30 November, 2009


I happened across this rather fascinating article regarding linguisitic fillers on Wikipedia the other day. It's actually less of an article than a listing of common fillers in different languages, but what would you say about fillers?

"Uh, it's sort of like, you know, um, when you use a thingymajig to, um, talk, er, about, like, things." A sentence almost entirely composed of fillers.

Essentially fillers are just generic sounds which can be interspersed with intelligible dialogue to denote that you haven't yet relinquished control of the conversation and are pausing merely to order your thoughts.

Some people hate them unneccessarily, assuming, it seems, that because overuse of fillers sounds rotten and uneducated, any use of them makes you automatically sound like an idiot. This is an exaggeration, of course. Fillers have certainly existed for at least several generations more than any of us have been around, reaching well back into an era when the educated populace was generally much better educated than the average American today. Probably even Shakespeare used fillers. I seem to remember a couple appearing more than once in dialogues of his plays.

On the other hand, it's rather tragic that our public officials, of all people, can't seem to string together a single sentence (without the back up of their speech writers) that doesn't include enough fillers to garble the meaning of the sentence almost beyond recognition. Ever heard Barack Obama speak without a teleprompter?

27 November, 2009

Some Ireland pictures




Posted by Picasa

Another very awesome time-lapse photo

This was taken by a guy in the physics lab here for one of my friend's physics presentations. It's a series of photos of one of those pens with the springy ends bouncing after the end has been pushed into the table and released (very fun to do, by the way).

24 November, 2009

Le goût du néant

Morne esprit, autrefois amoureux de la lutte,
L'Espoir, dont l'éperon attisait ton ardeur,
Ne veut plus t'enfourcher! Couche-toi sans pudeur,
Vieux cheval dont le pied à chaque obstacle bute.

Résigne-toi, mon coeur; dors ton sommeil de brute.

Esprit vaincu, fourbu! Pour toi, vieux maraudeur,
L'amour n'a plus de goût, non plus que la dispute;
Adieu donc, chants du cuivre et soupirs de la flûte!
Plaisirs, ne tentez plus un coeur sombre et boudeur!

Le Printemps adorable a perdu son odeur!

Et le Temps m'engloutit minute par minute,
Comme la neige immense un corps pris de roideur;
Je contemple d'en haut le globe en sa rondeur,
Et je n'y cherche plus l'abri d'une cahute.

Avalanche, veux-tu m'emporter dans ta chute?

This poem appears about 2/3 of the way through Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal and I'm going to do an analysis of it for my French Symbolists class, so I'll post a few preliminary thoughts about it here, going stanza by stanza. First I'll do another one of those literal translations so that it's a little clearer what I'm talking about to anyone who's not familiar with French. (The usual disclaimer about my translation being in no way an attempt at a poetic rendition stands firm.)

Morose soul, once amorous of the struggle,
Hope, whose spur once kindled your ardour,
No longer deigns to mount you! Lie there without modesty,
Old war horse whose foot stumbles at each obstacle.

Resign yourself my heart; sleep your brutish sleep.

Vanquished, exhausted soul! For you, old thief,
Love has no more savour, no more than war;
Farewell then, songs of brass and sighs of the flute!
Pleasure, tempt no more a heart sombre and sullen.

The adorable springtime has lost its fragrance!

And time swallows me up minute by minute,
As an immense snow a stiffening corpse;
- I contemplate from above the globe in its roundness
And I no longer seek there the shelter of a hovel.

Avalanche, why don't you carry me away in your fall?

I. The first stanza takes the form of a direct address of the poet to his soul, which the poet describes as an old war horse, once "amoreux de la lutte" but now worn out and lacking its rider, "l'espoir," which at one time had spurred it into action. The rather gnomic opening two lines only hints at the war horse imagery through the use of the words "éperon" and "enfourcher," but their regretful tone, together with the idea that the soul at one time could be spurred into action, and in fact loved the struggle does bestow upon it the sort of noble identity that the image of the battle charger would suggest.

Yet this sense of the soul's nobility drops away quickly in the close of the sentence. The second line, which preserves a formally conventional line break, is in fact heavily enjambed syntactically, the contre rejet at the beginning of the third line completing the idea that had begun with "L'Espoir," but had been suspended for a moment by the intervening semi-parenthetical clause which ends the second line with a description of hope. The delayed realization of what this hope is actually doing --that is, that it disdains the weariness of the soul and will not even stoop to be its guide any longer--delays our recognition of the mild contempt in which the poet in fact seems to hold his soul's weakness. Hope is not merely absent; it does not want to mount the worn-out soul. And thus the poet berates the "vieux cheval" which stumbles at every obstacle, sarcastically commanding it to lie down without shame ("sans pudeur"). The single-line exclamation that succeeds the opening quatrain echoes that stanza in its imperitive quality and directness of address, but nuances the image of surrender into that of resignment. This could be taken as a more positive view of the soul's submission, yet to give up the fight may well be to lose a major aspect of one's humanity--the sleep into which the soul sinks is not that of a poet's powerful genius; it is not even that of a noble war horse, but is merely a "sommeil de brute"-a brutish sleep.

