The Calvine UFO Photo

    Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate

Somehow I came across this Newsweek article about the Calvine UFO photo a while ago and it’s been nagging at me in a tiresome way ever since.  The story in a nutshell is that a couple of unnamed (apparently someone has come forward recently claiming to be one of them) fellows sometime in 1990 were strolling about in rural Scotland and took some pictures of an object they said they saw flying about.  They gave the photos and the negatives to a newspaper which promptly turned over both photos and negatives to the British Military and the whole kit and kaboodle were disappeared for thirty years until a retired RAF press officer suddenly said “Oh, yeah.  I held onto one of ’em.  Just waiting for someone to ask about it.”

So, this is the photo:

When I first looked at the Calvine photo I thought:  “I’ve seen something like that.  That looks like something hanging on a power line.”  My next thought was that it looked a bit like that poster Mulder had on his office wall in The X-Files.  “I want to believe” it said.  If I’d had a poster at all like that it would say something like “I want to know”.

After mucking about on Streetview in the Calvine area for things on the wire about three minutes after I’d plunked my virtual self down near a little church above Calvine and looked up at the power lines  . . .

. . . I thought, “What are those things on the wire?”

And I was pretty sure of the answer.

And it didn’t come from outer space.

Here’s something I found from Allied Bold Products, LLC. The World’s Leading Supplier of Outside Plant Hardware:

And I thought, “hmm.  That looks a little familiar.  Hang it on a powerline  and have an old 1990 Kodak Instamatic a little out of focus and a big old Scottish Highland wind blowing through the wires and — oh look!  there’s an RAF trainer flying by! Let’s take a picture!

I’m not saying that the object in the Calvine photo is a product of Allied Bolt Products.  I’m quite sure there are lots of British firms that manufacture very similar products.

What I am saying is that it depresses me that so many of us are somehow willing to believe it more likely that hundreds, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of UK military personnel are successfully conspiring to suppress a grainy photo with exceptionally questionable provenance — that that giant conspiracy is more likely than that a couple of bored dishwashers from a hotel in Pitlochry took a snapshot that caught a funny out-of-focus thing on a wire and thought, “let’s have a go of it and send it to the newspaper as a flying saucer thing!  Race you to the pub!”  That’s pretty much how the whole crop circle thing started, after all.

Why do so many want to believe that huge numbers of people are hiding the “truth” about the moon landing, 9/11, the flat earth, elections, the pyramids?  Why do we want to believe that archaeologists are conspiring to hide the “truth” that the past was better, more idyllic, in fact, Edenic, with a  bunch of magic and high technology, than the present is?  Why do they want to believe and not want to try to know?

The facts are:  The past was, in general, nastier than the present.  Neil and Buzz landed on the moon in a time that was actually pretty unpleasant back on earth.  The earth is a messy oblate spheroid, not a flat disc.  The Roswell thing was about a weather balloon made out of Mylar, kind of a 21st century technology, which looks like tin foil but unfolds by itself, unlike tin foil, but was really, really unfamiliar to most people, including military people, in 1947 because most people in 1947 were just eight years out of the Great Depression and two years out of World War II and they probably hadn’t even seen a lot of tin foil.

And we love to think Atlantis was real and that King Arthur loved Guenevere and that Helen’s face really launched a thousand ships, and that young George Washington really cut down a cherry tree and could not tell a lie.  Maybe  we just want to believe this stuff as a sort of entertainment, but we also should know . . . .

. . . There are conspiracies in our world.  But where there are conspiracies there are just a handful of conspirators, not the hundreds of thousands the conspiracy theorists claim.   Nineteen young men acting largely alone really did bring down the Twin Towers, and tear up the Pentagon, and make that hole in that field in Pennsylvania and kill a whole lot of people.

And those young men did what they did because they wanted to believe.

We all need to truly know that.

I’ve seen lots of stuff on line saying the Calvine photo is the best UFO photo ever.  I don’t know what that means.  But I do know it takes only a few minutes on Google and Google StreetView to demonstrate that it is absolutely unconvincing as evidence of any mysterious aerial phenomenon to those who are wanting to know rather than simply wanting to believe.


Oral-Formulaic Theme Survival: The Hero on the Beach in Margaritaville

It’s my own damn fault.

– Jimmy Buffett, “Margaritaville”, 1977.

Many, many years ago a scholar named D. K. Crowne published an article titled “The Hero on the Beach: An Example of Composition by Theme in Anglo-Saxon Poetry”. The years was 1960. I was still at least a year away from the day of my birth. Twenty-seven years later I published an article titled “The Critic on the Beach”. In the almost three decades (the almost three decades of my life to that point) between Crowne’s article and mine, a surprising number of papers were published relating to this “theme” or “type-scene” of “The Hero on the Beach”. It became something of an academic cottage industry to write articles about “The Hero on the Beach” in everything from the poems of Homer, throughout Anglo-Saxon poetry, and on into every Medieval Germanic literature from Norse Sagas, to the Nibelungenlied, to the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I made my own little contribution in “The Hero at the Wall in The Wanderer”, accepted for publication before, but published after “The Critic on the Beach”, perhaps fittingly, in the same journal as D. K. Crowne’s piece that started this whole little industry. After “The Critic on the Beach” appeared, the industry ended, a victim of its own success, one might say.

Here’s the thing: “The Hero on the Beach” is what they called a “theme” or a “type scene”; it’s kind of like Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces”, but this is a hero on a beach with his companions in the presence of a bright or flashing light at the beginning or the end of a journey. What became clear over the course of the theme’s development in scholarly literature is that the beach could be any “liminal” position, that the light and even the companions could be implied – at times quite vaguely, and that the journey is something everyone, everywhere, every moment is beginning or ending. So, in “The Critic on the Beach” I pointed out examples in Hamlet, in Dante’s Inferno, in Virgil’s Aeneid, and in a Canadian pop song. Shortly before my article appeared, some associates published a brief note suggesting the “theme” to be present in Virgil’s first Eclogue with a beech tree, by an ingenious and somewhat prophetic bilingual pun, filling in for the Hero’s beach.

I concluded “The Critic on the Beach” with what I still think to be a quite nice universalizing paragraph (even if it did bring an end to what had been a quite productive field for those who feel the need to publish or perish):

The fundamental problem is that no longer is the theme “a stereotyped way of describing (l) a hero on the beach (2) with his retainers (3) in the presence of a flashing light (4) as a journey is completed (or begun).”[as Crowne first described the theme] The so-called “Hero on the Beach” has become simply a description of a threshold situation; the free substitutions suggested by scholars have removed the “theme” from the stereotype, allowing a range of variation beyond the limits of a single tradition. A danger in this development is that the history of the transmission of traditions is clouded for scholars. One must ultimately ask why an occurrence of certain details in Gawain is “theme survival” but a similar occurrence in Hamlet is merely coincidence. The proper response to the hero on the beach is likely not a recognition of familiar literary convention, but the recognition of a situation intimately known to every individual – for every [one] is at some point in [their] life “on the beach.”

