Sunday, May 29, 2005

David Greenberg: What's wrong with the David McCulloughs of history

Writing about the Bancroft Prize-winning 1973 study Time on the Cross, Novick marveled that "historians who wanted to know the basis for Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's conclusion that slaves were only moderately exploited were told that the answer was:

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Schiller: "If I do not weave hope into my existence… then I am done for."

Schiller's Death Mask
From the Princeton Library's Life/Death Mask Archive

Came home late last night and was idly perusing this article (from a link off Arts and Letters Daily) until I got to the passage:

There are, as Walter Benjamin knew, masterpieces that lie dormant, so to speak, secretly awaiting their readers. We are the ones in a hurry, not these works.

Hmm, sounds familiar, I thought, as I pressed on. Then:

For Schiller, art is religion. Art offers transcendence. Only through art can humankind come closer to the divine. In art, human mortals discover and experience the only true freedom.

That could've been lifted straight out of George Steiner's Grammars of Creation. Whoever this is writes a lot like Steiner. I scrolled back to the top of the article and lo and behold! It was Steiner. (Just recently translated from an article in Die Zeit.) An unexpected gift late in the night. Beautiful. So here you go (please check out the original article for richer linkage):

Who reads Schiller today? Not at school, or in a seminar on German literature, but out of passion, out of an inner drive? Which contemporary aesthetic or philosophical currents engage with Schiller’s extensive writings on art and ethics, on history and education, writings through which he played a part in his own time and through to the late 19th century comparable with that of Kant or Hegel? The official recognition remains, the biographical and critical tributes will fill many pages in this memorial year. But does Schiller’s oeuvre exert an influence in Europe’s often darkly confused cultural scene? Do people think of him as they think of Hölderlin, or Kafka?

A biography recently appeared with the title "Unser armer Schiller" (Our Poor Schiller). Our task today is to find out whether we are honestly capable of approaching Schiller, whether we can say anything about his work that does not more or less conform to the cultural "chatter" (as Heidegger scornfully called it) in the media. A great poet or thinker reads us. He tests, he enquires into our receptive abilities. Are we prepared to take a step towards the thinking poet or the lyrical thinker, with the kind of concentration and pleasure in complexity that he deserves? There are, as Walter Benjamin knew, masterpieces that lie dormant, so to speak, secretly awaiting their readers. We are the ones in a hurry, not these works. If we do not meet up, it would not be Schiller’s fault. Or would it?

It would be presumptuous to want to tell you something new about Schiller. Maybe it would be best to offer an anthology of praise and criticism from the past, a small circle of major voices. In May 1839, Schiller Festivals were already taking on a nationalistic and quasi-religious character. In 1859, three days of festivities were declared for his 100th birthday. Canons fired, church bells rang. Germany was not yet unified, but Wilhelm Raabe referred to Schiller as the "leader and saviour" of the nation to come. On 21 June 1934, thousands of Hitler Youth marched through Marbach. For his birthday on 10 November, the radio broadcast numerous lectures and concerts. In his 1932 work "Schiller als Kampfgenosse Hitlers" (Schiller Fighting At Hitler’s Side), Hans Fabricius had already turned the author of the "Wallenstein" trilogy, the "Cuirassier’s Song" (Reiterlied), "The Count of Hapsburg" (Der Graf von Habsburg) and "The German Art" (Die Deutsche Muse) into a standard-bearer of National Socialism. Between 1933 and 1945, the German Reich saw 10,600 productions of Schiller’s plays (with the exception of "Don Carlos" and "William Tell" of course).

But this ubiquity pales in comparison with Schiller’s role in the GDR. By 1960, there were already three million copies of works by Schiller on the East German book market. Almost all of his plays were adapted more than once for television. In 1955, there were nearly a thousand Schiller productions at East German theatres, and in the centenary year of 1984, this figure was exceeded. "Love and Intrigue" (Kabale und Liebe) went through 40 editions. Was this not the work praised by Engels as the "first German political drama" in his famous letter to Minna Kautsky in 1885? And had Engels not referred to Schiller’s interpretation of the French Revolution as early as 1839? In the schools of East Germany, Schiller was considered the finest of the classics, not only as the embodiment of poetic genius, but also as a fighter in the name of progress in the Marxist sense: "Germany’s majesty and honour / rests not on the heads of its princes. / If in the flames of war / Germany’s empire were to fall, / Germany’s greatness would remain." ("Deutschlands Majestät und Ehre / Ruhet nicht auf dem Haupt seiner Fürsten. / Stürzte auch in Kriegesflammen / Deutschlands Kaiserreich zusammen, / Deutsche Größe bleibt bestehn." More) Johannes R. Becher, East Germany’s high priest of culture, coined the slogan, "Schiller belongs to us!" Millions of schoolchildren and hundreds of party functionaries followed his call.