II. In the second quatrain, Baudelaire sustains the tone of slight contempt, calling his soul not merely "morne," but vanquished and exhausted ("vaincu, fourbu"). It no longer bears even an ironic resemblence to a war horse, but rather seems more akin to an old petty thief ("vieux maraudeur"). This image affects the image of the struggle of the previous quatrain by even further diminishing its heroism: the fight has not been a war to gain what is the poet's by right, but the toil of the thief to rob others of items of small worth. Certainly the images--of love and the music of brass and flutes--in the stanza suggest that part of what the soul has been pursuing is Beauty, and this is hardly an item of small worth in Fleurs du Mal. Yet his reaction to Beauty is always ambiguous, if not directly hostile, and the images of love and music in this stanza cannot but conjure up the many poems in which he attacks these instances of Beauty as being cheapened conceptions of the real thing, or attacks Beauty "herself" as deceiving him by making herself inaccessible except through such tawdry--and mortal--intimations. These pleasures have been nonetheless tempting, and his appeal to them to "tempt no longer a dark and sullen heart" reveals that he sees them as something dangerous, liable to lure him into a struggle which he no longer has strength to conduct. Whatever love and the songs of brass or sighs of the flute have been in the past, however, it is not even merely his weariness that stops his pursuit, but the utter lack of taste in his "somber heart" for their pleasures.

Thus in this second stanza we see a development of the poet's attitude towards his spirit and of his understanding of its inaction, which is not simply a result of brutish indolence, but which has at its root a loss of delight in those pleasures which once tempted him. Yet he still, as it were "wishes to wish these things" (cf. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" IV). He still has not purged himself of regret for a time when such pleasures could mean something to him, and thus the brief exclamation that follows the quatrain laments that "Le Printemps adorable"--the season of new life and renewed beauty--"a perdu son odeur."

III. No longer addressing his spirit, the poet spends the final quatrain in a melancholy meditation on his own place in time and in the universe. The loss of savor in life becomes here a descent into the abyss of time, which--and the word conjures up an image of time as some ravenous monster--swallows up (engloutit) the poet. This image is immediately linked to another, even more sinister metaphor, whereby the action of this monstrously personified time is described as an enormous fall of snow that buries and freezes a stiffening corpse. Time's action becomes nothing more than a process of deadening the person to any outside influences, just as the above two previous two quatrains suggest an emotional dulling of the person's spirit. The immobility of the soul in the face of the struggle we now understand in terms of the immobility of this corpse, unresponsive, buried, and (both emotionally and physically) frozen.

Contemplating in the next two lines the world and the ravages of time, the poet knows himself to be helpless to find shelter from the storm; even the slight defense of a shack is unavailable to him. To use the word "cahute," with its connotations of dinginess and dilapidation, is to recall the description of the soul as a "maraudeur" in the second quatrain and the correspondingly low estimate of pleasure as a valid object of struggle. Pleasure would be one of these near-worthless shelters from the onslaught of the abyss, his taste for them a distraction from the "goût du néant" (taste for nothingness) of the title. He had once hoped for at least its shelter, which explains why at the end of the second quatrain he still lamented the loss of springtime's odor: he had not yet reached the point where he can eschew such shelter entirely.

Now, by contrast, he no longer seeks it. In contemplating "la globe en sa rondeur" he recognizes the inevitability of stiffening like a corpse as his soul becomes too worn in the fruitless struggle for beauty and he understands the ultimate uselessness of makeshift shelters from the storm. Thus his last line takes the form of a direct address, not this time to his soul, but to the avalanche, an image that directly recalls the "neige immense" that is his metaphor for all-devouring time. He now fully assents to the once contemptible weakness of his soul, relinquishing action to beseech the "avalanche" to carry him away into the abyss.

22 November, 2009

"Only through time time is conquered"

Right, so time-lapse photography is possibly one of the coolest things I've ever seen or ever will, in my opinion. And how neat is it that T.S. Eliot had a time-lapse portrait given his fixation with the theme of time, the still point, the Bradleian view of history....