I feel fortunate to have brushed up against Academia and escaped relatively unscathed. I feel blessed that I am able to follow my research interests without any quasi-lethal pressure to publish the things that come across my fancy. It has been a wonderful experience to be published in peer reviewed journals, particularly in two which published so many of the “Hero on the Beach” studies: Neuphilologische Mitteilungen wherein were published Crown’s “The Hero on the Beach” and my “The Wanderer at the Wall”; and Neophilologus, where “The Critic on the Beach” drew the curtain down on a tremendously stimulating, if terribly narrow, period of scholarship. It has been a wonderful privilege to live in a bit of an ivory tower above the Ivory Tower: I got to do the scholarship; I got to publish when I felt like it; but I got to be outside in the fresh air of the rest of the world. I can read what I want, I can write what I want, more so as time goes by! For example, I can read Spanish Drama or schlocky Science Fiction or the greatest obscurities you can imagine; and I can write:

Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” is a textbook example of “The Hero on the Beach”! Listen: “Watching the sun bake all of the tourists covered with oil” – what light is brighter than the sun?; “On my front porch swing” – liminal position, a metaphoric beach; “She’s a real cutie, a Mexican cutie, and how she got here I haven’t a clue” – the companions or retainers (the oil-covered tourists baking in the sun fulfill this requirement as well); and

I blew out my flip flop
Stepped on a pop top
Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home

he’s walking on the beach, a journey, beginning and ending, going out and then back home because of the injury caused by his damaged bit of beach footwear. But the more important journey in Margaritaville is the journey of self-reflection and self-discovery, from childlike irresponsibility to adult responsibility, from the stagnation of “it’s nobody’s fault” to the life-changing growth of “It’s my own damn fault.”

The deepest response to Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” is certainly not the recognition of some made-up “Oral-Formulaic Theme”. The deepest response is likely not the recognition of a fun pop song, or the yelling of “salt, salt, salt” during the chorus, or calling for another round – the deepest response may be the recognition of a situation intimately known to every individual – for every one is at some point in their life, in Margaritaville.

My article, “The Critic on the Beach” has been gathered together with my other scholarly publications in a little volume called Old Papers About Old English which is available from Amazon and some other online booksellers.

A Small Appreciation of “Three Men in a Boat”

I have come to the conclusion that, be the explanation what it may, I can take credit to myself for having written this book. That is, if I did write it. For really I hardly remember doing so. I remember only feeling very young and absurdly pleased with myself for reasons that concern only myself. It was summer time, and London is so beautiful in summer. It lay beneath my window a fairy city veiled in golden mist, for I worked in a room high up above the chimney-pots; and at night the lights shone far beneath me, so that I looked down as into an Aladdin’s cave of jewels. It was during those summer months I wrote this book; it seemed the only thing to do.        – from Jerome’s “Author’s Advertisement”

Upon first looking into Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog, one might be forgiven for thinking Jerome’s writing to be a bit of – if not a poor man’s – something less than a billionaire’s Wodehouse. Jerome’s writing is at times as clever and as outrageously funny as Wodehouse’s, and the characters in both men’s writings – although Jerome’s young men are firmly based on himself and two of his friends – are cut from similar cloth and to a similar pattern. But Three Men in a Boat has an unevenness of tone and moments of darkness which set the book down into a different world from the fundamentally sunny and silly world of Jeeves and Wooster and the rest of Wodehouse’s ingeniously amusing characters in their amusingly ingenious troubles.

What we at first expect to be a sparkling comedy of silly young men of privilege boating on the Thames for a fortnight turns out to have much more of the tragicomical about it. We and the young men are sharply confronted close to the end of their journey with the fact that this sparkling summertime river, in Joseph Conrad’s words, “. . . also . . . has been one of the dark places of the earth.” Jerome’s young men seem to quickly forget what they have seen, but the reader can’t help but be shaken. Jerome, in his “Author’s Advertisment”, compares London at night to Aladdin’s cave. The tale of Aladdin, for all its oriental splendour, is full of darkness. So too was the sparkling London night full of darkness in the autumn of 1888 when Three Men in a Boat began being serialized in Home Chimes magazine and Whitechapel was being terrorized by a man known as Jack.

As Jerome’s boaters gently row and tow their boat up the Thames toward Cambridge, we are treated to a bit of an historical and natural history tour of the river: as they pass Runnymede we are told about the signing of the Magna Carta; we get lost in the hedge maze at Hampton Court; we learn the history of a number of riverside pubs. As D. C. Browning writes in his introduction to the 1957 Everyman edition “ . . . it was not planned as a humorous book at all, but was meant to be an historical and topographical account of the river, entitled ‘The Story of the Thames’.” The first editor, however, found the silly bits to be of greatest interest and cut out most of the historical and topographical bits. Personally, I found the back and forth between the travelogue of the real Thames and the slapstick of the young men to be quite enthralling. Perhaps it is that often abrupt back and forth which prepares us for the moment toward the end of the book at which the darkness of the real world quite literally rises up from the water of the Thames.

In chapter XVI our three men and their dog reach Reading and they meet some friends who have a steam launch and are willing to tow the little boat for a distance up the river. The three young men are happy to have a rest from rowing and towing by hand. About ten miles above Reading they part ways with the steam launch and have a bit of a humorous debate about who should take a turn with rowing. As they get underway, the darkness appears mid-sentence:

   I had not been pulling for more than a minute or so, when George noticed something black floating on the water, and we drew up to it. George leant over, as we neared it, and laid hold of it. And then he drew back with a cry, and a blanched face.

It was the dead body of a woman. It lay very lightly on the water, and the face was sweet and calm. It was not a beautiful face; it was too prematurely aged-looking, too thin and drawn, to be that; but it was a gentle, lovable face, in spite of its stamp of pinch and poverty, and upon it was that look of restful peace that comes to the faces of the sick sometimes when at last the pain has left them.

Fortunately for us—we having no desire to be kept hanging about coroners’ courts—some men on the bank had seen the body too, and now took charge of it from us.

The next few paragraphs are, like so much of Three Men in a Boat, a very gentle piece of writing, and perhaps the most poetic and most tragic in the book. I feel I must include the whole passage not only because it is a beautiful piece of tragic poetry pushing up against but not stepping into melodrama, but also to emphasize Jerome’s sudden transitions – juxtapositions really, like sudden cuts in a motion picture:

   We found out the woman’s story afterwards. Of course it was the old, old vulgar tragedy. She had loved and been deceived—or had deceived herself. Anyhow, she had sinned—some of us do now and then—and her family and friends, naturally shocked and indignant, had closed their doors against her.

Left to fight the world alone, with the millstone of her shame around her neck, she had sunk ever lower and lower. For a while she had kept both herself and the child on the twelve shillings a week that twelve hours’ drudgery a day procured her, paying six shillings out of it for the child, and keeping her own body and soul together on the remainder.

Six shillings a week does not keep body and soul together very unitedly. They want to get away from each other when there is only such a very slight bond as that between them; and one day, I suppose, the pain and the dull monotony of it all had stood before her eyes plainer than usual, and the mocking spectre had frightened her. She had made one last appeal to friends, but, against the chill wall of their respectability, the voice of the erring outcast fell unheeded; and then she had gone to see her child—had held it in her arms and kissed it, in a weary, dull sort of way, and without betraying any particular emotion of any kind, and had left it, after putting into its hand a penny box of chocolate she had bought it, and afterwards, with her last few shillings, had taken a ticket and come down to Goring.

It seemed that the bitterest thoughts of her life must have centred about the wooded reaches and the bright green meadows around Goring; but women strangely hug the knife that stabs them, and, perhaps, amidst the gall, there may have mingled also sunny memories of sweetest hours, spent upon those shadowed deeps over which the great trees bend their branches down so low.

She had wandered about the woods by the river’s brink all day, and then, when evening fell and the grey twilight spread its dusky robe upon the waters, she stretched her arms out to the silent river that had known her sorrow and her joy. And the old river had taken her into its gentle arms, and had laid her weary head upon its bosom, and had hushed away the pain.

Thus had she sinned in all things—sinned in living and in dying. God help her! and all other sinners, if any more there be.

And then, without a pause:

   Goring on the left bank and Streatley on the right are both or either charming places to stay at for a few days. The reaches down to Pangbourne woo one for a sunny sail or for a moonlight row, and the country round about is full of beauty. We had intended to push on to Wallingford that day, but the sweet smiling face of the river here lured us to linger for a while; and so we left our boat at the bridge, and went up into Streatley, and lunched at the “Bull,” much to Montmorency’s satisfaction.

