Fable of the Whale and the Dolphin

It happened in a cold sea that a dolphin and a whale became friends. In the shallows they would breach and rise into sunlight together; and the whale would admire the dolphin’s burnished, piercing swiftness, and regret his fell bulk. In the deep they would talk of deep things together; and the dolphin would admire the plangent voice of the whale and the patient subtlety of whale-speech, and regret the flightiness of the skipping, glittering speech of dolphins.

Now, once when both were near the surface, there rose a great storm, and each had to flee to their own shelter – the whale to his deep and the dolphin to his cove – without the chance to appoint another meeting. After the storm had passed, the whale sang a summoning song that carried in resonant echoes of sound deep through every sea to the ends of the world; and the dolphin appointed to all his dolphin-fellows to search the whole surface of the sea. But the dolphin did not hear the whale, and news of the whale did not reach the dolphin. So after a time, when the dolphin grew annoyed with the sleepless restlesssness of his kind and the whale impatient with the memorious melancholy of his kind, they set out in search of one another.

The dolphin stretched his lungs as far as he could and dove straight down to seek the utter deep where the whales slide and the water rings forever with the thunder of their voices. He had sought that deep before, with his friend the whale. He had learned from the whale how to fill his lungs farther than he had thought possible, how to brace himself to bear the pressure of mountains on his every side. These terrors of the deep he knew; but he had never known how his great friend’s nearness, how the heat of his blood, had sheltered him from the last terror of the deep – from its cold. Cold pierced him from every side; first he was full of needles, then hollow. Realizing his mistake, he tried to turn and rise, but the cold had locked his muscles. He floated for a time until his air was spent, then drifted down dead through the substance of darkness to the snaky floor of the deep.

The whale sought out the cove where he knew his friend would hide. There were no dolphins in it he could see from without, but he thought that his friend might be waiting for him within. The dolphin had warned him against the cove, but the whale saw that there was plenty of water. He entered the cove and searched and searched it, examining every crevice with great eyes which were not used to such prolonged brightness. Then he turned to go, but found that now the cove was cut off from the sea. This was the tide he had been warned against and forgotten – but he did not fear, even as his slick heaving side was dried out by the declining sun, for he knew the tide would come back.

But the moon was waning, and the tides were low. Through weeks the whale lay on his side heaving for breath, feeling the ungracious carrion birds that would not wait for his death. Hope became courage, courage gave way to despair, and the great heart, defeated without and within, burst and stilled.

Moral: The Wise and the Happy mix at mutual Peril.

The rich and the healthy

The rich and the healthy misunderstand poverty and sickness. They see only a line to be crossed between destitution and sufficiency, between sickness and health. But there is poverty without imminent starvation, and sickness not prey for cancer or infection to eat. The fear of death is easy to sympathize with; but the rich and the healthy never understand what it means to have to choose.

Torture is not about pain; it is about humiliation and violation. Those who succumb to torture do not succumb because of the pain, but because of the horror: because such things can happen. Your mother never taught you that someday you might be given over naked and helpless into the hands of your enemies and left to their devices. Subject to torture, you cannot believe what is happening to you. It is never your will that breaks; it is always your mind.

Poverty warps the mind similarly. The lives of the rich branch out like trees or deltas; the lives of the poor and sick run on rails, along routes chosen by others. The old company store model is the extreme. What is little better about wages so low that you can survive only by shopping for food that destroys your health for sustaining your life? To be poor, if not starving, is still to have to make such unbelievable choices: food or health, a safe home or crushing debts, enough hours for a decent wage or knowing your children on sight; and when you go to a doctor, or the hospital, or to beg from your insurer—your money or your life.

There is a syndrome of poverty that results from walking such mazes, like the inanition of an animal punished repeatedly and capriciously. Hope is the leaven every mind requires to imagine, to try, to dare, to build; but it does not take very much poverty to crush hope out of a person. This living with eyes taped open, in vigilance as ceaseless as certain to be unavailing, in awaiting disaster foreknown but still inevitable, is known in the poor as laziness.

