Saturday, September 02, 2006

Speak Not, Memory

At one level, all of life is the accumulation of memories, a building toward the inevitable moment when we can bore a younger generation (just we were bored when younger) by stories that have grown threadbare in the retelling. But at another level, all of life is a process of forgetting, a building toward the inevitable moment when the joke about “early Alzheimer’s” isn’t really funny any more. Or more simply, when the names and faces of youth can no longer be recalled because they no longer matter.

The inconvenience of an occasional memory lapse usually sparks a regret that we cannot remember more. Imagine how convenient it would be if we could recall our college calculus as well as we knew it then, or we could recite procedural rules as precisely as we learned them for the bar exam. The simple truth is that our brains were not wired to remember everything, and life would be immeasurable more difficult if we did.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIn his short story, “Funes the Memorius,” Jorge Luis Borges explores this fundamental principle of memory. In Borges’ story, Funes has lost consciousness when he was thrown off a horse, and after regaining it, he couldn’t forget anything he had seen or heard.

He remembered the shape of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once…He could remember all his dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times he has reconstructed an entire day. He told me: I have more memories in myself alone than all med have had since the world was a world.

But this fabulous talent was not in the end an advantage; it was paralyzing:
I suspect that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes, there were nothing but details, continuous details.
Our memories must be selective in order for us to be able to function. Our brains must sort and sift, to clear away until only what remains is that which matters. Imagine a marriage where your spouse remembered with clarity every frailty and shortcoming. Or how hard it would be if you couldn’t put setbacks and defeats behind you, but had to remember them, eternally and perfectly. We forget our college calculus, and even the name of the girl across the classroom whose eye caught yours for that sweet and blessed instant, because we have to move on. The process of forgetting is a kind of refinement, a distillation of the essence, that permits us to see our lives not as a crazy quilt of sights and sounds, but as a progression that has a more general meaning and purpose. If we saw all at once, we could not see the center.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Mambrino's Helmet

In Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s novel Don Quixote, a barber’s basin is transformed into the Helmet of Mambrino through Don Quixote’s fertile imagination. Don Quixote is quite concerned about the care taken with the precious helmet, and so inquires about it to Sancho Panza. Sancho replies:

In God’s name, Sir Knight of the Sad Countenance, I cannot endure or bear with patience some of the things your worship says; they make me think that all you tell me about chivalry, and winning kingdoms and empires and giving isles, and doing other favors and mighty deeds as knights-errant do, must be just wind and lies, and all friction or fiction, or whatever you call it; for to hear your worship say that a barber’s basin is Mambrino’s helmet and persist in that error for more than four days, what can one think? Only that a man who persists in saying things like that must be cracked in the brain. I have the basin in the bag all dented, and I am taking it home to mend it and to use if for shaving.

Don Quixote answers him

Look you, Sancho, by the same oaths as you swore just now, I swear that you have less brains than any squire has or ever had in the world. Is it possible that all this while you have been with me and have not discovered that everything to do with nights-errant appears to be chimera, folly, and nonsense? This is not really the case, ut there is a crew of enchanters always among us who change and alter all our deeds and transform them according to their pleasure, either to either favor us or to injure us. So what seems to you to be a barber’s basin seems to me to be Mambrino’s helmet, or to another as something else.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAt first reading it may be easy to dismiss Don Quixote’s comments about the barber basin (which Don Quixote is usually depicted wearing, as in the adjacent image) as the ramblings of a madman who is unable to see reality clearly and rationalizes his delusion as the work of imagined enchanters in our midst. But whether Don Quixote is mad, there is a deeper kind of meaning hidden within his words.

It is easier to see this meaning within the same artistic context in which Don Quixote is speaking. Just as the romantic world of chivalry within which Don Quixote lives is the product of an enchantment placed upon him by the books he has read, so to is the world in which we live transformed by the enchantment of artists who, fortunately, are always among us.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingSome may look at blocks of marble and see only chunks of stone.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBut the fertile imagination of the artist can see in the block of stone the hidden beauty within. Through a process that might while be called enchantment, the artist can call forth from within the stone a statue, an image that only existed within the artist's mind's eye, and through this process enable us to see what previously the artist alone could imagine.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIn the end the marble is transformed from a piece of rock into an image of youth and beauty. And yet, and yet, there are still people who will look at the image and say that it is still only a piece of stone, it is not a person at all, and it does not in the least resemble anyone who has ever lived.

