August 19, 2018

1. A Time of Gifts

In 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor was 18, and living in London. He had been expelled from all the schools he’d attended; he had an independent streak, and didn’t follow rules. When he was a child in England, his parents were in India (they were part of the BritishEmpire bureaucracy), so Fermor became accustomed to thinking for himself, and acting on his own initiative.

Perhaps it was this independent streak that enabled him, at age 28, to carry out one of the most famous commando operations of World War II, the abduction of General Kreipe (we discussed this abduction in an earlier issue). And perhaps it was this independent streak that prompted Fermor, at age 18, to leave London, take a ferry to Holland, and set out to walk to Constantinople, following the Rhine south, and then the Danube east.

Fermor traveled alone, and didn’t return to England for three years. Before he set out, he had dreamed of becoming a writer. He hoped that his journey would provide material for his writing.

Fermor was inspired by the travel writer Robert Byron, who had driven through Europe to Greece and Turkey. Byron and Fermor are often called the best travel writers of modern times. Before he decided to travel, Fermor met Byron briefly in a bar, and that meeting may have inspired Fermor to follow Byron’s example, as the young Bill Clinton’s meeting with President Kennedy inspired Clinton to aim for the White House.

When Fermor told his mother about his travel plans, she tried to dissuade him. But after they discussed the journey, she embraced the idea and shared Fermor’s enthusiasm. She wanted to buy Fermor a going-away present, and Fermor said he wanted a volume of Horace, in the LoebClassics edition (the Loeb volumes are small and easy to carry).

When Fermor’s mother went to a bookstore to buy the Horace volume, she noticed a Petronius volume, opened it, and came upon the following passage:

Young man, leave familiar places and seek foreign shores,
A larger range of life awaits you.
Don’t surrender to problems!
You will see the end of the Danube,
And the care-free realms of Egypt,
You will feel the cold North Wind...
By disembarking on distant sands, you become a greater man.

Linque tuas sedes alienaque litora quaere, o juvenis:
major rerum tibi nascitur ordo.
Ne succumbe malis: te noverit ultimus Hister,
Te Boreas gelidus securaque regna Canopi...
major in externas fit qui descendit harenas.

Fermor’s mother inscribed these lines on the flyleaf of the Horace volume. Fermor later made them the epigraph of his travel narrative, A Time of Gifts.

2. The Library Angel

Was it just chance that led Fermor’s mother to this passage? Or is this a case of the library angel, the spirit that seems to guide us to the right book, the right passage?

Arthur Koestler, who was interested in the occult, wrote about the library angel in his book The Challenge of Chance. Koestler quotes a letter from Rebecca West, who researched the Nuremberg Trials:

I looked up the trials in the library and was horrified to find they are published in a form almost useless to the researcher.... After hours of search I [said to a librarian] “I can’t find it, there’s no clue, it may be in any of these volumes”.... I put my hand on one volume and took it out and carelessly looked at it, and it was not only the right volume, but I had opened it at the right page.

Koestler notes that “while her systematic search had remained fruitless, her apparently random guess was instantly rewarded, as if it had been guided by intuition.” When we work in a systematic way, we silence the still small voice of intuition.

Koestler mentions a case of “library angel” from his own life. In 1972, he was hired by the Sunday Times to cover the chess match in Iceland between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Koestler decided to go to the London Library and borrow some books about chess and about Iceland.

I hesitated for a moment whether to go to the “C” for chess section first, or to the “I” for Iceland section, but chose the former, because it was nearer. There were about 20-30 books on chess on the shelves, and the first that caught my eye was a bulky volume with the title Chess in Iceland.... This type of coincidence, involving libraries, books, quotations, references or single words in special contexts, is so frequent that one almost regards them as one’s due.

Ed Banfield once read me a quote from Nietzsche, and asked me where it came from. I said that it came from Beyond Good and Evil. Then he gave me a copy of Beyond Good and Evil, and asked me to find the quote. I opened the book to the very page that contained the quote.