For Schiller, art is religion. Art offers transcendence. Only through art can humankind come closer to the divine. In art, human mortals discover and experience the only true freedom. In the ninth of his letters "On the Aesthetic Education of Man" (Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen), Schiller states his credo: If humanity has lost its dignity, then it has been saved by art. In ontological terms, art may be deception and illusion, a "realm of dream", but the truth lives on precisely in this deception, and out of mimesis, the aesthetic after-image, the original image is restored: "Before truth causes her triumphant light to penetrate into the depths of the heart, poetry intercepts her rays, and the summits of humanity shine in a bright light, while a dark and humid night still hangs over the valleys."

Art is instructive in absolute terms. The aesthetic is the ideal praxis of pedagogy. Through art, the human individual becomes an ethical being. Schiller’s bold, almost anti-Kantian paradox reads: In its freedom, art is a game, but the human individual is "only wholly human when he plays" (Homo ludens). For us today, however, the proud innocence of these views is no longer convincing. We know how far-sighted Walter Benjamin was when he said that the works of high culture stand proud on a foundation of barbarity and injustice. We know that they can even serve as ornaments to inhumanity. The second obstacle to reception is Schiller’s language: these goddesses with their rosy cheeks, these chalices, the never-ending apotheoses that so resemble Tiepolo’s mythological murals. These "raised wings" and the "rapture" amidst the "rose-coloured veil". For almost 2000 years, the rhetoric of Antiquity dominated the literature of the West. And Schiller’s mastery of every rhetorical trick is superb: "See you the rainbow yonder in the air? / Its golden portals heaven doth wide unfold, / Amid the angel choir she radiant stands, / The eternal Son she claspeth to her breast, / Her arms she stretcheth forth to me in love. / How is it with me? Light clouds bear me up-- / My ponderous mail becomes a winged robe."
("Seht ihr den Regenbogen in der Luft? / Der Himmel öffnet seine goldnen Tore, / Im Chor der Engel steht sie glänzend da, / Sie hält den ewgen Sohn an ihrer Brust, / Die Arme streckt sie lächelnd mir entgegen. / Wie wird mir – Leichte Wolken heben mich – / Der schwere Panzer wird zum Flügelkleide.")

In this effusive celebration of language, Homer and Virgil shine through, as well as Luther's version of the psalms. The only problem is that we now live in a radically anti-rhetorical climate, and the "winged robes" of language arouse our suspicion. It is the stutterer Woyzeck who we believe. We trust those voices that speak in short, naked sentences as in Kafka or Beckett, or who, like Wittgenstein, advise us to keep quiet. In my opinion, there are only two ways to keep Schiller’s emphatic rhetoric alive. In contrast to Goethe, Schiller wrote poetry for the ear. The meaning is often carried by the rhythm. Schiller needs to be declaimed aloud, just as the rhapsodists of Ancient Greece did. And after reading, he should be learned by heart. What one loves, one should learn by heart. My father looked up from the page as he read me "The Cranes of Ibycus" (Die Kraniche des Ibykus) or "The Hostage" (Die Bürgschaft) – a gift for life. I can still hear his voice.

And now? Only in exceptional cases do children hear the classics read to them by their parents. And in the education system, amnesia and forgetting has become systematic. Anticipating this, Schiller proclaimed: "The Muse her gentle harp now lays down here." But it is the oral element in our culture, the public readings by poets and lyricists, that should give Schiller his chance. Because for him too, in the profoundest sense, a poem was a happening.

In spite of comprehensive commentary, Schiller’s view of the condition humaine remains a mystery. "He was a strange and great human being", found Goethe: "Every week he was a new person, more perfect than the last." Schiller’s temperament, like his concept of ethical and historical destiny, is governed by the principle of hope. On 7 January 1788, he wrote to Körner: "If I do not weave hope into my existence… then I am done for." In Schiller’s vocabulary, the words "hope" and "joy" are crucial. His campaign against ignorance is a vision of psychological and social progress. Born to be something better. Having a contract with the future. This Schiller was appropriated by Marxism and, in a twisted way, also by fascism (one recalls Adorno’s alarming marginal note on the "embracing millions" jubilantly singing "Ode to Joy" (An die Freude) – a single word: "Hitler"!).

