Friday, March 29, 2013

Euchred by Euphues

At the firm request of my editor, I have been instructed to begin with a caveat that applies to what follows. Hence I state the following -- we must be ever mindful that political correctness at its silliest has never done one fiftieth the harm as the reverse.

That said, I will put forward the position that Euphues has a lot to answer for. But who is Euphues?

This figure is the protagonist in John Lyly's Elizabethan novel The Anatomy of Wit, written in 1578. The character goes to some length to avoid any phraseology that could be construed as crude or stark, and opts continually for the graceful, the florid, the pretty. That approach led us to the term "euphemism", a usage that has become all too common in the world today.

As I am sure Lyly knew, the word stems from the Greek euphemizein, meaning "to speak with fair words." To the ancient Greeks, this was rather important. Gods could listen to human conversations, and if they overheard a slander or a disparaging term, the speaker could be in for a very rough ride. It was therefore wise, to use the phrase common today, to be politically correct.

In the world of ancient Greece, this made some sense. In today's world, I am not sure that NOT calling a spade a spade makes any sense at all.

Some instances might help one grasp the nettle. So to speak.

Were Euphues with us today, he would state that criminals are "unsavory characters"; one who is bald is "comb-free"; censorship becomes "selective speech" and a crime rate described as a "street activity index."

This tendency reaches a sort of apotheosis when the word "rape" rises its ugly head. This unspeakable act is now, in law, subsumed under the term "sexual assault", and can include any number of sexual crimes up to and including bestiality and incest. The term "rape" gets lost in the shuffle. It has even affected agriculture, where, at least in North America, "rapeseed" has morphed into "canola".

And there has been an alteration since the Roman first coined the term. The word "rape" derives from the Latin rapere, meaning to abduct (usually for the purpose of marriage, a la the Sabine women). And at no point can I find reference in Latin writings to women, by their actions or clothing, being responsible for a sexual attack upon them. In Islam, however....but this would be a digression too far.

Ultimately, of course, euphemisms fail. Everyone knows very well what lies beyond the term being prettified. So Gertrude Stein -- a rose is a rose is a rose. So Simone -- rape is rape is rape.

I am not, however, as polemic on the subject as, say Andrea Dworkin, and conclude this little missive with the thought that the only difference between rape and rapture, and this difference is crucial, is.....consent.

Enough, or too much.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Past -- Teacher Or Tyrant?

The writer William Faulkner wrote somewhere  that "The past is never dead. It's not even past".* These words came to mind as I was in the process of reviewing a paper received from my daughter Victoria, a history professor currently at Cambridge University. The piece was designed for publication in some journal or other, and my views were sought.

Of course, she needed my opinion about as much as she needed a hole in the head, but this was, for Vicky, a kind of peace offering. We recently had had a rather nasty dust-up over her habit of appearing as a constant victim in films of the 'slasher' variety, something I think she should bring to a halt. She countered with the fact that she was well-remunerated for these appearances, to which I responded that there was a name for acts where money was given for certain behaviours, and things escalated from there.

I have learned since that she has become involved with an archaeologist connected with Oxford University who takes a similar view to my own, and to which (apparently) Vicky is paying attention. I live in hope.

Her paper was, as usual, well-written and well-researched. Its thesis could be seen as a doubled-edged sword; that is, the past can be both beneficial or harmful, depending on how that past is perceived.

Over some forty pages, she stresses what she terms the 'twin fulcrums' of history: evidence and dogma.

Where evidence is concerned, the past can be useful, and has much to teach us, particularly in the realm of science.** If, for instance, past practice suggests one way of doing something yet is not congruent with newly-found supporting evidence, then that practice can be built upon and if necessary, altered. She stresses the term 'built upon', in that the previous practice was itself founded on evidence available at the time. The past as teacher, if you will, and she gives a number of examples drawn advances in medicine, mathematics, and -- a section I particularly liked -- art.

The downside occurs when evidence is ignored and dogma holds sway. Such dogma depends mightily on events that happened well in the past, and are held to be absolute truth. This is a particular horror story in the area of religion, but also causes problems in the political arena as well, and both are all too evident today in the mess that so characterizes the Middle East today. In such a context, the past as Faulkner so well put it is certainly not past.

Vicky had also requested a quote upon which she could end her paper as she put it, "With a flourish." I drew on Michael Steen's fine book, The Great Composers:

"An important event which had significant effect on the thought processes of intelligent people was the Lisbon earthquake and fire of November 1, 1755. This killed 30-40,000 people and reduced the city to rubble. It caused the French king's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, to give up rouge for a week. The English, having attributed the disaster to the wrath of God, banned masquerades for a year."

