Wednesday, 27 June 2012

There is no Latin word for TLDR

The Vatican Library newsletter pops into my inbox every few months, and it brings a smile to my face despite being pages and pages long. This time I was quite struck by the question of translation. The Cardinal in charge has recently retired from the post, and here is just a small part of what the newsletter had to say about this:
We had known for some time that the Cardinal had presented to the Pope his request to be relieved of so heavy a commitment, and we had adopted the attitude of those who understand, who do not wish a loved one to be afflicted with burdens beyond what he is able to bear. But this does not take away from the sorrow of a separation that each individual experiences by retracing the memories of the years, whether many or few, which he or she spent with Prefect, and later with Cardinal Farina.
The language of the Vatican is, of course, Latin. But I still think this was written in Italian and translated into English, not just because the writer is Italian but because there are a few untranslated Italian phrases in the middle, somehow passed over. Have I just never noticed before that Italian is very Latinate in style as well as in actual vocabulary and grammar? You could translate this into Latin without much rearranging.

Plus I love the closing paragraph:
After all that I have told about us, sometimes the thought comes that we are able to do many beautiful things, and sometimes somebody says so explicitly with expressions of appreciation. It is not that we are unhappy about this. But you will allow me not to forget the Biblical passage from the Book of Judges (chapter 7) which tells the story of Gideon and his fight against the Midianites. Gideon had gathered thirty-two thousand men, but the Lord made him reduce the number to only three hundred fighters because – he explained – if they had been so many, they would have been able to boast before him, saying: "It is my own hand that has saved me." I quickly found that in the Library we are about a hundred, only one third of Gideon's three hundred. We are thus even more protected against that sort of dangerous arrogance! Also for this reason, and through Him who has filled our hands, has enlightened our minds and enlivened our hearts, we give sincere thanks.
To be honest, if you told me that this had been translated straight from Augustine or Anselm I'd probably believe you. (Although they were a bit less likely to congratulate themselves on their escape from dangerous arrogance, which is a little Pooterish.)

Monday, 25 June 2012

A good book

It's a sad truth, for which I am prepared to take no responsibility whatever, that the better people know me the less seriously they tend to take my book recommendations. So here's somebody else, with the authority of the New York Times behind him, talking about how great Pynchon's Mason and Dixon is. He describes it as
less willfully cerebral than the author’s earlier masterworks

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Hurray for Rowan Williams

I went to an excellent talk by Rowan Williams -- in the dialogue format with another poet -- where he talked about language, poetry and translation. Because I went to his difficult Clark lectures on aesthetics some years back in Cambridge, which were published as Grace and Necessity, I was able to follow more than otherwise. I do like the archbishop. He's good at gentle self-deprecating humour, and he is so startlingly but unostentatiously bright. His adoption of Simone Weil's idea that one should always approach other humans with hesitation, e.g. a sort of expectant humility, is something you can actually see him doing as well talking about. It means not putting a name or label on a person but instead being open to them as a human. The Franciscans who used to live in Cambridge were like that. I suppose it's part of the reason why he seems undefinite to the world in general, his refusal to condemn. And certainly many Anglicans (and journalists) would like him to do a bit more condemning -- my evangelical relatives on my father's side don't really approve of him. I think he's just what we need. The Church of England is sometimes called the only organisation that exists for the benefit of its non-members, and I think he provides a good sign for both the church and the non-church. The church needs to be just a bit skew-whiff from the world. It needs not to copy the name-calling style of modern politics. It needs to measure its success by things that are neither worldly nor unworldly but aworldly, or refuse to measure its success at all.