So abrupt! They’ve just pulled a poor woman’s body out of that “sweet smiling face of the river”! These young men no more want to face the darkness than they want “to be kept hanging about coroners’ courts.”   “God help her! and all other sinners, if any more there be.”  An ideal world, with no more sinners, is so very much desired, but so very much unreal!  They are young and they are privileged and they want the gentle river back.  And they are, in the end, characters in a book, ideal and unreal. They can’t help but move on from the darkness. “It seemed the only thing to do.” We, on the other hand, cannot help but be haunted by the reality of the darkness that has pushed through the young men’s gentle ideal unreality.  In his “Author’s Preface” Jerome quips of Three Men in a Boat: “for hopeless and incurable veracity, nothing yet discovered can surpass it.” Like that of his book, his quip’s humour is seasoned with truth.

Three Men in a Boat is a youthful summertime romp, a vivid account of an imagined journey through a very real geography, and at all times a very serious piece of writing. But above all else, Three Men in a Boat is a very gentle book, and that is a refreshing thing.

Human Demographics and Dogs

I’ve been thinking about the 8 billion people now in this world, the increasing development of the “undeveloped world”, the increasing education of girls and women, and the declining birth rates in all areas of the world where “development” happens and girls and women have access to education and life gets better for generally everyone.

And I’ve been thinking about dogs.

Where I live, my neighbourhood, in a fairly mixed but largely well-off, well-educated – if I may say – privileged area of what is largely a government town, Edmonton, the capital city of oil-rich, no-sales-tax Alberta, a Province of one of the most fortunate – fortunate in the sense of having won the historical lottery (even if the winnings don’t filter down equally to the citizens) countries on earth in its geography, geology, politics, and economy . . . . Where I live, there are a few kids. There are two next door. A few down the street. One or two over there. Sometimes the grandkids come to visit across the street or around the corner. There are childless young people renting and childless slightly less young people owning. The biggest family is the Ukrainian refugee family across the street. They have four kids.

Everybody seems to have at least one dog.

A few years ago I read something – probably erroneous – about more couples in Canada having dogs than having children. I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly feels like it some times. There are countless news stories about how Millennials are choosing to have dogs instead of children. Certainly family size has declined in Canada over my lifetime (I was born in 1961), as it has in most of the world, a trend projected to continue until global population begins to decline sometime in this century as standards of living and the availability of education continue to rise.

In the latest issue of Scientific American (March, 2023) there’s an important opinion piece by Science Historian Naomi Oreskes titled “The Eight-Billion-Person Bomb” which reiterates the trivially obvious truth that there are limits to growth. In 1996, Colin Tudge published a wonderfully inciteful book called The Time Before History, looking at, as the subtitle makes clear, “5 Million Years of Human Impact”. His final chapter, “The Next Million Years”, lays out a suggested plan – more a heartfelt plea – for Humanity to do the right thing by our planet and our species, to limit and reverse our growth, to achieve a stable and much, much smaller population. The choice Tudge shows us is between the painful and degrading death of billions of individuals in the extinction of Humanity, and the million year future – not in Eden – but in some degree of happiness and opportunity.

I am a product of mid-twentieth century affluence. I have never felt the urge to produce a large family. I managed to keep it below replacement rate.

And I don’t want a dog. I confess, I share, under a certain degree of duress, a residence with two non-reproductive inside cat sisters.  They and I respectfully ignore each other for the most part as we quietly go about winding up our path of carbon footprints which will largely be snuffed out with our respective snuffings out. Don’t get me started on what I see to be the horror of outside cats and the absolute ecological nightmare of feral cats. But I get the sense that almost everyone around here wants to have a dog in their house! And out and about, largely unleashed!  And few of them, human or dog, are at all interested in children!

And, being not terribly interested in children myself, I don’t have much of an issue with that last bit.

But here’s my fear, my true terror for the future of Humanity and the planet that grows out of human demographics and dogs: I fear that as standards of living rise (a good thing) and as girls and women have more access to education (one of the best things possible) and as birth-rates drop (tremendous!) and as the potential for Tudge’s not-quite-Eden approach us (O, wonderful!) . . . everybody will be out walking their packs of dogs and filling the garbage bins and landfills and surface runoff with dog excrement in pretty little purple and green plastic (“compostable” no doubt) bags. In place of sanitary sewers flushing human teenage bowel movements to sewage treatment plants, we’ll have mountains of Fluffy’s and Rex’s and Seymour Hirsh Chomsky the 3rd’s dogshit being hauled by self-driving blue-hydrogen powered trucks to overwhelmed landfills. Instead of a million years of Human happiness and intellectual development, we’ll have blue-carbon footprints, continually rising temperatures and sea-levels,  ever expanding landfills, massive algal blooms caused by runoff from giant National Dog Parks, destroyed ecosystems, and packs of feral dogs roaming desolate cities tearing at scraps of green plastic “organics bins” and bits of feral cats and terrorizing the one or two children who are still somehow being doomed to this imagined horrid world that seems so close  when I walk about my neighbourhood.

But mostly what haunts me is the horror of those garbage bins on the street corners in my neighbourhood, each with a pleasant bench next to it and each bin overflowing with very smelly green and purple plastic (compostable, no doubt) bags, often not even tied up to keep the odours in and the flies out.  Who would want to sit and rest on that bench?

I bet there will be countless numbers who will sit and rest on that bench.

And what plagues may come!  From those bins, overflowing with the spoor of our children’s replacements?

The Hoary Stone in Old English and “The Hobbit”

The hoary (or grey) stone is a symbol repeated in Beowulf four times, once in an Old English homily, once in the Old English poem Andreas, and a few times in chapter 11 of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In Beowulf it is noted as being near Sigemund when he kills the worm, near Grendel’s Mere, and later, it is referred to twice near the dragon’s hoard. In Blickling Homily xvii, St. Paul looks over a lake in Hell and sees the hoary stone. And in Andreas the hoary stone towers over the city of the cannibal Myrmidonians. In Old English the grey stone is always associated with things monstrous and/or Hellish, be they dragon, strange creature of the moors, a cannibal city on the coast of Crimea, or simply demons in Hell.

In chapter 11 of The Hobbit, Bilbo and the Dwarves finally find the closed “back door” of the Lonely Mountain in which the dragon, Smaug, rests on his hoard of treasure. The door is in “a little steep-walled bay, grassy floored” and “A large grey stone lay in the centre of the grass . . .” It is on this grey stone that the thrush knocks and signals the opening of the keyhole, and it is on this grey stone that Bilbo stands as he explains to the Dwarves the way forward to the dragon hoard. The grey stone in The Hobbit is an “Easter egg” for those who know how to find it, and it is a call-back to the Old English poetry that Tolkien knew and loved so well.

(The above is adapted from a footnote in my forthcoming translation of The Vercelli Book, one of the four great manuscripts of Old English poetry which have survived to our day.)

On “Andreas”, line 874b: “Dream wæs on hyhte”

The Old English poem Andreas (which I’m currently translating as a part of my ongoing project of translating all of Old English poetry into Modern English verse) is perhaps too often dismissed as a cheap imitation of Beowulf  by a poet not at the height of his powers (if he may be imagined to ever have reached any particular heights) and having an unfortunately unconducive-to-poetry devotion to hagiography.  Having now spent some forty years studying Old English Poetry, and having translated well over half of the lines of the surviving corpus, I’ll plant my feet and say:  Yes, Andreas does have some connection to Beowulf,  and, Yes, Andreas has some not terribly felicitous passages suggestive of a poet still trying to get to his 10,000 hours, but, No, hagiography can be conducive to remarkable poetry, and, No:  there is nothing cheap about Andreas, and, indeed, there are some passages that are stunningly powerful, complex, masterfully artful, brilliant, and terribly difficult to translate because they are such good poetry in the slightly more than seventeen hundred lines of Andreas.  One of those passages is very near the middle of the poem, the second half of line 874, Dream wæs on hyhte.  St. Andrew’s followers are explaining how they have, in their sleep, by the power of the Lord, been transported from a ship at sea to the shores of eastern Crimea.  They describe divinely commanded joyful eagles who carry them up to heaven, where the angels are singing around God.  And, Dream wæs on hyhte.

