and how much America has changed during the intervening decades. It’s hard to imagine any wealthy society today giving itself over to the political and cultural debates of the Depression. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine intellectuals having anywhere near the clout they had at that time.

And RT had forgotten what it’s like to read Montaigne, whose essay, “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” is widely regarded as the  masterpiece of the greatest essayist who ever lived. This essay, which epitomizes MM’s technique, is a plea for tolerance and a learned questioning of philosophical certainty (& touches on RS only briefly). MM wanders, let’s his ideas take him where they will, and peppers his words liberally with classical quotations. There’s no question here: we’re looking at roast beef with potatoes and endives. Bring a very hungry stomach and probably several days to make your way through Montaigne’s writing. You will emerge a better person than when you started.

As Lopate points out in his introduction, there is a contrarian streak in essayists, a thoughtfulness, a self-deprecating humor, and a need to challenge the certainties and hysteria of the moment. The essay can therefore be looked on as the wisest of literary forms, the one that most clearly reflects our experience (both personal and historic) and the desire to make things better. It is the product of a the most constructive kind of a leisure, a leisure that is increasingly hard to find: an isolation and an eloquence turned to account (or an accounting of a life). A good essay challenges us in the gut, And yet it also sustains us. Maybe the advent of blogging will help turn the tide and spread the life of culture and the mind farther afield than possible before.

Thank you, Mr. Lopate!      RT


ImageA portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592). WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Van Gogh–Self-Portrait & A New Biography

September 5, 2013 5 comments


RT has been gulping down a new(ish) biography of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh: The Life, by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, The book is detailed and presents a portrait of the man that is far more complex than the understanding RT previously had of this artist/saint. Artist/saint he remains, but with more rough edges than RT had imagined. And then there is the matter of this remarkable self-portrait. After struggling for decades to discover his true calling, in the last four years of his life Van Gogh achieved a luminous understanding of himself. Setting aside the dark colors of his early work, overcoming at last the reasonable expectations of his family, Van Gogh experienced a vision of life as it should be: beautiful and sacred.   RT


Painting: Self-portrait Dedicated to Gauguin (September, 1888); Vincent Van Gogh; WikiCmns; Public Domain.


The Great Equations–A Book Review

July 26, 2013 6 comments

File:Pearson type VII distribution log-PDF.png


Some of RT’s worst memories of High School involve staring at blackboards filled with incomprehensible mathematical symbols and graphs, chief among which were logarithms. Such mysteries as the differential co-efficient of log tan were so perplexing that he even obtained a Texas Instruments calculator to help, but to little avail. He slogged through his math courses, squeaking by with a C- or so (usually for effort), a lesson reinforced by his sub-500 math SAT scores.

But RT is an ornery beast. In college, he was able to pursue further study of numbers, this time benefiting from a curriculum not designed to eliminate nonengineer- and nonmath professor-material such as himself from the class roster. Two pleasant memories remain with him from his college math instruction: 1) actually being able to understand (at least parts of) Isaac Newton’s Principia (with the help of excellent tutor notes); and 2) having math majors at other universities want to borrow and study his copy of Lobachevsky’s NonEuclidian Geometry.

His college math triumphs aside, RT will probably never make a significant contribution to mathematical theory, but his ongoing interest in math has convinced him of one thing: there are better ways to teach math (and especially advanced mathematics) than those that have been encountered by the hapless majority of High School students over the last several decades.


So, despite everything about the nature of this blog, it will come as small surprise that RT has wanted to post on mathematics. At this point in his life, RT has come to believe that there is a deep connection between language and mathematics, between word and number, a suspicion strengthened by his learning over the last year that many animals have the ability to count at a rudimentary level. Word and number are basic aspects of mind, and if we can relate the two aspects more precisely via a word/number system that includes characters that function as both a number and a word, then perhaps we will reach a new (and better) mastery of intellect, ourselves, and the world. Translating between number and word could be the ultimate human intellectual achievement.


