02/28/12

Not a John Lennon quote… just another bad meme


Lennon mis-quoteAnother unsourced, mis-attributed quote is going the rounds, found as are so many on Facebook, this one turning itself into another of those annoying, unsourced Internet memes that people love to share:

When I was five years old, my Mom told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote down “happy”. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

Nope, not by Lennon. Just another bad Internet meme, with no source ever listed, but posted and re-posted as a Lennon quotation by the gullible souls who want warm-n-fuzzy thoughts to tinkle down on the rest of us. The Net is replete with laudatory comments about how this shows just how wise John was. Well, at least someone was wise, not Lennon, since he didn’t say it. But that doesn’t matter, does it? Just get gooey and gush about how meaningful it is. Uplifting, inspirational, some call it.

Sorry, but to me a bumper sticker about fishing is about as inspirational as this misquote. It’s one of those saccharine snippets you expect to read in self-help books; all puff and no substance. Tagged on blogs and forums with glittery words like happiness, fulfillment, wisdom. Kindness demands I should merely label this quote “apocryphal,” but I can’t get past the terms “sloppy thinking” and “gullible Netiots” when I read it.
Internet jokeAt the age of 4, Lennon was in the custody of his aunt Mimi (Mary Smith), not his mother. You really think a five-year-old is that precocious and witty? Kids say the darndest things… but that Lennon kid didn’t say this. (As an aside, he started school on Nov. 12, 1945, but by April, 1946 he had been expelled from Mosspits County Primary School for misbehaviour. He then went to Dovedale Road Primary School.)

Check Wikiquote and Beatlesquotes for confirmation or at least additional challenges.

Check those quotes, says Ralph Keyes: “As for Churchill, he-like Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln-is what Keyes calls a ‘flypaper figure,’ a personage so famously quotable that lesser wags’ witticisms and anonymous maxims, like the one Warner used, get stuck to him.”

The Quote Investigator also notes other lines mis-attributed to John Lennon. Lennon is also one of the Top Ten mis-quoted celebrities.

02/26/12

On translating Chaucer and the joys of Middle English


Geoffrey ChaucerIn my last two visits to the nearby Chapters, I picked up from the bargain books section two recent, hardcover, versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. One is a new verse translation by Burton Raffel published in 2008, the other a prose translation by Peter Ackroyd, from 2009.

These join the dozen or so other versions of Chaucer’s works I already have on my bookshelves: the Riverside Chaucer (third edition), several venerable Penguin editions (both original and translations), the New Cambridge edition, the Portable Chaucer, Hopper’s interlinear translation, and a few others. What always surprises me is how widely these translations range in wording, rhythm and style.

Chaucer, of course, wrote in Middle English, a form of English that’s not quite like our speech today, but close enough that anyone can stumble through most of it without needing a glossary. I have only skimmed some works on learning Middle English, not studied it beyond casual reading. For me, trying to read and understand Chaucer in his original tongue is part of the pleasure of it. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I figure out a verse that looked cryptic at first but clarity has broken upon me, or when the words coalesce into a tale.

There are four things to keep in mind when reading Chaucer. First is to try to read it aloud. The sound and rhythm of the spoken word often helps makes the meaning evident. Chaucer wrote to be heard, not just read. You can hear some Chaucerian poetry online to get a sense of how it sounded – a lot more Germanic than it does today. But just reading him aloud helps you appreciate his work.

Second is the pronunciation. Many words and letters were pronounced somewhat differently in Chaucer’s day, much more like Romance languages: most letters are pronounced and few are silent. For example, what we would see as a silent ‘e’ at the end of a Chaucerian word, such as ‘grete’ and likely pronounce as “greet” today would have been sounded as ‘eh’ in Chaucer’s day” ‘grey-teh’. You can get basic pronunciation guides online, too. It’s not difficult.