Honestly, I don't think I've ever seen something that quite so niftily illustrates Eliot's conception of history as a "pattern of timeless moments" (see Little Gidding, V). Each moment is an independent reality, yet (paradoxically) dependent on all of history, in the sense that the newness of the moment in some sense consists in its reevaluation and recreation of all that has gone before. It might sound like incredibly sketchy philosophy if you're not familiar with it, but it's really quite sensible; I'm just not expressing it very well. But the basic idea is that all that has gone before forms a new reality when united with the new moment, which must necessarily alter our understanding of what has gone before.

It's a sort of relativism that asserts the relativity of human knowledge while never once doubting the power of faith and God to provide us with the truth. On their own, humans will never be able to discern the "pattern" of the world because the progression of time ensures that the pattern is new in every moment; as he expresses it in East Coker II:

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

Yet the fact that for the Creator of time "all time is eternally present" (Burnt Norton, I) means that for Him, the pattern is eternal, and eternally revolving about the "still point". This very still point is then the reason that humans are (again, paradoxically) able to have knowledge of Reality; because this "still point" is no less than the Incarnate Word, whose entry into the world gives us a sure "point of view" that does not falsify by virtue of its limitation, unlike all fallible human viewpoints. The Church which preserves the Truth of Christ's revelation is then the only path to sure knowledge for a human.

That's the basic philosophical idea behind all of Eliot's poetry, though it's most perfectly developed in the Quartets when he begins to emphasize not merely the necessity of purgation and courage to achieve faith, but more importantly the way of love. Things just become ridiculously beautiful towards the end there.

But here I am with six papers to write and I can't start getting into all of that now. I just really liked this picture when I saw it for a variety of reasons and thought I'd post it. Maybe I'll try to do a more thorough explication of the Bradleian position one of these days, or better still, of the Bergsonian position, which I understand somewhat better because I've actually read a significant amount of Bergson.

Familiar compound ghost?
(Little Gidding II)

T.S. Eliot: The Scholarly Conversation

The infamous and to some extent deliberately cultivated difficulty of T.S. Eliot's highly allusive poetry has produced an onslaught of critical attempts to elucidate it in light of one “crucial” insight or another. These attempts have been more or less successful according to the degree in which they actually address the main thrust of his poetic legacy instead of wandering off, as Heaney complains is too often the case, in pursuit of one or another esoteric reference to literary tradition.

The poems are in many respects pastiches of literary reference, and though critics agree on the ubiquity of such references, they disagree about whether a comprehensive understanding of these is necessary to understand the poetry. Gardner and Heaney present compelling cases for initially encountering the poetry on its own ground, an attractively unpretentious approach when one considers the plethora of attempts to read Eliot's entire corpus in terms of some arcane paraphrasing of one dead author or another. Arguments such as Chinitz's regarding the influence of popular song or Lowe's comparison of Raskolnikov and Prufrock—though valuable in some respects—will often give too much weight to a single influence, implicitly suggesting that Eliot's work is intrinsically esoteric, accessible only to the scholars who can chase down such references and solve them as one might work out a puzzle. A reasonable balance is found in the work of scholars such as Moody, Manganiello, and Rogers, who admit the power of the allusions to enrich an understanding of the poetry and believe the major ones to be worth pursuing in consequence, but who stop short of reducing the poetry to the sum of its references.

Having studied with some of the leading thinkers of the early twentieth century at Harvard and abroad, Eliot had a clear set of philosophical convictions, and study of these philosophical influences forms a significant subcategory of Eliot criticism. There is less disagreement on this subject than there is about the importance of allusion in his work. Though Heaney still holds the philosophical underpinnings of the poetry to be potentially distracting, critics from Gardner in the 1950s to contemporary writers such as Moody, Perl and Childs have agreed on the relevance of Eliot's philosophy to a comprehension of the intellectual arc of his poetry. Brooker and Childs, authors well-versed in Bergsonism and Bradleanism, substantially treat Eliot's relation to these thinkers, while Perl hones in on the often overlooked influence of Eastern philosophy, all making welcome contributions to the understanding of Eliot's early poetry. Schneider, Clark, and Thomas Howard (not cited here) treat Eliot's later career, when his thought is more completely his own, verifying his new preoccupation with Anglo-Catholic theological concepts such as the Incarnation as well as his continued interest in the concepts of time, history and change. This area of criticism manifests, perhaps because of the general coherency and clarity of Eliot's philosophical theory, a much greater degree of consensus than is often seen among his critics, and is a fertile area of scrutiny.