I rest my case.

* Requiem for a Nun --Ed.

** With respect to science, the satirist Bill Maher has observed, "When did the phrase 'I believe in science' become fighting words?'"

Friday, March 15, 2013

Habemus Papem Franciscum

So there we are -- the Catholic world has a new Pope, Francis I. Argentina has now no reason to cry.*

What intrigues me is the choice of the name, a first in a long list of Papal names. Jorge Mario Bergoglio didn't choose John, nor Gregory, nor Benedict. He chose Francis.

This would not have been selected at random. The Papacy is heavily fixated on symbols -- the cross, the shepherd's crook, the fish that recalled the first calling of the apostles -- and these symbols have great meaning for a Catholic audience. What symbol, then, lies behind the selection of the name Francis?

Before getting into that, it is worth looking at the seminal role symbols play in today's world. At their most crass, they aid and abet a cause, whether that cause is political (the hammer and sickle of Communism, the elephant of the U.S. Republican party, the bulldog of Great Britain) or stress an economic view of the world, the 'bulls' and 'bears' of the stockmarket. At their most powerful, symbols radiate through a literary work, or even a film.

The best example of the above is Yann Martel's brilliant novel, The Life of Pi, recently made into wonderful film by Ang Lee. Here symbols rule. The inner 'monster' that Pi has to come to terms with owes much to Blake's 'Tyger, Tyger burning bright', and throughout there are echoes of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, not so much in terms of the atonement theme prominent in Coleridge but more in terms of the self-awareness that the mariner must acknowledge.**

So the power of symbols.


The name instantly recalls St. Francis of Assissi (1182-1226), who created the Franciscan Order, and is noted for his deep regard for all natural creatures, particularly birds. An admirer of St. Francis was Ignatius Loyola, (1491-1556) who founded the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit Order to which Francis I belonged. In my opinion this is fitting, it being the first time a Jesuit has held the Papacy.

There is, however, a wrinkle. The Jesuits are the intellectual arm of the Church, and value discipline and doctrinal adherence. Yet Francis I, as priest, bishop and cardinal, eschewed a cerebral life for work among the poor and less fortunate, as did St. Francis. No limos for him -- he rode a bicycle hither and yon through the streets of Buenos Airies. At the same time, the man is a confirmed conservative, and has spoken out against abortion, same-sex marriage, and would be extremely unlikely to countenance women in the priesthood.

Instead, Francis wants to focus the attention of Catholics back to the precepts of the original Founder, and it will be interesting to note what Francis will say when considering Jesus Christ vis-a-vis the Vatican Bank.

As an atheist, I will watch with interest, and where the Church comforts, it will have my support; where it harms, well, the pen can be mightier than the sword.


*Except, perhaps, when The Falklands are considered.

** Simone went on for some length on literary symbols, including a completely uncalled for interpretation of Spenser's Faerie Queene. Risking her wrath, I deleted the section. She threw a vase at me (from IKEA, not the Ming) and stormed out. She has calmed down since, albeit her eyes remain somewhat frosty. --Ed.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Payment For Idiocy

Every so often I find it useful to review my financial holdings with my Chief Financial Officer, W.D.M. I am happy to report that all is well, a result of my determination to always have more money coming in than goes out. Would that the majority of the world's governments could say the same.

Over a well-deserved lunch, W.D.M. referenced a number of global financial issues that he laid squarely on government incompetence, and which have been documented ad nauseum -- Greece, American "free" mortgages, regulations you could drive a truck through -- well, the list goes on.

"And while Canada avoided much of this," he continued, "it by no means a paragon of financial probity. particularly when you look at the provinces. In Ontario, for instance, there is that ridiculous e-health mess, along with the fiasco of the medical helicopters, to say nothing of that ghastly political decision to move those gas plants so that certain members of the Liberal party could get elected. Taken together, I estimate that over a billion taxpayer dollars was mis-spent.

"Then there is Alberta, which had to shut down XL Foods because of an E-coli breakout, when just six months before the firm had received a $1.3 million contribution to upgrade its meat processing facilities. In Quebec the Mafia --"

"Enough!" I interjected. "Surely there is a lighter side to all this? It can't all be doom and gloom."

W.D.M. thought for a minute, then proffered the following.

"Well there is the matter of the sausages."


"You see, Agriculture Canada sent $826,000 to Ontario's Cardinal Meat Specialists Ltd. to assist research that would prevent a sausage from bursting open when cooked. No word on the results, but the government communique on the subject indicated that a less explosive sausage 'was critical to the government's focus on jobs, growth and long term prosperity.' I am not making this up."