[The following is adapted from a footnote to my forthcoming translation of The Vercelli Book, the fourth completed volume in my series The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records in Modern English Verse.]

The second half of line 874  – Dream wæs on hyhte. “Joy was in Highest Heaven.” – is a four word sentence remarkable for its density of connotations, which render it very difficult to adequately translate. Dream, the ancestor of the Modern English word “Dream” doesn’t mean “dream” but rather “joy, happiness” and also “song” and sometimes a general sense of revelry. Hyhte, at the other end of the sentence most usually connotes “hope” and “trust” as well as the “joy” for which, perhaps, one hopes or trusts. And so, one could reasonable translate these four words as “Joy was in the joy”, which may well have a certain homely and mildly Buddhist wisdom to it.

Furthermore, hyhte, especially in the present context of angels and divinely guided eagles, carries more than a little of the feeling of hiehðu, “height, the heavens”, a word used in the immediately preceding line (I translate it as “high heaven”). And so, one could say, and I do, that, among many other things, the half-line means, “Joy was in Highest Heaven.”

At least since Kenneth R. Brooks’ 1961 Clarendon Press edition of Andreas and The Fates of the Apostles, the generally accepted rendering is a dull something like “the song was joyful”, very similar to an early choice I made for the sentence. But there is so much more complexity and nuance of connotation in the four simple words Dream wæs on hyhte!

Between: an Etymological Reverie of Twos

. . . I had spent a morning of such joy as is difficult of communication to any other. This particular feeling has been with me for a few days now, a sort of twitching desire to share a discovery which seems impossible to share with anyone, even with family and friends who seem to have strangely drooping or rolling eyes as I speak. . . .

The other day (as opposed to this day, I suppose) I was making my way through the Old English poem Andreas and was struck by a phrase:

Saga, þances gleaw þegn, gif ðu cunne,
hu ðæt gewurde be werum tweonum . . .
— ll. 557-558

[“Tell me, thane wise of thought,
if you know how it came about
among the doubtful men . . .]

(Please ignore my translation until you finish reading the next paragraph.)

The phrase which sent me on this morning reverie, which makes up the second half of line 558, Be werum tweonum, which is in bold above, is usually construed literally as “be-men-tween”, or, “among men”. The splitting of the prefix, itself a preposition, from the second element of betweonum is interesting in itself, if not unheardof in Old English poetry: the word, at its root, a compound of the preposition be “by, among” and the numeral “two” (or adjectival forms thereof). In the present context we have a prepositional phrase consisting of the preposition, be, the object of the preposition, werum, and an adjective, tweonum, describing the object of the preposition. The phrase is accepted to mean “among all humans of the world” rather than simply “by men twain” or “between men”. The construction here (and in a number of other poems, for example in Exodus ll. 443 and 563, and in Beowulf ll. 858 and 1297) is a marvellous little syntactical jewel as it places the object of the prepositional phrase, both temporally and on the page, between the two halves of the preposition, which itself means “between”. The rhetorical possiblities of this construction, even more than those of the split infinitive, are tools to boldly embrace — if only they had not been allowed to quietly slip away, be fingers tween of English linguistic history.
With more specific reference to the passage from the Old English poem: there is an extra connotation of tweonum when it stands alone, a connotation of “doubtful, untrustworthy”, and, perhaps, by etymology, “ambivalent, of two minds”. This adjective is ultimately derived from the Indo-European root *dwóh₁, which is also the root of “two” and of the second element of “between”. “Doubtful” is doubtless descriptive of all of fallen humanity in the Medieval Christian world-view. And so, when I came to translate Andreas, this Old English poem, I explicitly included the “doubtful” meaning in the line without compromising the primary meaning of this interesting prepositional phrase.

None of the etymological details I point out here are new discoveries. What I am presenting here is not in any way particularly original research. This story is just a part of my ongoing rambling self-education. But if only I could give you a hint of the joy that comes with this rambling and learning!

The other day (not this one) I spent much of a morning rushing about the house consulting volumes I’ve collected and squirrelled away for a few decades now, from Kenneth Brooks’ still very useful 1961 edition of Andreas and The Fates of the Apostles, through Bruce Mitchell’s wonderful Old English Syntax, into a page or two of Bessinger and Smith’s A Concordance to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, flipping past various editions of Beowulf from Wyatt to Klaeber, and finally arriving at the still reliable Bosworth and Toller Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, which very matter-of-factly confirmed the conclusions I’d just washed up on the shores of: “IV. sometimes the case is placed between be and tweonum . . .” (p. 96). But B & T didn’t tell me (because I didn’t look ’em up) about the other meaning of tweonum, and the strange parallel course the two “twains” had run over the last many thousands of years to come together in that moment of particularly good poetry in (the often unremarkable) Old English poem Andreas.
I had spent a morning of such joy as is difficult of communication to any other. This particular feeling has been with me for a few days now, a sort of twitching desire to share a discovery which seems impossible to share with anyone, even with family and friends who seem to have strangely drooping or rolling eyes as I speak.  But, just imagine: to have this vast, six-thousand-year sweep of human linguistic history opened up in what feels to be (and really has been) an emotional and physical revolution in one brief morning by means of a single, very common little English preposition! Between is a preposition that isn’t really a thing in a lot of European languages: most of them have something deriving from the Latin inter, which really just means “among” (like the first element of between). “Between”, in contrast, has a very concrete spatial implication: the object of the preposition is situated in the middle, equidistant from two, and only two, subjects. If someone is “inter” a Senate or a pair of horses, or a crowd of rowdies at a tavern, that someone may be in the back row or the Presidents seat of the Senate, riding one of the horses or attempting to climb the fence of the corral, tending bar or in the thick of a ferret legging competition. “Between” is the current stop on a linguistic journey for these sounds we make each day, between waking and slipping off again to dreams.

But, to hear, distantly, the voices of horsemen on the Central Eurasian steppes long before Genghis Khan, of hunters in the Caucasus long before the mythical Jason abused Medea, of priests in Brahman temples before Prince Gautama, of pig farmers in Lucania before Romulas, and of sailors on the North Sea before the Vikings sailed, and countless thousands of others using words something like “be” and something like “tween” and to know that these sounds have rolled around in my mouth, and in your mouth, and in their mouths for six thousand years and more, and that their meanings have rolled around in all our brains for all that time. And all of this for the single, wonderful purpose of moving thoughts between two doubtful but momentarily trusting human beings.

This is a rare pleasure, but one that happily seems to occur more frequently to me as I age and as I continue to read.

And none of this would or could have happened without the human knowledge trusted to be held between the covers of actual, physical books.

My translation of Andreas and the other poems of The Vercelli Book is in progress and will appear, with luck and a bit of good management, later in 2023. The Vercelli Book will be Volume 2 of The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records in Modern English Verse. Three volumes of this six volume series, The Exeter Book, Beowulf and Judith, and The Old English Scatterlings are currently available at Amazon and a number of other online and real world booksellers.

To Fathom a Sparrow: a little bit of the joy of Etymology

“Temba, his arms wide!”
“Darmok.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 5, episode 2, 1999.

While I was working on my plague-year project of translating into English the Spanish Golden Age play La vida es sueño by Pedro Calderón de la Barca (ISBN: 979-8702980065), my curiosity was stirred by the pretty Spanish word for a bird: pájaro. I had a predilection to translate pájaro by the English word “sparrow” because they had some similarities of sound and because pájaro reminded me of the Latin passer “sparrow”.  I knew passer well because of a beautiful and famous Latin poem by Catullus (Number 2) which begins “Passer, deliciae meae puellae . . .” This poem was known to me and my fellow first-year Latin students more than forty years ago as “The Passer Poem”.  One particularly strait-laced professor red-facedly expostulated about the very specific description of the passer in the poem:  “It’s only a sparrow!”  I remain unconvinced.

