Prolific Polyglots.

Cedric Lizotte at The Airship writes about a subject dear to my heart:

Mastery of a second language (or third or fourth) is rather difficult, so writing a masterpiece in a language that is not one’s first is remarkable — and doing it repeatedly is even more astonishing. Yet there are quite a few famous novelists who wrote and continue to write in a language that is not their mother tongue. Joseph Conrad, who was raised speaking Polish, became known for his novels written in English and is perhaps the best known of these prolific polyglots, but there are many others. The list is long and, at times, truly surprising […]

Of course, most of the list will not surprise anyone who’s ever taken an interest in the topic: Brodsky, Nabokov, and Beckett all make their foreordained appearances, and Eva Hoffman and Agota Kristof have been in the cultural news a fair amount. I did not know, however, that Romain Gary “wrote many novels directly in English,” or that Jack Kerouac began On the Road in French, “then started over in English.” Needless to say, it is not an exhaustive list; the name that immediately occurred to me was that of Elsa Triolet (né Ella Yurievna Kagan), who wrote her first few novels in Russian, then switched to French (and was awarded the Prix Goncourt). Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. Jhumpa Lahiri, after years of writing in English, taught herself Italian and has published several books including a novel in Italian.

  2. Ah yes, I knew there was a name niggling at me; I posted on her in 2015.

  3. And I posted about the phenomenon of “exophonic writers” in 2017 (mentioning Jhumpa Lahiri, Emil Cioran, Yiyun Li, and others).

  4. I like that the author used Pieter Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel to head the article. (Actually, Bruegel did two painting of that subject, but that one is more famous and far superior, in my opinion.) It’s one of the those paintings that, when I saw it in person (at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien), I could have just stood there and looked at it all afternoon.

  5. I doubt the author chose it, but yes, I reveled in it at the Kunsthistorisches as well.

  6. Célestine Hitiura Vaite, daughter of a Tahitian mother and a French father, wrote and saw published her first three novels in English. Wikipedia:

    Though a native French speaker, Vaite notably writes in English. She began to write out of homesickness while pregnant with her third child in Australia. Vaite has stated that writing in English gives her a wider audience as well as a greater creative freedom.

  7. Elsa Triolet’s first novel was На Таити (In Tahiti)! Cue spooky music…

  8. wrt Joseph Conrad, I’ve always been dubious about the claim “became known for his novels written in English “.

    Yes he became known for his novels (I note Lizotte carefully avoids commenting on what they’re known for). Yes his novels use English words. They’ve always read to me as written by a foreigner, not ‘in English’.

    So is the conventional evaluation of Conrad the rather patronising: didn’t he do well for a non-native speaker? And/or: excellent plotlines; good character development; racy action; evocative ‘atmosphere’; … pity about the English.

    I harbour a suspicion Conrad would have been a much better/better known author if he’d written in Polish (or whatever) and got the novels translated.

  9. Basically every early modern writer in Hebrew (till, say, the ’60s) fits the bill; most notably of all Nobelist S.Y. Agnon.

  10. They’ve always read to me as written by a foreigner, not ‘in English’.

    Really? They don’t read to me that way at all; there’s occasionally an odd turn of phrase, but that can be put down to authorial idiosyncrasy — I don’t think I ever have that “nice try, old chap” sense.

    I harbour a suspicion Conrad would have been a much better/better known author if he’d written in Polish (or whatever) and got the novels translated.

    Better is in the eye of the beholder, but he’s surely as well known as any English author of his time, thanks to the notoriety of Heart of Darkness; I’ll bet he’s more read these days than Henry James. At any rate, I disagree with your counterfactual hypothesis and I’m pretty sure he would too.

  11. I can think of several Indian writers whom I would characterize as being instinctively bilingual. Rabindranath Tagore comes to mind. I understand his Nobel prize was awarded for his own English translation of his own Bengali writing (Gitanjali in particular).

  12. Another example I don’t remember seeing mentioned here or in the earlier discussions—Karen Blixen (under the pen name Isak Dinesen) first wrote Out of Africa and Seven Gothic Tales in English before translating them to her native Danish.

    There is of course a long list of writers who immigrated to an English-speaking country at a relatively young age and wrote in English, including Ayn Rand, Kahlil Gibran, Gary Shteyngart, and Kazuo Ishiguro. But Rand was twenty-one when she moved to the US, while Ishiguro was five when he moved to the UK—you wonder if it makes sense to bracket all of these cases together.

  13. Yuval: can you think of anyone who established themselves as a writer (as versus a speaker) in other languages, and later became notable as a writer in Hebrew?

    There must be some but I have a surprisingly hard time thinking of any. Mendele, kind of.

  14. Conrad would have been a much better/better known author if he’d written in Polish (or whatever)

    I get an impression that his French was better than his Polish or English.

  15. wrote in English, including Ayn Rand, …

    I seem to be in a minority on this thread, but Ayn Rand’s ‘style’ is just awful. What’s she doing in the same list as Kahlil Gibran? I note the only people who seem to rate her are right-wing economists (foremost Alan Greenspan) — also not known for their English stylistics, wherever they grew up.

    I guess what’s wrong with Rand is not only the awful language but also the one-dimensional characters and poorly-understood/debased Nietzsche. Her spoken English was also distinctly foreign-sounding.

    Or are we to allow Melania Trump’s English as somehow acceptable? (Leaving aside that not even her speechwriters can muster original thought.)

  16. Christopher Culver says:

    “I get an impression that his French was better than his Polish or English.”

    Some of Conrad’s Polish correspondence has survived, and it is quite learned and florid. He clearly not only remembered how to speak his mother tongue, but how to write elegantly in it as well.

  17. Christopher Culver says:

    Does Brodsky count? He’s someone that people complain about: “He really should have stuck to his native language instead of trying to write poetry in English”, and that isn’t something one usually hears about Beckett or Conrad.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    I wouldn’t have pegged Ayn Rand’s English style as foreign (certainly not without knowing her biography), though it is unquestionably repellent. However, even this is difficult to judge given how extremely repellent the matter of her prose is. The effect spills over.

  19. I’m not saying anything about Ayn Rand’s literary merits, only that she is known for writing in a language that she learned later in life. As I mentioned, she was older than any of the others that I listed (who by the way have very little in common with each other) when she moved to an English-speaking country.

    I have never bothered reading any of her work as I’m turned off by her reputation, but even if I did, I wouldn’t be inclined to criticize her imperfect grasp of a language that she did not grow up speaking—the same with Melania Trump’s English. Style is of course an important part of a literary work, but I would be more tolerant of stylistic shortcomings in the hands of writers struggling with a non-native language. After all, if it was another exophone writer whose ideas I found delightful and insightful instead of abhorrent, then I don’t think I would be too put off by bad style.

  20. AJP Crown says:

    There’s nothing wrong with Joseph Brodsky’s writing in English, in fact it’s really, really good. It’s only his poems that are apparently so bad (in contrast to his Russian poetry). I’ve never read them, myself.

  21. Christopher Culver says:

    With Ayn Rand, I have always wondered if she had some secret help editing her manuscripts to make them sound like native English, like Jerzy Kosiński was accused of doing.

  22. PlasticPaddy says:

    Re Ayn Rand, can someone provide an example demonstrating foreignness? Here are two examples of bad style I would not say are necessarily non-L1.
    A. I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.
    “Atlas Shrugged”
    This is for me poor style that a native could produce also
    1. by my life and my love of it-what does “it” refer to?If life in general, then emend to “by my life and (by) my love of life”.
    2. nor ask another man to live for mine-again the pronoun reference is dangling. Emend to …for my sake.
    The author might argue that she is deliberately producing a kind of jerky prophetic prose, so the style is deliberate.

    B. But if you tell an ugly woman that she is beautiful, you offer her the great homage of corrupting the concept of beauty.
    “Atlas Shrugged”
    Here again very awkward but something a native speaker could produce:
    1. great homage as opposed to teeny-tiny homage?
    2. corrupting a concept-for me a concept is flawed (or corrupt) from birth, although i would not say this about people 😊. I woud emend corrupting to undermining. But the author could argue that she wants a pejorative charged value judgment.

