Sunday, July 15, 2018

I love echoes in literature, the way that you can hear echoes in others because the same echo is reawakened in your mind.

I was thinking about this, because I was reading the story of the Syrophenician woman in Matthew and Mark -- she asks Jesus to exorcise her daughter, and at first he refuses because she's not an Israelite, and the bread on the table must go to them.  To which she replies: "Truth, Lord: yet indeed the whelps eat of the crumbs, which fall from their master’s table."

This is the Geneva translation of Matthew's Ναί, κύριε. (Geneva translates Mark's identical repetition of Ναί, κύριε, the same way, though the King James Version gives the somewhat more accurate "Yes, Lord" for the latter, which means that the KJV translators didn't compare notes, or possibly actively disagreed, or perhaps wanted the whole range of connotation and used the translator's trick of variation when translating the same phrase.)  George Herbert used the Geneva Bible and therefore (I realized today) this must have been echoing in his head when he (or his speaker) replies to Love's generosity in "Love" (III):

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Anyhow, I don't know whether anyone has noted the echo, but "Truth, Lord" as an assertion of agreement only appears in this one context in the Bible, so Herbert must have been remembering it.  Not consciously, I wouldn't think, but the parallels are there: the person who feels that she or he doesn't deserve a place at the table, and the Love that gives them such a place.

And yet these aren't quite parallels, since the Syrophenician woman is asking for something the Prince of Love is at first hesitant to give her, whereas Herbert is refusing an invitation to sit at the table himself.

But the words, in Herbert's mind, must have resonated with the sound of their original context.  He's embracing their context as the words themselves embrace the truth -- the truth uttered by the lord of love.  In using the Biblical words he lets himself be carried along on the wave of quotation, and that experience, as we all must know, is one of joy. 

But it's not quite quoting that's the joy -- it's the sense of an echo, there, not a citation.  Longinus defined the literary sublime as quotation, specifically quotation out of context: "The soul takes a proud flight as though she herself had written what she has only heard or read."  Here it's rather that there are words available, capturing exactly the degree of intense and therefore meaningful subordination that he wants, that he feels.

I think we feel it too.  (I do.)  It's as though the Syrophenician woman, and then Herbert, have made available a new formula for showing love and truth.  It's not the original context that matters; it's the words that come out of it, neither citation nor quotation out of context but a new expression of human contact, and so a pleasure to read or hear without needing to be the originator of the quotation.

Maybe a way to put this is to say that those words are not great by themselves, the way Longinian quotation is.  They need a context of humility, gratitude, and the surprising generosity and love that this gratitude elicits.  They need to be uttered as part of some exchange between persons, and when they do they hit the note all the more perfectly because they echo the original context that resonates in them now.

And part of the right context for these words is a poem or story in which they're uttered in the right context.  When that happens, we're carried along by them, and it's a joy that this can happen.  And the more such phrases echo in your mind -- as in Herbert's -- the more you'll find yourself stirred by them, by literary language used right.

(Note to self: I think what I mean by literary language used right is, in the end, something like meter.  Meter as an echo of contexts which are the right ones to echo.  But I don't think I managed to get that feeling down right here.)

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Lipogrammatical translation


Down To What’s Low, Canto 1

Just halfway through my own trip in our living
Provisional, short world, I found that I
Had lost my path in dark woods, unforgiving.

It is so hard a thing that I must sigh
If I would say how brutal was that wood,
To think on which will always horrify.

If anything, it’s only dying could
Outdo that acrid wood’s malignity.
But I will turn from horror, towards that good

Which also on that pathway, luckily,
I found, though I can’t say what hid all truth
Away in total blank stupidity.

I cannot work out how it was, in sooth,
That in that  gloom awaking, full of stupor,
I’d lost that saving road I took in youth.

I got at last to what you’d call a croup or
Boundary of that dark and dismal hollow,
A bank of rocks which from a mountain do pour,

To that bluff’s scapula my look did follow
Upwards still that guiding morning glow,
Bright from that star so holy to Apollo.

Thus did that anxious horror, which had so
Brought churning with it, all that awful night,
To my soul’s pool, diminish, calm its flow.

And as a man who pants hard, still in sight
Of billows which, almost, brought him to sink,
From land looks back on that main, full of fright,

So did my spirit, panicking, still think
On that grim pass no mortal human can
Go out of without passing living’s brink. 