Anyway.  As it turns out, pájaro is the word that the Latin passer evolved into in the old Roman province of Hispania.  As Dr. Buck used to say to us “Spanish is just Latin as it is spoken today in Hispania!”  Despite a bit of a similarity in sound, passer is not related to the English word sparrow. Although it is a specific word in Latin, denoting the bird we call a sparrow in English, passer evolved (in Hispania) into a word in Spanish denoting a generic bird, like the word bird in English. “Interesting,” I thought, “the word’s meaning went from specific to general. I wonder . . .” and plunged down an etymological rabbit hole.

So, down through Proto-Italic *passros to the Proto-Indo-European noun *p(e)t-tro-s which meant “bird” as well as something like “one who flies in the manner of a bird.” *P(e)t-tro-s itself derived from a verb, *peth₂, which had meanings such as “to spread out” and “to fly, to spread one’s wings.”  “Interesting,” I thought, “the word’s meaning went from general, *p(e)t-tro-s “bird” and *peth₂ ‘to spread out, to fly, to spread one’s wings’, to specific, passer ‘sparrow’, and back to general, pájaro ‘a bird’. I wonder . . . ” and I started to climb back up through a different hole.

It seems the Proto-Indo-European verb *peth₂ made its way along through the branching history of languages and found its way into modern English as something to do with the sea rather than the air of sparrows and other birds.  Moving toward the North Sea and the Baltic rather than the Mediterranean, Proto-Indo-European *peth₂, a verb, became the Proto-Germanic *faþmaz, a measure of distance defined by a man’s outstretched arms.  *Faþmaz, of course, evolved into the Old English fæþm meaning “outstretched arms, embrace” and figuratively “power, control” as well as the measure of distance.  As should be obvious, the Old English word was the father of the Modern English fathom, which still means the unit of measure, usually standardized to six feet (although I have been known to measure out garden twine by the old “man’s outstretched arms” method), but also means “to understand” from the figurative sense of “get to the bottom of” which implies “plumb the depths” which comes directly from the use of a weight on a rope to measure out (in units of the length of a man’s outstretched arms) the depth of the water through which a ship is sailing.

     Pájaro, passer, *passros, *p(e)t-tro-s, *peth₂, *faþmaz, fæþm, fathom, and all the verbal and substantive forms which seamlessly fill the gaps between the Proto-Indo-European verb five or six thousand years ago and the Modern Spanish and the Modern English — one word, so many meanings, all derived from the fundamental image of spreading out one’s forelimbs, whether wings or arms, to fly, to measure, and to embrace.

I will always embrace the study of Etymology, because the stories Etymology tells — in a word (so truly) — stretch out my mind and spread my mental wings and let me take flight in thought, although I will never fully fathom their wonderful breadths, and heights, and depths!

It must be mentioned that *peth₂ also followed another path as it rolled through the mouths of the generations and spawned the English word feather and cognates with the same meaning in a great many languages.  Breadths, and heights, and depths, indeed.

On Translation, and Homer’s Blue Frieze


Alcinous’ Palace in the 1954 film “Ulysses, starring Kirk Douglas. The frieze at the top of the set is sort of blue.

I’ve been reading Anthony Doerr’s wonderful Cloud Cuckoo Land and was struck very early on by his use of Alexander Pope’s “translation” of Homer’s Odyssey as a stand-in for the Greek text his Greek-speaking characters are presumably reading. The first passage of Pope’s “translation” Doerr uses is:

Meanwhile Ulysses at the palace waits,
There stops, and anxious with his soul debates,
Fix’d in amaze before the royal gates.
The front appear’d with radiant splendours gay,
Bright as the lamp of night, or orb of day,
The walls were massy brass: the cornice high
Blue metals crown’d in colours of the sky,
Rich plates of gold the folding doors incase;
The pillars silver, on a brazen base;
Silver the lintels deep-projecting o’er,
And gold the ringlets that command the door.
Two rows of stately dogs, on either hand,
In sculptured gold and labour’d silver stood
These Vulcan form’d with art divine, to wait
Immortal guardians at Alcinous’ gate . . .

I put the word “translation” into quotation marks above because Alexander Pope by many reports could not actually read Greek, and produced his translation based on others’ translations of Homer into Latin. But Boswell, in his Life of Dr. Johnson, quotes a letter which refutes that allegation:


In the year 1763, being at London, I was carried by Dr. John Blair,
Prebendary of Westminster, to dine at old Lord Bathurst’s; where we
found the late Mr. Mallet, Sir James Porter, who had been Ambassadour at
Constantinople, the late Dr. Macaulay, and two or three more. The
conversation turning on Mr. Pope, Lord Bathurst told us, that _The Essay
on Man_ was originally composed by Lord Bolingbroke in prose, and that
Mr. Pope did no more than put it into verse: that he had read Lord
Bolingbroke’s manuscript in his own hand-writing; and remembered well,
that he was at a loss whether most to admire the elegance of Lord
Bolingbroke’s prose, or the beauty of Mr. Pope’s verse. When Lord
Bathurst told this, Mr. Mallet bade me attend, and remember this
remarkable piece of information; as, by the course of Nature, I might
survive his Lordship, and be a witness of his having said so. The
conversation was indeed too remarkable to be forgotten. A few days
after, meeting with you, who were then also in London, you will remember
that I mentioned to you what had passed on this subject, as I was much
struck with this anecdote. But what ascertains my recollection of
it beyond doubt, is that being accustomed to keep a journal of what
passed when I was in London, which I wrote out every evening, I find the
particulars of the above information, just as I have now given them,
distinctly marked; and am thence enabled to fix this conversation to
have passed on Friday, the 22d of April, 1763.
I remember also distinctly, (though I have not for this the authority
of my journal,) that the conversation going on concerning Mr. Pope, I
took notice of a report which had been sometimes propagated that he did
not understand Greek[1221]. Lord Bathurst said to me, that he knew that
to be false; for that part of the Iliad was translated by Mr. Pope in
his house in the country; and that in the mornings when they assembled
at breakfast, Mr. Pope used frequently to repeat, with great rapture,
the Greek lines which he had been translating, and then to give them his
version of them, and to compare them together.
If these circumstances can be of any use to Dr. Johnson, you have my
full liberty to give them to him. I beg you will, at the same time,
present to him my most respectful compliments, with best wishes for his
success and fame in all his literary undertakings. I am, with great
respect, my dearest Sir,

Your most affectionate,

And obliged humble servant,


Broughton Park,

Sept. 21, 1779.

I should probably have made some sort of mark around “Alexander Pope’s” since he was actually only responsible for half of “his” “translation” of The Odyssey (he did, however, do book VII, whence comes the passage above).
The bit of the Pope quoted by Doerr I’m interested in here is this:

The walls were massy brass: the cornice high
Blue metals crown’d in colours of the sky . . . .

Here’s the Greek for those who want to keep me honest:

χάλκεοι μὲν γὰρ τοῖχοι ἐληλέδατ᾽ ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα,
ἐς μυχὸν ἐξ οὐδοῦ, περὶ δὲ θριγκὸς κυάνοιο
Odyssey, Book VII, ll. 87-88.

When I was a freshman at university oh so long ago, somebody – probably that Marxist Comparative Literature professor – told me that if I didn’t know the language of a work I should have at least two translations at hand to compare – to keep the translators on their toes, no doubt. Well, his advice became a habit to the lasting pain of my bookshelves, so, here are some translations of those two lines of Homer I’ve casually pulled from my personal library . . .

