Poetry, mite

I see in the news today that Manchester University (UK) students have painted over a mural featuring a poem by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), replacing it with one by Maya Angelou (1928-2014). The Kipling poem, not named in the linked BBC article, but evident from the accompanying photograph, is his famous “If” — a hymn to Victorian stoicism. The Angelou, obvs, is her equally famous “Still I Rise,” a defiant statement of black empowerment. The students’ argument for replacing the former with the latter is that Kipling was racist, Angelou wasn’t.

They have a point. Angelou, born into the America of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” expressed the hopes and dreams of the Civil Rights movement. Kipling, a child of the British Empire at its height, was a reactionary imperialist, even by contemporary standards. He certainly made some statements, notably in his notorious poem “The White Man’s Burden,” that we today would consider racist.

But not in “If.” Actually, this is a poem that could well have brought comfort to Angelou, or Steve Biko, or Martin Luther King, or Nina Simone, or Mohandas Gandhi, or any of the innumerable fighters on behalf of black and brown people in the century following Kipling. It’s a bit like “Invictus,” by Kipling’s friend William Ernest Henley, which Nelson Mandela took as his mantra (which is why it provided the title for the Morgan Freeman biopic). Both are buck-up, be-strong, mind-over-matter poems, in a Stoic tradition that reaches back to Roman times and beyond. But “Invictus” is a bit simplistic: “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.” “If,” much more interestingly, is a painful look at how complex, how twisted, how unfair it can be to try to improve a society that actively resists the treatment:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

The poem could almost be called, hat-tip Angelou, “Still You’ll Rise.” So I think the Manchester students acted a bit hastily.

Here’s another poem by Kipling, one that has always fascinated me. This one isn’t racist either, but it is certainly Orientalist — that is, participating in a white Western exoticization of the non-white East and South. All those places, from Guyana to Delhi to Timbuktu, that Englishmen (with Ladies in tow) were sent out to conquer, administer, and exploit. Places that filled the resulting imaginations of globalized Anglo-Indians — people like Kipling himself, like Malcolm Lowry, even like Joe Strummer. The poem is called “Jobson’s Amen.”

“BLESSED be the English and all their ways and works.
Cursèd be the Infidels, Hereticks, and Turks!”
“Amen,” quo’ Jobson, ” but where I used to lie
Was neither Candle, Bell nor Book to curse my brethren by.

“But a palm-tree in full bearing, bowing down, bowing down,To a surf that drove unsparing at the brown, walled town
Conches in a temple, oil-lamps in a dome
And a low moon out of Africa said: ‘This way home!’

“Blessèd be the English and all that they profess.
Cursèd be the Savages that prance in nakedness!”
“Amen,” quo’ Jobson, “but where I used to lie
Was neither shirt nor pantaloons to catch my brethren by:

“But a well-wheel slowly creaking, going round, going round,
By a water-channel leaking over drowned, warm ground –
Parrots very busy in the trellised pepper-vine –
And a high sun over Asia shouting: ‘Rise and shine !'”

“Blessèd be the English and everything they own.
Cursèd be the Infidels that bow to wood and stone!”
“Amen,” quo’ Jobson, “but where I used to lie
Was neither pew nor Gospelleer to save my brethren by:

“But a desert stretched and stricken, left and right, left and right,
Where the piled mirages thicken under white-hot light —
A skull beneath a sand-hill and a viper coiled inside –
And a red wind out of Libya roaring: ‘Run and hide!'”

“Blessèd be the English and all they make or do.
Cursèd be the Hereticks who doubt that this is true!”
“Amen,” quo’ Jobson, “but where I mean to die
Is neither rule nor calliper to judge the matter by:

But Himalaya heavenward-heading, sheer and vast, sheer and vast,
In a million summits bedding on the last world’s past –
A certain sacred mountain where the scented cedars climb,
And – the feet of my Beloved hurrying back through Time!”

Kipling is mocking the racism of his laced-up contemporaries, expressed in the blessings and curses that punctuate the verse. His Jobson, an old soldier or colonial administrator perhaps, settled back in a damp English village after a career in the Empire, dutifully responds “Amen.” But then he slips, eagerly and repeatedly, into daydreams about what that career was like — its colours, its sounds, its synaesthetic richness. Orientalist! Yes. But just hear these lines: “… A palm-tree in full bearing, bowing down, bowing down, / To a surf that drove unsparing at the brown, walled town … / … a well-wheel slowly creaking, going round, going round, / By a water-channel leaking over drowned, warm ground … / … a desert stretched and stricken, left and right, left and right, / Where the piled mirages thicken under white-hot light … .”