At last my body pausing for a span
Until invigoration from that stop
Could now allow it motion, though no plan

Could show it how to go, with constant prop
On foot in back and downwards, sought to gain,
By climbing always upwards, that mount’s top.  

And lo! A cougar stood stock still, though plain
Its quick and light agility.  No turning
Could pass it by.  Upon its skin a rain

Of spots, which I, that bright and airy morning
(As sun and star-companions Loving God 
Had first spun, still did spin) saw as adorning

That cat, a sign of succor I might laud,
During that blissful dawn, but not so bright
That I did not start shaking, on that road,

At what was now arising in my sight:
A lion, drawn up high, intimidating,
So much that air and I, both full of fright,

About how it its stomach might start sating,
Must stop — for what? A wolf, and I was pavid,
So skinny was it, though anticipating

It would sup soon on anything, for avid
It was for food: though lank it was full too:
That wolf so ruinous to man was gravid!

And I was too — with fright! I could not do
What I was hoping for — to climb that hill.
Alas, I found no pathway round nor through.

And as a man who’d got just what his will
Saw as most worth wishing of all things,
Now gasps on losing it, a poignant thrill

Of brutal pain, transfixing with its stings
From that wolf, did I sob at, and I shrank
Darkwards, away from Sol’s loud blazonings.

Back did I go, back to that lowland dank;
Abruptly in my sight shows up a man,
Who, dumb so long, I thought would sound as blank,

As our surround was. Straight to him I ran,
Still crying “Pity!” to him, “Man or shadow
Of a man!”  “Not a man, but Mantuan,  

By birth” was his account, “Born Sub Julio,
But it was good Augustus, though his gods
Did not say truth nor know your Christian Trio,

Who was my king.  My song got many nods,
All praising it as Roman history,
From Trojan loss to gain, against all odds, 

From burning Ilion to victory.
But why do you avoid that joyous mountain,
As though to climb you’d no ability?” 

“Now art thou Virgil? That riparian fountain,”
All blushingly I said, within his sight,
“Of words that all who follow find a sound in

Which our own songs would sing with.  If I might,
I’ll say how much I honor you, what study
I sanctify with loving to your light.

But now look on that animal so bloody,
To you I turn for aid, to you I’m flying.
O horror!” “You must go this path, though muddy,”

Did Virgil say, to try to hush my crying,
“If you would from this dark wood find a way.
For past that wolf can no amount of trying

Attain that goal; whoso will try will pay
With his annihilation; hungrily,
Voraciously that wolf puts him away.

Marrying many animals bodily,
It looks to go on doing so, until
A Grayhound, coming with finality,

Shall bring its pain to culmination, kill
That awful wolf, who did not pity show.  
That hound, consuming not, such is its will,

Things of this world, but only what would go
With wisdom — loving all morality —
In fabrics of Franciscan monks will know

His nation.  Savior of low Italy,
That hound: our land for which Camilla, dying
A maid, and Nisus, and his loving ally

And Turnus, all lay down for good.  Now plying
Its way through any town that it might harry,
That wolf cannot avoid damnation, buying,

Through vicious rivalry, its day to tarry,
So soon to finish. So I think it right
That I conduct you, and that you stay wary.

As onwards through this aways-lasting night
You go, with sounds of always-lasting sorrow
Imploring total dying, not this blight.

But going through, I’ll bring you tomorrow
To souls who though in pain stay happy with it,
Hoping to pay back soon what sin did borrow

And climb salvation’s mount to that first orbit,
To which I must not go. But if you will
You’ll find at that hill’s top a worthy spirit,

Which I am not, as I did not fulfill
Writs laid down by that all-causing King,
Combatting what was law. His codicil

About my task thus says: I may not bring
A pilgrim to his city.  Though his might’s
Ubiquitous, from that city starts its ring

Circling all worlds.  O, happy, any sights
Of Him; most so, who in that city strong
Find bright salvation in its million lights.” 

And I to him: “I pray, by your high song — 
And by that God you did not know, I pray—
That you will as conductor, for as long

As you can do so, bring us on that way
Of pain, at last to portals which saints hallow,
And far from this soil’s sorrow.” With no stay

On did Virgil go, downwards did I follow.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

On a tree by a river....

For a long time, I've thought of Othello as a rewriting of Hamlet; it's possibly the next play Shakespeare wrote, and has the same relation to Hamlet as Macbeth does to Antony and Cleopatra, the same symphony of echoes. How then could I have missed till now that the willow song has to be about the death of Ophelia?