  23. of course this is mostly about modern writers, but the topic reminded me that (I think) nearly every literate Japanese person for a LONG time could read and write Chinese.

    For example Dogen, founder of Soto Zen, who wrote a lot in Japanese but composed many Chinese poems. Seems impressive to me, but I’m in no position to judge if these are in good Chinese or not:
    http://hycadventures.com/page73.php

  24. AJP Crown says:

    Talk about concepts of beauty, how on earth did Ayn Rand get a following with a style like that? It’s absolutely appalling, you have to keep going back and forth within each self-important little sentence to figure out what she’s on about… and then the meaning turns out to be trivial. My guess is she got a bit mixed up; there is a concept that beauty can corrupt (see Dorian Grey) but even if it’s a universal value there’s more than one “concept of beauty”, so for that to be corruptible she’d have to say which concept she’s talking about.

  25. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ayn Rand got popular by telling a certain sort of person exactly what they wanted to hear; specifically, the sort of person who sneers about “do-gooders” and “virtue-signallers.” People who care for style, or indeed for any kind of beauty unreduceable to cash, are unlikely to care for her message anyway.

    Of course, real Randian supermen don’t actually need cod-philosophical “justifications” for self-serving greed: they just get on with it. Presumably a true Randian disciple will eventually transcend any need for her actual works: once you’ve used the ladder, you can kick it away.

  26. Christopher Culver,

    With Ayn Rand, I have always wondered if she had some secret help editing her manuscripts to make them sound like native English, like Jerzy Kosiński was accused of doing

    if Rand or Kosiński required editorial help and received it as a matter of course, that in itself wouldn’t be outrageous. Just offhand I can think of three native-speaker American writers who were in that situation: Thomas Wolfe, who was impossibly logorrheic, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who could not spell, and John Dewey, whose ear was an alloy of tin and lead. But what if the writer who needs editorial help happens to be a literary critic?

    That was the case of René Wellek (1903-1995) who wrote primarily in his native Czech as a member of the Prague School before emigrating in 1939 to the United States. His career there was eminent; among much else, he founded and chaired Yale’s department of comparative literature.and collaborated with Austin Warren on the influential, remarkably erudite, remarkably — M’Choakumchildishly! — grim and remarkably fine-printed textbook Theory of Literature. But a colleague of mine once showed me, as a curiosity, a letter in English that he had received from Wellek. Its command of English idiom was at the level of ESL 100.

  27. Re Ayn Rand, can someone provide an example demonstrating foreignness?

    I take the point it’s very difficult to separate the execrable style from the repellent content, and the cardboard personas.

    @JP I would be more tolerant of stylistic shortcomings in the hands of writers struggling with a non-native language. — is exactly the “nice try, old chap” sense, as @Hat neatly puts it. Of course I am tolerant where a non-native is aiming merely to communicate. (And I’ve no wish to heap more trouble on Melania.) Here we’re making a literary judgment. Rand has neither attractive style nor stimulating content — unlike Conrad.

    The Fountainhead is here (text starts page 7).

    From para 1 (although nearly every para yields an example)

    … the stone–flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion.

    stone both flowing and having stillness
    thrust meets thrust … currents
    pause … dynamic … motion

    I guess this is trying for some sort of oxymoron/paradoxical effect. But whereas oxymorons enhance the meaning of the opposing elements, this just reduces everything to mush.

    I think an idiomatic writer in English would not put it that way.

    from para 9 These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice;

    She came home in a bath chair and a flood of tears. No evidence Rand is trying for comic effect/a zeugma. No evidence Howard Roark has any self-awareness; in fact he’s an arrogant arsehole, but no evidence the author had any awareness of that either. (Contrast the author’s depiction of another self-unaware arsehole: Aymer Smith in ‘Signals of Distress’.)

    middle of page 9 She did not know what it was about him that had always made her want to see him broken.

    Ugh. Clunk. Clunk. Contrast the lyricism of Gibran or Ishiguro.

    To answer @Plastic’s q, I suppose I can’t show the clunkiness is entirely attributable to foreignness. Perhaps Rand’s Russian would have been just as clunky. (Are there examples? Would what I’ve quoted sound more acceptable if just flipped word-for-word into Russian?) If she were trying for some deliberately alienating effect, I’d expect occasional shafts of sunshine, as a wink-wink to the reader. But it’s unrelenting for as far as I could stomach (not far).

  28. nearly every literate Japanese person for a LONG time could read and write Chinese.

    There are also myriad examples of European writers who produced works in the vernacular and in Latin. Dante, Petrarch, Thomas Moore are the obvious examples.

    If Romanians writing in French count as polyglots (and no one has mentioned Ionesco?) then could you make an argument for Swiss German speakers writing in Hochdeutsch?

  29. PlasticPaddy says:

    @antC
    Thanks.
    I suppose what i would consider a “smoking gun” would be the mixing of registers, wrong register or inept reformulation of a commonplace, something like certain Abba lyrics. Your example with bath chair and tear flood (if not deliberate humour or sarcasm) is like this. But as cc says, maybe more blatant errors were caught by an editor.

  30. The author might argue that she is deliberately producing a kind of jerky prophetic prose, so the style is deliberate.

    Hmm. No evidence Rand was aware of anything jerky. No evidence Rand was aware of any effects on her audience. Here she’s talking against altruism in front of an audience, who don’t look too comfortable about it.

    To make a claim it’s deliberate is like Trump’s acolytes claiming some pronouncement was sarcastic/joking. You gotta have evidence the author is capable of deliberate fluency/inclusiveness before pointing to deliberate jerkiness/alienating. (Or you gotta show Trump has a sense of humour more subtle than sneering.)

    The Fountainhead is unrelenting clunk.

  31. AJP Crown says:

    David Eddyshaw, Sort of the opposite of the Ayn Rand, I recommend Lynsey Hanley’s writing and her book Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide to you. I just think you’d like it.

  32. I seem to be in a minority on this thread, but Ayn Rand’s ‘style’ is just awful.

    You’re clearly not in a minority, and I wonder if even her admirers would praise her style — I suspect they’d sneer that a concern for “style” is exactly the sort of tea-sipping foppery that beta-people would indulge in while losing out to Real Men.

    if Rand or Kosiński required editorial help and received it as a matter of course, that in itself wouldn’t be outrageous. Just offhand I can think of three native-speaker American writers who were in that situation

    Good heavens, virtually all writers are in that situation — this is one thing you learn as a copyeditor. Writers are writers, not spellers or grammarians; some of them grow up as aesthetes developing a flawless command of the language, but the vast majority are (or historically were, before the days of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) simply people with a need to tell stories and/or earn a living, and their MSS are full of spelling errors and bad grammar. We editors get grumpy about people not realizing how vital our work is! (Also, writers for periodicals do not choose the headlines and captions, people are paid to do that.)

  33. PlasticPaddy says:

    @antC
    re clunkiness, i find it difficult to choose between the following texts, one by an L1 speaker and one by an L2 speaker:

    1. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

    2. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once -somewhere- far away in another existence perhaps.

  34. David Eddyshaw, in my experience Ayn Rand appeals first and most strongly to high school and college students who are looking for absolute truths. For them there’s an annual Rand essay contest whose rules spell out exactly which Rand texts are to be cited and what conclusions are to be drawn from them. These kids aren’t (or aren’t yet) entrepreneurs; they’re just desperately afflicted with the will to believe. Go ahead, be a Freudian about the opening scene of The Fountainhead, the one where Patricia Neal’s pelvis gets out of control as she watches Gary Cooper ramming his drill into the white rock.

  35. @ Vanya – Yes! The Japanese/Chinese came to my mind first, but then the Latin parallel occurred to me right afterward. And it lasted longer than you’d think – I was just reading about a Victorian English poet who was best known for his Latin poetry… Landor, I think?

  36. Christopher Culver says:

    “if Rand or Kosiński required editorial help and received it as a matter of course, that in itself wouldn’t be outrageous.”