Less helpful in general is the movement, born of what often seems a voyeuristic interest in Eliot's (largely exaggerated) psychological neuroses, to interpret his work in terms of these biographical details. Däumer, Chinitz, and Cuda speculate on the effect of Eliot’s “inhibitions” regarding domineering women, romantic assignations, and medical operations to support their interpretations of his work, and the result is generally unsatisfying as a macroscopic explanation, though occasionally interesting in details.

While literary, philosophical, and biographical influences are common focuses, the body of criticism suffers from a relative dearth of comprehensive treatments of Eliot’s prosody. Gardner and Hartman excepted, many critics seem bewildered by the peculiar metricality of Eliot’s “free verse.” When critics such as Rogers, Sanders, and Unger make incidental forays into prosodic issues, the analysis of one will often differ wildly from that of another, and it is often true that allegations that, for instance, a certain passage “is” an abortive sonnet are not backed up and seem presupposed for the sake of the main argument.

21 November, 2009

T.S. and Valerie Eliot

Charles Hartman on "The Discovery of Meter"

Hartman's examination of the manifestations of meter in free verse focuses on Eliot's poetry in this chapter, in which he defines his verse as vers liberé and attempts to discover precisely what qualities characterize vers liberé. Eliot's prosody seeks to draw out the rhythmic elements of common speech, and Hartman identifies syntactic parallelism and counterpoint as important features of this attempt. Particularly important is Eliot's practice of approximating stricter metrical forms before departing from them: it is a truly “loosened up” verse in the sense that he allows himself to move in and out of this formal metrical structure. The only major aspect of Hartman's argument at which I cavil is his categorical denunciation of Helen Gardner's evaluation of certain of Eliot's passages as accentual. Hartman asserts that Gardner has fallen prey to the “fallacy of calling 'accentual' all verse which has accents” (115), but never backs this statement up, presenting an “alternative” understanding of Eliot's prosody which is actually quite compatible with the idea that Eliot occasionally takes advantage of the incantatory effect of heavily accentual verse, such as in the “Lady of Silences” passage in “Ash Wednesday.” On the whole, however, he is laudably faithful to direct textual evidence in his discussion of the basic rhythmicality and musicality of Eliot's syntactic form.

Commenting on the chapter from Free Verse: An Essay in Prosody; overall a quite recommendable book.

18 November, 2009

Paul Douglass on “Eliot's Cats: Serious Play behind the Playful Seriousness"

Douglass turns his attention to one of Eliot's works that has been almost wholly ignored in the critical world. The Book of Practical Cats is not mere fluff to be dispensed with entirely, Douglass argues, but is, despite being intended for children, a work which reflects many aspects of Eliot's corpus and which, by its very simplicity, sheds light on some of these. The rhythm of the poems in this collection not only displays Eliot's metric virtuosity, but unveils many of the techniques he uses elsewhere, such as his affinity for four-stress rhythm and his tendency to have anapestic and dactylic rhythms slip in and out of one another to heighten the lilting feeling of a passage. In terms of content, the Book of Practical Cats, with its character sketches of uncannily human felines, aims to explore the “battle between the ego and social self” (115), which Eliot reads as a preoccupation of the Quartets as well. The book “accepts its own fascination with human imperfection” (115) and through its rollicking tone, its rhythm, and its clever but benevolent satire, choreographs a jubilant dance that shows the reader the possibility of rejoicing in the foible-ridden but wonderfully variegated ranks of humanity.

01 November, 2009

You know you're from Maine if...

(These are, for the most part, excellent.)

