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Erasmus vs. the Balrog

Yet again, this weblog is experiencing a sudden influx of traffic from Google searchers questing after the elusive goddess of folly.  (Yes!  This is your Number One site responsive to that search, and we intend to maintain our supremacy!)  I have previously mentioned this phenomenon here and here, and the whole thing was started by a post exactly a-year-and-a-day-ago, which you can read here.   

A commenter to one of those earlier posts helpfully suggested that the most likely explanation for these concentrated bursts of interest in the Goddess would be hundreds of people working the same crossword simultaneously, using Google and the like to track down an answer.  Imagine their frustration in the past upon finding that the answer isn't here!

Until now.

Friends, as an attorney I am in a service profession.  I am here to help.  (And I am wracked with guilt over the many readers who daily come this way seeking the location of the nearest Spencer Gifts store, only to find that they have been misled by my jesting title for a piece I posted about an English painter.)  So, to set all right with my conscience as the New Year approaches, I will provide you with the answer you are seeking. 

The Name of the Goddess of Folly is:


Yes, Moria: the same as Tolkien's dark dwarvish mine where the wizard Gandalf so memorably meets his plot twist (and experiences significant personal growth) at the hands of a Balrog of Morgoth.

The answer is to be had in the third paragraph of Erasmus' The Praise of Folly, Chapter 1:

But let none of you expect from me that after the manner of rhetoricians I should go about to define what I am, much less use any division; for I hold it equally unlucky to circumscribe her whose deity is universal, or make the least division in that worship about which everything is so generally agreed. Or to what purpose, think you, should I describe myself when I am here present before you, and you behold me speaking? For I am, as you see, that true and only giver of wealth whom the Greeks call Moria, the Latins Stultitia, and our plain English Folly. Or what need was there to have said so much, as if my very looks were not sufficient to inform you who I am? Or as if any man, mistaking me for wisdom, could not at first sight convince himself by my face the true index of my mind? I am no counterfeit, nor do I carry one thing in my looks and another in my breast. No, I am in every respect so like myself that neither can they dissemble me who arrogate to themselves the appearance and title of wise men and walk like asses in scarlet hoods, though after all their hypocrisy Midas’ ears will discover their master. A most ungrateful generation of men that, when they are wholly given up to my party, are yet publicly ashamed of the name, as taking it for a reproach; for which cause, since in truth they are morotatoi, fools, and yet would appear to the world to be wise men and Thales, we’ll even call them morosophous, wise fools.

So there you have it.  Happy to be of service.  Feel free to read something else while you are here, seeker.

[Update 1049 PST:  What's that you say?  You only have space for three letters?  Then try "Ate," identified here as the Greek goddess of "Discord, Wickedness & Blind Folly."  More at Encyclopedia Mythica.]


Much as it did in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, is offering a direct link to contribute toward the American Red Cross's Earthquake & Tsunami Relief efforts in southern Asia.  You know what to do if you can.

Update [12/29 0830 PST]:  When I first posted this link some 16 hours ago, Amazon had accumulated about $500,000 in contributions.  In the interim, that total has more than tripled, and now stands just shy of $1.6 million.  An impressive start.

Further Update [12/30 0947 PST]:  Checking in again this morning, I see that the contribution tally is fast approaching $5 million.   When Amazon provided a comparable link in September 2001, the final sum came in at around $6.8 million; given the vastly greater physical scale of the destruction in Asia, I hope and expect that we will see that earlier total eclipsed sometime before 2005 arrives on our shores.

Susan Sontag Breaks Camp, Moves On Into Larger World

So when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.

    -- Susan Sontag (Rolling Stone interview)

Professor Althouse links an early obituary for writer/intellectual Susan Sontag, who died today of leukemia at age 71.  Although the link is to Newsday, the story actually originates with its Tribune Company compatriot, the Los Angeles Times, and the excerpt quoted on the Althouse weblog serves to remind that although one always thinks of Sontag as a New Yorker, her origins were very much tied to southern California.  (The reference to the long gone and much missed Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard - at one time the largest bookstore west of the Mississippi, subsequently acquired and run into oblivion by the B. Dalton chain - raised a smile for me.)