    But there is not a difference between the editorial help given to a Wolfe (cutting material) or a Fitzgerald (correcting spelling, and not really changing the prose itself) and what Kosiński was accused of? If Kosiński’s work was at the Tommy Wiseau level, and he secretly got a native speaker to completely reword his text in more highfalutin’ native-sounding English that Kosiński had nothing to do with, then isn’t that somehow objectionable?

    FWIW, the fact that Wolfe’s books were only eventually publishable through the enormous intervention of an editor, is often used as a basis to call him a bad writer.

  37. But that’s unfair. He was a good writer who couldn’t get his work into publishable form; there are many such (our late friend thegrowlingwolf was another). Flaubert and Nabokov do not represent the only possible variant of “good writer.”

  38. AJP Crown says:

    In what way couldn’t thegrowlingwolf get his work into a publishable form? I thought he was a copy editor.

  39. De gustibus non disputandum est

  40. Nobody can be their own editor, and he was too proud/stubborn/independent to let anyone else touch his writing — a couple of times publishers were interested, but he walked out when they wanted to edit him (this is, of course, according to his own account). He left many millions of words behind when he died, most of them probably in formats no longer readable by man nor beast. We’re fortunate to have his blog, for as long as it lasts.

  41. AJP Crown says:

    Yes, well, he may have been right. If it was the thing he did for love rather than for money, if it was what he really cared about, then why allow someone to mess it about? Recognition, money? Maybe he didn’t care very much about those and the hassle was too great a price. Just being the devil’s advocate, you understand.

  42. No, that’s absolutely how he saw it. He would have loved to have been officially published, but the price was too great.

  43. (He did have his famous “pope book,” but of course that wasn’t under his name.)

  44. An English critic (Leavis, most likely) complained that Dreiser wrote as if he had no mother tongue at all but had learned to write by reading American newspapers. Not Dreiser, I would protest, but Ayn Rand.

    “The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion.”

    Run of the mill, cliched paradoxes. I don’t know which literature birthed this trick: it sound pretty generic to me. You simply take “deafening silence” a step further: “a silence louder than a nuclear blast in Nevada.” Or (a) darkness brighter than a nuclear mushroom. On the other hand, knowing Rand’s interests, these paradoxes could be Aristotle’s, or at least she felt they were Aristotlean.

    “…waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice.”

    …and my voice to put them to work. It fits logically with the other two.

    “She did not know what it was about him that had always made her want to see him broken.”

    Not good but neither un-American nor particularly Russian, either.

    Knowing where Ayn Rand came from, I wouldn’t blame her for taking her arch-individualism a couple of steps too far. I couldn’t make it past the first quarter or third of Atlas Shrugged so I’m not qualified to judge her work. One comment, though: Dagny was awed by industrial technology no less than by powerful men (she seemed a sexual submissive in search of a master). Somehow this magical-industrial setting resembled a Soviet proizvodstvenny roman to me.

  45. Kerouac’s first language was (Canadian) French.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    A. I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.
    “Atlas Shrugged”
    This is for me poor style that a native could produce also
    1. by my life and my love of it-what does “it” refer to?

    “My life”.

    Is love of life such a fixed phrase that it doesn’t allow you to consider “I love my life”?

    2. nor ask another man to live for mine-again the pronoun reference is dangling. Emend to …for my sake.

    To me it’s obvious that mine can only refer to sake, so I’d find it clumsy to repeat the word. But that’s probably precisely because I’m not a native speaker: I find for […] sake analyzable (the basic meaning of Sache is “thing”, and it’s a pretty common word; it also means “cause” as in “for a good cause”), while lots of native speakers don’t, judging from the many occurrences of e.g. for God sake(s) out there.

    1. great homage as opposed to teeny-tiny homage?

    Native speakers produce things like very huge and hugest by the ton – we can argue whether that’s good style*, but hardly whether it sounds native. And on top of that, great homage is evidently intended to be read in a mocking tone which is actually easier to convey this way.

    * It is when writing about sauropods.

    These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice;

    This perfectly conveys what it’s meant to convey: narcissism. Everything is about him, even the rocks: they’re waiting to be quarried, and they’re waiting for him personally, for his very own mighty voice giving mighty commands to other people to quarry the rocks. No zeugma is achieved or intended as far as I can see – and definitely no comic effect; I’d be very surprised if Rand had any sense of humor other than Trump’s, i.e. a rather boring kind of mockery (see above).

    If Romanians writing in French count as polyglots (and no one has mentioned Ionesco?) then could you make an argument for Swiss German speakers writing in Hochdeutsch?

    Not so easily, because Not-As-High German is the only written language of the vast majority of them.

    there is a concept that beauty can corrupt

    That’s clearly not intended. Rand simply took her own taste in faces as an objective fact. It logically follows that everyone who claimed to have a different taste was just lying – and thus damaging the very concept of beauty by obfuscating its True Meaning in general usage, how dare they.

  47. PlasticPaddy says:

    @dm
    I did not intend to say that the Ayn Rand quotes are evidently from a L2 speaker, only that i find their style poor. Your “autofilter”on pronoun references is not necessarily a L2 feature, or because you read texts differently from an L1 speaker; I would not be surprised if an L1 speaker had written these texts.

  48. John Cowan says:

    I’ll bet [Conrad’s] more read these days than Henry James.

    Since James is the man who wrote fiction as if it were a painful duty (Oscar Wilde, authentically for once), I should hope so.

    Leaving aside that not even her speechwriters can muster original thought.

    First Ladies who utter original thoughts get into trouble very fast. The ones who have done so in recent years have been Democrats, and even they have gotten into trouble. It’s been a long time since Eleanor Roosevelt, who wanted to entitle her newspaper column “My Damned Day”.

    really should have stuck to his native language

    Insert here joke about someone sticking to the ceiling if hurled with sufficient force.

    secret help editing her manuscripts to make them sound like native English

    Well, so did Jack Kerouac [among many others mentioned later]. A pity about him not finishing the French version of On The Road: it would have, I think, had a considerable impact on Canadian-French literature if published as such. He could have still written an English version, as Beckett did with almost all his books.

    I’d like to hear AJP on Howard Roark, but he probably can’t be arsed to discuss the arrogant arsehole, and no blame to him for that.

    Dreiser wrote as if he had no mother tongue at all but had learned to write by reading American newspapers

    This American agrees entirely; after all, he began as a journalist. WP on his early career reduced me to LOLling: “Within several years, Dreiser was writing as a journalist for [names of newspapers omitted]. He wrote several articles on writers such as […], and interviewed public figures such as […]. [paragraph break] Dreiser later became an atheist.” Perhaps he felt that if such as these were the noblest works of God, God’s nonexistence was the simplest explanation.

  49. A cursory check of African authors who wrote in English: Chinua Achebe’s parents were members of an English Protestant church. I don’t know when he started learning English. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o went to an English-medium high school, don’t know about elementary school. Amos Tutuola wrote in English, though at least at the start it was clearly not a fluent medium for him (not that he let it stop him).

  50. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’m not sure that English is really a foreign language for upper-crust Nigerians (like Achebe) or Ghanaians. It’s just part of the polyglot milieu they grow up in, much as with similarly placed individuals in India.

    I don’t know enough about Kenya to know if it’s quite the same.

    The Palm-Wine Drinkard is wonderful. I suspect that the language style is largely deliberate (and inspired.)

  51. These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice;

    This perfectly conveys what it’s meant to convey: narcissism. Everything is about him, even the rocks: they’re waiting to be quarried, and they’re waiting for him personally, for his very own mighty voice giving mighty commands to other people to quarry the rocks.

    I appreciate we’re deep into de gustibus by now. Yes I got it that Roark thinks he has power over rocks; yes I got it that Rand is trying to refer to the might of his command; but no: bare “my voice” is not how a native speaker would put it. On this (very rare) occasion, I’m saying dm’s intuitions are off-key.