Mankind has often turned to the “library angel,” to “book synchronicity,” for purposes of divination. For example, during the Middle Ages, people would open Vergil’s Aeneid at random to obtain advice or foretell the future, much as they would use tarot cards. Modern science scorns “book divination” as it scorns astrology and tarot, but perhaps the next generation will have more respect for ancient wisdom.

I first heard of the “library angel” when I read a sketch of Erwin Panofsky, the art historian. Panofsky’s friend Walter Friedlaender said that when Panofsky was born, a fairy came to his cradle and said, “‘Whichever book you open, you will find precisely the passage you need’.... This well-attested serendipity, however legendary in its origins, served Panofsky throughout his life.”1

Perhaps you prefer your synchronicities on a larger scale, a cosmic scale. The astronomer J. F. W. Herschel said that when Galileo invented the telescope,

An immense impulse was now given to science and it seemed as if the genius of mankind, long pent up, had at length rushed eagerly upon Nature.... It seemed, too, as if Nature herself seconded the impulse.... As if to call attention to her wonders... she displayed the rarest, the most splendid and mysterious, of all astronomical phenomena, the appearance and subsequent total extinction of a new and brilliant fixed star twice within the lifetime of Galileo himself.2

3. Physiognomy

When I discussed the Roman Empire, I said that the Empire’s decline was evident in its coins:

  1. the purchasing power of coins declined (the coinage was debased, that is, the amount of precious metal was reduced)
  2. the artistic quality of coins declined
  3. the number of spelling mistakes on coins increased
  4. Rostovtzeff says that the coins of the later Empire show a degeneration of the emperors themselves; he speaks of, “the features of the various emperors of the period of military anarchy, which differ strikingly from the aristocratic heads of the Antonines”

A similar degeneration has been observed among Chinese emperors. Speaking of SungDynasty emperors, Lin Yutang wrote,

Shentsung, the “Divine Emperor” [was] a good and just man and he had a round and well-proportioned face, like those of his imperial ancestors. It was not until after Shentsung that the emperors of the Sung dynasty began to show distinctly degenerate traits in their physiognomy.3

4. Mindfulness

Zen must be experienced, you can’t learn about it through reading. There’s an ecstasy in meditation and yoga that must be experienced to be understood.

Many teachers of meditation and yoga aim their teaching at intermediate or advanced students. If you’re a beginner, make sure your teacher/video/book is for beginners. Meditation and yoga should be easy and fun. If your yoga routine can’t be done by the average 90-year-old, then it’s not a routine for beginners.

If you practice once a week for a year, you probably won’t make much progress, just as if you plant a tree and water it once a week for a year, it won’t live. You need to water the tree every day for three weeks, then it will put down roots, then it can survive on its own. The same is true of meditation/yoga: it’s better to do it daily for three weeks than weekly for a year. If you do it for 30-45 minutes a day for three weeks, it may leave a permanent mark on you, it may put down roots in your soul.

I started doing meditation/yoga about 25 years ago, using Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living, and the tapes that accompanied the book. I quickly became an enthusiastic convert, and gave copies of the book to several friends/relatives (of course, I would never copy a tape). It’s probably the most valuable thing I’ve ever learned, and I think it’s the most valuable thing for a college student to learn.

Though I haven’t read the book in many years, I still use the tapes. There are four tapes:

  1. “body scan” or “yoga nidra”
  2. sitting meditation
  3. yoga 1
  4. yoga 2
The goal of all four recordings is the same — mindfulness, stress reduction, awareness of the present. I suggest you try all four, then focus on the ones that are most congenial to you.

Kabat-Zinn recordings as Youtube videos:
Body Scan
Yoga 1
Yoga 2

All four recordings, choice of CD or download
CD with all four recordings (from Amazon)
20-minute meditation video

Andy Puddicombe takes a different approach than Kabat-Zinn, but he aims at the same goal. Puddicombe grew up in England, then went to the Himalayas and became a Buddhist monk. He started a website/app called Headspace, which introduces you to meditation, and guides you through a daily practice, beginning with just 5 minutes a day. Puddicombe also gave a popular TED Talk about meditation.

