4 March 2017

Entropy and language

Hunter S Thompson used a quote from Dr Johnson as the epigraph for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.’ Johnson may have been influenced by a reading of Donne’s Sermons: ‘Inordinateness of affections may sometimes make some men like some beasts; but indolency, absence, emptiness, privation of affections, makes any man, at all times, like stones, like dirt.’ (1640.)

The first and greatest of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that ‘existence is suffering’. To be alive is foremost to suffer but, if one characterises suffering as a breakdown of order, even inanimate objects are not immune. Wind and rain wear down the mountain; the very core of the planet is cooling; apparently the entire solar system will at last be swallowed by a black hole.

Inherent in any system is its decay. The physicist would describe this as an increase in entropy. Entropy can be defined as ‘The tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity.’

Language itself cannot escape, as neatly evidenced by the decline of the original Greek word for suffering, pathos, which we find today in such compound terms as pathology, sympathy (sym indicating ‘together’) and apathy (a indicating ‘without’). In classical Greek, apathēs simply means ‘without suffering’, but entropy has been at work on the word in English and it means something very different now. In fact its meaning has rotated almost a hundred and eighty degrees. The apathetic suffers more than the man of purpose: his inner life is about as grim as it gets.

Something analogous has happened to our related borrowing from Latin. Cicero wanted an equivalent for the Greek word apatheia in its sense of ‘freedom from pain’. The Latin word for pain is dolor (by the way, it’s tempting fate to name your daughter ‘Dolores’), so he came up with indolentia. This didn’t much catch on (Seneca proposed impatientia instead) but nonetheless ‘indolent’ had that meaning among some English writers up till the eighteenth century, and even now a doctor terms a tumour ‘indolent’ if it causes no pain.

Thus words decay along with everything else. They get knocked about, mangled, eroded, during transmission from one human to another, especially when the transmitter is not well educated or, perhaps, well intentioned.

The latter phenomenon is all too evident today. Consider the pejorative poison being absorbed by ‘denier’, or indeed the evolution of ‘bigot’ – a word which, at its first known use in 1598, simply indicated a hypocrite. Later it also meant a superstitious person, especially one ‘obstinately and unreasonably wedded to a creed, opinion, or ritual’ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, which, under ‘bigoted’, says ‘obstinately and blindly attached to some creed, opinion, or party, and intolerant towards others.’) Nowadays it simply denotes anyone I disagree with, provided I am on the left of the political spectrum. Somehow the word has been appropriated by one side. Rightists are reduced to casting around among inferior alternatives to demonise their truly bigoted (in the sense of ‘intolerant’) counterparts.

Entropy is working its magic on ‘bigot’. As an over-used insult it is becoming almost as ineffectual as ‘Nazi’. The insultee merely shrugs his shoulders and views the terms as identifying his opponent.

With all the hysterical mud-slinging characterising, say, the recent presidential election in America, it is tempting to withdraw: to become apathetic, indolent, inert, indifferent to the unreasoning nonsense spewed by both sides, but that would be to yield too soon to entropy.

No, we must observe the culture war and its ideological skirmishes not just as a freak show but also as a source of instruction. In the intense heat of its rage and intolerance, certain words are being eroded so quickly that we can observe, in a matter of months or even weeks, philological decay that might previously have taken years.

25 October 2016

A mouse remembered

Image: Rasbak

Yesterday afternoon, as I approached an area of gorse admixed with elder, I heard the high-pitched kee-kee-kee-kee of two kestrels. Earlier I had seen a male (a ‘tercel’) hunting near by and assumed he was one of them. The cries were agitated and penetrating. Presently I saw the birds together, flying with shallow wingbeats low over the bushes. They appeared to be in some sort of disagreement. Then I heard a single brief call of a jay and, a little later, while the kestrels were still airborne, glimpsed it for a moment in flight and had the feeling that the jay had been involved in the kerfuffle.

The birds all then disappeared and went quiet. I continued walking. A few yards on, the contours of the bushes allowed me a view of both kestrels, prominently perched. The tercel was nearer, a perfect specimen, while a female (‘falcon’) was a ten or twelve yards farther away.

The tercel resumed calling; the falcon remained silent. After a minute or so the tercel desisted and flew off, soon returning and perching exactly where he had been before. He had caught and killed a wood mouse.