The poor must do, when they can get them, with damaged or dying machines: old cars that fume and guzzle, a dishwasher that uses so much electricity you can only run it once a week, a chainsaw that spits chips and stutters, but whose blade you cannot afford to replace or have sharpened. The same is true of their bodies. Even in the most enlightened republics it is the right of the poor, not to be healthy, but to be healthy enough for work, or at least not to draw attention. Even when medicine can do nothing for them, the rich and the sick may enjoy an excusing diagnosis, even if just a syndrome without treatment; but for the poor, what the first test does not show, does not exist. There are no follow-ups, no referrals. They cannot fight. It is in the autopsies of the rich and vocal in their sufferings that new diseases are discovered; it is therefore strange, but likely true, to think that there are a vast number of afflictions only of the poor stemming from malnutrition, stress, or hard labor, which have never been and never will be named, for they silence their victims.

This is the way of the world; the alternatives known so far are worse. The disappearance of visible poverty from parts of the first world is partly the result of fitted blinders—not just a cowardly unwillingness to see the problem—the visibility of the poor only discourages investment, and worsens their plight—and partly the result of globalization, which segregates classes in their own countries.

My interest here is sociological, because all civilizations have the poor in common, and the poor of all civilizations are alike. Details of costume, language, and climate aside, all hovels are really but one hovel, and all unskilled labor is really but one vast project, now building a pyramid, now digging a canal; now sewing shirtwaists, now sewing jeans. In thinly populated hunter-gatherer societies, or in civilizations with money to hand, there is room for culture, room to work out what it means to be human; but the poor are always and everywhere worn down to the same nub: what we all are in the end, at the last, at the core.

So many books

There is but one royal and straight road to the habit and power of thinking: reading. An education that does not form a reader is a stuccoed ignorance. Read every day. Do not read programmatically; do not read with a dictionary or a notebook or a commonplace book at your shoulder. Read as mood, interest, chance or caprice moves you. Programmatic reading relies on the memory of the programmer; but our memories of where ideas and notions first moved us tend to assimilate to their best expression, and we forget the survey or introduction, the passing reference, the awkward conversation which first inspired or illuminated us. The apostles of Literature are wont to forget that beneath the summit of Parnassus there is mountain to be scaled, with many approaches. Beware of anyone who says that to learn this, you must read this or that. Try what they say; but let your mind assert its own needs for corollary, introductory, or critical materials, for a fallowing break into some other subject (or into fiction), or for backtracking. The best minds, the most skilled, are often spoiled by prideful unwillingness to reconsider their assumptions and methods, to review the basics.

Never pause while reading to look something up. It is the first encounter which cuts the furrow, builds the pigeonhole, opens the file. If you get into the habit of pausing to look up, your mind will make such spaces only at the rate it can fill them from reference works; but if you let them open at the speed of uninterrupted reading they will be there to receive answers as they come to you in reading, conversation, walking on the proverbial heath—or in an apple orchard under the moon. Search for answers, and you find few; amass questions, and the world sings with answers. There are necessary exceptions: a chronology and maps are good to have to hand while reading history; and with foreign languages it is possible to be respectably skilled without being able to desert the dictionary. Too, there is no harm in noting topics for later investigation. But inertia should be your rule and your friend: finish what you start.

Never record notes or excerpts in the heat of the moment; finish a book before you extract from it. What is eloquent or moving in context may be dull or insipid when returned to directly; what seems essential or illuminating may be obvious later, or prove an oversimplification set as a snare for you by a careless or disingenuous author—textbooks are full of such intellectual mantraps. It is harmless to record a page or paragraph to return to; but as you are mortal, you must not waste time.