    … and the command of my voice;
    … and the power of my voice;
    … and the authority of my voice;

    Juxtaposing bare “my voice” with “drill” and “dynamite” suggests he merely shouting is powerful enough to crumble rock without any intermediate chain of command. That’s why I said zeugma.

    Also I’m not sure that Rand intends to convey ‘narcissism’. (That is, ‘narcissism’ is the effect, I doubt it’s the intent.) That would suggest she has a level of awareness of how repugnant is Roark’s so-called ‘Philosophy’, which awareness I can see nowhere exhibited.

    Rand conveys narcissism inadvertently, as it were, because we the sensitive reader impute it despite what she writes. She just doesn’t have the sensitivities of a reader of literature. As many have commented, that maybe wasn’t her intended readership; certainly isn’t her actual readership.

    I’ve heard Paul Ryan (ex-Speaker of the House) interviewed about his infatuation with Rand (he reads ‘Atlas Shrugged’ once a year). IIRC he couldn’t mention any other work of literature that he’s read. His English isn’t as mangled as Trump’s; and perhaps one’s feel for one’s language gets dulled after too long inside the political machine; but how does he stomach the prose?

  52. David Eddyshaw says:

    Our own dear Sajid Javid is a devotee of Rand. There ought to be an ordinance disqualifying such people from any public office. (Obviously. It’s a matter of hygiene.)

    While I agree (who could not?) that Rand lacked the gift of humour, she did have a marked tendency to rub the reader’s nose in just how Randian her opinions were. She was self-aware to the extent of preening herself on her own ideological purity and exaggerating manifestations of it for rhetorical effect. She is doing that quite deliberately with her description of Roark: she’s effectively saying “You weaklings may call this narcissism. I call it the behaviour of a Superior Man!” I’d say that the style is actually quite effective in conveying her nauseating message.

  53. @AlexK Run of the mill, cliched paradoxes. I don’t know which literature birthed this trick: it sound pretty generic to me. You simply take “deafening silence” a step further: …

    Yes paradoxes are run of the mill (I said ‘oxymoron’ — which is the lit. crit. term). But in that example (and there are myriads more) Rand has gone far too many steps further, to the point of ridicule. A native speaker (even one who read only newspapers or only Aristotle) would not ‘rip the arse out of it’ like that.

    I’m appraising this as published work, not as the stream of consciousness of an inebriate speaker (whether native or not).

    I’m more horrified if Rand had some sort of editor or amanuensis: does that mean the initial draft was even worse?

    she seemed a sexual submissive in search of a master

    Yes there’s some very disturbing passages later in ‘The Fountainhead’. It’d be just the source Harvey Weinstein would find ‘justification’ for his defence allegations that women swoon over powerful men. (I’ve no idea if Weinstein was a devotee of Rand.)

  54. John Cowan and others, let me put in a Languagehat-relevant word on behalf of Henry James. Not that he needs any help from me, but do you remember that a few days ago vulgus / vulgate / vulgar showed up in the threads? Well, consider, from chapter 9 (“Philadelphia”) of The American Scene, this.

    “I had occasion, repeatedly to find the Pennsylvania Railroad a beguiling and predisposing influence — in relation to various objectives; and indeed I quite lost myself in the singularity of this effect, which existed for me, certainly, only in that connection, touching me with a strange and most agreeable sense that the great line in question, an institution with a style and allure of its own, is not, even the world over, as other railroads are. It absolutely, with a little frequentation, affected me as better and higher than its office or function, and almost as supplying one with a mode of life intrinsically superior; as if it ought really to be on its way to much grander and more charming places than any that happen to mark its course — as if, indeed, should one persistently keep one’s seat, not getting out anywhere, it would in the end carry one to some such ideal city. One might under this extravagant spell, which always began to work for me at Twenty-Third Street, and on the constantly-adorable Ferry, have fancied the train, disvulgarized of passengers, steaming away, in disinterested empty form, to some terminus too noble to be marked in our poor schedules.”

    There’s something to be said for mandarinism after all, I should think — if only as a glimpse of some better possibility: a soul-saving contrast with the affect of this political era.

  55. Henry James was a wonderful writer, and I can read some of his things with pleasure, but he’s totally out of sync with our fallen world (as indeed he was already fairly out of sync with his own), and I own I can barely read that one paragraph without sighing, rolling my eyes, and wishing his mandarinism to the devil. How you gonna keep ’em down on the (disinterested empty) form after they’ve read Hem(ingway) and Ham(mett)?

  56. Hat, I wish I could share your enthusiasm for James. It’s not the mandarinism; I can see the craftsmanship, but I find nothing enjoyable about him. Maybe I read the wrong stories?

    But then, I don’t appreciate fine wine, either.

  57. How you gonna keep ’em down on the (disinterested empty) form after they’ve read Hem(ingway) and Ham(mett)?

    And yet other 19th and even 18th century writers can still hold their own against the modern cult of simplicity. Maybe it’s just James.

    I can’t say I’ve read much of him at all. He always sounded like a writer you’re supposed to admire and read but can never muster up the enthusiasm for.

    I’ve never read Ayn Rand, either, mainly because she was supposedly one of the favourites of a former Australian prime minister, Malcolm Fraser. (One of his most infamous lines was “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”, but I did grow to like him more after he left politics and became estranged from his former party.)

  58. I can barely read that one paragraph without sighing

    There are many people who talk in such long and never-ending sentences, admittedly much more colloquially.

    So this could be just a realistic description of his own speech patterns.

  59. There’s something about the way Henry James’ mind worked, or how he explained his ideas, that puts me literally to sleep after a page or two. Same feeling I get when trying to read Kant or the Duino Elegies.

    It’s not vocabulary, grammar, or sentence length, but … It’s like, the thoughts themselves behind the language are too weird, clotted and ponderous for my brain to tackle without shutting itself down in self-defense. Maybe if I stick with it I’ll have some sort of breakthrough and experience something transcendent, but it hasn’t happened yet.

  60. David Eddyshaw: I don’t think Tutuola’s language in Drinkard was entirely an affectation. His autobiographical blurb in the introduction reads like stilted school English, learned but not practiced. I think he filled in the gaps in his English for the story with his own linguistic creations.

    I get your point about educated Nigerians; perhaps Achebe’s and Soyinka’s situations were similar in a way to Nabokov’s.

  61. And yet other 19th and even 18th century writers can still hold their own against the modern cult of simplicity. Maybe it’s just James.

    Indeed. Give me Sterne or Swift or Jane Austen any day in preference to James. I don’t think it has anything to do with ‘modern’.

    OTOH (to return to the topic) I do feel James is writing/composing in English. Whereas Rand (or Conrad) not. And of course any competent writer commits the occasional clunkery. You’d hope the editing/publishing process would squish them out.

    With Rand, it’s clunk in every paragraph, and weird clunk that sounds like a poor translation. As another data point, Dan Brown is clunk in every paragraph (or at least for as much as I was able to stomach), but I never doubted it was ‘in English’.

  62. Would an editor’s heart warm to this memoir by James’s “Remington princess” Theodora Bosanquet, to whom he dictated the works of his Late Style?

    https://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2018/06/mr-james-miss-bosanquet-and-her-palpitations/

    About SF Reader’s “long and never-ending sentences” there’s a comfortable old anecdote from one of Edith Wharton’s reminiscences. Edith’s chauffeur had gotten lost while driving her and Henry, and when he stopped the car it was Henry who got out to ask a local for directions — in language so periphrastic and hypotactic that the poor guy had no idea what this man was talking about. But the critic who used to cite that story as a triumphant proof of something or other was F. R. Leavis, so you know it’s actually to be read as a chapter in the life of a contemplative saint. Like Pauline Kael, Leavis had absolute pitch: wrong pretty close to 100% of the time, about pretty much everything.

  63. David Marjanović says:

    Juxtaposing bare “my voice” with “drill” and “dynamite” suggests he merely shouting is powerful enough to crumble rock without any intermediate chain of command. That’s why I said zeugma.

    It seems intentional to me: without his voice, the drill and the dynamite just lie around; the hero’s heroic voice – and not just anybody’s mediocre voice – is the really important part, the one that creates action.

