12 May 2014

One Cogged Circle

There are two things that strike me with Chapter 37 of Moby Dick (excerpt follows).

1. There seems a kind of Gnostic contention here. "…and what I've willed, I'll do." In the assertion of the "lack" of the "low, enjoying power" many have thought this was due to being "dismasted" by the whale and that the lost leg is rather the loss of "generative power"--an impotence. But there is in Kabbalah a will to "break down the distinction between God in Itself (God on high, set apart) and God in its appearance, in its immanence (in the low, a part). There is no separation." (Bernstein, "Reznikoff's Nearness," in Sulfur #32, p 19.) Applied to the below, Ahab lacks the sense of God as a part of himself but rather only confronts the "God on high, set apart."

2. Here Melville somewhat countermands an Emersonian trope in "Circles" that every circle admits of being outdone, a circle can be encompassed by a greater circle, an infinite expansion of the possible.

THE EYE is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere and its circumference nowhere. We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms. One moral we have already deduced in considering the circular or compensatory character of every human action. Another analogy we shall now trace, that every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

In Moby Dick Ahab claims not the ability to draw the greatest circle, rather he asserts his worldly power, against the transcendental idea in Emerson, of being the small circle at the center of other circles "cogged" so that all other "circles" (his crew, their "will") are fitted to his turning.


CHAPTER 37. Sunset.


I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I
sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them;
but first I pass.

Yonder, by ever-brimming goblet's rim, the warm waves blush like wine.
The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver sun--slow dived from noon--goes
down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless hill. Is, then,
the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet is
it bright with many a gem; I the wearer, see not its far flashings; but
darkly feel that I wear that, that dazzlingly confounds. 'Tis iron--that
I know--not gold. 'Tis split, too--that I feel; the jagged edge galls
me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull,
mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight!

Dry heat upon my brow? Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred
me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me;
all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne'er enjoy. Gifted with
the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly
and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise! Good night--good

'Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least;
but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they
revolve. Or, if you will, like so many ant-hills of powder, they all
stand before me; and I their match. Oh, hard! that to fire others, the
match itself must needs be wasting! What I've dared, I've willed; and
what I've willed, I'll do! They think me mad--Starbuck does; but I'm
demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that's only calm
to comprehend itself!

11 March 2014

What Works and Is

It occurred to me today that the impasse between what we call science, which must simply mean the continuing experimentation with the world's innards, and "Belief," which must mean every single thing we think and say, can be explained away really pretty easily.

Science "works and is" (god luv ya, Waldo), or rather, science "works." But it is meaningless. I don't mean it's not applicable, that IS what it is. Even the "theoretical" yearns to be "real" or applicable. What is made out of any discovery where elements of the world's constituent parts can be ordered and reordered certainly can lead to "meaning." This actually makes "theoretical" science far closer to "belief" because it starts with a "story." What if…

Belief is ALL meaning all the time. What "works" is irrelevant. Belief springs from the narrative fictions of analogical mind.

Back to Ralph from Self-Reliance (you really ought to have this memorized by now):
Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that for ever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside. Why, then, do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confident but agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is.
Waldo here starts with Meaning and metaphor and ends with the scientific method. What works and is shoves Jesus and Judas aside.  Science builds on the accumulation of any knowledge that "worked" in the past but it LIVES in the present only. Belief is a strong wish for the unknown future based on an unknown but "storied" history.

28 January 2014

Comparative Eugenics: Utopia v Dystopia v Public Education

From Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
From Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932)
From Hard Times, by Charles Dickens (1854)


They did effectually and permanently limit the population in numbers, so that the country furnished plenty for the fullest, richest life for all of them: plenty of everything, including room, air, solitude even.

And then they set to work to improve that population in quality -- since they were restricted in quantity. This they had been at work on, uninterruptedly, for some fifteen hundred years. Do you wonder they were nice people?

Physiology, hygiene, sanitation, physical culture -- all that line of work had been perfected long since. Sickness was almost wholly unknown among them, so much so that a previously high development in what we call the "science of medicine" had become practically a lost art. They were a clean-bred, vigorous lot, having the best of care, the most perfect living conditions always.

When it came to psychology -- there was no one thing which left us so dumbfounded, so really awed, as the everyday working knowledge -- and practice -- they had in this line. As we learned more and more of it, we learned to appreciate the exquisite mastery with which we ourselves, strangers of alien race, of unknown opposite sex, had been understood and provided for from the first.

With this wide, deep, thorough knowledge, they had met and solved the problems of education in ways some of which I hope to make clear later. Those nation-loved children of theirs compared with the average in our country as the most perfectly cultivated, richly developed roses compare with -- tumbleweeds. Yet they did not seem "cultivated" at all -- it had all become a natural condition.

And this people, steadily developing in mental capacity, in will power, in social devotion, had been playing with the arts and sciences -- as far as they knew them -- for a good many centuries now with inevitable success.

