Wednesday, September 3, 2014

a poem by Robert Lowell

Wallowing in this bloody sty,
I cast for fish that pleased my eye
(Truly Jehovah's bow suspends
No pots of gold to weight its ends);
Only the blood-mouthed rainbow trout
Rose to my bait. They flopped about
My canvas creel until the moth
Corrupted its unstable cloth.

A calendar to tell the day;
A handkerchief to wave away
The gnats; a couch unstuffed with storm
Pouching a bottle in one arm;
A whiskey bottle full of worms;
And bedroom slacks: are these fit terms
To mete the worm whose molten rage
Boils in the belly of old age?

Once fishing was a rabbit's foot--
O wind blow cold, O wind blow hot,
Let suns stay in or suns step out:
Life danced a jig on the sperm-whale's spout--
The fisher's fluent and obscene
Catches kept his conscience clean.
Children, the raging memory drools
Over the glory of past pools.

Now the hot river, ebbing, hauls
Its bloody waters into holes;
A grain of sand inside my shoe
Mimics the moon that might undo
Man and Creation too; remorse,
Stinking, has puddled up its source;
Here tantrums thrash to a whale's rage.
This is the pot-hole of old age.

Is there no way to cast my hook
Out of this dynamited brook?
The Fisher's sons must cast about
When shallow waters peter out.
I will catch Christ with a greased worm,
And when the Prince of Darkness stalks
My bloodstream to its Stygian term . . .
On water the Man-Fisher walks. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Crisis In Physics

As those of you who have studied the history of science from, approximately, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, to Einstein, Heisenberg, Planck, Dirac, Bohr, Feinman (the list could go on and on), probably know, Relativity and Quantum mechanics don't work well together; it would, perhaps, not be going too far to say that they are incompatible. Along comes String Theory (about which I know very little), which claims that both theories are a logical consequence of this larger and more inclusive theory. Unfortunately, the equations of String Theory are very difficult (if not impossible ) to solve and (what is even worse) they produce no verifiable predictions.

This is not a tragic tale (does it remind you just a little of that ancient myth, The Tower of Babel?) What ever made us think that it might be possible to think up a Grand Unified Theory of Everything?
The failure of that dream doesn't mean that there won't be plenty of work for our scientists to do—superconductivity at normal temperatures, for example. (Which may be impossible, but we don't know that yet.)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Socrates, Muhammad And The Koran

I’ve been trying to read the Koran, without much success. That is to say, I can read it ok but it is not the sort of book that rewards close attention. It’s boringly repetitive, and has no logical or narrative structure—you can see why those who study it have to memorize it because only those who have the whole thing in their heads can find their way around in it—hence the power of the Mullahs. There is one message that comes through very clearly and very often: if one is not a believer, Satan will get you and you will roast in hell for ever. (But Allah is all wise and all merciful.)

So the Koran is a barbaric book—in the ancient Greek sense of that word—to those of us at least who don’t understand classical Arabic; for those who do, reading the Koran must be first of all an esthetic experience—Mohammed must have been a great poet, which means that the believers—at  least those who understand classical Arabic—are responding not so much to what he says but to the beauty of his language. . . . For them, Socrates’ deep and enduring question, “How should one live?” has been settled.  Muslims and ultra-orthodox Jews would seem to have a lot in common.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Black Holes, Quantum Mechanics and Death

The New York Times recently (August 13) published an article about the problem of what happens to an object that falls into a black hole; more specifically, what happens to the information encoded in such an object: will that information be lost or (somehow) preserved?That was the gist of it anyway; the problem is complicated and elicited a wide range appropriately learned comments, arguments and explanations. By the time the editors had stopped accepting such contributions there were 372 of them, one of which was mine which was neither complicated nor learned but was accepted anyway.

Why all the fuss? Because that question about the loss or preservation of information is at the center of quantum mechanics in the form of a law, which says that information is always conserved. As you probably know there are a number of such conservation laws in Physics. All of these have been repeatedly tested and confirmed. Until now, perhaps.