    (I have no idea if the similarity to fascism is intended. The fascist hero acts, because action is good and beautiful while hesitation is bad and ugly. When the fascist hero has nothing to do, he does random shit because action is a goal in itself and inaction is simply unbearable.)

    Also, remember this is the un-communism. In communism, the workers who actually hold the drills are the heroes. For Rand, therefore, they’re not even as important as the tools themselves (which at least get to be mentioned!); the hero is the lone guy who gives the orders and doesn’t physically do anything.

    (As the parody has it: “I only know how to pay people to create new alloys!”)

    “You weaklings may call this narcissism. I call it the behaviour of a Superior Man!” I’d say that the style is actually quite effective in conveying her nauseating message.

    I agree.

  64. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Dan Brown is clunk in every paragraph

    Geoff Pullum’s discussions of Dan Brown’s style are brilliant.

  65. David Eddyshaw says:

    Theodora Bosanquet’s reminiscences of James are delightful. Though eminently mockable, he seems to have been a thoroughly nice man.

  66. AJP Crown says:

    On the Growling Wolf, the only reference I can find to his Pope books is:

    After I freed myself from this plastic debt–I paid it off later after I sold my first Pope book for a healthy sum–I haven’t had any credit cards since.

    So, to find out more, we need the name he used.

    On Howard Roark, John, I haven’t read anything by Ayn Rand; I find it hard enough to keep up with the reading I’m looking forward to to spend any time on her. Many architects do seem to have read The Fountainhead – or to have seen the film – as children or as students (undergraduate). If they were the kind who always wanted to be an architect (that’s not me) it may have inspired them, but I’ve never noticed a grown up mention it without what seemed to be a chuckle, snigger or grunt of contempt or embarrassment. From the one or two tiny excerpts of the Gary Cooper film I’ve seen I associate Roark a bit with awful old Frank L. Wright*, a man with a mission, but that’s the stridency of the presentation style.

    *Fallingwater, the Gugg and one (and only one) of those horizontal houses, probably the Robie house, in that order, are worth remembering

  67. Bosanquet writes in an attractive, educated style that not so many people could reproduce nowadays.

  68. So, to find out more, we need the name he used.

    Once upon a time I used to know it, but…

  69. It was the Polish pope, and he had a great anecdote about hanging around outside the pope’s tent (?) on one of His Holiness’s US visits and seeing the vodka being brought in. I wish he’d written about all that.

  70. Hat, I wish I could share your enthusiasm for James. It’s not the mandarinism; I can see the craftsmanship, but I find nothing enjoyable about him. Maybe I read the wrong stories?

    Try Washington Square; it’s short and minimally mandarin, and if you don’t like that you simply don’t like James. (As an additional inducement, to quote Wikipedia: “James was not a great fan of Washington Square.”)

  71. I remember making my way through a Henry James anthology thirty years ago. I found him long-winded and tiring, and while there were interesting ideas and plots, the language, in my view, didn’t add to that, but subtracted from the reading pleasure. And it’s not because I can’t handle long, complex sentences – I read Thomas Mann with pleasure, and he‘s not exactly Hemingway.

  72. AJP Crown says:

    The Daily Growler, August 20, 2007:

    Which leads me to remember a great post on “editors” posted at http://www.languagehat.com by l hat a couple of posts back–check it out–he’s an editor now and I once was an editor, too, and oh the fun of being a too knowledgeable and absolute rule-abiding editor as opposed to an editor who says, hell, is this the way you write? then therefore and from hereafter I’ll simply stick to sending you queries and it is through queries that an editor shows his or her highest catbird seat position (or glory) in the editing world. I once lost an editing job because I over edited–too many “editorial changes”–they couldn’t charge the author or the printer–arggggghhh, my editorial director said, “I hate to do this, Wolf Man, you are one of my best editors, but the publisher is pissed at all those charges he had to pay to make your, and I add right here ‘very correct’, changes–‘Fire the bastard,’ he said, so I have no choice but to give you your walking papers.” And there went one of the easiest and most lucrative editing jobs I ever had in New York City–and referring back to the Ear Inn, it was at my special seat at the bar in the Ear Inn that was my office–I was there at opening time–6:30 a.m. until closing at 4:00 in the next a.m.–an it was there that I edited my manuscripts and cookbooks and poetry books and nonfiction books while I drank pints of Bass ale–ate my lunch at noon, worked through the afternoons at the bar, and when I finished my editing, I bundled it up and ran it home and put it to bed and then I returned to the Ear to eat dinner and then “cool out” (a Hemingway term) by drinking and mafficking the night away–WHAT a life, folks, but I did it–and as an editor–at the same time able to finish 7 novels–later destroyed by a jealous woman–and I was told as a young Louisiana writer that the one city in the world where if I couldn’t make it as a writer (or a jazz pianist, too, in my case) I could always land a free-lance proofreading or editing gig and soon be back in the money again, working on my own time, being my own boss–“As a freelancer,” they said, “you can just get up and walk out if you don’t like the way you’re being treated”–because of that last advice, I always presented myself before potential employers as a serious PROFESSIONAL person same as a doctor or lawyer. How’s that for being naively pompous? Yet, it worked; I eventually became one of the highest paid editors in NYC–wanna bet? As a writer? Shit, I managed 35 god-damn crappy books for the Catholic Church–parish histories–good bucks, don’t get me wrong, seven hundred and 50 bucks advance then another thousand when the book was finished–I figured the Good Lard Press, who I was a contracted writer for, was making ten times that kind of money off the parishes–these books were sold by the parish priests to the parishioners, who were used to it since churches that lasted say 25 years always published “jubilee” histories or 50-year churches had to have their “golden” histories–I even wrote one history for a church in Michigan that was 10 years old–I made big bucks on that one and got a trip to Michigan out of it–I also travelled to San Francisco, Boston, D.C. (the District of Corruption), and Seattle; then in 1977, the publisher had me write a book on the new Polish pope and that led to me being an official press corps member when that Polish pope came to the US in 1978–I got two books out of the pope and made close to seventy-five grand off them–one becoming a “bestseller” in the Catholic world, even though the pope refused to bless it on the tarmac in Boston because he said it was too kind to the Polish Communist government at that time–and then I had a huge fight with the publisher and his swishy sidekick and I fired his ass–he had commissioned me to write a coffee-table history of Greenwich Village in NYC–a project I probably should have stuck with, but then he started pressuring me to finish it and I told him one day to take the manuscript he had and roll it up real tight and stick it up his ass–big mistake–probably, but then I’d never gotten to blog like this if I’d a made a fortune off that damn Greenwich Village book!

    Which brings me back to getting hits on these stupid hundreds of millions of blogs. Every now and then I’m tempted to follow Google’s orders and check out their Top Blogs of the Day–and today I fell for it and went on a blog called “Adventures in Writing.” I don’t know what I expected. First of all, I was a little hit by it being a well-done (formatwise) blog–it was pretty–I mean The Daily Growler is template dark and black–we like it like that, don’t get me wrong–but this one had color about it and it had great things to click on and then photos and then even some streaming audio and streaming video for all I know. Then I started reading it–to see just what adventures in writing meant to this blogger. There seemed to be chances to read wannabe writers’s efforts–I supposed that–one book was entitled The Red Dagger Capers (sic)–or some such nonsense by a writer who said he was an archetypal Leo. A what? Henry Miller believed in astrology, even knowing that astrology as it is today is based on a totally wrong star system–an ancient one long since proven to be bassackwards, like the star system presented on the ceiling of the giant room at Grand Central Station in NYC–the painter painted it backwards–like painting from a photograph, a photograph giving you a backwards image–like looking in the mirror, right?

    Then suddenly “Adventures in Writing” turned into a magic history or something–about how card throwing got started in magic acts. Whoaaaaa. Not my kind of adventure in writing. Continuing on down the blog, I soon decided to abandon the adventures–they weren’t my cup of the latest trendy tea.

    I much prefer my own adventures than those of others. Yes, I’m conceited, but I am an animal that runs with packs–packs of other adventurers, most of whom offer me better adventures in writing than this dude’s blog.