For most of us, we are willingly complicit in the artist’s abstraction, and by entry into the enchantment, not only share the artist’s vision, but are enriched and ennobled by it. We willingly participate in the abstraction, and don't even think of the statue as a piece of stone at all. Through a kind of enchantment, the stone is transformed and we share the artist's vision.

Nor are these enchantments limited to mere esthetic interludes. Our lives are transformed by the experience. And so a man seeing a young woman for the first time might well invoke Byron’s words and say to himself “She walks in beauty like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies” – and the enchantment can be so strong that he sees her the same way even after 23 years of marriage, though the youthful beauty has faded.

As Don Quixote acknowledges, the enchanters’ influences are not invariably good. But for those complicit in the enchantment, the ability to see the Helmet of Mambrino where others may see only a barber’s basin may be what gives ordinary circumstances their charm and savor, and indeed gives purpose to life. Because at some level, life can appear little more than a series of random and inexplicable episodes and coincidences, ending in death – nothing more than a dented barber’s basin. But through the transforming power of enchantment, something noble, beautiful and valuable may be discerned. May we all be so forunate to recognize Mambrino's helmet, even if not (perhaps especially when not) apparent to others.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The One Sin Greater Than Plague or Death

In our time, we are comfortable thinking about issues such as debt or bankruptcy as strictly practical or legal concerns. But in an earlier times, debt was a moral issue. This is starkly illustrated in Henry Knighton's contemporaneous account of the Black Death in England; Knighton reports that "the Bishop of London sent word throughout his whole diocese giving general power to each and every hear confessions and to give absolution to all persons with full episcopal authority, except only in case of debt. In this case, the debtor was to pay the debt, if he was able while he lived, or others were to fulfill his obligations from his property after his death." Knighton's report appears in Eyewitness to History, a fascinating 1988 compilation of first-hand accounts of historical events, edited by John Carey.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Head Case Redux

Head Case Redux: As a service to those for whom the Zidane head-butt controversy was the biggest story so far this year, And Furthermore includes this link to a July 25, 2006 USA Today article (with video footage) entitled “Jockey apologizes for head-butting horse.” (I am not making this up.) The jockey is sorry and assures everyone that this "will never happen again." I am sure the horse feels a lot better better about it now with that reassurance. And Furthermore notes that, unlike Zidane, the jockey was wearing a helmet at the time of the head-butt. Is And Furthermore the only one puzzled over why anyone would ever use their head (which has numerous other important uses) as a weapon?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Not Your Average Blogger

Attentive readers may have noticed that I have added my photograph to this blog. I am feeling defensive about my blogger identity as a result of Pew Internet & American Life Project survey of bloggers, which may be found here and is discussed in this July 20, 2006 Washington Post (registration required) article. According one source quoted in the Post article, “the average blogger is a 14-year old girl writing about her cat.” My newly added picture is your assurance that I am, let us say, well over 14 years old and that posts about my cats (I have two of them, actually) will never appear on this blog. Disappointed cat lovers are directed here.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Head Case

On the theory that anything that is the subject of a front page article in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) is a suitable topic for this Internet weblog, And Furthermore has decided to weigh in on the Zidane head butt controversy -- possibly the only story this year that has gotten more widespread media coverage than options backdating. First, we would like to introduce as Defense Exhibit No. 1 the following link to an extensive video portfolio of the misbehavior of Marco Materazzi on prior occasions, which may explain what may have preceded Zidane’s now infamous head butt of Signore Materazzi. Second, in the interests of world peace and understanding, And Furthermore would like to introduce as Defense Exhibit No.2 the following link as proof that there are a lot of people out there with a lot of time on their hands to exploit the humor in any situation, even the video footage of Monsieur Zidane's head butt. (Does anyone remember who won the game?)