Chapman (1857):

On every side stood firm a wall of brass,
Ev’n from the threshold to the inmost pass,
Which bore a roof up that all sapphire was.

Samuel Butler (1900):

The walls on either side were of bronze from end to end, and the cornice was of blue enamel.

The Loeb translation by A. T. Murray (1919):

Of bronze were the walls that stretched this way and that from the threshold to the innermost chamber, surmounted by a cornice of cyanus. (with a footnote to cyanus reading: “A blue enamel, or glass paste, imitating lapis lazuli. M.”)

W. H. D. Rouse (1938):

Round the courtyard, walls of bronze ran this way and that way, from the threshold to the inner end, and upon them was a coping of blue enamel.

Lattimore (1951):

Brazen were the walls run about it in either direction
from the inner room to the door, with a cobalt frieze encircling . . .

S. O. Andrew (1955):

Bronze were the walls that upheld it on every side
From threshold to bower, and around was a cornice of blue . . .

Fitzgerald (1965):

. . . bronze-panelled walls, at several distances,
making a vista, with an azure molding
of lapis lazuli.

Fagels (1990):

Walls plated in bronze, crowned with a circling frieze
glazed as blue as lapis, ran to left and right
from outer gates to the deepest court recess . . .

Well! That’s a bunch of stuff! Varied, certainly, but there seem to be some common threads that might help us triangulate on what Homer’s Greek was actually describing.
Here’s the Greek again:

χάλκεοι μὲν γὰρ τοῖχοι ἐληλέδατ᾽ ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα,
ἐς μυχὸν ἐξ οὐδοῦ, περὶ δὲ θριγκὸς κυάνοιο

And a rude parsing of it:

of bronze / indeed / truly / walls / had been laid out / here / and / there,
to (Not truly a preposition, but moving thither) / farthest corner / from / threshold, / around / but (Or “and” or “while” or . . . Homeric conjunctions are not like Modern English ones) / cornice / a dark colour, or blue steel, or a dark blue substance, or . . . (I suppose this is why Murray gave us a footnote)

Everybody got the bronze, while some speculated that the walls were plated with bronze, rather than cast, I suppose. None, however, bring across the past perfect of the verb, that the walls had been laid out this way in the past, with the explicit suggestion of a designer and a builder. And they all – except Pope, who is very minimalist – have the idea of this way and that and from threshold to inner – although the Greek word order is to inner from threshold. The cornice isn’t always a cornice, but it’s up there, a roof for Chapman. And the blue. Who can really know what Homer meant by κυάνοιο? It seems to be blue – the word is where we get our word “cyan”. We may imagine blue. We may envision lapis lazuli. Some translators seem to envision blue steel, which seems today a little less exotic than lapis lazuli or even blue enamel, And Chapman goes for Sapphire, but who knows what was envisioned in Homeric times? I tend to think of blue-glazed tiles like one might find in modern Mexico, Spain, or Greece. Or even just a lovely shade of blue paint.
And, if all these translators can arrive at all these slightly different and equally justifiable interpretations, why would we imagine that ancient auditors or readers of the Homeric poems would themselves all arrive at an identical “right” understanding and response? Translation is a marvellous and momentary art. It is the crystallization of a transitory feeling as a mind at a certain point in its existence responds to thoughts crystallized by and from another mind. Translation at its best is identical to Wordsworth’s poetry: Strong emotion recollected in tranquility. But translation is the recollection in tranquility of the strong emotions stirred by strong emotions expressed by another, in another language. Certainly there can be “wrong” translations – Alcinous’ walls weren’t red at the top – but I’m not sure that Bentley’s admonition to Pope – “It is a very pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” – is in any useful sense justified.

Addendum on the translator’s art:

JOHNSON. ‘We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation. Translations are, in general, for people who cannot read the original.’ I mentioned the vulgar saying, that Pope’s Homer was not a good representation of the original. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is the greatest work of the kind that has ever been produced.’ BOSWELL. ‘The truth is, it is impossible perfectly to translate poetry. In a different language it may be the same tune, but it has not the same tone. Homer plays it on a bassoon; Pope on a flagelet.’
– Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Hugh MacLennan, Foundation, and To-day

In 1935 The Dalhousie Review (15, 1 [1935], pp.67-78) published a fascinating little paper by Hugh MacLennan, titled “Roman History and To-day”. MacLennan was writing largely in response to the theories of the German historian Oswald Spengler and he was writing in the capacity of an historian – a trade in which he had recently been trained at Dalhousie, Oxford, and Princeton – not as a novelist – the trade for which he is mainly remembered (or, by too many, forgotten) today. But MacLennan tips his future-novelist hand a bit when he writes “The ideal historian of to-day would be integrated both as an artist and as a scientist.”(p. 69) This idea of art and science being two sides of the same coin of discovery and understanding is one I’ve long felt to be true. What MacLennan is getting at specifically, however, is the historian’s need to understand the psychology of the masses for it is the movement of the masses, not the decisions and actions of the “Great Men” which is the true force of history. There is much in “Roman History and To-day” which is directly informative of our own time of populism, mass disenchantment, new strongmen, and the looming of new World War. But when reading MacLennan’s youthful challenge to the academically powerful Spengler, I was struck by how much “Roman History and To-day” foreshadowed a work of fiction which would seven years later begin its slow rise to become a perennially burning ember to kindle an interest in economics, politics, and history in generations of teenagers. I am referring to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation cycle, and more specifically to the fictional scientific discipline of “Psychohistory” which appeared in the first Foundation story, published in 1942.

I don’t know if Isaac Asimov ever saw The Dalhousie Review or if he knew of its existance: he certainly never seemed to credit much other than Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the thermodynamics of gasses as a major inspiration for Foundation. But I suspect that an idea like Asimov’s Psychohistory was in the interbellum zeitgeist and it was on that zeitgeist that both MacLennan and Asimov drew. Such is the nature of (psycho)history that the necessary will bubble up from the mass into individuals until one or more run with that necessary.

MacLennan writes:

What does history deal with? The answer used to be: “With men and events”. Nowadays we should have to state it thus: “History deals with individuals, evens, and the masses, and it embraces the whole range of human activity”. . . .(p. 69)

and here comes the psychohistory from the zeitgeist:

. . . It has become obvious that the behaviour of the masses has some peculiar quality, as though the masses comprised a sort of entity which operated under government of natural mass-laws of its own. And to modern people who read the newspapers, mass-behaviour seems so mechanical, so entirely predictable, that hardly anyone would talk of history as being a biography of great men. (p. 69)

In the first Foundation story published (the second section of the novel Foundation) Asimov has his character Fara say:

. . . you all seem to forget that Seldon was the greatest psychologist of our time and that he was the founder of our Foundation. It seems reasonable to assume that he used his science to determine the probable course of the history of the immediate future . . . (Foundation, “The Encyclopedists”, chapter 3)

and a moment later Asimov writes, apparently channelling the inner thoughts of his character Salvor Hardin:

A great psychologist such as Seldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future. (Foundation, “The Encyclopedists”, chapter 3)

As Salvor Hardin cogitates: “hm-m-m!”

MacLennan continues:

Yet it would be too simple to equate the masses to some sort of crude machine level, for they have – excuse the cliché – “psychology”. The mass psychology of various times, as revealed in countless apparently unimportant ways, should be almost as important to the historian as economics.

Hm-m-m indeed.

MacLennan continues on to discuss the concepts of causes and “determiners”:

. . . there are times when the process of events is seen, with pitiless clarity, to be issuing from formal causes far remote, when individuals are like flies on a torrent, when almost everyone seems to want something not to happen, and yet later ages, looking back, see that it had to happen. Such times are vital crises, like the collapse of the Roman Republic, like the downfall of the Roman Empire, like the 1790’s. In fact, like the events of our own day. (p. 71)

This reference to “events of our own day”, by the way, was revisited by MacLennan in his 1980 novel Voices in Time, which is highly recommended. And the entire discussion of the Fall of the Roman Empire is tantalizing in reference to Asimov’s very clearly stated basing of Foundation on Gibbon’s great work of historical analysis.