  73. Well found! God, I love his prose — I started laughing out loud (literal lol) after a couple of sentences.

  74. AJP Crown says:

    outside the pope’s tent (?)

  75. AJP Crown says:

    Yes, so did I. I probably saw him at the Ear Inn. Too bad I didn’t know who he was.

  76. AJP Crown says:

    “Hey, Ed, how long is an average lizard in North America?”

  77. David Marjanović says:

    Geoff Pullum’s discussions of Dan Brown’s style

    The classic.

  78. Henry James: Some of the shorter stuff is good, notably The Turn of the Screw. Washington Square and The Bostonians are relatively straightforward stories (although the latter is a bit dull, from what I remember). Of his “big” novels, the only one I’ve finished and enjoyed is The Portrait of a Lady.

    Because I saw the movie of The Wings of a Dove (with Helena Bonham-Carter) I tried reading the book. But after a chapter or two I just couldn’t maintain the effort. It takes too much brainpower to keep the beginning of his sentences in mind by the time you reach the middle and, eventually, the end, so that I would lose track at some point of what the heck he was trying to say. And what goes for individual sentences goes for the book as a whole. I tried again some years ago, promising I would really pay attention. I think I made it through about ten chapters before giving up what was obviously a losing fight.

    Edith Wharton is so much better.

    And on Conrad: I had a big thing for him in my twenties, though I haven’t read him since then. I don’t remember thinking his English sounded unnatural. It seemed a bit stiff at times, but I took that as symptomatic of his era. His prose is way less effortful than that of Mr. James.

    ETA: As someone (Rebecca West?) said of James, he chewed more than he bit off.

  79. Your experience with James is much like mine.

  80. PlasticPaddy: Melville had little formal education and learned English style from Shakespeare and the 1611 Bible.

  81. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I’ve never met a Pope, as far as I know, though I know someone, a member of the Vatican Academy, who has known three Popes. Come to think of it I know someone else who has interacted with both Francis and Benedict, and has a low opinion of both — Benedict because he was too traditionalist, and Francis because he did nothing much to help the victims of the Argentinian dictatorship (in contrast to the Church in Chile, which behaved very well during the dictatorship).

    However, I once had dinner with Noam Chomsky, at a table with just him, me, my wife and daughter (then 16). It was a biggish table and the great man was at one end and we were at the other. I don’t think our conversation went beyond the level of “would you mind passing the salt?” if indeed it reached that level.

    I had no idea who he was until after he had left and someone at another table said “Do you know who that was?”, to which I said no. Probably just as well, as I’d have been completely tongue-tied if I had known, and even if he had known my name it would have meant nothing to him. I had been spending a couple of weeks at the University of Siena on a research project (a total waste of time, as it turned out, but it was nice to be in Siena). He was the invited speaker at a linguistics meeting, and most of the other people having dinner were there for that. This was in the Certosa di Pontignano, where they had very traditional ideas about who should sit with whom at dinner, and it was impossible to expect people like Chomsky and me to mix with the peasants. My wife and daughter only came for the second week, so I’d had a table to myself for the first week.

  82. AJP Crown says:

    Marilyn “Clover” Adams: “It’s not that he ‘bites off more than he can chew’ but he chews more than he bites off.” A lot of writers seem to hate his work. Here’s something positive by TS Eliot.

  83. AJP Crown says:

    I remember Mark, the guy at Language Log saying he’d had dinner the night before with “Noam” at a Thai restaurant in Boston. They probably talked about conferences or their colleagues but I’m sure he’d be VERY interested in South America and that he’d be very easy to talk to. Next time, just say something political eg “I wonder how many people died so we could have this cellar full of salt” and he’d be off. I’ve got to say, I LIKE Chompers but then I know next to nothing about linguistics and from what I do know he does seem to be way out there. There was a film about him and politics, a documentary, in about 1993 (it might have been this one) and he seemed to have a great, sardonic sense of humour.

  84. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I’m glad you call him Chompers: that’s what I call him to myself, but I don’t say it out loud as I’m not sure others will understand. I can’t understand his linguistics writing, but I like his politics. For a while the Guardian Weekly had a selection of articles from Le Monde and I used to read him there. Sometimes also in Le Monde Diplomatique.

  85. Clover Adams: but she died in 1885, which was after James had published his first novels but long before he ratcheted up his style in the late stuff — Wings of the Dove, Golden Bowl, Ambassadors.

  86. AJP Crown says:

    the Guardian Weekly had a selection of articles from Le Monde
    I’d forgotten that. Corriere della Sera too, and one other. Too bad they stopped it.

  87. PlasticPaddy says:

    @rodgerC
    Shakespeare’s oeuvre and the KJV are performance works and benefit from being read out loud.

  88. As does Melville (and any good writer, really).

  89. Oh, I was going to say, so does Henry James, though perhaps for another reason. I mean, if you are stuck, read a section out loud. It helped me a lot, forcing me to slow down and feel my way.

    Thank you, AJPCrown, for that delicious slice of growlingwolf!

  90. John Cowan says:

    comfortable old anecdote from one of Edith Wharton’s reminiscences

    Here it is from 2012. Several examples from other authors there too.

    I myself write in these horribly long and winding sentences as well, but I edit them into sentences of reasonable length and complexity (most of the time) before anyone sees them.

    The Chomskybot, which picks phrases at random from a list to construct entirely Chomskyesque sentences.

  91. Maybe I should try an audiobook of The Wings of the Dove. When I have a couple of months to spare and want to drive back and forth across the country two or three times.

  92. David Marjanović says:

    I can’t understand his linguistics writing, but I like his politics.

    Obligatory Opinion 04: “Noam Chomsky should stick to politics, Roger Penrose should stick to interior decorating, and Andrew Lloyd Webber should stick to the ceiling if hurled aloft with sufficient force.”

  93. i think What Maisie Knew would be my James For New Readers recomendation…

    and to go all the way back @Y: i think mendele went the opposite direction: started his writing career in hebrew (not israeli; the older literary language that it replaced) and then switched to yiddish. but i don’t know whether his cradle-tongue was yiddish or russian.

  94. Rozele: I imagine he grew up with Yiddish at home and learned the gentiles’ languages (Belarussian? Polish? Russian?) later. Kapyl, where he grew up, was a mostly Jewish town.

    The Israeli-American raconteur Itzhak Kronzon describes the linguistic situation during his parents’ childhood in Kalvarija in Lithuania:

    “Every Jew in Kalvarija (and many of the gentiles as well) spoke six languages: Lithuanian, the language of the villagers; Russian, the language of the rulers of the land; Polish, the language of a different set of conquerors who for long periods of time ruled Lithuania as well; German, which was the language of the many travelers who stopped there for the night, and the international language of commerce; Yiddish; and Hebrew, which was not only the language of prayer, but also the language in which children were educated, in the native land of Avraham Mapu and the Haskalah movement which followed him. On Fridays, during the Kiddush, only the Holy Tongue would be spoken, and as the need arose, they would order the non-Jewish domestic servant in Hebrew, shifkhá, lékhem! ‘Maid, bread!’, or shifkhá, sakín! ‘Maid, knife!’ Eventually, many of those words entered the vocabulary of the local women, who would call each other shífkha, accented on the shif-.”

    [The Haskalah started long before Mapu, btw.]

  95. (Nowadays shifkha would mean something like slave-girl; you mostly hear it from mothers telling their child what they do not wish to be regarded as.)

  96. According to the census of 1897, the town of Kalvarija (Kalvarija district, Suwalki Governorate, Tsardom of Poland, Russian Empire) had total population of 9378, comprised of 3578 Jews, 2267 Russians (1960 Great Russians, 223 Little Russians, 84 Belorussians), 1525 Lithuanians, 1418 Poles, 423 Germans.

    I can see the need for prolific polyglotism.

  97. Interesting. Kronzon says that “at the end of the 19th century there were some ten thousand residents in it, among them eight thousand Jews.”