The Great Equations, by Robert P. Crease, is a wonderful book. TGE is structured around discussion (and some mathematical derivation) of ten equations that have greatly advanced scientific knowledge and made a profound impact on society, the first of these being the Pythagorean Theorem and the last Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. RT admires the book’s approach to discussing these mathematical milestones: Crease includes lots of information about the mathematicians/physicists who developed the equations, concentrating on the story behind the development of each equation. He then goes on to explain why the equation was important to advancing scientific knowledge and how it affected human culture. And let it be said, 1) Crease is an excellent writer and 2) the math in the book is accessible to just about anyone who took High School geometry, algebra, and chemistry/science classes.

What is driving this collection of essays is Crease’s conviction that everyone, even the poets among us, must have some familiarity with math and science: he compares someone who doesn’t know what the Second Law of Thermodynamics is to someone who’s never read one of Shakespeare’s plays. Mathematics, in short, is one of the disciplines that must be studied if someone wants to call him- or herself cultured. He discusses the role of mathematics and physics in clarifying how our minds work, and he notes the many improvements in our lives made possible by advances in scientific theory–to name just a few, the radio, TV, and the Internet. And beyond this, he wants us to understand that mathematicians and scientists are people, just as emotionally invested in their work as anyone else, just as likely to fudge here and there to make a claim to creating an equation, just as vulnerable to emotional disorders, overwork, and personality conflicts. Scientists and poets are both creative, in his view.


Perhaps the most satisfying lesson RT takes away from The Great Equations is that many scientists expect their theories to be visualizable and describable, that is, to be explicable in terms of image and word. Just as the humanities at the moment seem unable to provide the breakthroughs in general understanding and method that will take us to the next level in human development, so too has science left us in a place where we struggle to understand its discoveries. We are waiting for a new insight that combines the ancient analyses of experience into numbers and words to help us appreciate the beauty of the Uncertainty Principle and to guide us away from ignorance, abject poverty, and war.


GraphPearson Type VII distribution log; User: MarkSweep; WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Translation, the English Bible, and William Tyndale

July 14, 2013 2 comments

File:King James Bible 1772 - Title page.jpg

Translation is a collaborative enterprise. As much as each translator brings to the work–poetic sensibility, grammatical aptitude, knowledge of the original work and the era that produced it–he or she still relies on the work of others. Previous translations, dictionaries, thesauruses, and histories all help the translator enter into the spirit of the original document(s).


But, as always, there are exceptions. And the one that RT is thinking of is William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English. Far from being derivative, this translation, more than any other work except the quartos of Shakespeare, helped shape the sound and structure of Modern English. And, as with Shakespeare, Tyndale’s Bible is the achievement of a single mind.


English was in flux during Tyndale’s lifetime (c. 1494-1536). Middle English was dying out, replaced by Chancery Standard, which was being disseminated via the new printing presses. The politics of the time were also unstable: the War of Roses had ended in 1485 with the establishment of the Tudor Dynasty; Martin Luther issued his 95 Theses in 1517 and published his translation of the Bible into German vernacular in 1522; and Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1534. Medieval Europe was disintegrating, and one sign of this was the appearance of translations of the Bible into vernacular languages.


Neutrality in such circumstances was difficult to achieve. Tyndale was born into a family with aristocratic connections and soon proved to be linguistically gifted (over the course of his life, he learned French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish). He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oxford in 1512 and was made Master of Arts in 1515. He began to study theology but was appalled by Oxford’s approach to scriptural study, claiming that it led students away from the Bible’s spirit. He asked for help in translating the bible, applying to Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, but was politely turned down. In 1524, Tyndale traveled to Europe and began to translate the New Testament into English. His translation was published in 1526, and copies began to circulate in England, where they were banned and burnt. In January 1529, Tyndale was condemned as a heretic.

The following year, Tyndale’s English translation of the Pentateuch was published. Also in 1530, Tyndale published an argument condemning Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife, concluding that it violated the Scripture.

In 1539, Tyndale was betrayed to the authorities and a year later convicted of heresy; tied to a stake, he was strangled and his body burnt, though it seems he survived the strangulation and was conscious during the burning, which he endured stoically.

Within four years of Tyndale’s execution, Henry VIII had authorized and published four translations of the Bible into English. All were based on Tyndale’s version.


Though Tyndale was not the first to translate the Bible into English (John Wycliffe had translated it into Middle English in the mid-1300’s), Tyndale’s version was the first to work directly from the original languages (as opposed to the Latin Vulgate) and the first to be principally the work of a single man (scholars now recognize that Wycliffe’s Bible is the work of several translators).

But what is really important with Tyndale is the quality of the text. Here is his version of the opening of Genesis:


In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and

emptie/ ãd darcknesse was vpon the depe/ and the spirite of god moved

vpon the water.


It’s easy to dismiss this as proto-KJV, in need of the tweaking that that honorable and gifted body of translators gave it. So let’s take a look at the passage’s strengths:

1) The opening of Genesis is famously difficult to translate. For starters, it contains the single original instance of a term in classical Hebrew: tohu-bohu, which in KJV is translated “void and without form.” What characterizes Tyndale’s version is its simplicity and its emphasis on God’s power–he created the world out of nothing.

2) More than that though, Tyndale emphasizes the mystery of the process–the spirit of God “moved upon” the waters–already God is transforming the abyss, before he has created a single thing.

3) Tyndale was the first to use the word create in this passage. Create offers a wide spectrum of connotations, from founding an institution to laying a foundation to finding something, expanding significantly on made, Wycliffe’s word choice in the passage.


RT will close by noting the enormous influence of Tyndale’s Bible on the King James Version; vernacular English and the advent of the printing press, which made TB the first bible to be broadly distributed, guaranteed a large audience and very likely made the KJV committee’s reliance on it inevitable. Ninety percent of the KJV’s words come from Tyndale (though it should also be noted that poetic effect, tone, and overall meaning do not necessarily depend on word choice). More than any other man except Shakespeare, Tyndale has influenced the language we use. Here are some examples: twinkling of an eye (this apparently from Luther’s translation); the powers that be; eat, drink, and be merry; and fight the good fight. What a legacy!   RT


Photo: King James Bible, Title Page (1772); WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Thoughts on the Portrait Painting

June 28, 2013 3 comments

File:Bayeu por Goya (detalle).jpg


Portrait paintings, from the renaissance on, are the most characteristically Western form of art. Why? the reader might be wondering.

In the first place, these portraits are about an individual person. They show the wrinkles, bumps, hair, and eyes in a way meant to draw out the personality of the painter’s subject. The goal is nothing less than to catch a person’s spirit. RT can think of no other school of painting that concentrates on the sitter with such singular intensity.

Beauty, character, and pathos–the effects of time are the mark of the Western artist, as is seen in the portrait above. RT knows nothing about the sitter except the year the portrait was made–1795. The background is minimal, the cotton shirt with lace and the silk coat handsome but also reticent. Is there a nod to the simplicity of Benjamin Franklin here? It seems that the portrait might easily have been painted in British America.

But this is the image of a Spaniard, and the signs, though subtle, are nonetheless discernible. RT would guess that this man, once young and handsome, has experienced his share of struggle and grief. Winds of change are in the air, and within the next half century Spain would lose its colonial empire. A sobering development, to be sure.

RT senses an uneasiness, even a fear, in Bayeu’s eyes, and yet the man persists, determined. As is the case with other images from Goya’s work, there is something heroic here.    RT


PaintingPortrait of Francisco Bayeu (detail), 1795. Francisco Goya. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Vexillogy and Freedom

File:Flag of Ohnišov.jpg

What if you love designing flags? The study of flags could seem trivial compared to other matters before the human mind, but, still, someone has to do it. And it’s not as if vexillogists don’t add beauty, meaning, and usefulness to the world–everyone loves a beautiful flag.

And yet it’s easy to imagine anxious parents counseling a child not to pursue this passion. What about a steady income? What about earning a decent living? Couldn’t the child put his or her skills to a better use?

Flags are powerful things–sometimes so powerful that they are in effect religious symbols. They speak to us from some hidden or forgotten hope. Like a poem, they help introduce ourselves to what is best and most necessary in our natures. They point out the intersections between people.

When will we be able to acknowledge the importance of and support apparently trivial work?   RT

Flag: Flag of Ohnisov, Czech Republic. Created by Jan Tejkal. WikCmns; Public Domain.


Seneca–a Bust



and now for something completely different…  RT


Photo: Seneca. Ancient Roman bronze now at the National Archaeological Museum of NaplesItaly. Author:  Massimo Finizio. WikiCmns; CC 2.0 Generic.