MacLennan continues:

Such crises do not happen to young or primitive societies. It concerns us, in the twentieth century [and in the twenty-first], to know what is underneath our times. Obviously a great social idea, at least in its application, is very nearly played out. To use two metaphors: Has a spring uncoiled to its fullest length, as was the case with the Roman Empire at the end of the fourth century? Or is new wine likely to explode old bottles? In crises like these, however protracted and fluctuating, they may be, is anyone seriously to look for a deus ex machina like the N[ational].R[ecovery].A[dministration].?

If we want to know what determined Roman civilization, to know, that is, its significant determiner, we ought to look for it in the formal cause of its peculiar quality. It differed absolutely from Alexander’s empire, on the one hand, and from the empires of the Far East, on the other. I mean by “formal cause” the active, dynamic principle which actuated nearly all Romans in their daily life, which guided their approach to all their problems, which, in fact, made them the Romans they were. This principle was precisely what we call to-day private enterprise. As practised by the Romans, it can be equated to the following crude descriptive term: “How can I acquire the largest possible quantity of material power for myself: for myself, personally?” (p. 71)

This sounds quite familiar. It looks like it might be heading toward a sledgehammer Marxist condemnation of Capitalism, but . . .

One might naturally object that acquisitiveness is about as universal a characteristic as there is in the world. I think, however, that this objection would be superficial. A more universal characteristic still is the need for self-expression, and as the Romans expressed themselves nearly always pragmatically and materialistically, it is not too much to say that they had a genius for acquisition. (pp. 71-2)

MacLennan is here, I feel, stating both an historical hypothesis and a confession about his own desire to integrate the scientist and the artist within himself. Self-expression is the more [most?] universal characteristic than pragmatism, but MacLennan clearly always had a desire to be “scientifically” pragmatic about History as a narrative that stretches from the past to the future. Certainly his novels (self-)express the goal of reflecting and predicting past and future history, less obviously in his iconic Two Solitudes and most obviously in his last novel, Voices in Time.

The self-expression that is so important to MacLennan, and to us all, reaches across generations, bringing the zeitgeist of a specific period into a new time and situation. The interbellum years of the 1930s produced the early writings of MacLennan and Asimov in response to the intellectual, political, and economic situation of that time. But those writings, like any writings, can have a long, a very long reach. I’m thinking here of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman who has stated quite clearly that if it were not for Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, he would not have entered the field of economics. Krugman went to a Science Fiction Convention in Montreal in 2009 and, as The New Yorker reported:

Last August, Krugman decided that before he and Wells departed for a bicycle tour of Scotland he would take a couple of days to speak at the sixty-seventh world science- fiction convention, to be held in Montreal. (Krugman has been a science-fiction fan since he was a boy.) At the convention, there was a lot of extremely long hair, a lot of blue hair, and a lot of capes. There was a woman dressed as a cat, there was a woman with a green brain attached to her head with wire, there was a person in a green face mask, there was a young woman spinning wool. There was a Jedi and a Storm Trooper. Those participants who were not dressed as cats were wearing T-shirts with something written on them: “I don ’t understand —and I’ m a rocket scientist, ” “I see dead pixels, ” “Math is delicious.” Krugman has always had a nerdy obsession with puns. (He is very proud of a line in one of his textbooks: “Efforts to negotiate a resolution to Europe ’ s banana split had proved fruitless.”) He also likes costumes. Once, he and Wells gave a Halloween party where the theme was economics topics —two guests came as Asian tigers, several came as hedge funds, one woman came as capital, dressed as a column. Sitting up onstage at the science-fiction convention, Krugman looked happy to be there. It seemed that these were, in some worrying sense, his people. “Hi, everyone!” he called out. “Hi!” everyone called back. Krugman explained that he’d become an economist because of science fiction. When he was a boy, he ’d read Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation ” trilogy and become obsessed with the central character, Hari Seldon. Seldon was a “psychohistorian”—a scientist with such a precise understanding of the mechanics of society that he could predict the course of events thousands of years into the future and save mankind from centuries of barbarism. He couldn’t predict individual behavior—that was too hard—but it didn’t matter, because history was determined not by individuals but by laws and hidden forces. “If you read other genres of fiction, you can learn about the way people are and the way society is, ” Krugman said to the audience, “but you don’t get very much thinking about why are things the way they are, or what might make them different. What would happen if ?” With Hari Seldon in mind, Krugman went to Yale, in 1970, intending to study history, but he felt that history was too much about what and not enough about why, so he ended up in economics. Economics, he found, examined the same infinitely complicated social reality that history did but, instead of elucidating its complexity, looked for patterns and rules that made the complexity seem simple. . . .

Well, the Roman society that is at the root of both MacLennan’s essay and Asimov’s Foundation, and, incidently, of Krugman’s career arc, is, as MacLennan makes explicite, a “servile state”, to be more clear, a slave-owning, slave-dependent state. It is here, on the question of servility, slavery, that MacLennan’s discussion most importantly confronts prediction of the future, both the future from the view point of 1935 and our own future. Today, a century after Spengler’s Decline of the West, we are actually not far removed from the historical issues of his time. MacLennan and Asimov still speak to our time as contemporaries. Spengler argued that a civilization had an organically predetermined lifespan and that around the year 2000 the “West” would truly begin to decline. MacLennan argued, less mystically than Spengler, that decline in a civilization would begin, as it did in Rome, when the desired avenues for human self-expression became closed to the common people:

Empire, the achievement of it, is a confession that a limit has been reached. What did this mean to the individual Roman? The answer is clear and vitally important. It dominates the whole writing of Tacitus. It is reflected in the senatorial hatred of Tiberius and Domitian. In a word, it meant that the great career was gone. (p. 75)

The “great career” was the possibility of moving ever upward, the “American Dream” in the terms of the last century . . .

It took the Romans almost a century of empire to realize this. But what was the main work of Augustus? He had made order out of chaos. He had relieved the provinces; he had created a salaried civil service; he had made the provinces prosperous and even happy, so that it was with real feeling that they worshipped him after his death as a god. But the decay in stock was already beginning in the capital. A new avenue for self-expression was needed and was not found. For several centuries Rome lived on the energy of the provinces, where the same process that had happened to herself was underway in a new form. And for a century the civilization grew. It became a vast organism, complex, populous, cultured and safe, in which the provinces finally absorbed the capital. By the time of Trajan the world reached a high level of commerce which it never reached again until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Yet, in the fifth century, this organism decayed and fell, and the Dark Ages really descended and lasted for almost a thousand years. (pp. 75-6)

Compare MacLennan’s words to this from the holographic recording of Hari Seldon in chapter 7 of “The Encyclopedists”, the first-published section of Asimov’s Foundation:

“For centuries Galactic civilization has stagnated and declined, though only a few ever realized that. But now, at last the Periphery is breaking away and the political unity of the Empire is shattered. Somewhere in the fifty years just past is where the historians of the future will place an arbitrary line and say: ‘This marks the Fall of the Galactic Empire.’

“And they will be right, though scarcely any will recognize that Fall for additional centuries.

“And after the Fall will come inevitable barbarism, a period which, our psychohistory tells us, should, under ordinary circumstances last for thirty thousand years. We cannot stop the Fall. We do not wish to; for Empire culture has lost whatever virility and worth it once had. . .”