We remember what we learn more by the incidents of its acquisition than its place in a scheme. A book, as an article, is full of such incidents: binding, paper, cover and fonts; the author's style and voice; the circumstances where you read it; its weight on or in your hand; how you marked it or took pains not to mark or mar it; who you were when you read it; who gave to you or where you bought it or took it out; who recommended it; how old it is—new, secondhand, antique. A book is a mnemonically individual as a teacher and has the advantages of cheapness, reliable supply, permanence, and retainability—you cannot put a teacher on a shelf. Precisely because it is fixed and set, a book is not an indifferent medium (like the Internet) through which an item of data crosses from mind to mind; it is a physical thing, fraught and sensuous, whose circumstances receive and bind, like spiders' silk, gossamer and flighty thought. Love what books contain, but lust for books themselves; not with a gourmand's discrimination, but a voluptuary's delight.

The ancients, who had only fragile scrolls, and the scholars and schoolmen of the Middle Ages, who owned few books, built labyrinthine dream-palaces in their memories, full of niches and ramifying halls and galleries concocted from shards of remembered or imagined buildings. These palaces were miscellaneous as pattern books, like the strange buildings which haunt Renaissance backgrounds, D¨rer's rambling castles or the scenes where Poliphilo wandered; and which came as ruins to dominate Romantic landscapes, senseless conjunctions of towers and walls and columns; Death's city in Poe, resembling nothing which is ours. These palaces housed only commodious niches, ranged along hall walls or between arcade columns, or grouped behind doors: and in each niche, a vision lived—a nightmare, a fox-headed lady standing for a name beginning with V (vulpus); or a caricature, the goat with swollen testacles who was Cicero's testator.

But these were intimations. The true palace of memory is the library, with wings of shelves, corridors of volumes, niches of pages where memory is ensnared. The mind on its own holds but one palace; but there are books—classics—broad and deep enough to be palaces in themselves which one life cannot fill. So many counted light-years will not suffice to hold universe enough to justify, let alone satiate, the appetites and powers of the human mind; but books brought together do not add, but multiply; to be among books you know well is to be lifted out of mortal span and reach.

Dead languages

There are many dead languages in the world; most are aboriginal, but many are civilized. Sumerian is a dead language; no one reads it except to translate from it. But Latin is not a dead language. No one writes in Sumerian—and what you wrote in Sumerian, if you had that whim, would be philological caprice, not real Sumerian. But with diligence anyone can learn to write Latin; and what they write is real Latin, because Latin has been preserved and immortalized by the prescriptions of its grammarians, who sheared their language from the Tiber by making it answerable only to written, explicit, portable, unowned rules, and therefore fit to receive the genius of all peoples and ages.

There is an English-language literature, not several streams of British and American and Commonwealth literature, and English is fit to be the universal and auxiliary language of commerce and science, only because of those grammarians, and that lexicographer, who trawled and netted its vagaries, who indefatigably caught and named and pinioned and catalogued until a whole language, fit for any purpose, was anatomized and exhibited.

The English language is still vital, and thus changeful on vulgar tongues, and among scientific explorers who must quickly get over the business of giving names to their new worlds; but most of these words will die, becoming quaint or obsolete. While they live, they may serve probation to become part of the language; but likelier, they will never be cut free from their contexts, and if they come to be written at all it will be only for color.

The Latin model is not ideal for English—nor for Latin, whose grammar is modeled after Greek; but our Latinate grammar is not a cage; it is a trellis. It supports the whole structure of English literature. It is not an affected, alien imposition: it is, itself, the English language. It has not prevented English from fracturing, as is its nature—as was Latin's nature, Europe witnesses—but it has preserved over and above those dialects a true, nuclear English. I dare call it true because English as we know it is not the product of any natural development. English is an artificial language; a consciously and self-consciously made hybrid of Englisc, Norman French and Latin. The great writers and translators into our English, Mallory, Browne, Bacon, Burton, Florio, North, Urquhart, Sidney, Spencer, Shakespeare, did not use the English they found: they created the English we know. I do not believe that anyone in their time, even they, spoke as they write. But we speak their language, not a descendant of any of the argot-pidgin-creole-cant-jargon-lingoes (likely closer to Chaucer) that would have been heard in the London of their time.

