29 May 2008

On making fun of bad guys

In an interview with Roger Errera in 1974, later captured in the New York Review of Books (10/26/1978), Hannah Arendt cited this comment by Berthold Brecht:
The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter. They are not great political criminals, but people who permitted great political crimes, which is something entirely different…. If the ruling classes permit a small crook to become a great crook, he is not entitled to a privileged position in our view of history. That is, the fact that he becomes a great crook and that what he does has great consequences does not add to his stature.
Once again, we see that the best response to political sleaze is ridicule.

26 May 2008

Monday Quote Frenzy - Pascal

When I see the blindness and misery of man and the astonishing contradictions revealed in his nature; and observe the whole universe mute, and man without light, abandoned to himself, as though lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who put him here, or what he has come here to do, or what will become of him in dying; I feel fear like a man who has been carried when asleep into a desert and fearful island, and has waked without knowing where he is and without having means of rescue. And thereupon I wonder how man escapes despair at so miserable an estate. I see others about me, like myself, and I ask them if they are better informed than I, and they tell me no. And then these wretched wanderers, after looking about them and seeing some pleasant object, have given themselves up and attached themselves to it. As for me, I cannot stop there, or rest in the company of these persons, wholly like myself, miserable like me, impotent like me. I see that they would not help me to die; I shall die alone; I must then act as though alone; but if I were alone I should not build houses; I should not fret myself with bustling occupations; I should seek the esteem of no one, but I should try only to discover the truth.

So, considering how much appearance there is that something exists other than what I see, I have sought whether this God of whom everyone talks may not have left some marks of himself. I search everywhere, and see only obscurity everywhere. Nature offers me nothing by matter of possible doubt and disquiet. If I saw there nothing to mark a divinity, I should make up my mind to believe nothing of it. If I saw everywhere the marks of a Creator, I should rest in peace in faith. But seeing too much to deny, and too little to affirm, I am in a pitiable state, where I have an hundred times wished that, if a God supports nature, she would show it without equivocation; and that, if the marks she gives are deceptive, she would suppress them wholly; that she say all or nothing, that I may see my path.

13 May 2008

Administrative Burdens

The University of New Mexico is going through a strategic planning exercise, which stirs up the traditional complaint that it is a waste of time. (Old saying: Strategic planning is a waste of time, unless you don't do it.) The faculty in particular are unhappy at the amount of time they have to spend in committee meetings and planning discussions. It is a familiar complaint.

I had not realized how familiar, though, until I read the following item in the first volume of A History of the University in Europe. Philippus de Grevia started as a magister at the University of Paris in 1206, and became its chancellor from 1218 to 1236. He was a theologian, a poet, and an archetypal faculty member:
At one time, when each magister taught independently and when the name of the university was unknown, there were more lectures and disputations and more interest in scholarly things. Now, however, when you have joined yourselves together in a university, lectures and disputations have become less frequent; everything is done hastily, little is learnt, and the time needed for study is wasted in meetings and discussions.

12 May 2008

Monday Quote Frenzy - Henry Adams on Why One Writes

In 1901, Adams was trying to process the experience of the technological progress of the age (having spent a lot of time at Samuel Langley's exhibition of modern engineering artifacts). In The Education of Henry Adams, he reflects on his pursuit of education after trying to work out the parallel paths of cultural energy associated with the dynamo and the Virgin.
The pursuit turned out to be long and tortuous, leading at last to the vast forests of scholastic science. From Zeno to Descartes, hand in hand with Thomas Aquinas, Montaigne, and Pascal, one stumbled as stupidly as though one were still a German student of 1860. Only with the instinct of despair could one force one's self into this old thicket of ignorance after having been repulsed a score of entrances more promising and more popular. Thus far, no path had led anywhere, unless perhaps to an exceedingly modest living. Forty-five years of study had proved to be quite futile for the pursuit of power; one controlled no more force in 1900 than in 1850, although the amount of force controlled by society had enormously increased. The secret of education still hid itself somewhere behind ignorance, and one fumbled over it as feebly as ever. In such labyrinths, the staff is a force almost more necessary than the legs; the pen becomes a sort of blind-man's dog, to keep him from falling into the gutters. The pen works for itself, and acts like a hand, modelling the plastic material over and over again to the form that suits it best. The form is never arbitrary, but is a sort of growth like crystallization, as any artist knows too well; for often the pencil or pen runs into side-paths and shapelessness, loses its relations, stops or is bogged. Then it has to return on its trail, and recover, if it can, its line of force. The result of a year's work depends more on what is struck out than on what is left in; on the sequence of the main lines of thought, than on their play or variety.