Friday, June 30, 2006

The Over-Soul

Ralph Waldo Emerson is little revered and not often read these days. His image has suffered with the passage of time, and he is too often ignored as one more stuffed- shirt dead white male. Perhaps it is his earnestness, or his lofty tone, which sounds dissonant to ears accustomed to the tones of our more earth-bound era. Perhaps it is his antiquated vocabulary, or his even more antiquated choice of topics. No pundits and no bloggers (well, few bloggers) are focusing on topics such as “Manners,” “Character,” or “Prudence.” Perhaps it is simply because his writings were force-fed on too many unwilling high school sophomores. But for those who take the time to go back and listen to his voice, his words remain full of surprise and wisdom.

A world of instant messages, stalled Interstate traffic and flight delays, not to mention McMansions, SUVs and iPods, would benefit from reflection upon Emerson’s words in his essay “Heroism,” where he comments on the “littleness of common life”

When the spirit is not master of the world, then it is its dupe. Yet the little man takes the great hoax so innocently, works in it so headlong and believing, is born red, and dies gray, arranging his toilet, attending on his own health, laying traps for sweet food and strong wine, setting his heart on a horse or a rifle, made happy with a little gossip or a little praise, that the great soul cannot choose but laugh at such earnest nonsense.

If in our own time Emerson is underappreciated, in his own day he was considered controversial and even scandalous. His Harvard Divinity School Address managed to get him banned from Harvard for over 40 years. He had a great capacity for friendship – it is little-remebered that he supplied the land on which Henry David Thoreau built his Walden cabin. His writings were heavily influence by his study of eastern religions, particularly his study of the Vedas. His reflections on these studies reflect some of his most interesting and powerful writing; in his essay “The Over-Soul” he wrote:

We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.

Emerson’s writing may be unfashionable these days, but it still retains a certain nobility, even an inspirational grandeur which is sadly lacking in the writings of our contemporary authors. To use an Emersonian phrase, his words speak to us with an "alienated majesty."

I recommend G. Wilson Allen’s award-winning classic 1982 biography, Waldo Emerson.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Talleyrand on Options Backdating

Talleyrand on Options Backdating: One of the more interesting stories in the financial pages these days is the news surrounding the options backdating probes. As the options backdating story has continued to unfold, some have questioned whether or not there is anything wrong with options backdating. For example, the law blog has a May 23, 2006 video post containing a debate between a business school prof and a CNBC reporter on the topic. Options backdating is obviously not harmless -- the revelation of options backdating has already proven damaging to at least some of the companies caught up in the probe as they have had to restate their past financials to reflect their true compensation costs. But even beyond the restatement threat, there is a particular reason why the options backdating story has gained momentum in a way that stories about excecutives' use of corporate aircraft or gold-plated pensions have not. The peculiar feature of the options backdating scandal is captured in the following epigramatic statement of Talleyrand:

If a gentleman commits follies, if he keeps mistresses, if he treats his wife badly, even if he is guilty of serious injustices toward his friends, he will be blamed, no doubt, but if he is rich, powerful and intelligent, society will still treat him with indulgence. But if that man cheats at cards he will be immediately banished from decent society and never forgiven.

The whole point of options-based compensation is to align executives' financial interests with those of investors. Options-based compensation should subject executives to the same investment risk as investors. But back-dating options to ensure that executives gain in a way that investors cannot not only breaks the alignment between executives' interests and those of investors, it unfairly stacks the deck in the executives' favor. It is, in Talleyrand's memorable phrase, cheating at cards, which no one will ever forgive. I believes the options backdating story has legs and has a long way to run.

Talleyrand made the statement above to Napoleon Bonaparte to upbraid Napoleon for his treachery in tricking King Charles IV and Queen Marie Luisa, the Bourbon monarchs of Spain, to abdicate their thrones in favor of Napoleon's brother Joseph. The incident not only led to a falling out between Napoleon and Talleyrand, but it was the prelude to Napoleon's disastrous Peninsular War that led to the first of Napoleon's military defeats at the hands of the Arthur Wellesley, later First Duke of Wellington.