But at the same time, and often in stark contrast to Goethe, Schiller displayed an inextinguishable sense of the tragic. In "Wallenstein" and "The Bride of Messina" (Die Braut von Messina), fatality and tragic determinism are inescapable. The "magic of the political" is also the magic of damnation. With Aeschylus, Schiller appeals to humankind: "Observe in this the furies' might!" (Gebet acht! / Das ist der Eumeniden Macht!) This conflict between hope and fatalism explains Schiller’s inability to conceive of the French Revolution. Although "The Robbers" (Die Räuber) was like a signal of the coming crisis and soon staged in Paris, it is followed by a puzzling silence from 1789 until the famous letter to Augustenburg in July 1793. When Schiller received news of his honorary French citizenship, on 3 March 1798, he called it a message "from the empire of the dead". Like many of his contemporaries, he experienced the terror and the invasion of Germany by French troops as a bitter disappointment.

A decisive role was played by the ever-closer relationship with Goethe. This "almost mythical event of the German intellect" transformed Schiller’s uncertain radicalism into an aversion against the revolution. This is the source of his involved melancholia and, one may say, the spiritual brutality of the shot in "William Tell": "My blood runs cold even while I talk with thee. / Away! Pursue thine awful course! Nor longer / Pollute the cot where innocence abides!" Political violence is only allowed where it exacts revenge for "holy nature". At the premiere, the audience in Weimar was already disgruntled.

In spite of this, Schiller remained a great source of inspiration, beyond his death. In 1841, Dostoyevsky was already working on a version of "Maria Stuart". And "Don Carlos" lay on his desk while he was creating the most overwhelming of his parables, the poem of the Grand Inquisitor in "The Brothers Karamazov". Freud stated that his early but paradigmatic theory of drives was derived from Schiller’s poem "The Philosophers" (Die Weltweisen) with its closing lines about the power of hunger and love. Would Brecht’s epic drama exist without Schiller’s notion of the stage as a moral institution, or "Mother Courage" without "Wallenstein"? These are just random examples. The lists could be extended hundreds of times. Thanks to "William Tell", Schiller became the Swiss poet laureate for an extended period. In his "Remembrance", Proust remarks ironically that in 1914, Schiller "le grand allemand" became Schiller, "le grand boche". But he stayed "grand".

But what about us? Will there be a Schiller Festival in Marbach in 2055 or, at best, a colloquium of university specialists? The notion of the "classical" is rooted in the history of western culture. With Europe’s descent into the barbarism of the 20th century, this concept forfeited its credibility to a large extent. In the face of inhumanity, humanist classicism proved powerless. Weimar became a suburb of Buchenwald. Cultural heritage fights almost desperately against the utilitarian and ephemeral spirit of the present. Where is reading and remembering still seriously learned in the full etymological sense of the words? What is at stake now is the future of the German language, a return to its better self. Is it capable, to quote Karl Kraus, of finding its way to the "indestructible level of the language of Schiller", or will media jargon and pseudo-American also triumph in the land of Goethe and Hölderlin? Classicism, education, language – these are three pillars on which the dynamic of Schiller’s ongoing presence rests. The prospects are not encouraging.

Please forgive me, ladies and gentlemen, for finishing in an uncertain half-light. In 1938, when the Nazis took over Vienna, the 72-year-old collector Max Berger reported to the Office for Jewish Emigration. As a ransom, he brought with him one of Schiller’s letters, a valuable manuscript. The letter was taken from him, and then the old man was beaten to death. I am not capable of thinking through the ontological and formal involvements of this event. I only know that greatness is always dangerous, that it always tests us. But what would the continued existence of human intellect be without such danger?

The exhibition "Götterpläne und Mäusegeschäfte. Schiller 1759 - 1805" will be on display at the Schiller-Nationalmuseum in Marbach until October 9. For more information, see the official Schiller Year website.


The above is a shortened version of an address delivered on 23 April at the opening of the exhibition on Schiller’s life and work in Marbach. It was originally published in German in Die Zeit on 28 April, 2005.