They are astonishingly beautiful. Even metrically — that is, in terms of how Kipling deploys and manipulates the rhythms of his words. He starts with busy, angry, unlovely lines, of six or seven beats each with a caesura (a little break or hop in the middle, which you’ll hear if you read the lines aloud): “BLESSED be the English and all their ways and works. / Cursèd be the Infidels, Hereticks, and Turks!” Among other interesting things, this is an exceedingly English metre: it echoes the kind of poetry, mostly rather ugly, that was written in English before Shakespeare and co. went in for all that iambic pentametre stuff that you may have been forced to learn about in high school. But then, as Jobson slips into his dream, Kipling’s hopping and fussy metre gets intensely, mind-blowingly mellow: “bowing down, bowing down … drowned, warm ground … white-hot light.” Pass that spliff over here.

To be sure, Kipling’s Jobson objectifies and exoticizes his remembered corner of the Global South.

But he sure loves it.

Herbert: [ ? ] you, Lord

I am thinking about George Herbert (1593-1633).

Like many people in the 17th century, Herbert was sick a lot, before his terribly young death. He wrote no fewer than five poems entitled “Affliction.” This, number five, is the best one.

MY God, I read this day,
That planted Paradise was not so firm,
As was and is thy floting Ark; whose stay
And anchor thou art onely, to confirm
And strengthen it in ev’ry age,
When waves do rise, and tempests rage.

At first we liv’d in pleasure;
Thine own delights thou didst to us impart;
When we grew wanton, thou didst use displeasure
To make us thine: yet that we might not part,
As we at first did board with thee,
Now thou wouldst taste our miserie.

There is but joy and grief;
If either will convert us, we are thine:
Some Angels us’d the first; if our relief
Take up the second, then thy double line
And sev’rall baits in either kinde
Furnish thy table to thy minde.

Affliction then is ours;
We are the trees, whom shaking fastens more,
While blustring winds destroy the wanton bowres,
And ruffle all their curious knots and store.
My God, so temper joy and wo,
That thy bright beams may tame thy bow.

A couple of clarifications (if needed): The “Ark” of the first stanza is a standard symbol for the church. Herbert, an Anglican priest, is saying that it’s more stable than Paradise — which, after all, got lost. “Wanton,” in the second stanza, is now archaic, but was very commonly used in the seventeenth century. It means “naughty” or “hedonistic.” “But,” in stanza 3, is used in the sense of “only.”

Herbert develops a prim little joke. In Paradise, before the snake and the apple and all that business, people lived “in pleasure.” But when we went too far, God graciously swapped that for “displeasure,” so that we wouldn’t feel rejected. And then, through the Incarnation and Crucifixion of Christ (Him), God came to share our “misery.”

So far, so Sunday School. But then Herbert rolls out that incredible statement about “joy and grief.” That’s all there is, he says, like some old biker who has them tattooed across his knuckles. “If either can convert us, we are thine” — God’s.

What the heck does that mean? I used to think it had to do with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which holds that God has decided from before the beginning of time who will be saved and who damned. But that doesn’t really work, because in Calvinism damnation is certainly not a way to come to God.  More recently, I have thought about the line as a reflection on emotional disorders such as psychopathy. If you can feel joy or grief, you’re ok. You’re salvageable. They are vibrations of the same force, maybe. But if you can’t feel em — either of em —  you’re fucked.

But there’s more to this incredible poem, as it takes its hard-swallowing turn. Herbert returns to his Sunday School joke. All there is is joy or grief, he says — got it, class? YES, MR. HERBERT! Now, “some angels” — that’s Lucifer and company — “used the first.” It’s all gone, you see. So what’s left, class? GRIEF, MR. HERBERT! Very good, class. And that’s great, you see, because it means (1) we’re not left with nothing — no, we have grief for our stuffie, and (2) it means God has access to both species of His emotional prey. He is able, in that gruesome image with which Herbert concludes the stanza, calling back to the ancient, ancient idea of Christ as a fisher of souls, to “furnish” his dinner table just the way he likes it. Tucking into us: a swarming plate of grief.

It is stone-cold, this joke. Even as Herbert means it seriously. He is trying to articulate, like a good Christian sufferer, the word of patience: Thank You. But it comes out through gritted teeth, and blood from his tongue.