    He explains that Hebrew-language schools operated in the period of Lithuanian independence, when minorities were allowed to run their own schools, a conition imposed by the League of Nations.

  98. Brief note: census of 1897 also recorded military personnel stationed in the town, that’s why Great Russian population of Kalvaria had more men than women.

    Googling discovered that they were soldiers and officers of the 5th Courland Life Dragoon Regiment (2nd Cavalry Division, 2nd Army Corps, Vilna Military District).

  99. AJP Crown says:

    DM, very funny. Should that be Roland Penrose, the surrealist who lectured on camouflage*, or does Roger Penrose the mathematician have something to do with interior decorating (tiling, perhaps)?

    *In 1941 Penrose wrote the Home Guard Manual of Camouflage, which provided accurate guidance on the use of texture, not only colour, especially for protection from aerial photography (monochrome at that time). – Peter Forbes, Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage

  100. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Penrose (Roger) is known for work on non-repeating tilings (essentially, proving that they exist), so that would be the interior decorating link. I think some UK university has an entrance hall or something with Penrose tilings, probably to the detriment of the mental health of the tile workers, but otherwise they are an abstract thing. (The physical one is of course finite, so not strictly a plane tiling and the definition of non-repetition is not applicable or trivially true depending on your mood).

    Maybe AJP already knew, but I like showing off what I know. Or think I know.

    He also worked in cosmology, maybe that’s what put him on Justin Rye’s bad side.

  101. January First-of-May says:

    or does Roger Penrose the mathematician have something to do with interior decorating (tiling, perhaps)

    I’m assuming it’s a reference to (Roger) Penrose’s famous pair of aperiodic tiles. I’m not sure what is meant by this reference, though.

    I’ve never heard of Roland Penrose before.

  102. David Marjanović says:

    I had forgotten about the tiles if I ever knew; that must be the connection to interior decorating. However, where Roger Penrose went off the deep end is quantum woo. For example, he put forth the hypothesis that free will is real and comes from quantum uncertainty inside microtubuli in our nerve cells. He got several books out of this stuff.

    (Microtubuli are way too large – like, there’s water inside – and too warm to support undisturbed quantum superpositions. And is random will really free will…?)

    I had no idea of Roland Penrose either.

  103. January First-of-May says:

    However, where Roger Penrose went off the deep end is quantum woo. For example, he put forth the hypothesis that free will is real and comes from quantum uncertainty inside microtubuli in our nerve cells. He got several books out of this stuff.

    Oh, right. I’ve read one of those books, and liked the part about the universal Turing machine (and a few other parts that I no longer recall), but didn’t quite believe in the microtubuli part either.

  104. Wonderful story about wartime work of Soviet entomologist Boris Shvanvich on camouflage.

    https://golubentsev.livejournal.com/210364.html

  105. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I read about the tilings in Mathematical Games when I was 16, so that’s what Penrose means to me. (Like Conway means Game of Life). I heard of his later woo, now that David mentions it, but I didn’t bother to look into it. (The review mentioning microtubuli was enough, as David says).

    I do think I’ve read that there are few enough molecules of neurotransmitters involved in a fire/don’t fire ‘choice’ by a neuron that a significant proportion of them are random to some extent. But that doesn’t need QM. More relevantly, do the configuration changes of transmitter binding sites on proteins depend on quantum tunnelling? I think the binding ‘event’ would have a classical probability in any case, so still no QM ‘leaking’ to the chemical level.

  106. AJP Crown says:

    It was a lucky guess from his Wiki about the tiling. I know of Roland Penrose, a pal of Picasso’s whose name pops up sometimes in that connection, first through his son Antony Penrose’s book The Lives of Lee Miller, about the WW2 photographer, his mother and Roland’s wife, that I bought in 1985. These Penroses lived in Downshire Hill in Hampstead, my favourite street in London. I think Roland & Roger have the same Penrose grandparents.

  107. When Roger Penrose suggested that the microtubules supporting nerve cell axons were functioning as quantum computers, that just proved to me that he did not understand either quantum mechanics or biochemistry. I had never particularly been a fan; I remember picking apart some of his arguments in The Emperor’s New Mind* as a teenager; however, the stuff about microtubules is where he totally alienated me. He subsequently had some even dumber ideas, like that somebody falling into a black hole would experience time running backwards. It was probably not until I was in graduate school that I realized he was the same person responsible for inventing the Penrose tiles.

    I had never heard of Roland Penrose either, but he sounds potentially interesting.

    * The Emperor’s New Mind reminds me now of another popular science book, African Exodus by Chris Stringer. Both books are aimed at demonstrating the correctness of certain ideas (the impossibility of strong AI constructed using existing computer architecture strategies, and the Out of Africa theory of human origins, respectively) which I basically agree with. However, both of them resort at times to extremely unconvincing arguments: over-the-top rhetoric, cherry picking data, and kettle logic.

  108. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Lionel Penrose (Roger’s dad) was well known also. He made wooden models of how he conceived gene replication to work (long after the actual mechanism was known). Francis Crick wasn’t impressed.

    As for Roger, David M. is right.

  109. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Roland and his two wives illustrates how we don’t all have the same humdrum lives.

  110. AJP Crown says:

    Here is SF’s story (apocryphal it says elsewhere) but in Vietnamese and with pictures.

  111. David Eddyshaw says:

    Everything is better in Vietnamese and with pictures.

  112. I would like to put in a word or two in defense of Roger Penrose. First, he is a very interesting and charming guy. Second, his early work on mathematical theorems relating to general relativity (some of it with Hawking) was very important. And third, it’s true that some of his thinking (even disregarding the silly brain stuff) has been a little outlandish, but I think that’s a by-product of his general inventiveness. He is an outlier on many issues, but I find he is worth paying attention to, even if you find yourself disagreeing with some of what he says. He is one of those people who does his best to steer away from the conventional wisdom–with mixed results, necessarily.

  113. AJP Crown says:

    Well said, DL ! (Not that I know anything, but for standing up for him.)

  114. @David L: I agree that Penrose’s early work on the global structure of classical general relativity was exceptional. The singularity theorems that he and Hawking proved—showing that there are never going to be smooth solutions to the Einstein equations in nontrivially interacting spacetimes—were very important conceptually. But he clearly never really understood quantum physics the way he did relativity.

  115. PlasticPaddy says:
  116. David Eddyshaw says:

    But he clearly never really understood quantum physics the way he did relativity.

    I don’t think he’s alone. General Relativity is conceptually beautiful, actually quite intuitive if you can grasp the maths, and makes sense. Quantum physics …

  117. David Marjanović says:

    Nobody understands quantum physics. Shut up and calculate.

    (…OK, Zeilinger might understand it.)

  118. Penrose is in many ways very old-fashioned. He has written some interesting stuff on the thermodynamics of big bang cosmology, leaving quantum mechanics out of it altogether. He makes some good points, but since the big bang is inevitably a quantum event (in some way we don’t understand at all right now), it’s questionable whether his arguments have any real application.

    (I’m sure that’s more than enough for the languagehatters)

  119. Actually, I’m interested in both quantum physics and the big bang!

  120. Actually, Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that because QM is irrelevant for the process of thinking, everyone should preserve their brain after their death. Everyone should do it, because that would drive the price down and his followers (who are of somewhat heightened opinion of the quality of their brains) could do it for cheap. Did I write brains in all caps? Assume I did.

  121. @PlasticPaddy: In that interview, he talks about not understanding relativistic quantum electrodynamics, which is a somewhat subtle topic (although not so much for the reason he suggests, which is the Dirac matrix structure, although that is not trivial either). However, I aver that he does not even understand nonrelativistic quantum mechanics.

    @David Marjanović: There are plenty of physicists who do understand quantum mechanics extremely well. Of course, Anton Zeilinger does, but there are plenty more of us. On the other hand, there are also lots of people doing physics who do not understand quantum mechanics properly; some of them are self aware about this, some not. Penrose struck me as not recognizing his lack of understanding of the quantum-mechanical material he was trying to grapple with.