Also it was cool to hear him talk about the poetry culture of his native Wales. I hadn't realised that he was brought up bilingual in Welsh and English. And I enjoyed that he talked intelligently about Geoffrey Hill. An elderly bishop used to bring Hill into lunch sometimes when I was a research fellow. I liked that bishop, since deceased, and a few times actually sat next to Geoffrey Hill. Whereupon I found myself completely unable to say anything at all intelligent to him about his work, much as I like it. It was one of those moments that seems frustratingly bigger than itself, and actually emblematic of a whole part of life. Maybe I should write a poem about it.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Attempts to forget a depressing fact

I'm now in the part of my course where I do my project.  I've more or less accidentally ended up with a very odd one, which involves learning about early brain development.  This involves quite a few rather depressing things; for example I recently found out that there is a thing called the Kazdin hopelessness scale for children. We live in a world in which someone has successfully quantified the hopelessness of children. So I googled Kazdin, worried about the toll that sort of work would take on someone, and discovered that he (presumably the same man) is also the author of The Kazdin Method: Parenting the Defiant Child. Defiant children are probably more fun to work with than hopeless ones, so I've stopped worrying about Kazdin. I'm not going to look into it for fear of what I find, but if Kazdin is the man who did the Learned Helplessness experiments on rats which involved timing how long it took them to drown then a) I really hate him and b) he shouldn't be allowed anywhere near children anyway. I hope someone's looking after the hopeless children.

As always, there are likeable things out there too. Here for example is a good song:

If you go to this website and then click on "Digitale Gemälde" you get the artist's meldings of Renaissance faces with modern photographs. I rather like these, even though the heads of famous madonnas on the bodies of semi-clad ladies are a bit odd.

It's Laurence Durrell's Centenary. There's an exhibition.

You can get The Alexandria Quartet on Kindle now. I prefer The Avignon Quintet, which isn't available on Kindle yet. Also recently available on Kindle are the books of Thomas Pynchon. My favourites are Mason and Dixon, Vineland, and V. (which includes Fairing and his parish among the rats). Plus Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World) are available at last. Hurray!

Also, I went to an Art History in the Pub event, which was quite good. It was organised by an art historian who was covered in tattoos -- he even had some small ones on his face. I wished it were socially OK to ask him about this, because I'd imagine that as an art historian either the choosing of tattoos would be fraught with significance, or else alternatively maybe tattoos are sufficiently outside the bounds of general art that they are a liberating opportunity to choose entirely for yourself. The talk was given by a young woman sitting in a big velvet chair on a raised platform, which gave the whole thing a soothing atmosphere. It was about Tudor and Stuart portrait sets, an interesting topic. The person I sat next to writes for the Fortean Times and we talked about cryptozoology for a bit -- a friend of my parents in Devon had an alpaca killed, she swears by a Big Black Cat.

Plus the National Art Pass is doing a three-month free trial. I like the Art Fund. My housemate/landlord dislikes them because their rhetoric is very much about "saving" things for the nation, as if foreigners are likely to set them on fire, drop them in the bath, or something, and I agree that that's a bit dodgy. We "saved" the Macclesfield Psalter from going to the Getty, for example, where they would lavish ridiculous amounts of money on its conservation and what's more, on its scholarship. (My landlord/housemate is going to the Getty on a three-month research jaunt to study a manuscript they have there just for an exhibition, because increasing knowledge is part of their remit and even now they have cash.) (Though of course the Fitzwilliam looks after it beautifully -- they do a wonderful job despite being cash-strapped to the extent that most things that happen there seem to do so as a result of ad hoc donations by rich people.) Anyway, although I don't think things need "saving" I do like the idea of paying some money towards a big fund that can buy things for UK museums, and also you get very good discounts off entry into museums, galleries, and exhibitions. I used to have an Art Pass but I let it lapse because of student poverty, but it was great when I did have it because I rarely went to a paid-entry museum or exhibition where it didn't get me some money off.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Ashill beer festival 2012

I went down to Devon for the Ashill Village Beer Festival, and my friend Adrian, a beer-festival fan, came with me. My brother and family came along too, so I introduced Adrian to my little nephew. I mentioned that Adrian's father is a builder and his name is Bob. Even though I did say that this wasn't the same person as on TV, I think that Bob the Builder is just a figure of too great mythic resonance for qualifications -- like the Knights Templar or Leonardo da Vinci or the Holy Grail, which distort all the stories in which they appear. In short my nephew was quite sure that Adrian was in fact Bob the Builder himself, and treated him all weekend with a sort of cautious awe. When he said his prayers with his father on Saturday evening* apparently he said thankyou for meeting Bob the Builder, and on Sunday morning he read his Spot the Dog book with Adrian and told my father when he came into the room "Grandad, I'm sitting next to Bob the Builder!". I felt a bit bad about this, but my Mum tells me that they talked to him about it later and he did know really that he was playing a game, like when he pretends to be a cat. (On the other hand, I sort of wish I'd said Adrian was Peppa Pig...)