I was so placed that only my head and chest would have been visible to him, and I had my telescope with me. It is a good telescope and zooms to 60x, so that I could make the tercel fill almost the entire field of view.

While the falcon watched from a distance, the tercel set about his meal. The scaly yellow toes of his left foot had clamped the mouse against a small, terminal, triple fork of the elder bush on which he was sitting; bending, he bit off the snout and swallowed it. Having tugged off and eaten the rest of the head, his sharp, curved bill began to deconstruct the mouse in tiny and delicate morsels. The shoulders and forepaws went, fur and claws and all. He pulled at the internal organs, the heart and lungs, the liver, the skin and connective tissue. The intestines became visible, bulged here and there with excrement. He extricated and laid them aside, perhaps meaning to drop them, though they remained draped over an adjoining twig. Repositioning what was left of the corpse, he ate the kidneys and a bit or two of the thighs.

As if deciding they offended him, he lifted the intestines from their branch and let them fall. That done, he continued, somehow managing to extract in one piece and engulf much of the spinal column, an inch or two of which now poked out of the left side of his gape.

Judging that it had become small enough, he picked up what was left of the mouse – its hind legs, rump and tail – and wolfed it down, tail last.

Finally he busied himself with cleaning up every last scrap. I could not be sure whether he used his tongue, but he paid attention to each bit of twig where the mouse had been, even to the branch where the intestines had hung.

The whole operation had lasted at least five minutes, maybe longer. Besides the unseen intestines, all that presently remained of the mouse was a certain increase in the bird’s girth, a hint of temporary repletion, and of course a memory in my head. Later its indigestible remnants would be cast up in the form of a pellet, or pellets, to form, like its intestines, a meal for bacteria and microscopic fungi.

May its little soul rest in peace. Not a scrap of its flesh has been wasted. It is now part of the tercel, of his flesh and of his mind and motion, of his ability to anticipate and correct for the wind so superbly that, while hovering, his questing vision remains gyroscopically stable.

The other day I watched what I believe is the same bird, also with my telescope and tripod. A strong and blustery north-east wind was blowing. It was as if he had nailed himself to the sky, for as long as ever he wanted to, before sliding with supreme grace sideways and down to take up a different airy vantage.

The falcon had disappeared at some point during the tercel’s meal, inspired perhaps to seek a mouse of her own. With a glance to his right, the tercel took wing, towards the hedgerow and fields, and disappeared from view.

21 October 2016

Everyday Zen

Or: living in the moment

Excerpt from a comment on this video:
What impresses me far more than the technical virtuosity is his ability to be absolutely and continuously in the moment, clearly for days on end. Can you imagine the laser focus needed to make those delicate cuts — some of them freehand with a 3 hp router, others literally requiring the feel of a surgeon's hands — on a work piece that already has the mountain of hours (and yen) invested in it that those do? It takes a big set of balls and ice in your veins to come through under that kind of pressure.
Quote from a novel of mine:
A corner snapped off the chisel and Paoul checked his hand. In his enthusiasm he was forgetting the most elementary rule of all. He was letting his thoughts race ahead, failing to maintain the single point of concentration where all success lay.

26 June 2016

A signature on a fly-leaf

 Urbain Grandier

One of the pleasures of a second-hand book is speculating about the person behind an inscription on the fly-leaf. It is always nice if a date is given; sometimes there is a message as well (To dearest Mary, Xmas 1949), which makes you wonder who Mary was, to whom and why she was dear, what happened to her after 1949, and under what circumstances her Christmas present found its way to a second-hand bookshop.

In 1973, at a shop in Long Crendon, I acquired a copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun. I used to buy many second-hand books and this was one I had never got round to reading. It had remained half forgotten on my shelves, the lettering on the spine becoming less and less legible as the years passed. The other day something made me decide to seek it out.

The edition was issued jointly by the Readers’ Union and Chatto and Windus, and is dated 1954. Francis Helps is written on the fly-leaf in an old-fashioned hand:

As this is an unusual name, I idly ran a web search, not expecting to come up with more than an unreliable or ambiguous result, if that.