5. Miscellaneous

A. Moneyball (2011) is an excellent sports movie. It discusses the statistical approach to baseball made famous by Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s. Moneyball is based on a book by Michael Lewis. Lewis says that Beane’s approach was unconventional, contrarian, like the approach to investing that Lewis describes in The Big Short.

B. An Education (2009) deals with a 16-year-old girl’s relationship with a man more than twice her age. It’s intelligent, witty, and entertaining, but it’s morally bankrupt, and it leaves the viewer with an empty feeling. Critics applauded it, but the public was less enthusiastic.

After writing the above paragraph, I read John Podhoretz’s review of An Education. He calls it, “a lively and infectious movie [but] it seems to crumble in front of you while you are watching it.... You don’t really know why you’ve watched what you’ve watched, or why you should care.”

To his credit, Podhoretz often expresses views that agree with mine.

C. I’ve talked to several people recently — highly intelligent people — who say they find it very difficult to read books, perhaps because they can’t concentrate in a sustained way. Young people can’t read books because they’re distracted by social media. Old people can’t read books because the ability to concentrate seems to decline with advancing age. Since learning is no longer respected, no one feels obligated to read. Will we have a world with a billion books but no readers?

6. Evil

Evil often lurks beneath the surface of daily life. If you grow up in an average American suburb, you probably think that evil is imaginary, like monsters in the attic. “We don’t need police, armies, governments. Indeed, police, armies, and governments are the source of our problems.” And so young people from quiet suburbs become sympathetic toward anarchism. They don’t believe in evil because it lurks beneath the surface.

Two Americans, Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan, recently set out on a round-the-world bike tour. Strangers often helped them:

On Day 319 of their journey, a Kazakh man stopped his truck, said hello and handed them ice cream bars. In a meadow where they had pitched their tent on Day 342, a family showed up with stringed instruments and treated them to an open-air concert. And on Day 359, two pigtailed girls met them at the top of a pass in Kyrgyzstan with a bouquet of flowers.4

Austin and Geoghegan decided that evil doesn’t really exist.

“You read the papers and you’re led to believe that the world is a big, scary place,” Mr. Austin wrote. “People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil. I don’t buy it. Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own... By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind.”

On Day 369 of their trip, they were cycling with some Europeans in Tajikistan, when a carload of ISIS followers passed them.

The men’s Daewoo sedan passes the cyclists and then makes a sharp U-turn. It doubles back, and aims directly for the bikers, ramming into them and lurching over their fallen forms. In all, four people were killed: Mr. Austin, Ms. Geoghegan and cyclists from Switzerland and the Netherlands.

7. Political Novels

I saw an interview with Tom Cronin, a professor at Colorado College. Now 78, Cronin is a political scientist who has written some widely-used textbooks on American government. Cronin first came to Washington D.C. in the early 1960s as an intern for a Senator, then returned a couple years later as a WhiteHouse intern.

Cronin recently published Imagining a Great Republic: Political Novels and the Idea of America. This book discusses about 50 novels, from old classics like Henry Adams’ Democracy to recent bestsellers like John Grisham’s The Appeal. The best novel about American politics, according to Cronin, is All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren. (Perhaps a novel about Huey Long is especially relevant in the Age of Trump.)

Cronin says that he learns by teaching, he learns by discussing these novels with his students. He quotes Mortimer Adler: “Reading alone is almost as bad as drinking alone.” Doubtless Cronin would agree with Plato’s remark that philosophy is “created by the friction of minds employed in the joint pursuit after truth.”

Cronin’s book discusses the following novels:

© L. James Hammond 2018
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1. Panofsky sketch by William S. Heckscher, in the back of Panofsky’s Three Essays on Style, pp. 175, 176 back
2. Herschel is referring to the phenomenon of a supernova. Quoted in Synchronicity: Science, Myth, and the Trickster, epigraph of Part I, “Synchronicity and Science.” back
3. The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo, Ch. 7 back
4. New York Times back