Dialects, whatever the charm they have to linguists, cannot be entered into by outsiders. They presume and enforce a shared background, a particular geographic, racial, cultural economic set of coördinates. They are worthy of study; they are worthy of respect, as aspects of cultures; but, though they do not much endanger English, it is the function and duty of grammarians to cut them down, to make room for their successors. There will always be a new crop of dialects and jargons and a new harvest of what they have to offer English as such, which must then wither to make way for the next crop. English is in no danger from descriptivists and careless linguists who misapply instruments proper to study the creativity and forgetfulness of illiterate languages to literate ones—which are just as creative, but need never forget. English is stronger than its enemies; and because English is as immortal and universal as it is captured in books, English literature is being fed into by countries with nothing else but English grammar in common, and by the best minds of these countries, who know that what they write in their mother languages is only for their brothers and sisters; but what they write in English is for the world and forever.

As ever, it is the artist who knows the rules and breaks them knowingly; the fool who breaks them unknowingly; and the damn fool who neither mends nor defends their mistake, but protests its detection, as if we should sit and watch while they and their nuisance ilk pound a wedge to rive us from the continuity that English has enjoyed since Shakespeare. Now, Shakespeare was free with his language; but in every art the freedom of genius frames the rules for the rest. Anything which takes us further from Shakespeare deserves careful examination, and some period of quarantine.

English's rules are not perfect. Some are golden, the indispensable instruments of clarity (like keeping participle and subject in agreement); some are well-exampled, but questionable (they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun); some asinine, but somehow impossible to banish (aversion to the split infinitive or the hanging preposition—which one does best to carefully think about). But it is better to have bad rules among good ones than no rules. The case is rather like spelling reform. English spelling is so peculiar, so uniquely adapted for its needs—not as illogical as some imagine—that spelling reform poses a double danger.

1. Our spelling conceals from us how really diverse, especially in vowels, our dialects are. An accurate phonetic spelling of English would of necessity either become so formalized as to obviate its aim, or remain faithful to the sounds of English, and thus be slow to read. Orthographic convention distinguishes the command, "Marry merry Mary," from the assessment of Mary, that "merry Mary married," or of the ceremony, "Mary married merrily." Either we would have to be on constant guard against such ambiguities and uncertainties—every writer's spellings declaring their background—or adopt some single dialect, or commingling of dialects, as a standard source of spellings to be imposed on everyone else. Distasteful (æsthetically and patriotically, to this American) as it is to think of the mealy sounds of the King's English overlying all English literature—it is better than to think of seeing Shakespeare exhibited in print under the droning manufactured nowhere-dialect of the television anchor.

2. English orthography is so complex if it were not taught, trouble would not often be taken to learn it. Much would be transcribed; more would effectively be lost—whatever our age's critics, and public taste, did not see fit to preserve accessibly. What could we lose at the hands of a modern Rhymer or Dryden?

Latinizing missionaries who stretched native languages on the rack were able to give them Bibles in their own languages. Linguists produce accurate descriptive grammars which make beautiful epitaphs to those languages. Bahasa Indonesia has preserved Indonesian language at the cost of Indonesian languages; the French created France out of the possessions of the Capets by suppressing regional dialects; the Arabic world is a world only by its devotion to the language of the Koran.

All rules seem arbitrary until they are gone without; all systems of rules suffer rot, once useful provisions becoming shibboleths; but a language without rules is a house on fire. Fire is a kind of life, breathing and eating; but it is too much life, and it leaves only ashes. A language is not alive, something growing and maturing, until it has been settled prescriptively, not by itself but by learning from the grammarians of, and translators from, older languages. Thus, all literate languages are artificial languages; their changes belong to history, not culture. The natural development of English which descriptive grammarians would defend no longer exists. The successions of fashion are unlike the forces determining national costume or native dress; just so, the changes of of a written language belong not to the order of cultural change, but to the order of revolutions and discoveries—of change in worldview, where prescription is the necessary condition of consensus.