Tuesday, March 31, 2009

relativism

Go Jenson!

My word, Tom. You really are a mine of useless information.

Look, Dad, Kids Eat Free!
Ah-ha! I hope you're not going to make quite such a mess of it as that little girl. (laughter)
No we're not!
Yes, I am Dad, I'm going to make a great big mess!

I am not a huge fan of folk music, but these guys were really good.

...120 bpm which then slows down to 116 bpm, and on the whole I found the album very poor value for step fans. (from a review of Prince's "Sign o the Times" in Aerobics and Jogging magazine)

Never judge a book by your own standards.

In each of these cases the Q1 version crudely damages the tone and mood of the earlier scene by confusing it with the later: so Capulet becomes impolite, the Nurse a tippler, the light poise of Romeo prosaic. .... The middle of the sppech in Q1 is not Shakespeare; for his still impatient and headstrong Mercutio, suddenly caught by spasms of physical agony and anguished thoughts, Q1 substitutes pedestrian hack-writing in regular dull rhythm, concluded with a dismally banal sententious couplet. ... (Brian Gibbons, 2nd Arden edn of Romeo and Juliet, 1980)

Every so often I jot down materials for an essay about - in fact, a defence of - critical relativism, but I'm sure I'll never write it. That's partly because I suppose that everything in my Defence must have been said about a thousand times already, and perhaps refuted a thousand times too, but I can't really be bothered to check because that kind of writing bores me. I like the idea of writing it, though. And whatever may have been said before, it's obvious that an unrelativistic view of art continues to flourish fiercely in some parts of the poetry world where plodding schoolmasterly chastisings and furious line-by-line tu quoques are clearly intended seriously by their authors.

I would have mentioned Fish's "Is there a text in this class?" as the only book on the subject I've ever willingly read (and I think basically I just agreed with it).

I would have quoted that bit in Borges' "Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius" about how no argument is considered complete until its refutal has been completely worked out.
(that would amount to fully understanding why each of your favourites might seem like shit to someone else, and why all the things you hate might seem wonderful to someone else...).

I would have written about "hard cases", where the relativist argument might seem counter-intuitive: for example, that there exists a possible understanding of the world, not necessarily yet instantiated, but no more nor less correct than our own, in which

the "Bad Quartos" of Shakespeare's plays are more valued than the good;

or

Mozart's juvenile symphonies are rated above the Six (or how about this one: Beethoven's "Battle Symphony" above the Nine?)

or

the money-spinning gestures of Wilkie Collins' terribly ill later years seem more interesting than Armadale...

(I sometimes get so absorbed in this matter that no sooner have I thought up some unthinkable reversal of our consensus, than I try and work out the kind of way you'd need to see the world in order to believe these things. Surprisingly often, this procedure leads me to a mental place that is both sensible and revelatory. Surprisingly often, a little inspection reveals that the opinion I once considered so outrageous is in fact not just defensible but already widely held, and my supposed consensus depended on a highly selective sample of the earth's inhabitants.)

In fact these are not really such hard cases. The necessary perspective for a simple reversal of canonical judgment is often quite easy to imagine. For example, "All Shakespeare's plays are wonderful" is a common canonical view, but far more common is the inverse judgment, "All Shakespeare's plays are boring". Such judgments never exist in a void. Thus the latter view commonly exists within a larger framework of "All old plays are boring", "All old books are boring", "Books are boring" etc. -all views of the world that there's no disputing. Thus, if we try and imagine a context for the view of Mozart proposed above, the easiest solution is to place it within a larger belief about youth - in effect, a denial of the values encoded in the very word "juvenilia". That wouldn't really be very hard to conceive - views about youth have been through many well-documented changes in the last few centuries. Like when you look at a sheep field and reflect that the skipping, curious lambs seem a whole lot more intelligent than their stodgy parents.