Third is the spelling. Chaucer didn’t use spell-check (neither, it seems, do most Facebook posters, but I digress). He was not always consistent in his spelling. Many common words in his day were also spelled differently than today. These words can look odd, but when you say them aloud, you realize they’re familiar words with different spellings. For example, these lines from the Knight’s Tale (Knightes Tale, lines 2160-64):

“His coat-armure was of clooth of Tars,
Couched with perles whyte and rounde and grete.
His sadel was of brend gold newe y-bete,
A mantelet upon his shuldre hanginge
Bret-ful of rubies rede, as fyr sparklinge.”

You should understand most of that pretty easily. Shuldre today is shoulder, sadle is saddle, perles are pearls, clooth is cloth, and so on. But what is y-bete, or brend, or armure? That’s where translations or glossaries help.
In prose translation, this can be rendered:

His tunic, blazoned with his arms, was of cloth of Tartary, laid with pearls, white, round, and great. His saddle was of burnished gold, freshly forged. A short mantle hung upon his shoulders, stiff with red rubies sparkling as fire.

And here it is in poetry (from an online interlinear site):

His tunic with his coat of arms was of cloth of Tarsia (in Turkestan)
Adorned with pearls white and round and big;
His saddle was newly adorned with pure gold;
A short cloak hanging upon his shoulder,
Brimful of rubies red as sparkling fire;

Raffel, I see, translates Tars as “Persian”:

…His coat was Persian silk,
Embroidered with pearls, great, and white as milk.
His saddle was hammered out of bright new gold,
And the mantle hanging high across his shoulders
Was heavy with fire-red rubies, sparkling in sunlight.

Fourth reminder is that words come and go in English, and can even change meaning from one period to the next. In Chaucer’s day, for example, the word silly meant “happy, blissful, blessed or fortunate.” By the early-16th century, it meant “deserving pity or sympathy.” It took on its current meaning of “empty-headed” or “lacking good sense” by the early 17th century. (See Steinmetz: Semantic Antics). When you read Chaucer, you will find words no longer in use, as well as words that have shifted meaning since his day. That’s one reason having a modern translation is handy. When you come to an incomprehensible line, you can see how it gets translated into today’s speech.

The structure of Middle English – the grammar – is similar enough to modern English that it’s not hard to figure out. Adjectives tend to follow nouns rather than precede them (“perles whyte” rather than “white pearls”). But if you have no problem with the syntax of Shakespeare or the King James Bible, Chaucer won’t pose significant problems,

Ah, but you also need to know where you’re reading in order to find the translated lines. In Hopper’s edition, those lines above are numbered 1303-06. In Raffel’s new translation, we find them at 1290-94. But the Riverside, New Cambridge and Penguin (original spelling) versions all use the numbering noted above.

It can be tricky finding the reference. Many translations are unnumbered, making it difficult to locate a particular line. Ackroyd’s prose version has no references, either (the lines above appear about a third of the way down on page 57):

His coat of arms was woven of rare silk and embroidered with white pearls; his saddle was of newly beaten gold, and the mantle around his shoulders was studded with glowing rubies.

Morrison’s translation in the Portable Chaucer (revised edn), is:

Over his gear a Tartar coat; each fold
With large pearls was embroidered, round and white.
His saddle was of forged gold, beaten bright.
A little mantel from his shoulders spread
Brimful of fiery rubies, glittering red.

Coghill’s translation in the Penguin Classics edition reads,

His surcoat was in cloth of Tartary,
Studded with great white pearls; beneath its fold
A saddle of new-beaten, burnished gold.
He had a mantle hanging from his shoulders,
Which, crammed with rubies,dazzled all beholders.

Here a re a few other translations of those four lines from the Web. First this one:

His coat-of-arms was cloth of the Tartars,
Begemmed with pearls, all white and round and great.
Of beaten gold his saddle, burnished late;
A mantle from his shoulders hung, the thing
Close-set with rubies red, like fire blazing.

