Blog in Review: “Not just a Bludgeoning Instrument,” 10/4/2016

Slowly reading a book on ancient Greek philosophy and architectural development. There’s a lot of speculation: ancient sources are taken far too literally at the very same time they are treated metaphorically. This leads to a problem like the following. Anaximander was said to have created a globe, a map, and a time-telling device. So far, fine. Some scholars speculate that they are all the same thing based on the phrasing of one source, but the scholar I’m reading tries hard to think through what they could have literally been. If there was a globe, it must have been made in the fashion of bronze tripods and basins of the time; the map must have been a brilliant artifact like a shield, as Herodotus tells us of a map that was a “thing of wonder” despite the fact it could not describe distances; the time-telling device is described by a word that in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon means the same as an interpreter of omens. Even though my details sound a bit scattered, you can see that the literary character of the works from which the speculation comes is not being addressed. A source makes mention of a particular thing, and that mention is treated as if it were in an encyclopedia. If Herodotus or Aeschylus has a specific use for that thing in their narrative, that may be neglected in favor of advancing an archaeological record, one which is not exactly the concern of all ancient writers.

All that having been said: the read is introducing me to historical detail I sorely need, and the speculation is interesting and challenging. The author forces you to really think through about what you’re getting from ancient sources and how they add up. That she forces them to “add up” may be a problem, but it is also helpful for having the most thorough discussion possible. For myself, I’m realizing that I’m far more thorough in making arguments than I thought I was. It’s not just about collecting lots of data on a thing: one must be able to weigh and consider what constitutes evidence before even trying out an argument.

I hope the last few entries have had a clarity you’ve found useful and pleasurable. Fanny Howe’s “Yellow Goblins” was a joy to read and think about, and while I feel like I gave a muddled appreciation of her imagery from “The Garden,” the artifact is plainly visible for you to consider. Walt Whitman’s “The Runner” was a nice excuse for me to talk about how democracy itself has previously been discussed in more sophisticated terms. Democracy is not just a bludgeoning instrument where majorities assert their will how they like. It involves a set of norms and practices that point at a species of democratic man.

My reading of Xenophon’s “Apology” stems from the work I’ve been doing on my dissertation. I’m happy with it, and it speaks for itself. Incidentally, Bill Kristol recently retweeted Robert Howse, resulting in some short remarks by Leo Strauss and an accompanying commentary getting a lot more traffic than I would otherwise anticipate. There’s so much on this blog to fix, but it wasn’t hard to fix up that commentary, and I think most of you would enjoy it: “Memorial Remarks for Jason Aronson.”

Kay Ryan’s “Fatal Flaw” is a challenging poem: Why exactly are things fatal flaws? I start from the assumption that we’re flawed not because of what we don’t want, but precisely because there are things we want, and we encourage ourselves to keep pursuing them. My commentary moves fast, but I think you can see the issues clearly enough.

Seamus Heaney’s “A Hagging Match” and Yehuda Amichai’s “Water Cannot Return” are lovely short poems that recommend themselves.

Even if you don’t like photography, I hope you will take a look at my reflections on a visit to an exhibition of Irving Penn’s work. The portrait of Simone de Beauvoir he took is remarkable. The way it works with darkness provides a peculiar clarity. Not an attempt to spell out every last detail, but a powerful wholeness where you can read her legacy simply by glimpsing her strength.

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