George Steiner, born in Paris in 1929, emigrated to New York in 1940. He has been a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, since 1961 and was Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Geneva between 1974 and 1994. His most recent publication is "Lessons of the Masters" (Harvard University Press, 2003).

Translation: Nicholas Grindell.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Hermann Broch: Transcendental Homelessness in an Empty World

Søvngjengere, 1992
Marit Benthe Norheim

The Sleepwalkers (1931-32) is a thesis novel with a vengeance. According to Broch, sleepwalkers are people living between vanishing and emerging ethical systems, just as the somnambulist exists in a state between sleeping and walking. The trilogy portrays three representative cases of ''loneliness of the I'' stemming from the collapse of any sustaining system of values. ''The Romantic,'' a subtle parody of 19th-century realism, takes place in Berlin in 1888 and focuses on the Prussian landed gentry. Joachim von Pasenow is a romantic because he clings desperately to values that others regard as outmoded, and this ''emotional lethargy'' lends his personality a certain quaint courtliness but renders him unfit to deal with situations that do not fit into his narrow Junker code, such as his love affair with a passionate lower-class young woman. ''The Anarchist'' moves west to Cologne and Mannheim in 1903 and shifts to the urban working class. The accountant August Esch, who lives by the motto ''business is business,'' seeks an escape into eroticism when he realizes that double-entry bookkeeping cannot balance the ethical debits and credits in the turbulent society of prewar Germany.
- From In Search of the Absolute Novel by By Theodore Ziolkowski, NYT Book Review, Nov. 3, 1985

Broch’s novel The Sleepwalkers was still informed by one of the leading studies on modern aestheticism, Georg Lukács’ Theorie des Romans [Theory of the Novel]. The essay that Broch integrated into The Sleepwalkers, “The Disintegration of Values”, was inspired by Max Weber’s theory (continued by Niklas Luhmann) of the differentiation and autonomy of partial social systems. In the “Epilogue” of this trilogy Broch inaugurated – at the same time going beyond the diagnosis of disintegration – what Lukács had postulated as the task of the modern novel: to discover the contours of a new cosmology in an age of “transcendental homelessness”. But this aesthetic goal is already undercut in the narrative sections of The Sleepwalkers, for it becomes evident that the three parts of the book were intended as a satirical comment on the very typology that Lukács described in the Theory of the Novel. The social and spiritual disintegration, deconstruction, and fragmentation that Broch created and reflected theoretically and poetically in The Sleepwalkers is contrasted at the end of the trilogy by the attempt to explore new possibilities by way of integration, construction, and totality. Therefore, with this particular work Broch still seems to be anchored in the tradition of Modernism. At the same time he not only described the disintegration of the partial value system, but he also took part in the deconstruction of modern aesthetics by satirizing Lukács’ theory ad absurdum.
- From The Literary Encyclopedia

There is thus a radical difference between The Sleepwalkers and the other great twentieth-century "frescos" (those of Proust, Musil, Thomas Mann, etc.): In Broch, it is the continuity neither of action nor of biography (a character's or a family's) that provides the unity of the whole. It is something else, something less apparent, less apprehensible, something hidden: the continuity of one theme (that of man facing the process of a disintegration of values).
- From Milan Kundera's Notes Inspired by The Sleepwalkers

Wikipedia: Hermann Broch Hermann Broch
Yale: The Hermann Broch Archive
H.F. Broch de Rothermann (1910-94)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Neruda: The Saddest Poem of All

Death and the Maiden, 1894
Edvard Munch

I can write the saddest poem of all tonight.

Write, for instance: "The night is full of stars,
and the stars, blue, shiver in the distance."

The night wind whirls in the sky and sings.

I can write the saddest poem of all tonight.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

On nights like this, I held her in my arms.
I kissed her so many times under the infinite sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her.
How could I not have loved her large, still eyes?

I can write the saddest poem of all tonight.
To think I don't have her. To feel that I've lost her.

To hear the immense night, more immense without her.
And the poem falls to the soul as dew to grass.

What does it matter that my love couldn't keep her.
The night is full of stars and she is not with me.

That's all. Far away, someone sings. Far away.
My soul is lost without her.

As if to bring her near, my eyes search for her.
My heart searches for her and she is not with me.

The same night that whitens the same trees.
We, we who were, we are the same no longer.

I no longer love her, true, but how much I loved her.
My voice searched the wind to touch her ear.