Which I find a bit stilted (begemmed, rubies red, etc.). Then this one:

His coat of arms of cloth from Turkestan,
Adorned with large round pearls of polished white;
His pure gold saddle was a wondrous sight;
A short cloak on his shoulders all admire,
Brimful of rubies red as sparkling fire;

And this prose version:

His tunic, blazoned with his arms, was of cloth of Tartary, laid with pearls, white, round, and great. His saddle was of burnished gold, freshly forged. A short mantle hung upon his shoulders, stiff with red rubies sparkling as fire.

And this poetic version:

His surcoat was of cloth from Tartary,
With all the large white pearls that it could hold.
His saddle, newly forged, was burnished gold.
A mantle from his shoulders hung, attire
Brimful of rubies sparkling red as fire.

And finally this verse translation:

His surcoat was of cloth of Tartary,
Adorned with pearls, white, round and bold.
His saddle of pure freshly-beaten gold,
A short mantle on his shoulder hanging,
Dense with rubies red, like fire sparkling.

You can see how different each version is, yet how similar. The original is not really very difficult to understand – at least to my eyes – but every translator finds in it a different sense or colour. Every version above sounds particularly different from the original when read aloud, both in wording and in poetic rhythm.

Are any of them better? Is there a definitive modern translation? I have not the academic background to judge. I enjoy reading Chaucer in almost all forms, including my stumbling and fitful attempts to master the original. But these two latest versions of the Canterbury Tales are among the most enjoyable I have read in a while, and I would recommend them to anyone. You merely have to decide whether you want to read Chaucer as epic poetry (Raffel) or stories constructed like modern fiction (Ackroyd). I like both, and of course the bargain-book price didn’t hurt.

All of this is to explain why, despite several translations on my bookshelves already, I continue to purchase – and delight in reading – new translations of Chaucer.

02/25/12

It wasn’t Einstein who said it…


Not an Einstein quote!Yet another incorrectly attributed quotation is being passed around the Internet, this time on Facebook. This one is, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

A saccharine, touchy-feely, warm-puppy quote that appeals to some who take comfort in them, but Einstein never said that. According to Wikiquote’s page on Einstein,

This gets almost 500k hits on google, but as far as I can tell, none has a source… Doing a Google book search and restricting the date range to 1900-1990, there are only 10 books and several of them attribute it to “Samples, 1976″ which is apparently The Metaphoric Mind by Bob Samples (which also seems to be the earliest published variant)… two sections that attribute it to Einstein, but as a paraphrase rather than a direct quote, with no source given, and the author seems to be adding his own comment when he writes “It is paradoxical that in the context of modern life we have begun to worship the servant and defile the divine” so even if the first part is accurate, this part is probably not Einstein’s.
Einstein had many quotes about the value of intuition and imagination, but the specific word “gift” can be found in a comment remembered by János Plesch in the section Albert_Einstein#Posthumous_publications, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” So, Bob Samples might have been paraphrasing that comment.

Einstein, as far as I know from my reading of several biographies, was unlikely to refer to a natural faculty as a “sacred gift” – Einstein was not openly an atheist (he called himself an agnostic), but neither was he by any means religious. A “sacred gift” suggests humans get their faculties handed down by the gods, rather than developed by evolution and through effort. Einstein would have rejected that for the codswallop it is.

Einstein’s religious views were firmly in the humanist-Descartes-Spinoza model, according to Wikipedia:

He believed in the God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief which he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, and criticized atheism, preferring he said “an attitude of humility.”

One actual quote from Einstein is this:

I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

But his views on religion and spirituality were amorphous and seem to have changed over the years – although not towards him becoming religious in the traditional or formal sense, but rather in a deeper sense of wonder that can be called spiritual, without any identification with a personal deity.

It’s worth reading the entire entry to see how complex this subject is.

Be that as it may, this quotation is another bad Internet meme, perpetuated by people who are don’t bother to confirm sources and simply spread the silliness. Then the gullibles pick it up and spread it around faster than a chain letter. Damn, I wish people would check first and post later.

02/21/12

Was Marx right after all?