As far as I remember, this is as near to a statement by Asimov of the actual cause of the Galactic Empire’s decline and fall: a loss of “virility and worth”. Asimov is wearing his fiction writer hat. Maclennan, however artistic he may be feeling, is wearing his Historian hat and feels it necessary to explore causes more deeply than Asimov seems to be:

History should ask, not will it decay, but when will it decay, and for what specific reason will it decay? And the majority of historians of Rome cite the effects as being causes. The reasons generally given are decline in stock, indifference of the senate and public to state affairs, panem et circenses, the rise of the pacific civilization of Christianity, bankruptcy in ideas and resources, diminishing trade returns and soil-exhaustion; chief of all, the strangling growth of bureaucracy.

Is it necessary to say that these, most of them, were not causes but outward signs of an organic decay: They seem the invariable concomitants of this process which even in pristine times we saw in generation; which we saw set in active motion by the vigour, the pressure from below, of early Romans; which was strengthened by the inculcated reverence for the abstract tribal notion of patriotism, by physical hardihood and practical intelligence. It wasgiven a physical direction by geography, a limitation by the relative absence of science, a mental direction by the empirical Roman mind, a necessity by what seems to be the human nature of Western man. Private enterprise is a fact which no Western thinker can dare blink. Its most direct result is to establish some form of a servile state.
Rome, as anyone would admit, suffered because she was a servile state. But it was just because she was a servile state that she became mighty. She had, in the two aspects of her administration, to face a dilemma, one horn menacing the republic, the other the empire. Without exploitation there could be no great career for the individual, and the republic demanded the career. Without curtailing exploitation and making a conservative system of it, there could be no state at all. Christianity, the Epicurean and Stoic philosophies, the Neo-Platonists, all seem to have been produced out of this waste land of hopelessness and disillusionment. The masses, even the upper classes, after two centuries of empire, came to know bitterly that no matter how hard they laboured they could never fully realize their potentialities; that they were factual, if not legal, slaves. Having no hope in this world, it became comfortable to despise it and to concentrate on other-worldly religions. Yet, for some reason, Western man cannot take easily to mysticism. He must express himself outwardly. So when expansion ceased, decay set in. (pp. 76-77)

Needless to say, MacLennan’s words have frightening implications for our own “To-day” of huge masses of population feeling disenfranchised, facing or already in poverty, and looking out on an all to often real wasteland of hopelessness and disillusionment. How many people today of any age truly can imagine that there is a “Great Career” waiting for them somewhere out there behind the wolf at the door?

In a few paragraphs MacLennan makes reference to some words of Aristotle which will perk up any Asimov fan’s ears:

Aristotle was near the root of the historic mystery. He saw that abilities differ, and that the superior man will not be able to realize himself to a complete degree unless he has leisure from supplying the needs of mere existence. Just in so far as he is superior, he is bound to requisition the services of the inferior man to do the menial work of the world. One sentence from the Politics is noteworthy: “If machines could operate automatically, as in the myths they say the tripods of Hephaestus did, if the shuttle could weave without a hand to guide it” … if this happened, then Plato’s Republic might become possible. For Aristotle it was the reductio ad absurdum. For us it should be the most significant thing he ever said. Is it too much to say that Rome declined, when and how she did, because she had no machines and could not alter her values? (p. 77)

At the beginning of the series, the Foundation universe had no robots, and when Asimov late in his career worked to unify his fictional universes, he had to come up with a reason that the Galactic Empire had no such machines which he largely did in his 1983 novel The Robots of Dawn. Very simply put, Asimov decided the Galaxy had been populated by people and a culture which didn’t like robots. But I find it interesting that, although Asimov’s first four robot stories, “Robbie”(1940), “Reason”(1941), “Liar!”(1941), and “Runaround”(1942) where written before or contemporaneously with the first Foundation story (later made the second part of Foundation), and so in his mind while reading Gibbon (who certainly discusses slaves*) and dreaming up the Foundation – although all that, he didn’t think to put robots – or slaves – into the Foundation/Galactic Empire universe.


Mid-Twentieth Century American author doesn’t get into slavery . . .

. . . but the Canadian historian/author did.


As I said before, I don’t know whether Asimov had any contact with MacLennan’s Dalhousie Review piece. I’d be very surprised if I were told he had no familiarity with Spengler, and I assume that any similarities between the Foundation series and MacLennan’s little essay are an outgrowth of the zeitgeist and, perhaps, of responses to the Spengler that was in the air at the time.

But . . .

Why am I feeling the need to respond to these two works from 1935 and 1942, together, as though meaningfully linked, at my particular time in History? What do Rome or Foundation or Robots have to do with To-day? Perhaps I should give MacLennan the last word, the last words of his essay:

One thing historic study teaches is that, where there is an opening, the masses tend to gravitate towards it, and that so long as evolution is possible the mass-process will continue. Historic evolution can almost be gauged by the widening and narrowing in the range of choice of action and self-expression.. And as it is obvious that machinery and science contain, for us, a vast reservoir, practically untapped and certainly not fully explored, the present situation seems explosive rather than apathetic. Those whose meaning is identified with the old idea can hardly escape perishing when their meaning goes, but Spengler to-day seems to have been blinded by the worldweariness of the period as well as by his own a priori position. Roman history also shows that propaganda is no new thing, though the modern technique of lying and of using language to conceal thought has certainly reached a high peak of efficiency. But intelligent men deliberate only on what it lies in their power to effect. Those present-day Governments who, by “imposing ideas from above”, would create conditions suitable for their own interests ought to learn from history that to do so is to prolong their time, not to consolidate it. It is impossible to resuscitate permanently any civilization without either altering the formal cause which has brought it into trouble or fundamentally altering the direction of its activity.

When a new era begins, the case might be different. At such a point of time, if ever, a man can resemble a god, for then he can lay causes. But whether it is possible for Western man to lay a different cause, or a cause operating in a different direction, from that which we have seen operating in Rome, cannot yet be told. To attempt to tell this would be to transcend the limits of our own age. Surely, however, we are justified in believing so much as this: though potential energies of our time are far greater than our time is using, nevertheless machines provide a means of decreasing the necessity of slavery in the world; and if the world has this recourse still untapped, it must ultimately use it. But as a corollary it must be added that unless state-education is altered and the values of the masses are profoundly altered, the new era will not escape the old vicious circle. So much, at any rate, seems the lesson of past history. (pp.77-78)


  • * “It was by such institutions that the nations of the empire insensibly melted away into the Roman name and people. But there still remained, in the centre of every province and of every family, an unhappy condition of men who endured the weight, without sharing the benefits, of society. In the free states of antiquity the domestic slaves were exposed to the wanton rigour of despotism. The perfect settlement of the Roman empire was preceded by ages of violence and Their treatment. rapine. The slaves consisted, for the most part, of barbarian captives, taken in thousands by the chance of war, purchased at a vile price, accustomed to a life of independence, and impatient to break and to revenge their fetters. Against such internal enemies, whose desperate insurrections had more than once reduced the republic to the brink of destruction, the most severe regulations, and the most cruel treatment, seemed almost justified by the great law of self-preservation. But when the principal nations of Europe, Asia, and Africa, were united under the laws of one sovereign, the source of foreign supplies flowed with much less abundance, and the Romans were reduced to the milder but more tedious method of propagation. In their numerous families, and particularly in their country estates, they encouraged the marriage of their slaves. The sentiments of nature, the habits of education, and the possession of a dependent species of property, contributed to alleviate the hardships of servitude. The existence of a slave became an object of greater value, and though his happiness still depended on the temper and circumstances of the master, the humanity of the latter, instead of being restrained by fear, was encouraged by the sense of his own interest. The progress of manners was accelerated by the virtue or policy of the emperors; and by the edicts of Hadrian and the Antonines, the protection of the laws was extended to the most abject part of mankind. The jurisdiction of life and death over the slaves, a power long exercised and often abused, was taken out of private hands, and reserved to the magistrates alone. The subterraneous prisons were abolished; and, upon a just complaint of intolerable treatment, the injured slave obtained either his deliverance, or a less cruel master.” Gibbon, Chapter 2