Accompanying the obituary, Newsday also reproduces large portions of an April 7 speech Ms. Sontag gave here in Los Angeles, on the occasion of her receiving an award from the Los Angeles Public Library.   Two passages caught my eye.  First, a comment on the functions of literature (which surprisingly would not have been out of place in John Gardner's oft-maligned manifesto, On Moral Fiction):

Literature is a form of responsibility—to literature itself and to society. By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense too, which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness which we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.

Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent. In my view, a fiction writer whose adherence is to literature is, necessarily, someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation. This doesn't entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense.

Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.

The second passage gains extra resonance as we try in some way to grasp the enormity of events Elsewhere Than Here, particularly the almost unimaginable devastation wreaked upon southern Asia by the Christmas tsunami:

Hearing the news of the earthquake that leveled Lisbon on Nov. 1, 1755, and (if historians are to be believed) took with it a whole society's optimism (but, obviously, I don't believe that societies have only one basic attitude), the great Voltaire was struck by our inveterate inability to take in what happened elsewhere. 'Lisbon lies in ruins,' Voltaire wrote, 'and here in Paris we dance.'

One might suppose that today, in the age of genocide, people would not find it either paradoxical or surprising that one can be so indifferent to what is happening simultaneously elsewhere. Is it not part of the fundamental structure of experience that 'now' refers to both 'here' and 'there'? And yet, I venture to assert, we are just as capable of being surprised by, and frustrated by the inadequacy of our response to, the simultaneity of wildly contrasting human fates as was Voltaire two and a half centuries ago. Perhaps it is our perennial fate to be surprised by the simultaneity of events, by the sheer extension of the world in time and space. That we are here, prosperous, safe, unlikely to go to bed hungry or be blown to pieces this evening, while elsewhere in the world, right now in Grozny, in Najaf, in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Gaza, in the favelas of Rio....

    * * *

It is a beginning of a response to this painful awareness to say: it's a question of sympathy, of the limits of the imagination. You can also say that it's not 'natural' to keep remembering that the world is so extended. That while this is happening, that is also happening.


But that, I would respond, is why we need fiction: to stretch our world.

Continue reading "Susan Sontag Breaks Camp, Moves On Into Larger World" »

Happy Warholidays

The oft-bilious James Wolcott kept Christmas in his heart on his weblog in properly New York-ish fashion by posting seasonal entries from the Diaries of Andy Warhol for the years 1979, 1980 [caution: explicit sexual remarks], 1983, and 1986

Coincidentally, the late artist was on my mind as well, as this new double dactyl came to me yesterday in a vision while showering:

The Campbell’s Is Coming

Poppity, poppity,
Andrew Warhola with
Soup can in hand scans the
Factory scene,

Mumbling prophetically:
“Minutes of Fame each shall
Have in the future, but
Only fifteen.”


Slumlords and Lizard Kings

More proof that the 60's are over:  Tenants in the 90-year old Morrison Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, featured on the cover of the 1970 album of the same name by The Doors, have filed a "slumlord" lawsuit [link requires registration] against the building's owners:

In the civil complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, about 40 residents of the Morrison Hotel claimed that they have endured leaky windows, mold and mildew on carpets and walls, exposed electrical wiring and other conditions that have made the hotel uninhabitable and a health risk.

In addition, blood tests conducted on children at the 111-unit hotel on South Hope Street found elevated levels of lead from chipping and peeling paint.

The tenants are seeking unspecified monetary damages and the right to hold tenants meetings on the property.

The story gets front page treatment in the leading local legal paper, the Los Angeles Daily Journal [content not available online to non-subscribers], which adds:

Several advocates and frustrated tenants have speculated that the owners hope to drive the residents out in order to ease the sale of the building, which sports an $8 million price tag, to upscale condominium or shopping-center developers.