She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her: she had a song of 'willow;'
An old thing 'twas, but it express'd her fortune,
And she died singing it: that song to-night
Will not go from my mind.

***

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
And the song itself makes its chorus its own "fantastic garland": "Sing all a green willow must be my garland."

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

George Herbert's Emojis

I Gave to Hope a  of mine: but he
An  gave to me.
Then an old 🙏- 📚I did present:
And he an 🔭 sent.
With that I have a🍾full of 😂:
But he a few green👂👂.
Ah Loyterer! I’le no more, no more I’le bring:
I did expect a 💍.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Privileging your check.

I am team-teaching a course on the later Wittgenstein this semester with a somewhat skeptical but radically open-minded philosopher. We were discussing language game (2), as it’s called, the one in which a builder says “Slab” to his assistant in just the circumstances where we would say “Bring me a slab.” Wittgenstein wants to show us that “Slab” is no more short for “Bring me a slab” than “Bring me a slab” is long for “Slab.” It is not an elliptical version of our more precise formulation.
 
This is always a very hard point to get right. Anyhow my philosopher-partner remarked that it was interesting how Wittgenstein always goes to chess for analogies to language games, and it occurred to me that he doesn’t go to chess enough. Because here’s what I think is a very helpful analogy.
 
When someone says “check” in chess, you might be tempted to take that word as one in Elliptical, properly translated into English as “your king is in danger.” The etymology of the word, though, shows that “check” meant “king,” from Persian (cf. Shah), via (most recently) the Arabic شَا (šāh). (I am following Wiktionary here: the OED offers some different and very interesting etymological byways, but as is the case with the way language develops, different etymological pathways converge and diverge and reconverge — for Wittgensteinian reasons — and the Wiktionary etymology is at least a big part of the story.)
 
This means that the word “check” means something like “king.” (Something. Like.)  Is that elliptical for “your king is in danger” as “slab” in language game (2) is supposed to be elliptical for the more precise “bring me a slab”? That is, should we say that when I threaten your king and say “check,” I am saying ’”king” as an elliptical way of saying “I am now threatening your king” (or some such more explicit, unpacked, and therefore accurate formulation)? Likewise, when I say “gin” that would mean “all my cards are now in completed sets and so I win the game” (and similarly with mahjong and any other game where the name of the game is also the name of a declaration within the game.)
 
But check is not elliptical for “your king is in danger.” The king cannot be put in danger. (As Pynchon says “once among nations, as in chess, suicide was illegal.”) “Check” actually means that the king must either move or be defended, either by blocking the piece that can move to the square the king is now on or by taking that piece. The king can’t be put in danger because it can’t be taken. If there is no way to get out of check, then the game is over and the player whose king is in check loses.
 
To sum up:
 
1) Check is like slab in language game (2): something that looks like a noun but isn’t one, though our translation of the utterance would contain nouns in our language.
 
2) There is no natural translation of the word that we could give without knowing how to play chess, since the closest candidate to a natural translation assumes the king could be put into danger, when it can’t. (At least “danger” in chess doesn’t amount to the king’s being put in check.)
 
What about “mate”? How do we translate that? Again, we might be tempted to say that mate or checkmate means: “I’ve won, I've won” or “You’ve lost,” or “There is no way you can now get out of check so that I have won [or you have lost].”
 
But the literal meaning of “checkmate” is “the king is dead,” from the Persian مات‎ شاه (šâh mât) (Wiktionary: if they’re accurate, though it doesn’t matter that much, apparently “check” comes from the Arabic but “checkmate,” under the influence of “check” comes directly from the Persian. The actual etymological paths are close enough to each other that; what matters is the meaning of the phrase.)
 
All of this seems to bear Wittgenstein out beautifully in a way familiar enough to us that we can see what would be wrong with trying to find more “accurate” translations for “elliptical” terms like “slab.” Or “check.” Only when you know how to play chess do its terms make sense, and they don’t make sense just because check “means” king.  Check means “check.” Teaching someone I might say, well think of it as meaning “your king is in danger.” But once she knows how to go on, how to play, she won’t understand it to mean that. She’ll understand it to mean that she’s in check.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Proust in translation and limitation