However, a Francis Helps is listed on a number of sites to do with fine art. He was an English artist, born 1890, died 1972. You can see a selection of his work here, for example; a brief bio can be found here:

‘Francis Helps was born in Dulwich. In 1908 [he] studied at the Slade School of Art where he was taught by Henry Tonks and Fred Brown. In 1915 Helps volunteered for service with [the] Artists’ Rifles Expedition, serving in France. In 1924 he joined the 1922-4 Everest Expedition as an official artist, completing 80 paintings and drawings, most now in America. Between 1931-34 Helps taught at the Royal College of Art, then volunteered to be evacuated with it to Ambleside in the Lake District in 1940-44. From 1953 until his retirement Helps was head of the school of paintings [?] in Leeds, where he settled. Helps showed with [the] RBA [i.e. the Royal Society of British Artists], of which he was elected a member in 1933 and in 1924 had a show at [the] Alpine Club Gallery of his Himalayan work. Further shows were at City Art Gallery, Leeds in 1959, Manor House Museum and Art Gallery, Ilkley in 1971 and South London Gallery in 1979. His work is represented in a number of public galleries (see BBC Your Paintings).’

Had my copy of The Devils of Loudun really belonged to this talented and adventurous man? The signature is that of someone who was educated at a time when copperplate writing was taught – around the turn of the last century, say – and the 1972 date of death is consistent with the date of my purchase, 1973. Maybe his library was disposed of by the executor of his estate; maybe this particular book ended up in the London auctions, where the proprietor at Long Crendon told me he often went for his stock.

On Portrait of an Indian Woman, 1924 I found this signature:

Here again is the signature on the fly-leaf:

It is possible that it was Helps’s eyes that directly preceded mine in reading the words printed on the pages of my copy; that it was his mind that processed and reacted to the gloriously hubristic rise of Urbain Grandier, whose errors of judgement, moral turpitude and general idiocy prepared him for his fate – of being tortured and then burnt alive as a result of the political manipulation of moral hysteria. I wonder what Mr Helps made of it all, he whose life had apparently been as productive as it had been blameless. If he had read the book on receiving it in 1954 (the Readers’ Union was a book club) or shortly afterwards, he would have been about the age that I have reached now, with perhaps the same weary opinion of politics that informs Huxley’s book; Huxley was sixty when it was first published.

The connection between Helps and me is as fortuitous as it is tenuous, but it tickled me to think that I was following in the visual footsteps of such an Englishman. It also made me rather sad. His art would now be denigrated by snobs and philistines; his patriotism and sense of duty despised; his interest in and evident respect for the people he encountered in Asia dismissed as patronizing, or worse.

On page 19 I found this:
There are many people for whom hate and rage pay a higher dividend of immediate satisfaction than love. Congenitally aggressive, they soon become adrenaline addicts, deliberately indulging their ugliest passions for the sake of the ‘kick’ they derive from their psychically stimulated endocrines. Knowing that one self-assertion always ends by evoking other and hostile self-assertions, they sedulously cultivate their truculence. And, sure enough, very soon they find themselves in the thick of a fight. But a fight is what they most enjoy; for it is while they are fighting that their blood chemistry makes them feel most intensely themselves. ‘Feeling good’, they naturally assume that they are good. Adrenaline addiction is rationalized as Righteous Indignation and finally, like the prophet Jonah, they are convinced, unshakably, that they do well to be angry.
Now why should that have made me think of our present moral hysteria? And why does it make me glad that I am not on Facebook or Twitter, and prefer instead to read a second-hand book?

15 July 2015

Just a note to say that I have taken six months off, but I haven’t given up. I have started a new novel, which may or may not come to anything.

Meantime I will go on blogging. Here is an observation on an aspect of the Russian character from Dostoyevsky’s The Insulted and Injured, which I’m reading at the moment:

“Why, it was there, in Paris, at Mme Joubert’s, we broke an English pier-glass.”

“What did you break?”

“A pier-glass. There was a looking-glass over the whole wall and Karp Vassilitch was that drunk that he began jabbering Russian to Mme Joubert. He stood by that pier-glass and leaned his elbow against it. And Joubert screamed at him in her own way, that the pier-glass cost seven hundred francs (that is, four hundred roubles), and that he’d break it! He grinned and looked at me. And I was sitting on a sofa opposite, and a beauty beside me, not a mug like this one here, but a stunner, that’s the only word for it. He cries out, ‘Stepan Terentyitch, hi, Stepan Terentyitch! We’ll go halves, shall we?’ And I said ‘Done!’ And then he banged his fist on the looking-glass, crash! The glass was all in splinters. Joubert squealed and went for him straight in the face: ‘What are you about, you ruffian?’ (In her own lingo, that is.) ‘Mme Joubert,’ says he, ‘here’s the price of it and don’t disperse my character.’ And on the spot he forked out six hundred and fifty francs. They haggled over the other fifty.”