While Marx didn’t say exactly that the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” he did state that under capitalism, poverty would inevitably increase while more and more wealth would concentrate in fewer hands. Increasing profits and increasing wages, he claimed, were contradictory. Adam Smith – the “father” of capitalism – said much of the same thing, by the way. They were right.

Karl MarxMarx’s economic and world views were fermented in the mid-19th century’s industrial age, an age without any of the mass communication technology of today. He was right about many things, but wrong about others. He did not, for example, see the rise of the financial class, nor did he predict the offshoring of manufacturing jobs. To be fair, none of his contemporaries did. But he got quite a bit right, given today’s economic crisis.

Nope, I’m not a Communist, let alone a Marxist, and certainly not an economist. But look around you: if you’re not a banker, investment or hedge fund manager, if you’re not the CEO of an international corporation whose products are being made overseas, if most or all of the manufacturing jobs in your town have moved overseas, if your wages are proportionately lower compared to your expenses than they were a decade ago, if your prospects of a good-paying job are slim because those are getting sparser in your city and being replaced by minimum-wage Mcjobs, or if you live in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland or Spain, then capitalism has probably failed you.

I’m not the only one who thinks capitalism today has serious problems (its failings have been analyzed to the nth degree since the last recession and the US bailout of its financial sector). Many now think that perhaps we should not have dismissed Marx so cavalierly when Communism fell. And some of those who think Marx may have got more than one thing right are pretty prestigious thinkers.

Over at the conservative Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque, author of Betterness: Economics for Humans and The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business, wrote about Marx in late 2011:

Marx’s critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed. Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that Marx’s prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I’d argue, suggests they were anything but. Yet nothing’s black or white — and while Marx’s prescriptions were poor, perhaps, if we’re prepared to think subtly, it’s worthwhile separating his diagnoses from them.

Marx, it seems, it getting a sort of facelift from intellectuals today; people are beginning to realize that after the Berlin Wall fell, that Communism – a fault-ridden, overly-bureaucratic system few will miss in the nations that cast it off – was not actually based on Marx’s theories, just used Marx as a sort of bumper-sticker economics, so perhaps the old guy deserves a re-think.

In spring 2011, Yale University Press published “Was Marx Right?“, by Prof. Terry Eagleton. He examines ten of the most common objections to Marxism and attempts to demonstrate “what a woeful travesty of Marx’s own thought these assumptions are.”

In an interview with Bezinga in August, 2011, noted economist Nouriel “Dr. Doom” Roubini stated that, “Karl Marx had it right. At some point capitalism can self-destroy itself. That’s because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to capital without not having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand.” Roubini continued, “We thought that markets work. They are not working. What’s individually rational…is a self-destructive process.”

The article that follows goes on to criticize Roubini for his comments, but makes the classic fallacy of not dissociating Marx from Communism, or rather from the systems that took the name Communism but were usually little more than military dictatorships with poorly implemented, centrally-planned economies, and only nodding allegiance to anything Marx wrote. It’s easy to point to the collapse of the Soviet economy and claim it proves that Communism and therefore Marx’s economic ideas were faulty. But that’s really Leninism, and not what Marx meant by “Communism.”

It’s popular among the uber-right in the USA to label anything left of Genghis Khan as “Communist” or “socialist” but that only underscores the intellectual poverty of the right. It doesn’t actually mean anything in the political debate except that you’re arguing with fools.

Communism as Marx saw it was never actually implemented, and probably never could be today. We’re as far from his industrial age world as the Internet is from Gutenberg. But that doesn’t mean that every aspect of Marx’s thinking was wrong. Despite being drearily dense and notoriously difficult to read, his economic works contain some valid points about capitalism that – like his predecessor Adam Smith’s writings – make some salient points about capitalism that we can’t reject by tossing them out with the Soviet-tainted bathwater.

