Archives for September 2012

Q (no A)

This matter has been bothering me for some days now, with no resolution yet. I dropped in on the Professor of Conventionally Impossible Languages to pick his brain.

‘What does it mean,’ I asked, ‘when a telepath tells you the image of a laughing horse with a long green mane, accompanied by the sound of a Harley backfiring? Only there’s some kind of synaesthesia involved, so that the whole scene tastes yellow.’

The Professor gave my question weighty thought. He specializes in the interpretation of anasymbolic sensory montages as a syntactic medium. This is what he says to you and me. To other experts in the field, he sticks his nose into questions about how telepaths talk in silly pictures.

When the thought had reached the optimum weight, or impatience softened me up enough to accept a silly answer, he said with great gravitas: ‘It means, I think, that the telepath is on drugs.’

‘Thanks large,’ I said sourly. ‘Most telepaths are. What I want to know is, which drugs? I want to buy up the entire world supply — and burn it. I will not be talked to like that again.’

Tragedy, comedy, and agon

An essai on chapter 4 of Aristotle’s Poetics.


It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in imitation.

—Aristotle, Poetics

Along with imitation, Aristotle lists harmony and rhythm as natural human faculties that cause us to enjoy poetry and drama; and we should add (though the philosopher omits it) the faculty of language itself. None of us were born speaking Greek, and a few of us here and there have not got the hang of it even yet. But everybody speaks some language, unless prevented by some bodily defect. And every language I know of has some form of poetry.

In the fourth chapter of the Poetics, however, language is a side issue. Aristotle here is concerned with two things: first, to show how and why poetry develops as an imitative art, and second, to briefly trace the history of Greek poetry down to the full development of tragedy. [Read more…]

Medium and genre

An essai on chapter 3 of Aristotle’s Poetics.

A third difference in these arts is the manner in which each kind of object is represented. Given both the same means and the same kind of object or imitation, one may either (1) speak at one moment in narrative and at another in assumed character, as Homer does; or (2) one may remain the same throughout, without any such change; or (3) the imitators may represent the whole story dramatically, as though they were actually doing the things described.

—Aristotle, Poetics

Here Aristotle arrives at the fundamental distinction of genre, in the older sense of the word. In the Greek system of classification (which he here describes), all poesis is divisible into three genres: drama, dithyramb, and epic. The dithyramb is pure narrative, without any direct dialogue; it is very rare in modern fiction, though it sometimes occurs in popular songs. As writers, we are likely to use this mode mostly for writing synopses or outlines; and then we will use prose narrative, rather than the dithyramb proper (which is a particular verse form, in one of those Greek metres I mentioned earlier, which will not go into English).
[Read more…]

Vice and virtue

An essai on chapter 2 of Aristotle’s Poetics.


The objects the imitator represents are actions, with agents who are necessarily either good men or bad — the diversities of human character being nearly always derivative from this primary distinction, since the line between virtue and vice is one dividing the whole of mankind. It follows, therefore, that the agents represented must be either above our own level of goodness, or beneath it, or just such as we are.

—Aristotle, Poetics

The second chapter of the Poetics is one of the shortest in the book; but it is here that we come to a pons asinorum, an obstacle that many would-be critics never get across, and I am not entirely sure that Aristotle himself had crossed it when he wrote this particular book. But as writers we must get across, because the entire business of character and its depiction in poesis lies on the other side. [Read more…]


An essai on Chapter 1 of Aristotle’s Poetics.


Our subject being Poetry, I propose to speak not only of the art in general but also of its species and their respective capacities; of the structure of plot required for a good poem; of the number and nature of the constituent parts of a poem; and likewise of any other matters in the same line of inquiry.

—Aristotle, Poetics (tr. Ingram Bywater)

The Greek word ποιητής meant originally ‘maker’, and was applied by the Greeks to everything from potters and carpenters to God himself. Most European languages have borrowed this word, either directly or through the Latin poeta, to mean specifically a maker of verse. It often happens that when we borrow a word from Greek, we use it only in a restricted or technical sense, and so lose a wealth of interesting meanings and associations that went with the word in the original language. So it is here. [Read more…]

Sarah A. Hoyt on groupthink

Group-think isn’t caused by conspiracy. Conspiracy is caused by group-think.

Sarah A. Hoyt

In for a penny, in for a pound

It comes to my notice that silver bullion, after trading a bit lower for several months, has just rallied above $32 per troy ounce (London fix), or £20 per ounce in sterling. This figure has a sad historical significance.

In the Middle Ages, the values of English coins were legally defined in terms of Tower weight. This system of measures was nearly identical to the modern troy units: the ounce and pound were the same, but the size of the grain, and the number of grains per ounce, were different. (Tower grains are sometimes called ‘wheat grains’, and troy grains are called ‘barleycorns’, to reflect this difference.) The same units, with one annoying variation, were used to denominate and to weigh silver coin.

The pound sterling — £1 — originally equalled one Tower pound of sterling silver; it was divided into 20 shillings of 12 pence each, making 240 pence to the pound. Just to make things difficult (for what would English measures be, if they were rational?) the Tower pound was divided into 12 ounces of 20 pennyweight each. Therefore one penny contained exactly one pennyweight of sterling silver, but a shilling was only three-fifths of an ounce.

Let us ignore the difference between sterling silver (92.5% silver by weight) and fine silver (99.9%). Pure silver is too soft to use in coinage or much of anything else. Alloying it with 7.5% copper made it hard enough to withstand daily wear and tear, and also provided a small profit to pay the expenses of minting. We can consider a mediaeval English penny, including the cost of coining it, of effectively equal value to a pennyweight of pure silver. It is, as they say (in this case literally), ‘close enough for government’.

Today, as I have said, the price of silver crossed above £20 per troy ounce, or £1 per pennyweight. A so-called pound sterling today buys you as much silver as went into a single penny in the Middle Ages. It then follows that the pound has been devalued by a factor of 240 to 1, compared with its original valuation. And it also follows — and this is the sad historical significance — that the old saying, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound,’ has become a tautology — for a pound and a penny are now the same. (I do not speak of the decimalized ‘New Penny’, which is not a coin but a joke.) ‘Dollars to doughnuts’ is also beginning to express an equality, rather than long odds in the dollar’s favour. We shall have to invent some new idioms. And for that we can thank the rascally debasers of silver coin, and the mad printers of fiat money — that is, all our politicians for the last 500 years. I hope they would at least say, ‘You’re welcome.’

G. K. C. on resentment

It is strange that we should resent people differing from ourselves; we should resent much more violently their resembling ourselves. This principle has made a sufficient hash of literary criticism, in which it is always the custom to complain of the lack of sound logic in a fairy tale, and the entire absence of true oratorical power in a three-act farce. But to call another man’s face ugly because it powerfully expresses another man’s soul is like complaining that a cabbage has not two legs. If we did so, the only course for the cabbage would be to point out with severity, but with some show of truth, that we were not a beautiful green all over.

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘A Defence of Ugly Things’

G. K. C. on ugliness

Man may behold what ugliness he likes if he is sure that he will not worship it; but there are some so weak that they will worship a thing only because it is ugly. These must be chained to the beautiful. It is not always wrong even to go, like Dante, to the brink of the lowest promontory and look down at hell. It is when you look up at hell that a serious miscalculation has probably been made.

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Nightmare’