I think that the law of conversation of information is violated every time an organism dies, or a great library is burned, and I said so:

Why has no one mentioned death in this controversy about information and whether or not it is conserved? Dead men tell no tales, right? (Well, there are those who believe that there is life after death, of which I am not one.) When we die ALL the information that has been somehow encoded in our brains disappears. When the sun becomes a red giant and gobbles up this planet, all the information stored in it and on it will be gone, forever. Can I prove that? No. But I know it and so do you—most of you, at any rate.

These remarks were mostly ignored or received with hostility—one fellow said I had my facts wrong, another that by saying I knew something which I could not prove I was revealing a religious bias.

Now, having given the problem a little more thought, I realize that I ought to have more forcefully acknowledged the fact that the conservation of information law is one of the foundation principles of the Standard Theory, and has been verified over and over again. Then, the point I should have made is that information has only been shown to be conserved in laboratory experiments at the atomic or sub-atomic level; never in the macroscopic world that we live in. A black-hole, however, brings both realms together; we know or think we know what happens to a macroscopic object that gets pulled into a black hole and disappears.  Though it will probably never happen, it is theoretically and practically possible for a spaceship with people in it to encounter the gravitational field of a black-hole and be sucked into it. At that point it makes sense to ask what happens to the information encoded in that spaceship and in the bodies and brains of people in it. What I am claiming is that all that information will be lost forever. Which, of course, is what happens when we die; or, when a great library, like the one in Alexandria, burns.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

A. N. Wilson's take on Hitler

Whatever Mr. Wilson writes about, he illuminates—Jesus and St. Paul for example. When I discovered that he had also written a book about Hitler, I read it wondering how he could have found something new and illuminating to say about that demonic character. Well, he did find something new to say about Hitler, something new and wrong-headed. Hitler, he says is the "cloven hoof of the Enlightenment. . . . He believed in a crude Darwinism as do nearly all scientists today and as do almost all 'sensible' sociologists, political commentators and journalistic  wiseacres. He thought that humanity in its history was to be explained by the idea of struggle, by the survival of the fittest, by the strongest species overcoming the weaker. Unlike the Darwinians of today, Hitler merely took his belief to its logical conclusion. Hitler's crude belief in science fed his unhesitating belief in modernity." It's surprising to hear such stuff coming from Wilson, who it seems is a more fervent and dogmatic Christian than I'd expected. It's not that Wilson is wrong in what he says about Hitler; it's irrelevant. Ww2 was a continuation of ww1, so that's where one has to start. When you do that you start with the fact that Germany hated the Enlightenment and in this she had deep affinities with the reactionary doctrines of Joseph de Maistre. This is something that a great historian such as Wilson ought to have been aware of.

Here is how the high-minded German philosopher and theologian Ernst Troeltsch, writing in 1922, tried to explain what had been at stake for Germany in 1914 when she forced an only too willing France and Britain to go to war:

The peculiarity of German thought, in the form in which it is nowadays so much emphasized, both inside and outside Germany, is primarily derived from the Romantic Movement... Romanticism too is a revolution, a thorough and genuine revolution: a revolution against the respectability of the bourgeois temper and against a universal equalitarian ethic: a revolution, above all, against the whole of the mathematico-mechanical spirit of science in western Europe, against a conception of Natural Law which sought to blend utility with morality, against the bare abstraction of a universal and equal Humanity. Confronted with the eruption of West-European ideas of Natural Law, and with the revolutionary storms by which they were accompanied, Romanticism pursued an increasingly self-conscious trend in the opposite direction of a conservative revolution. In the spirit of the contemplative and the mystic, the Romanticists penetrated behind the rich variety of actual life to the inward forces by which it was moved, and sought to encourage the play of those forces in a steady movement towards a rich universe of unique and individual structures of the creative human mind.

