Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Wisdom of Bill Walton

Those of you that have ever heard him provide color commentary for an NBA game on ESPN know that Bill Walton is one of the most unintentionally funny figures in television sports. Anyway, this week he is the guest on ESPN.com writer Bill Simmons' podcast. In addition to some fun anecdotes, he provides some rather hilarious moments, such as this brilliant exchange:

Simmons: You have to admit the basketball that was played from Magic and Bird on versus the basketball that was played during the Russell era... I don't think you can really compare the eras, can you?
Walton: Absolutely yes.
Simmons: But the game was much more athletic in the '80s.
Walton: Yes, but...
Simmons: I just feel like you could put the '85 Lakers in 1962 and they would have blown everybody away.
Walton: How could you say that? In 1962 those guys were all eight years old. Playing against Russell and Chamberlain and Jerry West?
Simmons: No, I mean, like, use a time machine.

Which can only be surpassed by my new favorite Bill Walton Cultural Confusion:

"That was like the rock of Gibraltar on which you can build a church on."
(referring to Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale)

My previous favorite instance of this phenomenon was, as he was calling a game in which one of the teams was in danger of giving up a big lead:
"They can't afford to be like Beethoven and leave a symphony unfinished."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Intimations of Quantum Theory from Recollections of Early Indo-European?

I always find things like this amusing.

Old English made similar use of its accusative and dative cases (the dative had absorbed the ablative) when it came to time, and in some more colloquial phrases this usage has stayed in our uninflected modern English. For example:

Accusative of time during: I was there a couple days = I was there for a couple days.

Ablative of time when: I got there Friday = I got there on Friday.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

O Tempora! O Mores!

I have titled this post with a famous phrase of Cicero's, from his first speech against Catiline. The modern reader may not understand what it means; the modern reader, after all, doesn't usually know Latin. It is rather difficult to translate the simple force of the Latin into English, and especially to find an adequate rendering of the word 'mores,' which can mean 'manners, customs, traditions," or, of individuals, "morals, or character." I am far from disowning the great difficulty, rather the impossibility, of rendering Cicero's phrase into English. I have recently discovered, however, in an old Penguin translation of some of his speeches, a manner in which it most certainly ought not to be rendered: "What a scandalous commentary on our age and its standards!"

To his credit, our interpreter, Michael Grant, does translate the two substantial words of the phrase ('tempora' and 'mores') with English equivalences that are not wholly off the mark ('age' and 'standards'). 'Standards' is certainly rather weak, given the situation (the thrust of Cicero's argument at this point is that true Roman patriots would have already killed Catiline, and not allowed him to attend the present Senate meeting), but 'age' is a fine translation, semantically speaking, for 'tempora.' What really pushes the translation over the edge is the paraphrasing and vacuous "what a scandalous commentary" that he tacks onto it. Was his goal to trivialize the great statement? I cannot imagine anyone with any command of Latin could be so spiteful of the master. Did he not think his readers would understand something like "O the standards of our age!"? Dear old Tully hardly deserves such patronizing.

It may seem rather mean of me to pick on some poor little classicist from the sixties (the translation was published in 1969). Yet the method of translation which has made itself plain in this sentence is a source of great vexation to me. The chief principle of this method, if I may speak rather broadly, is to bring the text to the reader in all the ways it can, not only across the gulfs of language and of time, but over the obstacles of different of diction, style, and priorities; with great authors this almost always constitutes a downward motion. This method commits all sorts of grave offenses against literature, the gravest being that it convinces readers that all literature sounds like their own, and makes their world for that a little smaller.

Good translation should ideally provide the reader with their author unchanged except in language, as Dryden wrote, in the preface to his translation of the Aeneid: "I have endeavored to make Virgil speak such English as he would himself have spoken, if he had been born in England, and in this present age." I for one cannot see the words our translator has given him coming out of Cicero's mouth at any time or in any nation. Yet it strikes me that Mr. Grant's translation of Cicero's phrase does have the feel of something we would hear in the House or Senate, and this thought troubles me greatly, that the greatest orator of ancient Rome would either be mute today, or not himself. What a commentary that is upon the standards of our age.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Scattered Reflections on Shakespeare's Richard The Second

The whole play is suffused with two streams of imagery: religious and legal.