Between us we both managed to taste all 22 of the beer festival beers, which was a better achievement than last year when I only managed something like 16 out of 18 over three days not two. The problem with living in London is that you ask yourself a lot "Do I want to do this? Will I enjoy it?" whereas in the village you just take what you're given. They actually call it the Ashill Beer and Music Festival, but unlike many music festivals in between two of the bands on the Saturday evening they had a half-hour zumba class. My nephew thought that was amazing. There were tons of kids there and it was generally a huge success. When my parents went to clear up the field they had lent for parking they found very little litter, and generally everyone was really well behaved.

*Yes, Richard Dawkins wouldn't approve of my brother saying prayers with my little nephew, but then again the mindfulness people would approve of going back over the day to pick out and feel glad for good things. Praying with my parents is one of my favourite childhood memories -- I think it was really good for me to know that my parents weren't the highest authority.

I read it in May

Here are my May reading highlights, in order of excellence:

1. Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now -- As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It by Craig Taylor
This is a very good book indeed, a series of interviews about London. It's a good concept, but the thing that really makes the book great is the quality of the interviews and the diversity of the people he found to talk to.

2. Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.
Although it's made of 12 books they are actually all quite short -- about 200 pages. Not much really happens in the first and second books, and limited amounts in the books after that, but I did find it very enjoyable once I'd stopped worrying about this. It's a bit like a cross between Proust and Nancy Mitford -- it's not quite as funny as Mitford but then again, it's nowhere near as French as Proust. I would recommend it not as something one ought to read but as something that you might well enjoy reading. There's always an anxiety about starting a long set of books, because if they're hard work you either have to decide to give up or try to power on through. But when you start a long set of books and realise that you enjoy them then that's a very pleasant feeling, you can abandon any pressure to finish and just read them at your own pace, and you know you've got good reading material lined up for some time to come. And there's something very comfortable about novels which take you into a different but entirely sustained world, and because one of the themes of the series is how fate throws people together in a complicated pattern there are many recurring characters. In fact if I were to summarise it in seven words they would be these:
The man turned round. It was Widmerpool.

3. Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale
This story isn't quite as engrossing as The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, but then that was a truly phenomenal book, one you could enjoy yourself while also being sure that your Grandma and all your other relatives would love it too. This is about one of the earliest divorce cases brought in England when the switch was made from divorce being something only achievable by Act of Parliament, e.g. for the very very rich and influential only, to being handled by the courts. Isabella Robinson kept an ill-advised diary, and she had ill-advised crushes on handsome men. When it gets really interesting (after a rather slow beginning) is when those diaries are advanced by her husband as evidence of her adultery, and are considered in the courts and the newspapers as possible evidence of her mental derangement. It was one of those issues around which the mores and assumptions of the day crystallised and Kate Summerscale does a great job of putting it all in its context. I was amazed by the young man from a genteel Edinburgh family who faked his own death in order to spend a few years undergoing painful penis-cauterising operations in the hope of curing his tendency to masturbation. He finally found peace when someone suggested to him that he try having sex with women -- he turned to prostitutes and found the urge to masturbate became less. Now I'm not a fan of prostitution, but however much one disapproves of it you'd think someone might try that before convincing their large loving family that they're dead and then repeatedly attacking their private parts with hot wires. Wierd.

4. The Mongoliad: Book One of the Foreworld Saga by Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson, etc etc etc.
This isn't a brilliant book but it's enjoyable, and it sneaks onto this list because it was better than I had feared. It's a jointly written book which arose from some fantasy-writers' sword-fighting classes. It's set in the (more-or-less) past, at the time that the Mongolian hoards were starting to threaten Europe. This book is part of a wider project that's experimenting with what a book is, something which I approve of people doing but in which I don't really feel that interested in taking part. I posted about it before.