Someone else's. She will be someone else's. As she once belonged to my kisses.
Her voice, her light body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, true, but perhaps I love her.
Love is so short and oblivion so long.

Because on nights like this I held her in my arms,
my soul is lost without her.

Although this may be the last pain she causes me,
and this may be the last poem I write for her.

- Pablo Neruda
Wikipedia: Neruda
Neruda's Nobel Prize Speech
The poet is not a "little god". No, he is not a "little god". He is not picked out by a mystical destiny in preference to those who follow other crafts and professions. I have often maintained that the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread: the nearest baker who does not imagine himself to be a god. He does his majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colours and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. And, if the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an element in an immense activity, in a simple or complicated structure which constitutes the building of a community, the changing of the conditions which surround mankind, the handing over of mankind's products: bread, truth, wine, dreams. If the poet joins this never-completed struggle to extend to the hands of each and all his part of his undertaking, his effort and his tenderness to the daily work of all people, then the poet must take part, the poet will take part, in the sweat, in the bread, in the wine, in the whole dream of humanity. Only in this indispensable way of being ordinary people shall we give back to poetry the mighty breadth which has been pared away from it little by little in every epoch, just as we ourselves have been whittled down in every epoch.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Yes Men: Gilda, the Golden Skeleton, and the Dow Acceptable Risk Calculator



The same man who appeared on BBC World TV last December as a Dow representative to announce that Dow would finally clean up Bhopal [1] showed up today at Dow's Annual General Meeting (AGM) to suggest the same thing to Dow's board of directors and shareholders.

"We made an incredible $1.35 billion this quarter," said "Jude Finisterra," aka Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men [2]. "But for most of us, that'll just mean a new set of golf clubs. Let's do something useful instead - like finally cleaning up the Bhopal plant site, or funding the new clinic there [3]." Dow Chairman Bill Stavropolous responded to "Finisterra's" suggestion with a curt dismissal [4].

The Yes Men joined other shareholder groups in Midland, including Amnesty International, which condemns Dow's lack of response to the Bhopal crisis as a human rights issue [5].


Two weeks ago at a London banking conference to which they had accidentally been invited, two "Dow representatives" described a new Dow computer program that puts a precise financial value on human life.

The 70 bankers in attendance enthusiastically applauded the lecture, which described various industrial crimes, including IBM's sale of technology to the Nazis for use in identifying Jews, as "golden skeletons in the closet"--i.e. lucrative and therefore acceptable.

Several of the bankers then posed for photos with "Dow Acceptable Risk" mascot "Gilda, the Golden Skeleton," and signed up for licenses for the "Acceptable Risk Calculator," which helps businesses determine the exact point where human casualties will start to cut into profit, and suggests the best regions on earth to locate ventures with potentially very high death tolls.

See for video and photos of the event, and to try out the "Acceptable Risk Calculator" for yourself.


Dow may not appreciate the website--but the US State Department finds it quite useful, and refers requests for information about Bhopal to various of its pages: see for an example.



[1] See

[2] Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno had been given one Dow "proxy" each by actual shareholders, giving them the right to attend the annual meeting and address the Dow board.

[3] Two weeks ago, the Sambhavna Trust Clinic of Bhopal opened a new wing to serve the victims whose numbers continue to grow due to groundwater contamination from the uncleaned plant site. See for information on how you can contribute.

[4] See for complete statements and responses, including Yes Man Mike Bonanno's feverish, red-eared tirade in a neck brace.

[5] See See also and

(via nettime)

Friday, May 13, 2005


For more than a century, it has caused excitement and frustration in equal measure – a collection of Greek and Roman writings so vast it could redraw the map of classical civilisation. If only it was legible.

Now, in a breakthrough described as the classical equivalent of finding the holy grail, Oxford University scientists have employed infra-red technology to open up the hoard, known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, and with it the prospect that hundreds of lost Greek comedies, tragedies and epic poems will soon be revealed.

In the past four days alone, Oxford’s classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time of the earliest books of the New Testament.

The original papyrus documents, discovered in an ancient rubbish dump in central Egypt, are often meaningless to the naked eye – decayed, worm-eaten and blackened by the passage of time. But scientists using the new photographic technique, developed from satellite imaging, are bringing the original writing back into view. Academics have hailed it as a development which could lead to a 20 per cent increase in the number of great Greek and Roman works in existence. Some are even predicting a “second Renaissance”.