Into this quiet lovely land, among these wise, sweet, strong women, we, in our easy assumption of superiority, had suddenly arrived; and now, tamed and trained to a degree they considered safe, we were at last brought out to see the country, to know the people.


He rubbed his hands. For of course, they didn't content themselves with merely hatching out embryos: any cow could do that. "We also predestine and condition. We decant our babies as socialized human beings, as Alphas or Epsilons, as future sewage workers or future ..." He was going to say "future World controllers," but correcting himself, said "future Directors of Hatcheries," instead. The D.H.C. acknowledged the compliment with a smile. They were passing Metre 320 on Rack 11. A young Beta-Minus mechanic was busy with screw-driver and spanner on the blood-surrogate pump of a passing bottle. The hum of the electric motor deepened by fractions of a tone as he turned the nuts. Down, down ... A final twist, a glance at the revolution counter, and he was done. He moved two paces down the line and began the same process on the next pump. "Reducing the number of revolutions per minute," Mr. Foster explained. "The surrogate goes round slower; therefore passes through the lung at longer intervals; therefore gives the embryo less oxygen. Nothing like oxygen-shortage for keeping an embryo below par." Again he rubbed his hands.

"But why do you want to keep the embryo below par?" asked an ingenuous student.

"Ass!" said the Director, breaking a long silence. "Hasn't it occurred to you that an Epsilon embryo must have an Epsilon environment as well as an Epsilon heredity?"

It evidently hadn't occurred to him. He was covered with confusion. "The lower the caste," said Mr. Foster, "the shorter the oxygen." The first organ affected was the brain. After that the skeleton. At seventy per cent of normal oxygen you got dwarfs. At less than seventy eyeless monsters.

"Who are no use at all," concluded Mr. Foster.


'Girl number twenty,' said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, 'I don't know that girl. Who is that girl?'

'Sissy Jupe, sir,' explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

'Sissy is not a name,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'Don't call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.'

'It's father as calls me Sissy, sir,' returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

'Then he has no business to do it,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'Tell him he mustn't. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?'

'He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.'

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

'We don't want to know anything about that, here. You mustn't tell us about that, here. Your father breaks horses, don't he?'

'If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.'

'You mustn't tell us about the ring, here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?'

'Oh yes, sir.'

'Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.'

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

'Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!' said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. 'Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy's definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.'...

'Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.' Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

'Now girl number twenty,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'You know what a horse is.'

21 January 2014

Dismembered In All Directions

It is not the fault of our doctors that the medical service of the community, as at present provided for, is a murderous absurdity. That any sane nation, having observed that you could provide for the supply of bread by giving bakers a pecuniary interest in baking for you, should go on to give a surgeon a pecuniary interest in cutting off your leg, is enough to make one despair of political humanity. But that is precisely what we have done. And the more appalling the mutilation, the more the mutilator is paid. He who corrects the ingrowing toe-nail receives a few shillings: he who cuts your inside out receives hundreds of guineas, except when he does it to a poor person for practice.

Scandalized voices murmur that these operations are necessary. They may be. It may also be necessary to hang a man or pull down a house. But we take good care not to make the hangman and the housebreaker the judges of that. If we did, no man's neck would be safe and no man's house stable. But we do make the doctor the judge, and fine him anything from sixpence to several hundred guineas if he decides in our favor. I cannot knock my shins severely without forcing on some surgeon the difficult question, "Could I not make a better use of a pocketful of guineas than this man is making of his leg? Could he not write as well—or even better—on one leg than on two? And the guineas would make all the difference in the world to me just now. My wife—my pretty ones—the leg may mortify—it is always safer to operate—he will be well in a fortnight—artificial legs are now so well made that they are really better than natural ones—evolution is towards motors and leglessness, etc., etc., etc."

Now there is no calculation that an engineer can make as to the behavior of a girder under a strain, or an astronomer as to the recurrence of a comet, more certain than the calculation that under such circumstances we shall be dismembered unnecessarily in all directions by surgeons who believe the operations to be necessary solely because they want to perform them. The process metaphorically called bleeding the rich man is performed not only metaphorically but literally every day by surgeons who are quite as honest as most of us. After all, what harm is there in it? The surgeon need not take off the rich man's (or woman's) leg or arm: he can remove the appendix or the uvula, and leave the patient none the worse after a fortnight or so in bed, whilst the nurse, the general practitioner, the apothecary, and the surgeon will be the better.

--opening section of Shaw's "Preface on Doctors" (1909)

13 January 2014

The Only Initiative I Acknowledge

“Where are women?” [asks Shevek, physicist/anarchist]

Pae laughed. Oiie smiled and asked, “In what sense?”

“All senses. I met women at the party last night — five, ten — hundreds of men. None were scientists, I think. Who were they?”