Long ago, I would couch at a good hour. On many occasions, my lamp hardly out, my lids shut so fast I couldn't think "I am drifting off." And, in about a half hour, thinking I should now nod off, I got up! I would want to put my book down--I thought I was still holding it in my hands--and to blow my lamp out; although unconscious I had still thought about what was in my book, but my thoughts took an odd turn; I thought I was what my work was about! — a church, a musical composition for four to play, or Francis I’s rivalry with Joanna and Philip of Spain’s son. Surviving, for an instant or two, my own waking, this illusion did not look shockingly irrational at all but would blind my vision and stop it from taking it in that my lamp was not burning still. But shortly it would turn baffling, as baffling as thoughts of living in a past world do following a transmigration of souls; unmooring from my book’s topic, I could apply my thoughts to it or not according to my wish; I got my vision back right away, and I would gasp at finding obscurity all around, winning and mild for my vision and, for my mind to boot, to which it would look as though it had nothing causing it, a thing which my mind could not grasp, an obscurity truly dark. In my mind I sought to work out what hour of night it was. Far away, a train’s whistling would sound, just as bird song in distant woods might, thus indicating how spacious night was, how void its blank, vast plains, through which a solitary pilgrim would rush quickly towards his station, following a small road which would stay in his mind thanks to his agitation about unfamiliar districts, unusual actions, thanks to his talk with companions, and to parting salutations, still following him through night’s hush, thanks too to coming back’s sugar-silky, mild harmony.

I would push my own maxilla against my pillow’s, rosy and vital as that of our childhood. I struck a match to look at my watch. Almost midnight. That instant that a sick man who has had to go on a trip, lodging at an unfamiliar inn, waking in crisis, looks down and is joyful at a ray of light shining through from his door’s bottom. What luck — what a good hour! Morning so soon! Its staff is up now, and just ringing will summon aid, bring him comfort.That anticipation of quick support grants him a valorous capacity to absorb it all. Lo! Rapid walking coming his way; coming… and going; that ray of daylight which had lit him up now vanishing. It’s midnight: gaslight off, corridors void of any staff who could bring aid, and no possibility now but to wait all night, sick and in pain, without mitigation.

I would fall back into dormancy, and any wakings to follow might only last an instant, just sufficing for audition of that organic sound of woodwork crackling, for looking around to try to fix obscurity’s whirling dark, for tasting, thanks to a conscious flash, that torpor in which all was sunk — room and furnishings — of which I was only a small part and which I sought to join again, unconscious again. Or again, drowsing, I had found that I had slid with facility into atavistic days from my archaic infancy, still finding, or coming again upon, this or that of my childhood horrors, as that of an avuncular pulling of my curls, a horror dissipating that day — which I took as an important boundary-crossing in my growing up — on which my hair was cut short. Oblivious, in my stupor, to that important shift, I would find it again as soon as I could squirm away from that avuncular, curl-pulling pair of hands, but out of abundant caution I would pull my pillow down on my scalp prior to going back into night’s imaginary world.

It might occur that, similarly to Adam giving birth to a woman from his rib, a woman was born as I lay unconscious from a slightly off positioning of my thigh. A product of that climax I was about to savor, it was this woman who I would think was its origin. My body which would warm to a warmth I thought was not within but without, which I thought was in that woman, but which was my own, sought to join with it: and I would jolt into waking. All humans now would look distant and unimportant in comparison to this woman whom just instants ago I had had to abandon, my lips warm still from kissing, my body aching with that body’s mass. If, as would occur, I saw in that woman any traits of a woman whom I had known in truth, I would aim with all my might at this goal: finding that woman again, as a tourist might who, imagining that truth could match an illusory charm, wants to look in actuality at a city long thought about, wistfully. Bit by bit that haunting flashback would vanish, consigning that fantasy girl to oblivion.

A drowsing, unconscious man holds around him a chain of hours, a disposition of annual circuits, of worlds. Looking to that chain by instinct, on waking, such a man can fix in an instant what spatial point is his, how long his dormition was; but a muddling, a rupturing of that ranking of hours can occur. If towards morning, following a bout of insomnia, lost in his book, a nap waylays him in a bodily position too dissimilar from that which is habitually his if dozing, all that has to occur is for his arm to lift so as to shadow him from sunlight and at that first instant of awaking, not knowing what hour it is, it might look to him as though it was only just now that his couch had drawn him into its warmth. If that man conks out in a highly unusual position, as in a post-prandial nap in an armchair, a total shuffling and undoing of orbit upon orbit, world upon world will occur, his magic armchair will carry him at full tilt into long-ago days and lands, his sight coming back, such a man will think what surrounds him is what did surround him months ago, in a distant country. But all it took was that in my own cot, my own dormition’s profundity should allow my mind to go slack, and so waking at midnight, not knowing what location I was at, I only had, in its primordial simplicity, a kind of participation in primary actuality as it was as it might churn far within an animal’s soul; and I was as starkly solitary, as lacking in situational surrounding, as a lithic, grotto-inhabitant, living prior to all human history. But a flashback—not of any location I was, but of a handful of locations I had, and might still, inhabit, coming in aid from on high, dragging my mind away from that void out of which, as a solitary soul, I could find no way out, I would jump past civilization upon civilization, and looking, at first with confusion, on oil lamps, on my shirts with collars, I would fit back, into a normal congruity, bit by bit, my own original traits.

Possibly that immobility of things around us is a function of our faith and conviction that any such thing is what it is, a function of our thought’s immobility confronting it. Anyhow it was always so, that waking my mind, anxious to find, in vain, just what location it was in, all would turn around and around in obscurity, things, lands, spans and durations from my past. My body, too stiff to shift, sought, following what form its languor took, to align its limbs’ position, so as by induction to find my rooms’ walls, its furnishings, thus building again and naming again this location in which it found that it was lying. Thinking back on what was past, thinking in and through its flanks, its joints, its scapulas, my body had room upon room brought back to it, any and all rooms in which it had, far back, found that it was dropping off, and walls with invisibly changing locations, changing according to how my body was imagining its room’s contours, would swirl around it in shadowy commotion. And prior to my thought’s twigging again to what lodging this was, by bringing back to mind parts of what it saw circumstantially -- prior to that, waiting in confusion on this brink of forms, this brink of archaic days, it — my body — could summon up for all, individually, by what kind of couch it was, or at what location you could find doors, by what light you saw from windows, or if you could pass through a corridor, what I had thought about as I would start drowsing, which I would find still in my thoughts on waking. My stiff flank sought to work out its position in its narrow room’s compass, imagining (this can stand for many such imaginings) that it was lying along a wall, a grand baldaquin high aloft, and right away I would say, “Ah, I did drop off, without Mama’s coming to say goodnight”, I was at my grandpa’s country lodging, my grandpa, long now in his tomb, and my body, its flank on which I lay, faithful guardians of a past that ought not to part from my mind, but which my mind did in fact turn away from, brought back to it light from an oil-lamp in Moravian glass, its form that of an urn, hanging down into my room by chains, its duct of stony Italian crystal, in my dormitory in Combray, at my grand-folks, in faraway days that right now I thought actual, without having to stir up again any particulars of such days, as my vision would soon grasp all of it again, upon my fully waking.

At that point, I would find, born again, and brought back to mind, a contrasting position of my body: my wall would point towards an opposing compass point: I was in my room at Madam of Saint-Loup’s country manor. My God — it’s past 10:00 p.m. — no supping now! That’s what my prolonging too long my daily twilight nap did, a nap which I always had on coming back from my walk with Madam of Saint Loup, prior to putting on formal duds. For Combray was far, far away from that, far, far past, Combray at which our walks back would occur by an hour that would always still allow for my catching sight of a rosy mirroring of sundown in my window glass. It’s a dissimilar way of living that occurs at Tansonton, at Madam of Saint-Loup’s, a dissimilar joy that I find, going out only at night, following in moonlight paths that I would play on long ago in sunlight: this room in which it must turn out I was dozing and not gussying up for supping, from afar I saw it, on coming back, lit up by lamp light, a solitary signal glowing through that night air.

Such rushing limbic confusions would last only an instant or two; mostly my short doubt about what locality I was now at didn’t distinguish among a host of suppositions comprising that doubt, just as, watching a galloping stallion, you can’t fix on any of its particular positions, which only chronophotography can show us. But I had got to look again on this or on that of various of my rooms, rooms from my past, and I would finish by bringing all such rooms back to mind in my long, abstract musings, on waking up: rooms bringing back frosty months during which I’d go plunging down, scalp first, into a warm burrow comprising this thing and that: a point of my pillow, my quilt’s top, a bit of a shawl, my cot’s rim, a pink copy of Disputations, which you finish by piling up into a unity, just as birds do, by continuously piling scraps up; months of frost bringing a kind of joy out of glacial cold, by making us conscious of our insulation from outdoors cold (similarly to littoral swallows, who roost in low bottoms in warmth-giving soil), months of cold in which, with combustion going on all night in your hob, you can stay dozing in a giant coat of warm and smoky air, lit up by scintillations of twigs catching, flaming again, you can stay in drowsing in a kind of phantom bay, a warm grotto, a hollow, a room within your room, a patch burning hot within it, its snug contours blown by slight motions of air which can inspirit you, coming from crooks, from junctions and window rims, or coming from afar, from hallways, cool again; or, during hot months, rooms in which you long to join with night’s moist warmth, in which moonlight shining on half-drawn curtains, throws as far as your cot’s foot its magic stairway, rooms in which your dormition is practically outdoors, similar to that of a robin bobbing against light wind on a point of light—haply that Louis XVI room, so gay that I wasn’t too unhappy in it, not on my first night nor on any night, its supports so lightly and graciously sustaining its top, so as to show and mark my cot's location; or not that room at all, but in total contrast, a small room, with so high a vault that its spacious form was similar to a pyramid, two floors high, and partially mahogany in its lining, in which from my first instant in it I thought it poisonous, morally anyhow, on account of an unknown odor, that of Chrysopogon bunchgrass, with no doubt of its crimson curtains’s hostility, as an arrogant clock, ignoring my sojourn in that room, would yack loudly away; — that locality in which without pity an odd mirror, with quadrangular supports, barring in its obliquity a junction of two walls, would sharply hollow out of my customary visual plain a patch which I was not anticipating;—a locality in which my thought trying for hours to pull and twist around, to modify its own form so as to fill its room’s gigantic tundish, had had to withstand many hard nights during which I lay along my cot, staring upwards, anxiously vigilant also for any sound at all, and my nostrils worrying too, my torso pounding with palpitations, until habit, changing my curtain’s tint, calming my clock’s ticking, instilling pity into in my nasty angling mirror, hiding, if not wholly driving out, that odor of bunchgrass, could bring my room’s dizzying roof calmingly downwards again. Habit! Skillful charwoman and maid, though slow as anything, who starts by allowing our mind to wait painfully for days or months in a provisional installation, but whom, still and all, our mind is so happy to find, for without habit and having to count only on its own capacity and capability, it could not possibly do anything to fix up a lodging in a way making it into a habitat you could inhabit. [Pun on “habit” and “inhabit” is in Proust’s original. —Tr.]

No doubt about it: I was truly up now. My body having spun about in a final twist, my guardian spirit, with an assuring warranty that all was what it was, brought my room and all that was around its inhabitant to a stop, and, tucking my bunk comfortably with quilts, put roughly into its right position my washstand, my writing rolltop, my hob, my window looking out on a familiar roadway, and my two doors. But in vain did I know that I was not in faraway parts — of which waking’s foggy oblivion would bring up for an instant, if not a distinct portrait, still a possibility of its actuality — it shook my mind into flashbacks; I wouldn’t try to drop off again right away, I would pass most of that night in calling back to mind our way of living long ago, in Combray at my grandaunt’s, in Cabourg, in Paris, in St. Cyr’s, in Astonio, and in various additional lands, bringing back many distant parts, souls I had known in this or that locality, what I actually saw of how such humans would act, or what I was told about it.

[That's it (for now anyhow). Amazing starting paragraphs (in Proust's original, obviously). As for Cabourg, St. Cyr and Astonio, all causally link up with Proust's own actual or fictional way of naming or pointing to this locality or that. Astonio with its canals? Look it up.--Tr.]

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Exit Monty Hall, but through which door?

Monty Hall will live on as the eponym of the Monty Hall problem.

Since it's now well-understood it might be worth recovering some of its spookiness. So I offer this recollection:

Among those who got it wrong at the time (early nineties) were the logician and philosopher Burton Dreben and the famous and eccentric mathematician Paul Erdös (I almost have an Erdös number of 2. If I can just convinced my friend to publish some sort piece with me!) And "Cecil Adams" of the Straight Dope, which is where I read about it. Marilyn Vos Savant got it right. I remember realizing that, after I read the Straight Dope take down of her, and feeling proud.

One night I explained it to Dreben with quarters over Sangria. We had three quarters, two even years and one odd. I would put them heads down (it was there coin Monty!), and ask him to pick the odd year. He'd pick, I'd flip one of the evens, he'd always stick, and lose 2/3 of the time.

Doing it that way was really eerie because there was a probabilistic ontology to the two remaining quarters, one being twice as likely to be odd as the other. They were physically unchanged and physically unremarkable, and yet this ghostly probability haunted and hung over them.