The following is from a post to the Paglia List by Damion Matthews:

The Oxyrhynchus site has been updated to reflect a translation from a newly transcribed papyrus of a work from Archilochus.

This is a "tentative reconstruction" of the fragment, written by project leader Dirk Obbink of the University of Oxford, and Universty of Michigan. Obbink is a 2001 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship. A recent BBC interview with him can be heard at ).

Archilocus, unread for almost 2,000 years:

"One doesn't call it weakness and cowardice, having to retreat under the compulsion of a god. No, we turned our backs to flee quickly. There exists a proper time for flight. So, once, Telephos from Arcadia routed the great army of Argives, spear-men though they were. And the fair-flowing river Kaïkos and the plain of Mysia were filled with corpses as they fell. And being slain at the hands of this relentless man (Telephos), the well-greaved Achaeans turned-off with headlong speed to the shore of the much-resounding sea. Gladly did the sons of the immortals and brothers, whom Agamemnon was leading to holy Ilium to wage war, flee to their swift ships. On that occasion, because they had lost their way, they arrived at this shore. And they set upon the lovely city of Teuthras where, while snorting fury along with their horses, they came in distress of spirit. For they thought they were attacking the high-gated city of Troy, but in fact they had their feet on the wheat-bearing Mysia, land of miraculous growth. Then Heracles, shouting out, issued a command to his brave-hearted son Telephos, fierce and pitiless in cruel war, who, inciting unfortunate flight for the Danaans, strove alone in battle to gratify his father."

There is also a fragment from a version of the "Metamorphoses", recounting the suicide of Narcissus. It is being attributed to Parthenius of Nicaea, who was an influence on both Ovid and Vergil (for instance, he wrote about Daphne turning into a tree before Ovid did.)

" ... A cruel heart he had: he [Narcissus] hated all of them, until he conceived a love for his own form. Within a spring, he wailed, seeing his face delightful as a dream: he wept for his beauty. Then the boy shed his blood and gave it to the earth to bear."


Other resources:
Oxyrhynchus Online
ArsTechica: The "classical holy grail" or unholy hype?
Wikipedia: Oxyrhynchus
Classics at Oxford: Imaging Papyri

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Leafless American By Edward Dahlberg

William Blake in the Weeds

How old are we?

We are still a horse and buffalo
people, heavy, lumbering cattle, with
prairie and grain virtues, and our avarice
is primitive wigwam barter; we ought to
adore the great fish god, for we are a
costal people, and New Mexico and Arizona,
which are saurian undersea country, breeding
pine, cactus, and snakes, are Galilean land.

We are passing from a morning horse
innocence to unusual vices, and we are not

Is Pike's Peak a hummock of old world
sin, or the Rockies Scythian debauchery,
or the mineraled Colorado dawn the Orient
pearl? It is hay and brook and sweet pony
corral, appled meadow garnished with odors
more virtuous than spiced Eden.

Take no stock in American turpitudes;
look to the Toltec of the Mayan for the
lascivious parrot and monkey.

The Platte River, the pine, the sage
brush are hardy character, but not history,
and I admit that nothing has ever happened
to me, and that I am mad for events.

Whatever we do is vast, unconscious
geography; we are huge space giants of the
mesa, surd, mad rivers that rush along, and
we do not care to be near each other; this
is not ancient wickedness, but solitary
prairie grazing.

We cannot bear each other because we
are immense territory, and our most malignant
folly was to closet us up in cities, and take
away our ocean past.

We should have the deepest reverence
for poverty, because we are New Testament
ground. Every day I offer a sacrifice to
the extinct bison, the horse and savage
Iroquois, who are our muse of cereal, yam
and maize, and when somebody strokes my
head, I walk to Mt. Shasta, or the Oregon
orchards which are my epistles to the

Who is my Father?

The rising sun-man disappeared,
and the step-father, the petticoat parent,
is rearing the children since the tent,
the wagon, and saddle have gone.

The great, grassy basin, the Catskill
eagle made us tribal and fierce; the Pawnee,
leading the sorrel of the Platte by a bull-hide
rope, lessoned us in poverty, for want too
is a tough, rude god make out of dried buffalo
skin, to which we must offer our orisons, lest
we perish of sloth and surfeit.

Our forefathers were giant volcano-horses;
we were a hot earth animal as the elephant
shaped mounds found in Kansas show.