As a play it is unified much rather by these threads of diction, and the themes which it treats, than by its plot or even characters. For one cannot name any single action as the defining arc of the play: the rivalry of Bolingbroke and Mowbray but leads to the civil war and deposition of Richard, but this is accomplished midway through; what follows in the fourth and fifth acts is not necessary to this action, and only the fourth may argued for its denouement, while the fifth is concerned with a wholly new action. We may justly call the play plotless for this lack of a single plot. But perhaps this is proper to history, as distinct from tragedy, that the events rather sprawl, while the motions beneath them are made the form of the drama.

Similarly York, although he is a secondary agent in the action of the play, is as full of its problems of right, law, and loyalty as are Richard and Bolingbroke.

Why are we shown Richard's death? His last speech is a fine one, and his death surprises us by making plain the violence that has rumbled in the background of the whole play. Yet it can hardly be claimed merely for a set-piece. Again it may be necessary to the less exacting form of history, that a history of King Richard the Second ought to include his death. Yet even loose history sets its limits, as the revolt of Harry Percy, loyal ally here of Bolingbroke, is the subject of another play, though it would provide a fine or finer thematic balance as the much briefer conspiracy of Aumerle does--yet the revolt is alluded to, when Richard says to Northumberland (surely some of the best and most revealing lines in the play),
"Thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all;
And he shall think that thou, which know'st the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne'er so little urged, another way
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne." (5.1.59-65)
If the death of Richard cannot merely be a scene necessary by convention, how else does it belong in the play? Is it a strange mix of many of the play's themes, come together suddenly at the last, after even the epilogue of the conspiracy against Bolingbroke, so that Shakespeare effects a sort of double coda (Richard's death and then Bolingbroke's response to it) after the denouement of Aumerle's plot? Much is compressed into the murder of Richard: the flattery of kings, which Exton thinks he acts in, the nobility of Richard in merely being a king, the groom's impotent loyalty to his sometime sovereign, the sanctity of kingship, strangely reinforced by the way Exton's motives make allusion to the murderers of Thomas Beckett:
"Didst thou not mark the king, what words he spake,
'Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?'
Was it not so?" (5.4.1-3).
All of these are brought in with the new metaphor for the state which Richard has conceived, and which accounts for its unity in his single body and its fracturedness in the ephemerality of his thoughts.
Yet even this I think is insufficient wholly to satisfy the question.

The three women of the play are all characters most worthy of pity; I think Richard's Queen has many great lines. Yet the wives of Gloucester and York are also moving in their pleas for familial loyalty.

The wider grounds for Bolingbroke's usurpation, that is, Richard's mismanagement and over-taxation of the kingdom, which Northumberland, Ross, and Willoughby express, are never brought to the fore by Bolingbroke, but he rather makes his outward cause personal, and hides the patriotic cause beneath it; he never portrays his seizure of the crown as other than vengeance for a personal affront. Indeed it is intrinsic to monarchic or aristocratic government that the state is comprised in a few people; as in the play we are closely privy to the motives of these people, Shakespeare can show us how it is not that reasons of personal enmity mask realities of wealth and power, but rather that those broader issues are impressed into serving the desires of powerful men.

As he is accustomed, Shakespeare's gives us a great balance of characters to view, as there are many sets of sons and fathers we may compare.

The play certainly possesses a greater singleness of action than many of Shakespeare's plays. Yet is it better to say, if this play is indeed still unified rather by the complete balance of its parts within themselves, as the continual threads of imagery, the many-times repeated relations between characters, the similar situations, that the drama ought not to be considered as a thing in motion, as we must see the headlong thrusts Sophocles and his countrymen, but rather as a static presentation? Has the Bard been here more a painter than a musician?

Some few lines that struck me:
Richard: Uncle, even in the glasses of thine eyes
I see thy grieved heart: thy sad aspect
Hath from the number of his banish'd years
Pluck'd four away. (1.3.208-211)

York: Where doth the world thrust forth a vanity--
So it be new, there's no respect how vile--
That is not quickly buzzed into his ears? (2.1.24-26)

Queen: ...yet again, methinks,
Some unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune's womb,
Is coming towards me, and my inward soul
With nothing trembles... (2.2.9-12)

Richard: Mine eyes are full of tears, I cannot see... (4.1.244)