A really hard case might be something like: "All Shakespeare's plays are deadly bores, with the shining exception of the absorbing Two Gentlemen of Verona." This is an opinion that is tough to imagine being held, because its sole exception seems to imply literary values that, you'd think, would be bound to find something to admire in a few other Shakespeare plays as well. What could you value in the Two Gentlemen that you couldn't also find reasonably executed elsewhere? So perhaps it might be possible to construct composite and artificial judgments of this sort that are really impossible to hold, inextricably mired in self-contradiction? (I am far from conceding it.)

I would also have written about the basic differences in character between inner and outer views of some category of artefact - as rather neatly summed up in that "I'm not a huge fan of folk music" remark.

And I would have talked about the secrecy of artefacts, why audiences can never understand them nor authors come out and sit among their own audience.


[One reason I won't ever write this essay is that its cultural moment has passed... There's a faded, period feel to arguments that (even hypothetically) discuss the ranking of Shakespeare's plays. In practice everyone knows that we relativists have already won the argument, even if we've never really had it...]

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Prunus - early




(Above) Myrobalan Plum or Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera). Much confused - e.g. by me - with Blackthorn (P. spinosa) (below) but its flowers appear three weeks earlier, typically with (not before) the leaves, and it doesn't usually have thorns. For much more about this wonderful plant, click here.







(Above) Prunus cerasifera, variety 'Atropurpurea', usually known as Pissard's Plum. I first wrote that this early moment of beauty must be why its admirers are prepared to put up with the next six months of shabby brown leaves, but the truth is no doubt otherwise: they probably think brown leaves are cool.

Plums generally flower earlier than cherries - at this time of year you can tell the difference because plum-blossom stalks are in ones or twos, whereas the cherry blossoms are usually in larger bunches.




(Above) Almond (Prunus dulcis) - easily identified by the large flowers.

Almond is a short-lived tree so usually found in newer gardens. Some of the showier Almonds are actually a cross with Peach (Prunus persica), according to Alan Mitchell's Trees of Britain.

The bark is cherry-like on young saplings, with horizontal bands of lenticels; then it develops spiral cracks and soon turns almost black.





(Above) I photographed this (growing beneath an overhead walkway) on March 19th. Thank you to Nadia Talent for identifying it as an Apricot (Prunus armeniaca), which I never even knew could be grown as a street tree in the UK - the free-standing trees don't ripen fruit, though. This ignorance of mine was due to excessive reverence for the great Alan Mitchell, prone to arbitrary silence about certain tree species. But I can now say, with the Danish poet Inger Christensen:

abrikostræerne findes, abrikos-træerne findes

(apricottrees exist, apricot-trees exist)

[The translation by Susanna Nied inevitably and sensibly fails to register some of Christensen's minutiae, like the comma in this first poem. The Danish is more committed to the alphabet than you might guess from the English, e.g. in the B poem "hydrogen exists" where the original word for hydrogen is presumably "brint". Likewise in the "D" poem, words like "killers" and "poems" do begin with D originally, something like "dræber" and "digter" respectively (excuse lack of correct Danish grammar). And that's also why the K poem appears (in English) not to begin with K.]





(Above) Prunus 'Accolade'. One parent, at any rate, was Prunus sargentii, the other possibly Prunus subhirtella.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

but still, I do have an opinion

Natasya calculated the annual project fees. She went to see Ruud. With a benignly tolerant smile he made certain adjustments concerned with aspects of the world that she could not be expected to know and that it delighted him to inform her of.

While this was going on, Ruud took a phone call from Iain back at base. A jokey, expert, cryptic conversation took place, which included some twinkling eyes when he made mischievous allusion to his new colleague. It was a performance for her benefit. He hugely enjoyed it; so far, she was making a good impression.

Later that evening, someone flitted mysteriously through the dusky garden. Her face was obscured by a mantequilla, although this made her feel greasy.

Biron touched the felted edge of his hat-brim. Play up, old chap. The ragged spectacle of the mahonia-winged horse unsettled him. It reminded him of the dream of seeing young Terry chatting with his shirt off after surgery and all his innards gone, just a spine and a sort of ragged knot of red bootlaces where his belly button used to be.

See Amid the Winter Snow

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