Give us back our origins, for I am out
of season in any other land, or plant except
the corn seeds of Quetzalcoatl, the yucca,
the cactus, and the Mojave joshua tree,
dearer than the desert tamarisk beneath
which Saul sat.

We have lost ground, city-cursed
that we are, left it behind us like the
Quiche did the Yaqui for whom they wept.

Return the Platte, the bison, the hoof-print
of the deer, for I am as hungry for them as
the wandering Quiche who had to smell the points
of their staffs to deceive their empty stomachs.

Our Mother paps were rabid gulches
in which the white and gray wolves howled,
and now that the Toltecs and the Pawnee
are dead, we are their evil genius, looking
for a relic, a flint arrow, a teepee, a
harness, a piece of bread.

I need confidence, the antelope, the
pack-mule, the Indian apple, but we have
killed the old bread gods made of plums,
incense and the coca plant. Until we find
the Quiche bread idol, we are orphans.

The word together has become a tabu
devil; everything is public except guilt,
which is hidden like hands that are pursed
and pocketed lest they be demanded for
hand-shaking, which is some uneasy, first
sin; touch a man and blood goes out
of his cheek; the mountains, the hills and
the grass are turning against men, and
every man dreads every man.

The mating season that once cattled
the fingers of the marriageable now brings
the alley tree, cemented in the side walk,
and the tuberose poodle together. Aging
men walk through the macadam auto ravines,
until magnolia dusk, and then they go to
their rooms, walking from faucet to window-hole.
They crawl under a mealy blanket seeking that
primeval night that came before creation, and
fall at once into a water of sleep, void of
vegetable, animal or root.

The highways have no ancestors;
the 19th century American was kinless
iron, and these men of the
20th are houseless sepcters because
they have never claimed the continent.
They have destroyed the old, rooty
deities of the Cherokee and the Huron
which are now howling in their dead,
double-breasted coats and pants. The
city auto man has killed everything,
going through the unowned land without
branch, leaf, trunk or earth. The
autumn comes, and he has no foliage
to shed, and the winter appears, and
he cannot rest or sleep or die until
April, and his destiny star, too, is
dead. He has no green May shoots and
no loam in which to sprout. He feeds
listlessly and is alone when he genders
with his wife. He is an unseeding,
hating man who has forgotten to plant
a street, a blue-bell, a house.

Prophecy, O lost people without
a fate, is seeing the quick of the
instant. You have no porch, no yard,
no steps, you are groundless, and bitten
by gnats because you have slain the
earth. Can you die? Death is sweet
and dear, for it is quiet. But there
are no hills to appease you, and no
mountains to give you hard, striving
will, or rivers to wash your eyes to
make them see.

Homeless, denatured ghost of many
leafy races, where do you blow? who
will gather you up?

Copyright © Estate of Edward Dahlberg; Reprinted by Permission of the Publisher, McPherson & Company, from The Leafless American and Other Writings; All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Etymology of Bikini: actually begins with a non-velarized labial stop

From piloklok:
Anyway, the story for the word in its modern English use is that the two-piece bathing suit was introduced in 1946, and in search of a name for it, the designer chose Bikini, in reference to an (inhabited but evacuated) atoll in the Marshall Islands which had just been used for testing the atomic bomb. (The joke was, this bathing suit is as hot as a recently irradiated tropical island - ha ha ha).

It's observable that "kini" has become a cran-morpheme, appearing in forms like monokini (a one piece, or maybe topless form) and tankini (whose top is like a tank top). The brief ADS discussion suggested the backformation [bi+kini] was purposeful. Regardless, Nikolaev was unable to find help regarding the origin of the place name, as his summary several weeks later indicates:

I thank all who got in touch with me and who shared their know-how on the subject. However, no Marshallese connection was established and I still do not know for certain whether the bi- in bikini, by any off chance, came from the Latin bin, bis. While at this point we do not have the Marshallese etymology of the word bikini, I suggest that we do not close the current discussion.
The original query seemed innocent enough, but the sum kind of lets on speculation that the bi portion of the word bikini was always the latinate bi. (I think. Nobody (hopefully) would suggest the Romans made it that far east, or west, so I assume the null hypothesis is that there is a place called Kini to which a creative designer attached bi-.)

When I first saw the post I meant to write to Nikolaev after simply reaching behind me to crack open Abo, Bender, Capelle, and Debrum's Marshallese English Dictionary. But it was not behind me; instead, it was tucked away in the stacks on the 7th floor of Davidson Library. But the other day I was reminded of the issue when browsing the news and finding this story and photo.