    When it comes to modeling the very early universe, the quantum to classical transition stage is extremely important, and not really properly understood, because it inevitably rubs up against the measurement problem and the interpretation of quantum mechanics. (How do quantum mechanical density fluctuations become “fixed” into the classical fluctuations that ultimately nucleated the galaxies we see today?) Some people, such as Alan Guth, are not bothered by this issue and just perform calculations, assuming that decoherence and measurement are effectively equivalent. However, some other people trying to address quantum cosmology problems may find this problem consistently bedeviling their attempts to conceive a useful picture of the early universe.

  122. Actually, I’m interested in both quantum physics and the big bang!

    I’m impressed. Like Stu, I lost my appetite for banging some time ago.

  123. There are indeed physicists who understand quantum mechanics. The problem is finding two or more who understand it in the same way.

  124. David Eddyshaw says:

    Quot qui quanta intelligunt, tot sententiae.

  125. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I see what you did there.

  126. Quot qui quanta intelligunt, tot sententiae.

    Google translate gives me: How many who how great they mean, so many opinions. Quite so.

    If I put the Latin into Google directly, it asks Did you mean: quit qui quanta intelligent, tot sententiae

    But never mind, I get the general idea….

  127. It’s riffing on Quot homines, tot sententiae ‘As many men, so many opinions.’

  128. Thank you. My one year of Latin at school didn’t help me. (I did very well, I can immodestly add, but decided to drop Latin in favor of German. My Latin teacher was gravely disappointed, something I regret to this day, as he was a very good teacher and a lovely guy. And so few students were interested in his offerings — ancient Greek and Russian, among other things).

  129. @David Marjanović: “I have no idea if the similarity to fascism is intended. The fascist hero acts, because action is good and beautiful while hesitation is bad and ugly.”

    The similarity I see is to Schumpeter’s idea of the entrepreneur. He discerned something heroic in those risk-taking, innovating agents of change.

  130. John Cowan says:

    I’d take the Mediaeval Latin / Lojban / Star Trek view and say “Quot personae, tot sententiae”. To a cat person, a cat is also a person; not human, but a person. Lojban defines a person as something with a personality. Star Trek generalizes human instead, but I think that’s too confusing.

  131. AJP Crown says:

    Lojban defines a person as something with a personality.
    That’s good for the cats, John. But would it also define personality as something coming from a person? Because that’s not so good for the cats.

  132. January First-of-May says:

    Star Trek generalizes human instead, but I think that’s too confusing.

    Wait, really? I thought ST only used human only for, um, the actual humans, not the Vulcans or the Andorians or any of the other assorted major humanoid species (never mind that most of those could, and did, interbreed).

    Come to think of it, what’s Latin for (the noun) “sentient”?

  133. David Marjanović says:

    Star Trek generalizes human instead

    No. It does generalize people.

  134. Stu Clayton says:

    Sentient is an adjective, not a noun. The Latin is – wait for it! – sentiens.

    The noun is impatientia. A stone has all the time in the world, and is thus not sentient.

  135. David Eddyshaw says:

    Kusaal uses the third person “animate” pronoun o for anything that might potentially be referred to with a first or second person pronoun, a flexible category, but likely to include cats for all but the most ailurophobic, and certainly one that includes Klingons.

    Trees were animate in the traditional worldview, too; their gender got changed between the 1976 and 2016 Bible versions. Groot may be out of luck now.

  136. Stu Clayton says:

    Thus patience is portrayed sitting on a big carved stone, not on top of the number 10 bus, smiling at grief.

  137. Stu Clayton says:

    Can one talk with a plant in Kusaal ? Even if only in schematic form perhaps: “a yam, of a yam, to a yam, a yam, O yam!”

  138. David Eddyshaw says:

    Trees are thought of differently from common or garden (so to speak) plants; trees, for example, can be sɔɔnb “witches” that steal your life force, like human witches do; and the win “spiritual individuality” of a tree can be a human being’s sigir “guardian spirit”, just like the win of a human ancestor can. This is why you come across people called A-Tiig (Atiga) “Tree”; it means that their spiritual minder is a tree-win.

  139. Stu Clayton says:

    It was your mention of a “third person ‘animate’ pronoun o for anything that might potentially be referred to with a first or second person pronoun” that prompted my question. I was wondering whether “animate” was equivalent to “sentient” here. Some (I have read) will talk to a begonia to make it feel better, as to a child – without expecting a verbal response.

    But it appears you are referring to present or former animae of persons. The “o” does not mark sentience in the widest sensience.

  140. David Eddyshaw says:

    I don’t think “sentience” as such is really a category in the traditional Kusaasi worldview, but I’m not really competent to say. I don’t think the concept of trees being animate has anything much in common with Prince-Charles-like talking to plants, though.

    An example of how difficult it can be to match up our conceptual categories about personhood etc with traditional Kusaasi ones is the way that you greet a person sitting quietly alone with the greeting that literally means “Blessing on your conversation”, the conversation in question (as I was specifically told) being between the person and their own win; win does not match any of our ideas about “soul” or “personality” exactly but seems at least analogous. So the (wordless) conversation is taking place between two different (?) aspects of the same person (?)

    Most wina don’t belong to people and aren’t thought of as in any way anthropomorphic (the Christian adoption of win to translate [pagan] “god” is extremely misleading, to say the least.) They are nevertheless the target that traditional religion is mostly concerned with influencing.

    Win seems to have a lot in common with the ancient Egyptian bꜣ:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian_conception_of_the_soul#Ba_(personality)

    There is a well-known Egyptian text in which a man is represented as having a dialogue with his own ba, but I don’t know if that was just a literary trope or if the Egyptians actually really thought that you could do such a thing:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispute_between_a_man_and_his_Ba

  141. David Eddyshaw says:

    Hadrian, of course, addresses his own soul in the famous

    Animula, vagula, blandula
    Hospes comesque corporis
    Quae nunc abibis in loca
    Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
    Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos.

    but again, that looks just like a literary device.

  142. Win seems to have a lot in common with the ancient Egyptian bꜣ

    I’m glad you said that, because I thought of the Egyptian concept when you first talked about the Kusaal one, but I thought I was just conflating random things I happened to know about.

  143. I was looking at a map on the wall showing the room names at a teaching hospital in Oslo, this morning. There was one room for Kusaal, but looking a second time I saw it was Kurssal or Classroom (of course there’s Kursaal in German too in places like Baden Baden). Nightmare.

  144. There’s a Kusaal Kurssal in this Kursaal!

  145. “Are you Vulcan–or are you human?”

  146. Lars Mathiesen says:

    @David L, DE was being Welsh (i.e., devious). A translator (human or AI) will try to make sense of quanta as a declined form (accusative plural neuter) of the Latin adjective quantus = ‘how many’; but in this case it’s of course the English word quantum because that’s what we were talking about, backported into Latin where it came from in the first place.

    “Everyone who understands quantums has their own opinion.”

  147. David Eddyshaw says:

    I thought of the Egyptian concept when you first talked about the Kusaal one

    They certainly do seem to have an affinity. I’m conscious that making too much of it is likely obscurum per obscurius, though; similarly with the Latin genius.

    A proper anthropologist should really look into the whole culture of the Kusaasi and their neighbours (he/she would have a great time doing so.) I don’t think there’s been a whole lot of progress in the academic study since Rattray’s Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland, a title which rather proclaims its own limitations on its face, though perhaps not to the same degree as the same author’s Ashanti Proverbs (The Primitive Ethics of a Savage People.) For his time, in fact, Rattray did a pretty good job.

    The best ethnographic account of the Kusaasi that I know of is Ernst Haaf’s Die Kusase; Haaf, like me, was an amateur; he worked as a doctor in the same hospital but thirty years previously. (He was still remembered with affection when I was there.) He was evidently one of those excellent people who are interested in everything, and his work almost invariably matches what my own informants told me. He was both a sensitive observer and an accurate one. I was particularly impressed by the fact the he records many Kusaal words and entire sentences accurately enough to be readily comprehensible, a particularly impressive feat given that in 1967 the language didn’t even have an orthography.

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