“We are the trees, whom shaking fastens more.” That’s his last try. It is a very good one. One of the greatest lines in seventeenth-century poetry. You almost glimpse, through that image, that idea, the possibility of understanding suffering. It makes us belong here. It’s what we belong to.


While the “wanton” bowers just get all “ruffled”? What kind of Sunday School is this?

The kind where the conclusion contradicts the text. Herbert doesn’t end with ‘Thank you.” He ends with “please.” Directed at a God who is represented, not as a fisherman, but — a yet more ancient image — as a hunter. Not with a line, but with a bow. Which, through the bright beams that follow rain, may be tamed. Or at least, we can wish. And that’s what’s really left.

“My God, so temper joy and wo,
That thy bright beams may tame thy bow.”



I continue to be fascinated by the story of the Nazi-era Gurlitt art-hoard, discovered in Munich several years ago. Among other things, this episode serves as a reminder (more-or-less Gadamerian) that a “collection” is precisely an embodiment of an historical taste and eye–that is, in conjunction with the political and other conditions under which it was collected. As opposed, I mean, to the fake universalism of the places we call museums. The pieces this guy Gurlitt, a crypto-Jewish modernist, kept for himself and his family while dealing for Hitler–how precious he must have considered them! And judging from the examples we’ve seen, he was right. Ask me, the collection should be put on permanent display, *without* being broken up. I think that would be an unparalleled resource for understanding modernism, Nazism, and much more. You see: everything this guy, through collecting, was himself trying to understand! (Yes, that’s a real word in the title. It means this post.)

Proposal for a first-year lit course: Small Data

Big data, as we all know, is what it’s all about. As the CEO of the AI company ImageNet has put it: “Data drives learning.”

Except it really, truly does not.

Consider a rock on the beach. It’s surrounded by data: from the local ecosystems, to the weather patterns on the horizon, to the stars that come out at night.

But that rock will never learn a thing. 

Data doesn’t drive learning. Learning drives data. The capacity to learn—interpret, and understand—determines what even counts as data. 

That’s where literature comes in. It’s just some marks on a page. But literature is what happens when some of the those marks, strangely, start to matter. 

Since very ancient times, writers have been attracted to exactly this kind of moment: when we suddenly see where the data are headed. Even—the singular—a datum. 

So, in this course, we will read and comment on some classic (and, mostly, very old) works of small data. Texts that do a lot with a little. Poems, lines, even single words that demand our attention. Plays and stories about the necessity of noticing, the challenge of interpreting, and the detail that changes everything.

Apocalypse and Discovery at #Scientiae2018

Just back from the Scientiae conference, held this year in Minneapolis. As always, I learned a lot at this conference, from many interconnected quadrants of early-modern intellectual history. But with special reference to my own interests in sixteenth-century millenarianism, and the invention of discovery,  here are just three points I am glad to have mapped.

First, from Ralph Bauer‘s paper on “The Alchemy of Conquest.” This was a concise but exceedingly rich account of what motivated Christopher Columbus to sail across the Atlantic in 1492. Zeal for new horizons? Ambition? Greed? A teleological anticipation of modernity? Nope: the apocalyptic visions of Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1135-1202), as parsed through 14th-century pseudo-Joachimite alchemical traditions. For Columbus “the Christ-bearer” (Christo-ferens), the Spanish throne was destined to provide a Last World Emperor who would defeat the Turks and reconquer Jerusalem, ushering in the Second Coming. Columbus’s own role, as he saw it, was to provide a shortcut to the “Indian” wealth that would finance the Apocalypse. And out of this profound and paranoid millenarianism emerged the historical phenomenon that we call the New World.

Betcha never saw that on the Discovery Channel.