1.. you've had arguments over the comparative quality of Fried Dough.
2.. you get four inches of snow and you call it "a dusting."
3.. you don't understand why there aren't fried clamshacks elsewhere in the country.
4.. you know what an Irving is and the location of 15 of them.
5.. you knew all the flavors at Perry's Nut House.
6.. your car is covered in yellow-green dust in May.
7.. you can drive the Augusta rotaries without slowing down.
8.. you've hung out at a gravel pit.
9.. you think a mosquito could be a species of bird.
10.. you once skipped school and went to Bar Harbor, Old Orchard Beach or Reid State Park.
11.. you've almost fallen asleep driving between Houlton and Presque Isle.
12.. you know how to pronounce Calais and Machias.
13.. you've gone to a Grange bean supper.
14.. at least once in your life, a seagull pooped on your head.
15.. at least once in your life you've said, "It smells like the mill in here." Yep
16.. there's a fruit and vegetable stand within 10 minutes of your house.
17.. your idea of a traffic jam is being the second car at the stoplight.
18.. you wonder out loud if the state can just close its borders to people from away.
19.. your house converts to a B&B every July & August for people from away that you happen to know.
20.. all year long you're tracking sand in the house; from the beach in the summer and the roads and sidewalks in the winter.
21.. you have a front door but no steps to get to it.
22.. you use "wicked" as a multi-purpose part of speech.
23.. you have to have the sand cleaned out of your brake system every spring.
24.. you do the majority of your shopping out of Uncle Henry's.
25.. you've ditched the car on the side of the road somewhere because you thought you saw some good fiddleheads!
26.. you've had a vacation from school just to help the family pick potatoes.
27.. you know a lobster pot is a trap, not a kettle. Of course!
28.. you know not to plant tender crops until the last full moon in May.
29.. when you go to the dump and bring back more than you brought.
30.. when people from "away" ask for directions and you intentionally led them in the opposite direction they wanted to go.
31.. you watch "Murder She Wrote" and snicker at the stupid fake accents.
32.. you know how to find the rope swing at the quarry.
33.. you take the New Hampshire toll personally.
34.. you feel really really good when you cross the Piscatiqua River bridge into Kittery.
35.. you always wave when you see a Maine license plate in another state.
36.. a roll of duct tape and a can of flat black spray paint will get your car to pass inspection.
37.. you have to replace your mailbox yearly because ofthe town plow.
38.. you know how to get from Cumberland to Fryeburg via the "Egypt Road".
39.. you can remember when the "Egypt Road" was a dirt track through the woods.
40.. when you're supposed to dress up, you wear plaid flannel with a tie.
41.. you know that Moody's Diner does NOT take credit cards!
42.. you actually miss the fifteen below zero mornings in winter (that have been eliminated by the greenhouse effect) because you enjoyed running or walking to workin the silent crystal stillness, punctuated by an idling car engine as the owner waited indoors for the car to warm up before his mad dash from warmth to warmth, and your lungs did not freeze; thank you verymuch for your concern.
43.. the word "stove" refers to what you did to the right front fender of your truck after you've had a wicked bring-up on a rock.
44.. there's too much "stuff" in your 2 "cah" garage to get either of your cars into it.
45.. you know the smell of Woodsmens fly dope.
46.. you eat supper at night and dinner at noon.
47.. your idea of a traffic jam is ten cars waiting to pass a tractor on the highway.
48.. "vacation" means going to the Allagash for the weekend.
49.. you measure distance in hours. Still do!
50.. you know several people who have hit moose more than once.
51.. you often switch from "heat" to "A/C" in the same day.
52.. you use a down comforter in the summer.
53.. your grandparents drive at 65 mph through 13 feet of snow during a raging blizzard, without flinching.
54.. you see people wearing hunting clothes at social events.
55.. you install security lights on your house and garage and leave them both unlocked.
56.. you carry jumper cables in your car and know how to use them.
57.. there are 4 empty cars running in the parking lot at the convenience store at any given time.
58.. you design your kid's Halloween costume to fit over a snowsuit.
59.. driving is better in the winter because the potholes are filled with snow.
60.. you know all 4 seasons: almost wintah, wintah, still wintah and construction.
61.. you know what it means when someone says they are going upstreet.
62.. you can actually see the milky way. Yes
63.. you can use your brights on the highway. Yes
64.. L.L. Bean's not just a store, it's a way of life. Absolutely
65.. you encounter any sign reading: "Next Exit: 246 miles".
66.. the nearest mall is 2 hours away.
67.. you have to yield for snowmobiles.
68.. the state closes down at five o'clock.
69.. "The City" means exclusively Portland. Yes
70.. "salt damage" is a viable insurance claim.
71.. all of the traffic lights blink yellow at 10 o'clock at night.
72.. it's not a storm, it's a nor'eastah.
73.. you say room and people think you are saying rum.
74.. you can buy a minivan with four wheel drive and chained tires.
75.. all addresses start with RR#
76.. a rest stop means a pit toilet and a picnic table.
77.. you know Moxie isn't a woman's magazine.
78.. you go "off-roading" before and after school.
79.. you eat ice cream with flavors like 'MooseTracks" and "Maine Black Bear".
80.. you know that a chocolate doughnut is not a white doughnut with chocolate frosting.
81.. you call any long sandwich an "Italian".
82.. you eat potato chips with flavors such as "clamdip", "ketchup" and "dill pickle".
83.. the smell of clam flats at low tide, while disgusting, brings back fond memories of childhood trips to the beach.
84.. you call the basement "downcellah."
85.. your grandmother called shorts "shots".
86.. you live in a mobile home and have a brand new car and a satellite dish.
87.. you see a beat up Ford Pickup with a bumper sticker that reads: "I'd rather be bowhunting."
88.. you can hum the tune of "You should have bought it when you saw it at Mardens?"
89..You know what the Old Port is.