So I went to get the dictionary, which I knew has a helpful section just on Marshallese place names. However, Marshallese orthography is opaque. The letter [b] is used, but stands for a velarized labial stop, which other Micronesian spelling systems express with [pw]. Also, the vowels are unusual: symbols like a, e, i, o, and u are all used, but are distributed over a four-height series in which each vowel has 3 (or so) allophones in the backness dimension.

What this means is that in looking for the Marshallese word bikini, you need to cast a wide net, especially since there is no such representation using that exact string of letters. Instead, it seems that the spelling of bikini is probably an English transliteration of a Japanese or German rendition. So I had to check b-words spelled with any vowel.

I scanned through the b-words in the place-name list and regular Marshallese-English section, with little luck. There were some leads, including bokwan [beqan], a recurring place-name formative, būkien [bikiyen] "its cape", būkōn [biken] "cape", bukun [biqin] "grove", and bok [beq] "sand" -- nothing quite close enough.

Frustrated, I wondered if the transliteration is actually a p-initial word. That is, perhaps the place name actually begins with a non-velarized labial stop, which Marshallese spells [p]. Then I found a place name Pikinni [pikinniy], which evidently is composed of pik "surface" and ni "coconut". It's listed in the place-name section of Abo et al, but it's not clear there whether the word applies specifically to the Bikini atoll.

I found confirmation, though, by looking up some official resources on the Marshall Islands. First I found their US Embassy, which links to a visitor's site, which links to an online library, with this entry on the Bikini atoll. In short, its name in Marshallese really is Pikinni. The probable trajectory is that the real place name was transliterated as Bikini, whose spelling precipitated the backformational removal of bi-.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Boris Vallejo's Depiction of the Agony of Jesus on the Cross

You see the link Jesus Christ! [dead ebay link removed] and immediately pause. Do I really want to see what's after the jump? Why not? And then, the image below. Gave me the biggest smile I've had all week. I wonder what Vallejo's Buddha might look like? (via goldenfiddle)

Boris Vallejo, Jesus Christ
Oil on Masonite, 1969

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Knowing Poe and The Mystery to a Solution

The Knowing Poe website just won a Webby Award, so I imagine it will get a fair, and deserved, amount of attention over the next few months. But the occasion gives me a chance to quote from one of my favorite books, John Irwin's masterful The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges and the Analytical Detective Story:

In creating the detective story, Poe produced the dominant modern genre, and I mean this not merely in the sense, so often cited, that it is the genre with the most titles listed or the most copies printed in any given year, but that it is preeminently the genre of an age dominated by science and technology, an age characterized by mental-work-as-analysis. In the detective scenario and the figure of the mastermind Dupin, Poe gave us at once the most appealing format and the most glamorous mask for mental work and the mental worker. From psychoanalyst to literary critic, from particle physicist to diagnostician, the most (self-)satisfying description of what one does (and thus what one is) seems to fall naturally into the scenario of a knotty problem and its solution - the patient amassing of clues, the false leads, the painstaking analysis, the ultimate triumph - culminating with the observation (hopefully made by someone other than oneself), "Why, you're really more interesting than you look. In fact, you're like a detective." But we should note that in creating the detective story Poe also gave us a cautionary tale about the mastery of mind and our modern scientific world. For Victor Frankenstein and C. Auguste Dupin are products of the same period and the same impulse, except that Dupin is his own monster. Which is to say, he is the first great characterless character, the name for a mental position in an entirely plot-driven scenario, the image of a man of whom one could remark that what he does is the sum total of what he is, a man who foreshadows our present world in which the manipulation of electronic gadgets take the place of thought and in which machines are all too often more interesting than people. And Poe turns the detective story into such a cautionary tale by setting as the task for the mind's exhibition of it mastery the analysis of its own structure. In baiting this task with a narcissistic hook, Poe makes it seem as if the Delphic injunction "Know thyself" had been inscribed on the obverse side of a coin whose reverse bore the inscription "Those whom the gods would destroy, first they make blind."

Monday, May 02, 2005


From Wikipedia:

Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (usually an image) being mistakenly perceived as recognizable. Common examples include images of animals or faces in clouds, seeing the man in the moon, and hearing messages on records played in reverse. The Rorschach inkblot test uses pareidolia to gain insight into a person's mental state.