A Stylish Diversion

David Foster’s discussion of the numerous analogies – some helpful, some not – that have been spun from the Titanic disaster reminded me of an essay’s  rather lovely job of spinning out for two pages a simple analogy.  The verbal play within it does bring home a point.   By Pico Iyer, it was one of those two-page essays in Time, when people read it.  (Clint’s uncle still subscribes to it – I didn’t know anyone did – but bed ridden and in his eighties, he uses it mainly to rail against modernity – or what passes for it in Time.)  Anyway, here’s “In Praise of the Humble Comma” – a short read but I’ll tempt you with the opening:

The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the same could be said — could it not? — of the humble comma. Add it to the present clause, and, of a sudden, the mind is, quite literally, given pause to think; take it out if you wish or forget it and the mind is deprived of a resting place. Yet still the comma gets no respect. It seems just a slip of a thing, a pedant’s tick, a blip on the edge of our consciousness, a kind of printer’s smudge almost. Small, we claim, is beautiful (especially in the age of the microchip). Yet what is so often used, and so rarely recalled, as the comma — unless it be breath itself?

 

Christmas 2021

Newgrange is an ancient structure in Ireland so constructed that the sun, at the exact time of the winter solstice, shines directly down a long corridor and illuminates the inner chamber. More about Newgrange here and here.

Grim has an Arthurian passage about the Solstice.

Don Sensing has thoughts astronomical, historical, and theological about the Star of Bethlehem.

Vienna Boys Choir, from Maggie’s Farm

Snowflakes and snow crystals, from Cal Tech. Lots of great photos

In the bleak midwinter, from King’s College Cambridge

The first radio broadcast of voice and music took place on Christmas Eve, 1906. (although there is debate about the historical veracity of this story)

An air traffic control version of  The Night Before Christmas.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, sung by Enya

Gerard Manley Hopkins

A Christmas-appropriate poem from Rudyard Kipling

Another poem, by Robert Buchanan

I was curious as to what the oldest Christmas carol might be:  this Billboard article suggests some possibilities.

The story of electric Christmas tree lights

Mona Charen, who is Jewish, wonders  what’s going on with the Christians?

The 2017 Christmas season, in combination with the Churchill movie Darkest Hour, reminded me something written by the French author Georges Bernanos:  A Tale for Children.

Here’s a passage I’ve always liked from Thomas Pynchon’s great novel Gravity’s Rainbow.  The setting: it is the grim winter of 1944, just before Christmas. The military situation in Europe is not good, and WWII seems as if it will never end. London is under attack by V-2 rockets and V-1 cruise missiles (as they would be called today.) Roger and Jessica, two of the main characters, are driving in a rural area in England and come upon a church where carols are being sung. They decide to go inside.


They walked through the tracks of all the others in the snow, she gravely on his arm, wind blowing her hair to snarls, heels slipping once on ice. “To hear the music,” he explained.

Tonight’s scratch choir was all male, epauletted shoulders visible under the wide necks of white robes, and many faces nearly as white with the exhaustion of soaked and muddy fields, midwatches, cables strummed by the nervous balloons sunfishing in the clouds, tents whose lights inside shone nuclear at twilight, soullike, through the cross-hatched walls, turning canvas to fine gauze, while the wind drummed there…..The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it’s Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 60 miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth. Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one–something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there’s too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out…….But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, somehow, save him. For the moment not caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment, anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

O Jesu parvule
Nach dir is mir so weh…

So this pickup group, these exiles and horny kids, sullen civilians called up in their middle age…….give you this evensong, climaxing now with its rising fragment of some ancient scale, voices overlapping threee and fourfold, filling the entire hollow of the church–no counterfeit baby, no announcement of the Kingdom, not even a try at warming or lighting this terrible night, only, damn us, our scruffy obligatory little cry, our maximum reach outward–praise be to God!–for you to take back to your war-address, your war-identity, across the snow’s footprints and tire tracks finally to the path you must create by yourself, alone in the dark. Whether you want it or not, whatever seas you have crossed, the way home… 

Biden Likes to Talk About Trains

…both actual trains and metaphorical trains, as in a recent Biden social media post: 100 days in–and America is getting back on track.

So I’ll give him a railroad story, actually a poem, the following excerpt from which was quoted by Winston Churchill in 1935:

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak, and the couplings strain.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
and Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear
And signals flash through the night in vain
Death is in charge of the clattering train!

Original poem here; it appears that Churchill in his excerpt combined part of the first verse with part of the last.  The poem, which was published in 1890, was inspired by an actual railroad accident.

 

Belated Valentine’s Day

Without Wi-fi since Sunday, I’ve spent the last two hours going through e-mails and trying to catch up on Chicagoboyz. One e-mail was a Valentine’s Day greeting from a charming friend, whose later-in-life marriage and three children have been as deeply fulfilling as her scholarly career. She is often a contrarian in the bitter world of academia – partially because of the joy she finds in uniting these passions. So, here is an intro to her article, from a more casual forum than she usually chooses:

As a chivalric literary historian who has studied the origins of the holiday, I find this [“for the birds”] a shame. When the notion of Valentine’s Day as a day for romance emerged in the 1380s it was all about love as a natural life force – birds choosing their mates, the freedom to choose or refuse love and the arrival of springtime. But even then many people did not understand or value these things. In fact, that is why it was invented.

The first to write of Valentine’s Day – a feast day with ancient pagan roots – as a holiday celebrating love and lovers were the 14th-century English squire Geoffrey Chaucer and his friend, the internationally admired knight and poet Oton III de Granson, from Savoy in modern-day France. Both poets were recognized in their own time as chivalrous advocates for human rights. And in tandem, they seem to have concocted Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers.

Chaucer and Granson encountered one another in the service of Richard II of England and admired one another’s poetry. Their poems about Valentine’s Day show them operating as an international chivalric team to address pressing issues in the theory and practice of love, then and now.

Worthwhile Reading, Viewing, and Listening

Smiling Victorians…a photo essay

A tour of the Atlanta Hartsfield air traffic control tower

Speaking of ATC…a controller at Boston Center and a Delta pilot on her frequency discover that her grandfather was the man who hired him, back in 1981.

The transistor:  a documentary from 1954.

Tonight being Burns Night, here’s a song I like from Robert Burns...musical setting by Ludwig Beethoven, oddly enough.  Some 19th-century musical entrepreneurship was involved in the Burns-Beethoven connection. Lyrics, including modern-English translation, here.

Think I’ll pass on the kilt and the haggis, though.