Tag Archives: reading

A Sap and an Open Ticket

Last week, my friend David sent me an excerpt of a 1778 letter from Alexander Hamilton to George Clinton that closes with some thoughts on “a certain faction” that had reared its head and now has gone back into hiding.

You and I had some conversation, when I had the pleasure of seeing you last, with respect to the existence of a certain faction. Since I saw you, I have discovered such convincing traits of the monster, that I cannot doubt its reality in the most extensive sense. I dare say you have seen and heard enough to settle the matter in your own mind. I believe it unmasked its batteries too soon, and begins to hide its head; but, as I imagine it will only change the storm to a sap, all the true and sensible friends to their country, and of course to a certain great man, ought to be upon the watch, to counterplot the secret machinations of his enemies.

I struggled with the oblique writing here and had track down the meaning of “sap” as well. It’s a military term for a covered trench. An eighteenth-century encyclopedia entry included among the OED illustrations lists several kinds of sap, from the single parapet sap to the “flying” sap, which is outfitted with gabions. In the siege of a fortification, sappers excavate a trench toward the wall, allowing infantry to advance without being cut down by artillery fire from above. So the “sap” came to stand for an insidious or devious method of attack, as opposed to the “storm” or direct assault. Having prematurely shown its batteries and revealed its position, the faction will now resort to devious means and secret machinations.

It has not been so easy to solve another little mystery that presented itself just two days later, when I was reading the autobiography of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, which first appeared in 1902. In his account of the McKinley assassination. Gibbs explains that he is going to focus

on a peculiar phase of the catastrophe, that for the truth of history and in the interest of justice should not be so rudely and covertly buried ‘neath the immature “beatings of time.”

The quotation marks are Gibbs’; the source of the quotation is an open question.

I may be wrong in assuming that Gibbs is actually quoting some other writer, and not just using — I would say misusing — the quotation marks to offset his own figurative turn of phrase. I had a passing thought it might be Wordsworth; but that was just a passing thought and a bad guess. Whitman? Think Leaves of Grass: “The indications and tally of all time…” in “The Song of the Answerer,” or, again:

…from the sea of Time, collecting vasting all, I bring,
A windrow-drift of weeds and shells.

Great stuff, but so far as I can tell Walt Whitman is just another bad guess. Charles later that same day offered the “wild guess” that it might be William James, but I haven’t been able to unearth the phrase in James’ vast work. Besides, I suspect that if Gibbs is indeed quoting another author, it’s probably a poet, one his audience would recognize, and it’s probably a work of poetry along the lines of Sonnet 55 (“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes,” etc.), a meditation on the passing of all things. So Gibbs’ ticket is still open, and I welcome suggestions, thoughts and wild guesses that might help close it.

Prone To Error

Earlier today, someone at the YUNiversity of Righteous Grammar posted this tweet:

A good rule of thumb — but, it turns out, not much more than that. Just a few hours later, I came across the word “prone” used to mean both prostrate and supine in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (Part 3, Chapter X).

Stuck on the Great Isabel, Martin Decoud, “the brilliant Costaguanero of the boulevards,” is about to die of solitude:

It had been a day of absolute silence — the first he had known in his life. And he had not slept a wink. Not for all these wakeful nights and the days of fighting, planning, talking; not for all that last night of danger and hard physical toil upon the gulf, had he been able to close his eyes for a moment. And yet from sunrise to sunset he had been lying prone on the ground, either on his back or on his face.

The OED defines the adjective prone as “situated or lying face downwards, or on the belly”; and my discovery of this exception to the rule proves only that:
A) Kory Stamper is right: prescriptivists can learn from descriptivists to be a little more accommodating;
B) good writers don’t always follow the rules, and sometimes make mistakes;
C) you never know how one thing you read will connect with another — a lesson in literary serendipity as ancient as the Virgilian dip; and
D) Conrad didn’t need the word “prone” in that sentence.

A Mark I Once Made

I’ve owned this old paperback copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra since the late 1970s. Ever since then, it has been my constant companion.

It was this very book that first awakened me to the pleasures of reading philosophy and the possibilities of doing philosophy, when I was still innocent of all serious philosophy.

I do not know why I first bought the book — it was not exactly recommended reading in the public high school I attended — but I seem to remember that I first read Zarathustra on a hiking trip in the Black Mountains. I know that it was night and there was a fire burning.

Was it The Stillest Hour? I would like to think so. I was reading by candlelight, when the words of Zarathustra’s Prologue leapt out at me. I’d never read anything like this! Whose words were these? In an uncanny way they seemed to be mine — or at least I wanted them to be mine. I couldn’t say I understood them fully but knew those words to be true and I wanted to live their truth.

So I dripped wax on the page, to mark it.

zarawax1

I left my mark in wax — as if I could make these words my secret, as if sealing a letter with wax. A letter, but to whom? To Nietzsche? More likely to myself, promising I would return.

It was just the first, not the last time that the beauty, the passion, the madness and the truth of Nietzsche’s writing in Zarathustra struck me, stopped me in my tracks, overcame me. But I believe it was at that moment that I began to tell a new story about myself and about the world, or at least it was one of the first times I understood that I might have a story to tell. I was 17 years old.

Now, I have little claim on Nietzsche. I am not a professional philosopher and I am not a Nietzsche scholar by any stretch of the imagination. I once wrote a few words about Untimely Meditations in a review of a book by Bernard Williams; and when, in the 90s, I included Nietzsche in my Western Civilization courses I usually taught The Birth of Tragedy or The Genealogy of Morals. But curiously enough, I never taught Zarathustra or wrote about Zarathustra, which of all Nietzsche’s writings has arguably — no, undeniably — had the strongest claim on my life and my imagination. The book has done its quiet, subtle work in my life for nearly thirty five years.