Talleyrand himself may or may not have known about cheating at cards from first hand knowledge, but he certainly knew about trading in securities. At the time of his death, Talleyrand had accumulated an immense fortune, only a potion of which was attributable to bribes and gratuities from foreign governments. A substantial part of his fortune came from trading in shares of companies based on inside information he obtained from his position inside the Napoleonic government and the Bourbon restoration. For more about Talleyrand, I recommend Duff Cooper's classic 1932 biography of Talleyrand.

Monday, May 15, 2006

" I feel stupid and contagious..."

The advent of the Internet facilitates a number of important public services. For example, it is now possible to establish that the Nirvana song Smells Like Teen Spirit really does have lyrics. It is also possible to learn that the song was written in the key of F minor. (Oh, so that's what it was.) It is also possible to learn not only about the official conclusion that Kurt Cobain's 1994 death was caused by suicide, but to find out that there is an active campaign to establish that his death was actually a murder. After a while it can all be overwhelming, so we must seek what consolation we can in those immortal words:

With the lights out, it's less dangerous /Here we are now,
entertain us/ I feel stupid and contagious/ Here we are now, entertain us/ A mulatto, an albino/ A mosquito, my libido/ Yea!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The World Will Little Note (Nor Long Remember?)

On May 21, 2006, Montenegro will be holding a referendum on whether or not to become independent from the Serbia-Montenegro federation. The federation within the Republic of Serbia is all that remains of what was once the six republics that formed Yugoslavia.

Whether or not Montenegro should be independent is a question that goes back at least 87 years. In 1918, as World War I wound down, the Serb-approved Montenegrin legislature voted to join Serbia. Montenegrins loyal to the deposed king Nicholas refused to recognize the union and led an armed struggle. Nicholas appealed to the Council of Four at the Paris Peace Conference (Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau and Vittorio Orlando), but other issues captured their attention and the conference ended with the Montenegrin question unanswered.

In Paris 1919, the eminently readable account of the Peace Conference, written in 2001 by Margaret MacMillan, there is a colorful description of the events during the conference involving Montenegro:

Much greater problems were waiting for the peacemakers, but there was something fascinating about Montenegro. The country, a spot on the map between Croatia and Albania so small that few people could find it, was absurd, remote and beautiful... They were perhaps the tallest people in Europe, handsome, proud, brave and indolent...Their rulers until the middle of the nineteenth
century, had been warrior bishops. The modern dynasty was established by the last bishop of the line in 1851, when he tired of being celibate...There was a whiff of the Middle Ages about Nicholas: his insistence on leading his own troops in battle, on dispensing justice from his seat under an ancient tree, even the magnificant medals he awarded himself and his friends so copiously...He had dreamed of Montenegro's absorbing Serbia; it was not meant to happpen the other way around. He still hoped, in 1919, he could regain the throne he had lost during the war...He did not get a response; there were after all more pressing issues than the fate of a country of 200,000 people. Fresh votes were taken, under Serbian supervision, which seemed to show that Montenegrins wanted to be part of Yugoslavia... Nicholas died, still in exile in the spring
of 1921... Montenegro remains, as it has done since 1918, an uneasy part of Yugoslavia.

If the 2006 referendum suceeds, then the 650,000 Montenegrin people will become separate from the 7 million people of Serbia. But the structure of the referendum carries the unfortunate possibility that it will be inconclusive. In order for the referendum to succeed, at least 50 percent of eligble voters must participate and at least 55 percent must vote in favor of independence. These vote requirements have left the possibility of an outcome in the "grey area" where the votes for independence fall short of either minimum but still representing a substantial part (or even a majority) of votes cast. If the vote falls within the grey area, Montenegro will remain, as it has done since 1918, an uneasy part of a partnership with its larger neighbors.

Update: On May 21, 2006, amid massive voter turnout that far exceeded the requirement that 50% of eligible voters participate, 55.4% of voters voted in favor of independence, exceeding the minimum required favorable vote by a slight but sufficient margin. Montenegro will now turn its attention to seeking EU membership. It is also hopeful of fielding a fielding a team for the 2010 World Cup. The issue for resolution is the question of what will become of Kosovo.