May 02, 2009

The darling buds of May

This one goes out to Larry:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare, Sonnet XVIII

May 01, 2009

A beginning, a middle and an end

An early Islamic picture of Aristotle, courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero has been drinking at the fountain of Hellas again lately. Specifically, I've been pondering Aristotle's theory of poetics, which is the Western world's oldest and most influential work of literary theory and criticism. The best known parts of it have to do with the nature of tragedy.

Its influence can still be felt today not only in the realm of theater but in movies, television shows, novels and short stories.

He believed that basically all forms of art are imitative and that a main difference between comedy and tragedy is that one favored and portrayed the lower aspects of human nature while the other portrayed the higher. (He was all about distinctions between lower and higher.)

(This might explain the difference between Beavis and Butthead and Amadeus.)

According to his definition,

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude.

This may have been what Herman Melville was driving at in Moby-Dick when he wrote that

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

Aristotle also laid out the elements that most people expect from any kind of story:

A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well-constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.

Clearly, the dude understood nothing about sequels...

YOU DON'T NEED A WEATHERMAN. Paul Krugman argues that addressing climate change is affordable and, done right, could even been good for the economy.

THE SKY IS FALLING. Business lobbying groups are going Chicken Little over the Employee Free Choice Act and the prospect of universal health care.

GOOD NATURED. Here's an interesting item from Newsweek on the evolutionary roots of morality.

MEDICAID. This AP story highlights a study that found serious flaws in WV's redesigned Medicaid program.

STATE REVENUES in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia look a little better than expected for April. The legislature has postponed dealing with budget issues until May due to uncertainty.


April 30, 2009

Poetic instincts

The English word poetry comes a real workhorse of a Greek word. Poesis means something like "making" and is by no means restricted to works of literature. The word shows up in all kinds of prosaic (no pun intended) contexts in the Greek language and is kind of like the Spanish word hacer, which also means to make.

It's interesting how a word of such broad usage in Greek came to have such a limited meaning in English, but I'll think about that tomorrow, as Scarlett O'Hara said.

Anyhow, the philosopher Aristotle believed that the source of poetry in the English sense of the word has its origins in human nature itself:

Poetry in general seems to have spring from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.

Note: he uses imitation in the broadest possible sense, which would include narrative. Both Aristotle and Plato seemed to view all arts as imitative--even music, which is something I never quite got. He goes on...

Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for "harmony" and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.

Not too shabby. From the viewpoint of 2,400 years later, he seemed to nail it. Narrative or story seems to be hardwired into human nature and the universal sense of rhythm, which manifests itself differently in various times and places, seems to grow out of our biological heritage. Nature is one big rhythm band after all.

TAKING A DIVE. Economic signals don't look pretty. Here's a snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute about the latest bad news.

BUDGET WIN. Congress passed President Obama's budget, which represents a clear change in priorities from the Bush years.

SOLITARY CONFINEMENT can drive people crazy.

TORTURED ETHICS. This article looks at the role played by psychologists in designing torture techniques.

THE LATEST on all things Massey can be found at Coal Tattoo.


April 29, 2009

Master of those who know

The dude abides. A statue of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, courtesy of wikipedia.

In Dante's Divine Comedy, the Greek philosopher Aristotle is referred to as "master of those who know." In the 14th century, when Dante wrote his masterpiece, Aristotle's long lost teachings had been rediscovered fairly recently and seemed to many to be the last word on subjects of science, art, ethics, metaphysics and politics.

You could say that this says more about the state of human knowledge in the late medieval period than about Aristotle. It is kind of sad that knowledge, philosophy and science in Europe had fairly stagnated for centuries.

Part of the reason for that can probably be explained by what has been called "the terror of history," i.e. the massive disruptions caused by the fall of the western Roman empire, massive invasions and migrations, and all that. And it's hard to deny that the Christian religion in its first several centuries was singularly uninterested in the advance of earthly knowledge and that it held a commanding place in the lives of most people.

Having said all that, Aristotle was no slouch and much of his writing can be profitably read today, particularly his Ethics, Politics, and Poetics. (El Cabrero must admit that his acquaintance with his works on metaphysics and logic is second and third handed.)

My recently reinvigorated interest in Greek tragedy inspired me to take another look at his Poetics, which still has a vast influence over how people look at literature and the nature of poetry, drama and plot.

More on that to come.

ONE BIG UNION of unions may be on the way.

A PLANETARY SHIFT in American politics?

HATE GROUPS are ramping up again.

DIONYSUS is still here. He was all about people getting together and acting as one.

JUST FOR FUN, this article asks which movie bad guy does a certain vice president more closely resemble.


April 28, 2009

Anyone for a goat song?

El Cabrero has gone for a pretty long time at this blog without a big jag on Greek mythology. I think it's been since last autumn.

Having said that, I feel my self control starting to wane. Maybe it's because I've recently resolved to read or re-read all existing Greek tragedies. Some of them I revisit fairly regularly, like Sophocles' Oedipus plays or the Orestia of Aeschylus. But there are a bunch that I've either missed altogether or haven't looked at in a long time.

My first stop was Euripides' Bacchae, which I always thought would make a good movie or at least an extended old-school Twilight Zone episode. It's about the less-than-friendly welcome the god Dionysus received on visiting his mother's home town of Thebes. Take home message: if a god comes, roll out the red carpet--or else.

But first, here's a little cheery nugget from my old pal Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. One of his main ideas in the book is that the ancient Greeks had a deep pessimistic streak but managed to say yes to life in spite of it, thanks in part to the help of art. Here goes:

"There is an ancient story that King Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked what was best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word, till at last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words: 'Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. Bet the second best for you is--to die soon."

Gee, I feel better already.

MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL. The Obama administration indicated it wants to reverse some Bush-era policies but it's not clear what that means.

ANTS AND SUCH. We know they're social animals, but what about the individuals?


ABANDONED PETS are on the rise in the wake of foreclosures and a tanking economy.


April 27, 2009

Turkey babies!

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to announce the hatching of Goat Rope Farm's first baby turkey. If all goes well, there could be as many as six more to come.

The proud parents are Frida (pictured above) and Diego. The father was unavailable for comment as he was busy displaying to anything he could find and attempting to mate stray feathers left on the ground.

Unlike turkeys in industrial type farms, which are over bred mutants incapable of natural reproduction, Diego and Frida are heritage breeds which retain more of the features of their wild ancestors. As a result, the baby pictured above came into the world in the time-honored fashion; that is to say with a great deal of showing off on the part of the male and a great deal of apparent indifference on the part of the female. Something, however, must have worked.

THE BANALITY OF TORTURE. Here's NY Times columnist Frank Rich on the torture policies of the Bush administration.

ON THAT NOTE, some people close to the situation have argued that Bush era torture policies were so counter-productive that they may have contributed to the deaths of many US soldiers in Iraq.

OH GOOD. Executive pay at investment banks is going up.

JOHN BROWN REVISITED. The 150th anniversary of John Brown's historic raid on Harper's Ferry in what is now West Virginia will occur this fall. Here's some new insights on this event by a history professor from Shepherd University.

MORALITY AND POLITICS. Here's a good article on the research of psychologist Jonathan Haidt on how liberals and conservatives share many key moral values but place difference emphases upon them.