"Shades of the European Economic Community and the brouhaha over the Euro sausage."

But W.D.M. was not finished. "Then there is the Department of Defence and its purchase, to the tune of $438,385, for branded sports memorabilia, seen as essential for recruiting and peacekeeping efforts. Over the past four years, the Department has spent $176,000 on hockey pucks alone. In the words of a government spokesman, this would be of enormous help 'in contributing to international peace and security.'"

"Don't doubt it for a minute,' I said. "But all these examples point to government largess that is completely out of hand. I was hoping for more examples of what I would call 'slips' or small errors of judgement."

"For instance?"

"For instance, the Duchess of Cambridge. When she received the gift of a teddy bear, Kate mentioned that she would give it to her 'd'. So now we know that the expected baby will be a girl, the 'd' being 'daughter'. Now that's a slip.*

W.D.M. could but agree.

*I have the fortune to be married to an absolutely brilliant woman, who, in considering the possible faux pas on the part of the Duchess, didn't believe it for a minute. In her opinion, "daughter" would not have come trippingly off the tongue, as would terms such as "baby" or "little girl". What would come trippingly off the tongue would be her pet------dog. ...Ed.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Of Rosemary and Time

At the request of Sir Harry, I was asked to receive a visitor. When I requested more background, all I got was that the person was involved in a small research project, and that my cooperation would be appreciated.

"How appreciated?" I inquired.

"I'll think of something."

"You do that."

I was also informed that this personage went by the name of Rosemary, and that I could expect her around 3:pm two days hence.

At precisely this time a limo pulled up to the Manor, and shortly after my minder Irving brought the visitor to the solarium where I was about to have tea. I beheld a woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a functional blouse, jacket and skirt, white hair neatly tied back in a bun. "Good to meet you, My Lady," she said. "Sir Harry speaks of you with respect."

Hah, I thought. Never shows any to me.

"And that's a lovely outfit. Your son's, I suspect."

This caught me by surprise. True, I was wearing one of Sebastian's sheath dresses, but for this Rosemary woman to suss this out so fast indicated that she had been well and truly briefed. Just what was going on here?

"I was just about to have some tea," I said. "You'll join me?"

"Delighted to," Rosemary replied.

With perfect timing, my cook Henri wheeled in a cart containing the tea, a selection of jams, and a plateful of scones that were bound to break down any conversational barriers that might arise. Indeed, any possible barriers quickly disappeared when I learned of the particular research Rosemary was doing.

"Time," she stated. "We are interested in time."

I was going to press her on just who 'we' were, but let it go. If she was employed by Sir Harry, the enquiry would go nowhere fast.

"You see," Rosemary continued, "given your has been noted that you were always able to wait a considerable time, and never losing focus, before...implementing... that skill."

"You mean shooting someone at a distance." (Rosemary kept skirting around the issue. I don't skirt around anything -- except maybe with the Compte de Rienville, and in this context he was not an issue.)

"Yes. In short, how do you manage to wait, sometimes for a long period, before conditions are, how shall I put it, favourable."

An interesting question, and I thought a bit before responding.

"Rosemary, this might sound a bit odd, but if I'm in for a lengthy wait, I think of time itself. I begin with the second. Do you know the definition?"


"Well, the General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1967 defined a second as 9.192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium
133 atom. Working all that out can take about two hours."

Rosemary stared at me, then said, "Sir Harry did mention that you have a doctorate from M.I.T. So thinking about time compresses time for you?"

"To be sure. And of course there is Montaigne."

"Of course there is. And what has the good Michel to say on the topic?"

"If memory serves, Montaigne wrote 'Time is a thing of movement, appearing like a shadow....To Time belong the words before and after, has been and shall be, words that show at a glance that Time is evidently not a thing which IS. For it would be a great silliness and manifest falsehood to say that something IS which has not yet come into being or has already ceased to be.'  Now exploring all that is good for half a day."

Rosemary looked at me, then said with some conviction, "This is really good information. I and Sir Harry thank you."

"It's always nice to have Sir Harry a bit in debt."

The rest of the session was spent in pleasantries, but before she left, Rosemary made a rather significant point. She obviously knew well my ability with the long gun, and hence got in a critical and very true last word where time is concerned.

She stated crisply, "I remember reading in a novel, possibly one of Nelson de Mille's, the following: 'There is a time to sow and a time to reap. Miss either of these times and you're fucked."

Interesting lady, Rosemary.