None of the above writers would be classified as Marxists or even neo-Marxists, but there are still some old, dogmatic Marxist thinkers around who treat Das Capital as gospel. As Mike Beggs wrote in Zombie Marx,

What I call Zombie Marx is different – the reanimation of a corpse which still holds organically together in some way. This is the reconstruction of Marxist economics as a coherent body of thought, not a collection of quotations… the need to ground everything in a 140-year-old text…. it is obviously a lot of intellectual hard work to “interpret Marx correctly.” It cannot be taken for granted that Marx was right; it must be proven anew with each generation, against both rival interpretations and the revisions the previous generation had found necessary to make.

Marx got some things wrong. And he got some things right. That’s pretty much true of every economic theory or policy since Adam Smith. Marx was probably more right than some – say Alan Greenspan, whose disastrous economic polices have led to much to today’s problems – but I think the point here is that we should be re-evaluating Marx in light of today’s failing capitalism and not simply dismissing him as the tail wagging the Communist dog.

02/19/12

Santorum’s ‘faith’ attack incomprehensible


I really don’t understand American politics. Watching the current campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for presidential candidacy only baffles me further. It’s stunning that so many of the Republican candidates appeal – and do so loudly and consistently – to the lowest common denominator among the population.

Topping my list of Republicans who bemuse me is Rick Santorum. His campaign only proves that you don’t have to be intelligent, open-minded, visionary, well-educated, focused or wise to run for president. He already proved earlier that any fool can become a senator. And now he’s proving that fool can also run for president and apparently get a lot of support.
The more obnoxious, narrow-minded, more critical and more hypocritical you are, it seems the more people will love you and cheer you on. Well, at least the people who share your myopic vision of the world. But there seems to be a lot of them in the Republican camp these days, at least according to the research.

Last week, Santorum turned his rabid attack away from his fellow candidates towards US President Barack Obama. Obama’s agenda, he told a meeting of the Tea Party (the uber-right-religious camp of the Republicans) is,

“…not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phoney ideal, some phoney theology — not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology…”

Despite this claim, Santorum was later unable to actually define what he meant by this outlandish and irrelevant claim, and made some confused statements about Obama “imposing his values on the church.” In a subsequent interview, Santorum clumsily backtracked, and tried to make his comments appear to be about Obama’s “world view,” stating, “I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that is what we’re here to do. We’re not here to serve the Earth. The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective.”

At that point, I would not have been surprised had he then criticized Obama for believing the earth orbited the sun, not the other way around. Santorum’s medieval attitude towards the environment shows that some ideas just never go away, no matter how bad or wrong they are.

To an outsider, even bringing religion into a political debate in a democracy is inexplicable. This is America, after all, not a Middle Eastern theocracy. It’s like criticizing someone because his shoe laces are a different colour. What relevance does faith have to someone’s ability to govern, to understand complex issues, to deal with social, cultural and military challenges? Faith is a private, not a public and certainly not a state matter. Dragging it into a political debate only underscores the paucity of Santorum’s platform. He obviously has scraped the bottom of his shallow barrel of ideas and now has to dip into the non-sequitor of religion.

It is equally baffling why anyone would even want to speak to the Tea Party. Everything I read and see about them further convinces me that they have slightly less understanding of political affairs than my cats do. There is more intelligence at conventions of village idiots than at the Tea Party marches I’ve seen online. Why would any political candidate want to appeal to people who are clearly fools (or as one illiterate Tea Party protester wrote on his sign, “morans” – more Tea Party signs here)?

There is a real chance Rick Santorum could become the republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election. And if he does, all those bright Tea Party supporters will be expecting him to act in their interest. American may not be a theocracy today, but if Santorum or his religious-right ilk get into power, it will be soon.

02/18/12

Why not a Napoleon theme park?


Napoleon BonaparteThere’s a sarcastic, somewhat-tongue-in-cheek commentary in the Guardian this week, called, “Why not have a Napoleon theme park?” In it, Agnès C. Poirier editorializes on a recent proposal by a French MP to build a theme park in France dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. She writes,

Abroad, observers could be forgiven for almost choking on hearing this news: why not a Stalin or a Kim Jong-il theme park too?