What he doesn't say is that the ruling classes in Germany wanted above all to preserve their power and privileges and hated England not only because she had the empire that Germany coveted, but especially because England—even the England of Downton Abbey and all that—had a degree of parliamentary democracy that Germany hated and feared. WW 1, therefore, was from the beginning aimed at England.  Belgium, for example was to be annexed in order that Germany might have—in addition to the industrial resources of the country—a position on the English Channel from which to harass and threaten English shipping and sea-power. Anyone interested in this subject should consult Germany's Drive to The West: A Study of Germany's Western War Aims During the First World War by Hans W. Gatzke, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966).

[See also my remarks on Troeltsch's theory of German Romantic thought, 3-24-2008; also, As Germany Saw It, 3-21-2008.]

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Waiting For Godot, by Samuel Beckett

I saw a great performance of this play last night, at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis.

Try to see it if it ever shows up at a theater near you or, even simpler, watch it on UTube. Or get a copy and read it.  

Thinking about this play now, I'm tempted to call it Beckett's Wasteland—like Eliot's poem it is about futility, boredom and despair. Remember the woman who cries out "What shall we do? What shall we ever do?"

And then there are echoes, as it were, from some the great silent films of the 1920s—Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin. For despite its bleak vision of human life, Beckett's tragic play does have its moments of pure slapstick. But the humor is based on pain.

Perhaps only the murderous 20th century could have produced such play. Beckett had lived through two of the most destructive wars in human history. (The world wars were essentially a single war with a twenty year intermission). The bleakness of Beckett's vision of human life emerges naturally from our historical experience:  hundreds of millions of people squashed like insects. Poland, for example, lost a fifth of its population; the Jews, almost wiped out.

Franz Kafka is a powerful presence in this play, especially perhaps his short parable about a man who is waiting to gain access to the Law. It is called "Before The Law." Here it is:

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know, then?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

W. H. Auden: Three Poems



He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree 
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


     You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
     The parish of rich women, physical decay,
     Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
     Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
     For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
     In the valley of its making where executives
     Would never want to tamper, flows on south
     From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
     Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
     A way of happening, a mouth.


          Earth, receive an honoured guest:
          William Yeats is laid to rest.
          Let the Irish vessel lie
          Emptied of its poetry.

          In the nightmare of the dark
          All the dogs of Europe bark,
          And the living nations wait,
          Each sequestered in its hate;

          Intellectual disgrace
          Stares from every human face,
          And the seas of pity lie
          Locked and frozen in each eye.

          Follow, poet, follow right
          To the bottom of the night,
          With your unconstraining voice
          Still persuade us to rejoice;

          With the farming of a verse
          Make a vineyard of the curse,
          Sing of human unsuccess
          In a rapture of distress;

          In the deserts of the heart
          Let the healing fountain start,
          In the prison of his days
          Teach the free man how to praise.


I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade: 
Waves of anger and fear 
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth, 
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death 
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use 
Their full height to proclaim 
The strength of Collective Man, 
Each language pours its vain 
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare, 
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are, 
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash 
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish: 
What mad Nijinsky wrote 
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart; 
For the error bred in the bone 
Of each woman and each man 
Craves what it cannot have, 
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game: 
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street 
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky: 
There is no such thing as the State 
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.



    She looked over his shoulder
      For vines and olive trees,
     Marble well-governed cities
      And ships upon untamed seas,
     But there on the shining metal
      His hands had put instead
     An artificial wilderness
      And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
   No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down, 
   Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
   An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line, 
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
   Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
   No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
   Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

     She looked over his shoulder
      For ritual pieties,
     White flower-garlanded heifers,
      Libation and sacrifice,
     But there on the shining metal
      Where the altar should have been,
     She saw by his flickering forge-light
      Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
   Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
   A crowd of ordinary decent folk
   Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
   That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
   And could not hope for help and no help came:
   What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

     She looked over his shoulder
      For athletes at their games,
     Men and women in a dance
      Moving their sweet limbs
     Quick, quick, to music,
      But there on the shining shield
     His hands had set no dancing-floor
      But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone, 
   Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
   That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
   Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

     The thin-lipped armorer,
      Hephaestos, hobbled away,
     Thetis of the shining breasts
      Cried out in dismay
     At what the god had wrought
      To please her son, the strong
     Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
      Who would not live long.