“Wives. One of them was my wife, in fact,” Oiie said with his secretive smile. “Where are other women?” “Oh, no difficulty at all there, sir,” Pae said promptly. “Just tell us your preferences, and nothing could be simpler to provide.” “One does hear some picturesque speculations about Anarresti customs, but I rather think we can come up with almost anything you had in mind,” said Oiie. Shevek had no idea what they were talking about. He scratched his bead. “Are all the scientists here men, then?” “Scientists?” Oiie asked, incredulous. Pae coughed. “Scientists. Oh, yes, certainly, they’re all men. There are some female teachers in the girls’ schools, of course. But they never get past Certificate level.”

“Why not?”

“Can’t do the math; no head for abstract thought; don’t belong. You know how it is, what women call thinking is done with the uterus! Of course, there’s always a few exceptions, Godawful brainy women with vaginal atrophy.”

“You Odonians let women study science?” Oiie inquired. “Well, they are in the sciences, yes.” “Not many, I hope.” “Well, about half.”

“I’ve always said,” said Pae, “that girl technicians properly handled could take a good deal of the load off the men in any laboratory situation. They’re actually defter and quicker than men at repetitive tasks, and more docile — less easily bored. We could free men for original work much sooner, if we used women.” “Not in my lab, you won’t,” said Oiie. “Keep ‘em in their place.” “Do you find any women capable of original intellectual work. Dr. Shevek?”

“Well, it was more that they found me. Mitis, in Northsetting, was my teacher. Also Gvarab; you know of her, I think.”

“Gvarab was a woman?” Pae said in genuine surprise, and laughed.

Oiie looked unconvinced and offended. “Can’t tell from your names, of course,” he said coldly. “You make a point, I suppose, of drawing no distinction between the sexes.”

Shevek said mildly, “Odo was a woman.”

“There you have it,” Oiie said. He did not shrug, but he very nearly shrugged. Pae looked respectful, and nodded, just as he did when old Atro maundered.

Shevek saw that he had touched in these men an impersonal animosity that went very deep. Apparently they, like the tables on the ship, contained a woman, a suppressed, silenced, bestialized woman, a fury in a cage. He had no right to tease them. They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed.

“A beautiful, virtuous woman,” Pae said, “is an inspiration to us — the most precious thing on earth.”
Shevek felt extremely uncomfortable. He got up and went over to the windows. “Your world is very beautiful,” he said. “I wish I could see more. While I must stay inside, will you give me books?” “Of course, sir! What sort?” “History, pictures, stories, anything. Maybe they should be books for children. You see, I know very little. We learn about Urras, but mostly about Odo’s times. Before that was eight and one half thousand years! And then since the Settlement of Anarres is a century and a half; since the last ship brought the last Settlers — ignorance. We ignore you; you ignore us. You are our history. We are perhaps your future. I want to learn, not to ignore. It is the reason I came. We must know each other. We are not primitive men. Our morality is no longer tribal, it cannot be. Such ignorance is a wrong, from which wrong will arise. So I come to learn.”

He spoke very earnestly. Pae assented with enthusiasm. “Exactly, sir! We are all in complete agreement with your aims!”

Oiie looked at him from those black, opaque, oval eyes, and said, “Then you come, essentially, as an emissary of your society?”

Shevek returned to sit on the marble seat by the hearth, which he already felt as his seat, his territory. He wanted a territory. He felt the need for caution. But he felt more strongly the need that had brought him across the dry abyss from the other world, the need for communication, the wish to unbuild walls. “I come,” he said carefully, “as a syndic of the Syndicate of Initiative, the group that talks with Urras on the radio these last two years. But I am not, you know, an ambassador from any authority, any institution. I hope you did not ask me as that”

“No,” Oiie said. “We asked you — Shevek the physicist. With the approval of our government and the Council of World Governments, of course. But you are here as the private guest of leu Eun University.”


“But we haven’t been sure whether or not you came with the approval of —” He hesitated.
Shevek grinned. “Of my government?”

“We know that nominally there’s no government on Anarres. However, obvi- ously there’s administration. And we gather that the group that sent you, your Syndicate, is a kind of faction; perhaps a revolutionary faction.”

“Everybody on Anarres is a revolutionary, Oiie . . . The network of administration and management is called PDC, Production and Distribution Coordination. They are a coordinating system for all syndicates, federatives, and individuals who do productive work. They do not govern persons; they administer production. They have no authority either to support me or to prevent me. They can only tell us the public opinion of us — where we stand in the social conscience. That’s what you want to know? Well, my friends and I are mostly disapproved of. Most people on Anarres dont want to leam about Urras. They fear it and want nothing to do with the propertarians. I am sorry if I am rude! It is the same here, with some people, is it not? The contempt, the fear, the tribalism. Well, so I came to begin to change that.”

“Entirely on your own initiative,” said Oiie. “It is the only initiative I acknowledge,” Shevek said, smiling, in dead earnest.

(from The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin)