De disciplinam animi

Replica of Babbage's Analytic Engine

In reading for my Digital Humanities seminar, I was struck by a passage in Susan Hockey’s “The History of Humanities Computing” (A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Schreibman et al., Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) in the section about humanities computing in the 1980s:

A debate about whether or not students should learn computer programming was ongoing. Some felt it replaced Latin as a “mental discipline” (Hockey 1986). Others thought that it was too difficult and took too much time away from the core work in the humanities.

This idea of humanities students being required to learn some programming put me in mind of when, in what seems like a prior life, I was looking at the requirements for a PhD program in English Literature. I can’t remember now, it may have been at NYU (if so, the requirement has changed), but regardless: in addition to demonstrating proficiency in two languages pertinent to their research, PhD students would be required to demonstrate proficiency in one computer language.

As it did then, and increasingly does as I gain perspective on my humanistic education, this seems like an eminently good idea. A quick search for Hockey’s self-citation yielded nothing, but, having done coursework in Latin, Hockey’s description of studying the language as a “mental discipline” aligns neatly with my understanding of the value of learning Latin. While it certainly exposes students to beautifully constructed rhetoric and gives useful perspective on one’s native language, learning Latin is primarily a calisthenic exercise in rigorous, categorical thinking and memory.

I would argue that learning a computer language is a similarly rigorous, disciplined pursuit, with the added benefit that you can make things with your well-constructed syntax (though it should be said: a well-made sentence is a beautiful thing). At least one computer language, Perl, was explicitly made with the structure of a human language in mind. Its creator, Larry Wall (a trained linguist), often refers to its variables and functions as “nouns” and “verbs.” While it doesn’t do to get too caught up in comparing the traits of computer and human languages (here, anyway), I would suggest Hockey was on to something in highlighting the “mental discipline” the learning of computer languages might present humanities students.

Certainly, it would provide a definitively marketable skill to humanities graduates in addition to the someone more nebulous abilities to “write” and “think.” Though I would not go so far as to say students should take a course in, for example, HTML/CSS instead of Latin 101, the changing methodological nature of the humanities would make those skills, and the mental discipline they require, quite useful.

This is cross-posted, with minor edits, from our class blog for INLS 890: Making the Humanities Digital at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science.


Uncertainty at Kronborg

“Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here. As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together. The stone, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and the ramparts speak a different language. The courtyard becomes an entire world, a dark corner reminds us of the darkness of the human soul, we hear Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be.’ Yet all we really know about Hamlet is that his name appears in a thirteenth-century chronicle. No one can prove that he really lived here. But everyone knows the questions Shakespeare had him ask, the human depths he was made to reveal, and so he too had to be found a place on earth, here in Kronberg.”

– Niels Bohr to Werner Heisenberg at Kronborg Castle, Helsingør (Elsinore), Denmark, spring 1924. Quoted in Gordon Mills, Hamlet’s Castle (1976). The relationship between the actual and the fictional is reversed in Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen (1998), an imagining of a later meeting between these two eminent physicists.

None of the above is to be confused with Kronenbourg 1664, the French beer.

More is coming soon.

In the meantime, a plant growing in an old book at The Bicycle Shop restaurant, Norwich.

Los libros olvidados


I’ve been visiting my sister in Salamanca, Spain, where she’s spent the last six months studying at a university old as Oxford and living with a lovely middle-aged woman named Teeny. Since we’ve been here I’ve been struck by the number of striking textual or literary images I’ve seen – the graffitti that isn’t advocating “solidaridad” against the Spanish government’s austerity measures tends to be quotations by Lorca and Marquez.

So, since I have a quick break from touring with a steady wifi connection, I thought I’d post a couple vacation snaps. Above, from inside the medieval tower of the Catedral Nueva (the new cathedral, “the last breath of the Gothic style”), cascading pages from a sacred music book emerging into the light. More below the break.
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Carry-on contents, itemized

One (1) Leuchtturm 1917 pocket notebook
(I’m a notebook obsessive, and when I found this at Powell’s Books in Portland last month I nearly blacked with pleasure. Like a Moleskine, but more generous – slightly larger, more pages of nicer quality paper – and, even better, less common.)

One (1) copy of Middlemarch by George Eliot
(I’ve been supposed to be reading it with my girlfriend, and a transatlantic flight might help me catch up.)

One (1) copy of The Reckoning: the Murder of Christopher Marlowe by Charles Nicholl
(a writer with an intuitive understanding of Renaissance life, I started this last year and got away from it. As mentioned below, his The Lodger is my favorite Shakespeare biography.)

One (1) copy of Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indriðason
(I’m a stereotype in that I don’t think it’s a vacation without a murder mystery, especially, of late, a Scandinavian crime procedural. Though I liked Karin Fossum’s first Inspector Sejer book better than Indriðason’s first, Jar City, this book won the More Intriguing First Sentence Award: “He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it.” And, since Grímsvötn has so far decided not to interfere with my flight, I figured an Icelandic book would be a good investment.)

Plus my iPhone, a passport, a camera, decent noise-canceling headphones and a lot of gum. But those were foregone conclusions – the books are what I spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out. I’m back in a few weeks, and I’ve set up a few quick posts to hit “publish” for should I have an internet connection and the inclination.

Most pleasing of all, my itinerary matches the first line of one of my favorite songs: “Take a boat to England, baby, maybe to Spain…”

A Postscript to Bryson’s Shakespeare

(My first post about Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: the World as Stage is here.)

I’ve been glancing at the newer 2009 edition of Bryson’s Shakespeare on Amazon, which has a fun cover that juxtaposes the Cobbe portrait (aka Sexy Shakespeare) with the Chandos (aka Pirate Shakespeare) portrait, and is apparently fully illustrated. It seems that someone had the same idea I did about the subtitle, The World as Stage, since it is conspicuously absent from the new edition. If there are more extensive updates to the text of the book I am unable to see them using the “Click to Look Inside” feature, but the new preface updates the reader on a few developments in Shakespeare studies and early modern theater history since the first edition’s publication in 2002:

1) Stanley Wells’ somewhat controversial announcement that what has come to be known as the Cobbe portrait is, according to his research, of Shakespeare;

2) The 2009 archaeological excavation that uncovered the earliest purpose-built playhouse in London, the Theater;

3) The bizarre story of the theft and recovery of the University of Durham’s copy of the First Folio, for which Raymond Scott was jailed last year.

The first two items, of course, have real material significance for the study of Shakespeare and his milieu. The last is just a news item, really, but a pretty entertaining one at that, the latest entry in the long, strange annals of eccentrics who have gotten obsessed with Shakespeare. The Folger Shakespeare Library’s in-house magazine had an excellent article (link opens a .pdf) last fall about the detective work they did to determine which First Folio had walked in their door, and how they helped to nail Scott.

The Anxiety of Contingency

At this late point in the career of literary critic Harold Bloom (author of, among many others, The Anxiety of Influence), his legend is perhaps as important as his, well, influence. The boy coming of age in New York, consuming with singular intensity every (every?) book in the literature section of the New York Public Library, who grows up to have a nearly Johnsonian range of influence (that word again) on especially American literary thinking in the late twentieth century. In the 1980s and 90s, while Lyotards and Paglias and others (some with names that sound less like zoo animals) were erecting a post-everything Ark for theory to ford over literature, Bloom worked in another camp, stoking the fires of a Romantic concept of inspired literary Genius and how it perpetuates itself through the influence writers have on each other. Around the same time Bloom was apparently behaving like an old goat, according to his former student, feminist writer Naomi Wolf – whose feminism, judging by a lecture of hers I once attended, now resembles that of Oprah more than that of her third-wave contemporaries – who accused Bloom of “sexual encroachment” and caused the only thing approaching media furor in literary academia in 2004.

Nevertheless, Bloom’s reputation was barely affected; his books intended for a non-academic audience, The Western Canon and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, remain popular. Nearly every time I had to write about a novel or a Shakespeare play for an undergraduate course, my eyes would pass a book of critical essays he edited in the library stacks. One has to admire Bloom’s industry, and on the publication this month of his most recent book of criticism, his “virtual swan song,” The Anatomy of Influence, panegyrics are flowing in. Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, calls Bloom an “uncommon reader,” and in a lengthy, baroquely-written essay pays tribute to his keen eye while gently pointing out that Bloom’s readings, always at pains to show how one author’s work flows from that of another, are getting closer to the New Critical orthodoxies — privileging above all else the poem, its formal patterns, its echoes – which Bloom rejected early in his career.

Above I mentioned Bloom’s keen eye even though an important aspect of Tanenhaus’s essay, and indeed of the Bloom legend, is his keen ear – he is said to have a remarkable memory for poetry, again like Samuel Johnson. With the same grandiloquence that allowed him to title a book The Western Canon, Bloom is quoted as saying, “I possess almost all of Hart Crane by memory.” One imagines that Bloom does not keep his Crane for recitation, though, for fawning dinner party guests or texting undergrads, because for him literature exists almost exclusively on the page. This privileging of the written and the literary (not the textual, something I’ll come to in a minute) above all else is problematic especially when it comes to Bloom’s great master, Shakespeare. “For me, Shakespeare is God,” Bloom is quoted as saying, placing himself firmly in the Romantic tradition of bardolatry (Keats is said to have always traveled with a small portrait of Shakespeare). His criticism is often focused on the discussion of Shakespeare’s characters almost as if they were real people, a way of reading the plays originating in the early nineteenth century by Schlegel, Hazlitt, and Coleridge. As for these forebears, for Bloom Hamlet is the be-all and end-all. Even though that phrase comes from Macbeth (fourth line down).

But limiting understanding of Shakespeare to the study of his poetic proficiency and the construction of his characters without much regard for Shakespeare’s cultural milieu, for how the work is contingent on the texts in which it is transmitted, and for his plays as plays written to be performed by actors limits understanding quite a bit.
(After the break, metaphorical daisy-chains wilt in the inexorable progession of time. Or something.)
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