That made me choke, almost pushing my half-swallowed tea through my nose. Imaginations must run very high among her set if anyone can associate Napoleon Bonaparte with two of the Twentieth Century’s most ruthless, genocidal dictators. Napoleon was no Gandhi, but he was certainly not genocidal. And by the way, North Korea just revealed a new, 70-foot statue of the dictator Kim Jong-Il, so can a theme park be far behind?

Agnes offers a backhanded compliment:

In fact, in France, many distinguish between Bonaparte and Napoleon, that is to say the man before and after he became emperor in 1804, when the child of the revolution turned insatiable tyrant. During his 10 years of folie des grandeurs, which cost the lives of more than a million men, he still achieved great things, such as emancipating Europe’s Jews.

Insatiable tyrant? No one who had read in any detail the history of Napoleon’s life and career would label him thus.

Calling Napoleon a tyrant was first done by the British press as a propaganda attack during the Napoleonic Wars. A nursery rhyme warned children that Bonaparte ravenously ate naughty people. Cartoons pictures him as shorter than his actual height (he was 5′ 7″, average for the time). In 1908, psychologist Alfred Adler named an inferiority complex in which short people adopt an over-aggressive behaviour to compensate for lack of height; this inspired the term Napoleon complex, and that has coloured popular impressions of Napoleon ever since.

Napoleon was a complex character, and became increasingly dictatorial as he aged. But I find it hyperbolic to compare him with modern-day tyrants. The term tyrant orginally meant “one who illegally seized and controlled a governmental power in a polis.” It later added “connotations of a harsh and cruel ruler who places his or her own interests or the interests of an oligarchy over the best interests of the general population, which the tyrant governs or controls.” History, as Napoleon famously said, is written by the victors. Thus he has come down to us as a tyrant, rather than a hero.

Napoleon certainly placed family interests over state interests at various times, but also placed state interests over personal ones at times, when he tried to solidify his Europe-wide union of states through marriage and appointment. His reign was not that simply defined as the label suggests. Poirier realizes this, but it seems a grudging acceptance:

Napoleon is a fascinating subject, the study of which requires nuance and subtlety. The man was a tyrant, a genius, a liberator and a conqueror. What you’d call a bundle of contradictions. More than 80,000 books have been written about him and a theme park, rather than just an awkward idea, fits the current fashion in France for “war tourism”.

She then refers readers to a novel by Anthony Burgess, The Napoleon Symphony, rather than any of the thousands of non-fiction works of history, military history or biography. Myself, I’d refer people to Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon for a better appreciation of the man’s military genius. However, Chandler does not cover his social, cultural and political activities (and does not cover the bloody campaign in Spain, because it was conducted by Napoleon’s marshals rather than by Bonaparte personally).

Napoleon’s life is fascinating and complex, and no one can deny he reshaped Europe (not just France) irrevocably. Some of his changes brought Europe into the modern world – he planted the seeds of a united Germany, united Italy, created a continental trade system that resembles today’s European Union, he changed the way armies fought (and how they treated civilians), he emancipated Jews from their ghettos, he challenged social beliefs in the divine right of monarchs, he rewrote laws, promoted science and learning, restored the church that had been almost destroyed in the French Revolution and established religious tolerance, founded institutes and schools, set up networks of communications, improved roads and sewers. He replaced feudal laws with the Napoleonic Code, based on equality and justice.

But why Napoleonland, a theme park based on Napoleon? Probably because it’s about the rise of nationalism in an increasingly complex and difficult European Union (beset as it is with financial woes), it’s about reaction to the popularity of Disneyland in Paris (which attracts 15 million visitors a year and is Europe’s most popular theme park), and it’s about a changing, modern perspective on French history.

Perhaps Napoleonland will be garish and kitschy, as opponents suggest. But perhaps it will instead help the world remember and celebrate a complex, challenging but ultimately great individual whose life and work still resounds throughout Europe today.