Next, Vincent Masse on Guillaume Postel (1510-81): the “docte et fol” (learned and crazy) humanist and philosopher who became a cabbalist and self-appointed prophet. Vincent’s survey of Postel’s writings, including those still in MS, has the potential to make this bizarre yet characteristic figure of the sixteenth century newly and broadly accessible to scholars in both French and English. But one point of Vincent’s discussion, in particular, struck me. As scholars of medieval cartography and cosmography know, in High Medieval Europe the sphere that we call the Earth was actually thought to be doubled: a larger sphere of water, and a smaller one of land, the latter floating in the former “like an apple in a bucket”–as David Wootton has put it (and this I learned from him). Among other things, the “two-spheres” model made sailing to longitudinal antipodes of the land-sphere literally impossible, since they would be underwater, and pretty much ruled out the existence of any land masses anywhere on the globe not connected to the single, known world-island (Eurasia and Africa). Now, according to Wootton, this conceptual scheme was immediately and completely destroyed by Columbus’s landfall–the countervailing fact of the New World. But here’s the thing: the very idea of conceptual schemes is that they are highly resistant to destruction by countervailing facts. And it turns out that Postel, himself a two-spheres cosmographer, was impressed, as Vincent showed in his paper, by the troubling evidence of the New World discoveries. But he didn’t conclude that the two-spheres model was over. Rather, he concluded that the world was. If the shape of the world no longer made sense, that simply served as evidence that the world was soon to be dissolved. Perhaps Wootton needs to reconsider the very idea of overcoming conceptual schemes!

Finally, Erin Webster on sacred and universal time in the New Atlantis of Sir Francis Bacon (1560-1626). Among many other wonderful things, Erin pointed out that the discovery-narrative of this late Baconian work precisely is not directed toward the New World of the preceding century. Oh, the Americas certainly get talked about in the NA–but only as a place of such divine disfavour that it can hold no interest for natural philosophers or enlightened travellers. On the other hand, Bensalem, the intellectual utopia actually discovered by Bacon’s fictional seafarers,  is little more than an imagined, perfected, Baconian Europe–already Christianized long before the travelers get there, and already Baconian long before that! A traditional narrative (Wootton again) holds that Bacon’s project for reforming natural philosophy (science) was based on the transatlantic discoveries of the late fifteenth centuries. This is about as true as supposing that Marx’s project for re-envisioning macroeconomics was based on the Boston Tea Party. In other words, it is quite seriously not true at all. (I do not suggest that Erin would agree with that analogy; but it is something that her paper made me think about.)

Next year in Belfast!


How I stopped worrying and learned to be bored by AI discourse

I’m thinking about maps and artificial intelligence.

Not the way you think. I’m not talking about augmented reality or the return of Google Glass or geek fantasies of robot drone guides.

I’m talking about a good old-fashioned paper map.

Suppose you are lost in a strange city. An experience that ranges from disorienting to terrifying. (If you’ve had it, you know.) You are completely at the mercy of your surroundings.

Then somebody hands you a map. Let it be as crude as possible–small, detail-poor, torn. Nonetheless, you can suddenly orient yourself. Act like you know this place, to some extent. Find your way around.

What has happened here? Clearly, an encounter with information technology. An encounter, that is, with information as technology–that tool, that object, which you have attached to your being. The tool becomes, for the moment, the very vector of your being. Person-with-map is a cyborg. But that’s precisely how s/he attains the requisite functionality as a person.

And more than that. By acquiring the map, and starting to use it, you have acquired analytic abilities that were not yours before. You know where that street leads. Which way to the hospital. How to find a hotel. And so on. Mapless people, also lost in this city, can cling to you.

You have become smarter. Artificially.

Two points. One, the phenomenon of information is only ever encountered technologically–however creased, crude, or basic the tool in the encounter may be. “Information technology,” I guess, is itself becoming an old-fashioned phrase, and good riddance. It’s redundant. Technology is not all informational. But all information is technological.

And two: information technology is always artificial intelligence–again, no matter how simple or ungeeky the informational tool. This is why, I think, the horizon of the Singularity keeps receding. It’s not a transformation in our relationship to information. It is our relationship to information.

But it is we, not the map, who become AI.

Das Fahren des Anderen

I have a neighbor who always drives much too quickly down the lane behind my house. Where kids play, people walk, etc.

I think he’s an asshole.

Now, I’ve just been reading the special report in this week’s Economist about Autonomous Vehicles (AVs). Basically, the report says: they’re near, they steer, get used to it. One claim that the E pushes very hard on this file is the utilitarian one. AVs are predicted to be, overall, much safer than cars. (Driven by humans. For short, cars.) For AVs will be programmed, we are told, *not to be able to do* the stupid things so many of us prefer when we get behind the wheel.

My question: my Ahole neighbor likes to drive too fast down the lane.

He has paid very good money for a sweet German SUV to do this in.

Is he really going to be satisfied, renting or owning, with a transportation package that does *not* support the function “faster down the lane”?

On the other hand: If the AV packages supposedly coming down the pipe will actually support this function–what’s the fucking point?