“The dew,” Nietzsche writes, “falls upon the grass when the night is most silent.”

On the Reference I Made the Other Day to ‘The Middle Ground’

In a previous post, I said that asking creates a kind of “middle ground” where power – and everything else – is up for grabs. The concept of the middle ground is one I borrowed from a wonderful book, Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. It was a passing reference, and it may have been a little careless, I now concede. Here I want to talk a little about the concept as White develops it, and try to connect it with what I had to say about the power of asking in my earlier post.

In White’s book, the middle ground is both a real place – the pays d’en haut or “Upper Country” of the Great Lakes Region – and a complex human terrain where the French and the Indians created “an elaborate network of economic, political, cultural and social ties to meet the demands of a particular historical situation.” For Europeans and Indians in the pays d’en haut, the middle ground described a place of mutual agreement, exchange and concession, to conduct everything from judicial proceedings to the regulation of sexual mores to the fur trade. White calls the middle ground “the place in between: in between cultures, peoples, and in between empires and the nonstate world of villages.”

In this place, Indians and Europeans staged a creative, cross-cultural, ad hoc exchange of words, forms, rituals and practices. This conversation accomplished what force or violence could not. Or, to put it more precisely, the middle ground emerged at the limits of coercive power and violence. The Europeans in the Upper Country “could neither dictate to the Indians nor ignore them,” White writes; and where they could not conquer, command or go it alone they had to yield, concede and share. That went both ways.

The middle ground depended on the inability of both sides to gain their ends through force. The middle ground grew according to the need of people to find a means, other than force, to gain the cooperation and consent of foreigners. To succeed, those who operated on the middle ground had, of necessity, to attempt to understand the world and the reasoning of others and to assimilate enough of that reasoning to put it to their own purposes.

Understanding and assimilating the world and the reasoning of others: another word for that is translation. And that’s how White sometimes describes it: the middle ground was a place made up of “creative, but often expedient misunderstandings” – fictions – that allowed the Indians and the Europeans first to see each other as human beings, then to construct “a common, mutually comprehensible world.” They forged a new language, new meaning and a new world together: “the older worlds of the Algonquians and of various Europeans overlapped, and their mixture created new systems of meaning and exchange.” Gift-giving, calumets, the covering of the dead – all these Algonquian rituals were brought into play, but it wasn’t simply a matter of carrying old forms across languages or cultures; in the middle ground, they were transformed into something new.

It would be a mistake to think that the French and the Indians somehow deliberately set out to create this middle ground after first encountering one another. The middle ground did not emerge because both sides had dedicated themselves to a spirit of cooperation – hardly! — or because some “magical affinity” (as White puts it) or mist of peace, love and understanding hung over the pays d’en haut in the 18th century. Short-lived, fragile, often unique and irreproducible adaptations and improvisations made up the middle ground; in White’s account, it emerges and disappears then re-emerges while the French are the primary European presence in the pays d’en haut. They abandon it from time to time, resorting to force and violence (as do the Algonquians). After the defeats of the Iroquois and the French in the Seven Years war, and the ascendency of the English as a power in the Upper Country, the middle ground is all but lost.

While some readers of The Middle Ground talk about the way White’s work unravels and disassembles the concept of the frontier, I find myself moving in an entirely different direction. I tend to think of pays d’en haut as White describes it in his book almost as an Atlantis, a world residing somewhere between myth and history; or, better, as a historical world created by mythmaking. It exercises a hold over my imagination as few places have — except, maybe, the city of Naples, which is, for me, also a place both real and imagined and to which I return in my mind over and over again.

1755_Bellin_Map_of_the_Great_Lakes_-_Geographicus_-_GreatLakes-bellin-1755

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why the French Upper Country has a hold on me: here the history of the Great Lakes region (which I discovered in the course of my work on 1913 Massacre) comes together with my interest in non-coercive forms of power. So it’s not surprising that I should have made a passing reference to White in my previous post about the power of asking; in fact, it’s much more surprising to me that I didn’t go on more about it, as I have here.

On the other hand, I recognize that this is all very problematic. White is a historian, describing as meticulously and carefully as he can the cultural politics of the Great Lakes region in the 18th century; I’m reader of history, and I tend to take what I read and start imagining things. I’m familiar with Philip J. DeLoria’s warnings against “oversimplification” of White’s work, and his worry about misreadings that make White’s middle ground “analytically portable” to the point where it becomes “simply a trope for human give and take.” But there is, there has to be, something portable in everything that one reads; the act of reading is itself a carrying back and forth, an exchange, an importing and exporting. It’s an act of give and take, as DeLoria himself wryly admits.

This is not just to say that White’s study of the middle ground echoes themes found in, say, James C. Scott’s work on the Upland peoples of Southeast Asia, or Pierre Clastres’ work on the Indians of South America, and that there’s some common trope that all these books describe. It might be to say that reading itself is an exercise of non-coercive power, an act that involves transference, translation, transmutation and creation of new meaning, a kind of dialogue between author and reader, the practicing historian and the images we make of history.

Not much new in that thought: for the moment, I simply want to offer that I seem to have carried my interests, imagination, intellectual habits and stories into White’s work, assimilated it, and now I seem to be putting it to my own purposes, as an illustration of what can be accomplished through the exercise of non-coercive power. It remains to be seen how that illustration will help advance or complicate my thinking on this point. But I guess it’s pretty clear that all this situates the act of reading in the territory of cultural production White describes in The Middle Ground.  I say that knowing full well that I am probably going to be accused of misreading.