30 January 2015

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”

I first read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when I was seventeen, and was aware even then that a thorough understanding of Catch-22 was not the best preparation for an unclouded adulthood.

To me, the most notable manifestation of Catch-22 is any organization set up to ameliorate or eliminate a perceived problem. I should make it clear that this principally concerns the public sector, which nowadays includes certain charities, many of which receive much or most of their funding from the taxpayer.

At first all seems well. Progress is made and everybody is keen to see the organization succeed. But some of those employed in it soon begin to perceive that amelioration or elimination of the problem is not in their best interests because this will cost them their jobs. The more idealistic members of staff – typically those who, at the outset, were the most enthusiastic – either resign in frustration or are sidelined and dismissed. The people left behind are the ones interviewing replacement candidates and will obviously engage others like themselves. An ethos develops in which jobs in the organization, and the organization itself, become more important to its members than its original aims.

The organization next undergoes another change: it henceforth exists in order to perpetuate and if possible exacerbate the problem. Exacerbation of the problem allows the organization to grow in size and (as far as the perception of society at large is concerned) value. Those at the top, those directing the organization, can thus command higher salaries and juicier perks, and join the ranks of the great and the good.

The evidence is all around us. It is not in the interests of the police to eliminate crime, of the National Health Service to keep the populace healthy, of your local council to be efficient, nor of the bodies dealing with race relations and gender politics to promote harmony. Most damaging of all, it is not in the interests of those in government that welfare dependency and the national debt should do anything but grow.

It is possible that our armies of politicians, quangocrats and civil servants think they are doing the right thing. It is equally possible that they don’t. The more senior they are, the more suspect their motives.

In ancient China, apparently, doctors were paid only if their patients remained healthy. A solution along those lines might be conceived: but, really, no one can do anything about this problem, because that would mean setting up an organization to deal with it, and that, my friends, is the biggest catch of them all.

26 January 2015

Not quite there yet

Alerted by Nate Hoffelder’s blog to the ingenious Text Clock by Ross Goodwin, I next had a peek at Mr Goodwin’s blog and noticed that he has devised and made public a fiction generator.

Of course I tried it out, feeding in some character-names and adjusting the “depravity” slider leftwards (I’m a prude like that). Then I hit “Generate”. The machine did its thing, drank some coffee, smoked a cigarette, did its thing some more, guzzled a bit of whiskey (or so it claimed), and came up with a shiny new novel, all 209,687 words of it.

Here is the opening paragraph:
Chapter 1
Other Scrapovitch?”
, a comprehensible ship, no more than a manageable handful could be sur- veyed in two glances; Iona looked, and was where Iona was and what to do. But in this liner Seara for an able master. In that ship Anaia could see at once way to take unless Kamil had a good memory. No understood could not see where Iona was, and would never know which designed with a cunning informed by ages of sea-lore to move came to Jett in that hall of a measured and shapely body, non-irritant skin permitted to stand there to afford man an New York’s skyscrapers, which this planet’s occasionally daring. But with the knowledge that this wall must be apparent reason to be gratified with Iona’s own capacity and that little opened in Anaia’s altitude, Iona found Iona in afloat there came no sense of security when, went through, for Iona was puzzled as to direction. Iona’s last ship a spacious decorated interior which hinted nothing of a ship.
(I did not input any of these character-names, though the ones I did suggest occur later.)

While this may not make the New York Times bestsellers lists, one can see clear evidence of phrasing and sentence-structure. There is only one spelling mistake and (with a few trivial exceptions) there is no problem with the punctuation. It is an impressive feat, several steps on from the poetry generators (like this one) that take advantage of the free form and, frankly, pretentiousness of much modern poetry. Prose is less elastic than poetry and demands less effort on the reader’s part.

As a means of understanding language and our response to it, trying to write a fiction generator is an interesting and useful project. It also reminds us how advanced and amazing – in the true sense of that word – are the abilities of the human brain, for Nature and education have gifted us not only countless thousands of quirky and unique fiction-generators but millions upon millions of equally complicated fiction-interpreters.