'That's what slumlords do,' said lead plaintiffs' attorney Eric Castelbanco, a Beverly Hills slum litigator.  'They treat the property more as a cash cow, sucking the money out instead of putting money back in for maintenance.'

["Beverly Hills slum litigator"?  Not quite an oxymoron, I suppose, but an off-putting description all the same.]

The building is in a potentially lucrative location, near the Staples CenterL.A. Observed reported the hotel owners' sale efforts at the beginning of this year. If the condominia are ever built, it will be the second time that particular Doors album cover has led others on to riches: it also inspired the naming of the now-ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafes.

Current photos of the Morrison Hotel can be seen here, posted as an accompaniment to a USC-sponsored Walking Tour of the vicinity.

Trilithon for Size

Stonehenge, where the demons dwell
Where the banshees live and they do live well . . . .
    -- Spinal Tap, “Stonehenge

The Winter Solstice occurs occurred at 0324 PST today, and as we can't all be at Stonehenge for the occasion (just as well, since the BBC assures us that it is "very very cold" in Wiltshire this time of year), here are some artists' renderings courtesy of John Constable:


and J.M.W. Turner:


Those wishing to explore Stonehenge and vicinity from the comfort of their keyboards might consider this Interactive Map from English Heritage, or PBS' Interactive Stonehenge Timeline.  Dress warmly.

UPDATE [approximately 8.5 hours post-Solstice]: Matters astronomical are on many online minds lately.  David Giacalone, for instance, has posted an extended discussion of solstice matters today.  Earlier in the week, while handing out a profusion of holiday haiku to webloggers many and various, David kindly dedicated a celestial item to this Fool:

other lights
than our own--
the Milky Way
                  Gary Hotham
                            The Heron's Nest  III:1

Yesterday, Colby Cosh noted an astral occasion of particular import to Pasadenans (in which class I qualify during working hours): the 100th Anniversary of the Mt. Wilson Observatory.  On any given clear morning, of which we have more than our smog-bound reputation suggests, I can easily spot some of the Observatory buildings atop the mountain as I am driving in to my office.  The Observatory's official site (here) currently features an appropriately wintry photo on its home page.

Referent: Milorad Pavić

A week or two back, some person unknown in the U.S. Central time zone reached this site through a Google search for "milorad pavic news 2004".  This site turns out to be the #3 result for that search, even though I have never actually written about Milorad Pavić.  Until now.

Milorad Pavić is the Serbian writer, author of the Dictionary of the Khazars, a novel that has occupied a place on the "Books" list down the sidebar for at least the past year.  The Dictionary is a novel in the form of a lexicon -- consisting of 100,000 words in the original Serbian -- and purports both to be about and to be the compilation of knowledge concerning the Khazars, an historical people of the Balkans who, we are told,in the 10th Century, finding themselves in the thick of the collision of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, called wise men from each of the three religions to come before their chieftains to persuade them to which of the three the Khazars should convert.  It remains a matter of dispute which of the three the Khazars actually chose to follow.  Upon making that choice, however, the Khazars as such disappeared.  Each of the three faiths thereafter produced its own dictionary of Khazar-related information.

[Digression: The actual Khazars -- most of whom are generally held to have embraced Judaism -- are interesting on their own terms, as you can learn here and elsewhere.  Arthur Koestler, in The Thirteenth Tribe, apparently posits that the Khazars were the principal source of the Ashkenazim.  Many others disagree with that theory.]

The Dictionary collects, with scholarly apparatus, the three dictionaries produced by the three religions, which cross-reference one another and provide differing views of related topics over a wide swath of space and time.  A man meets his double and falls into irreversible sleep.  Another's life ends because of the breaking of an egg.  A scholar is shot and killed, possibly for possession of a copy of the very book we are reading.  Dreams are hunted.  Throughout, the fundamental strangeness of the Balkans' place at the crossroads of theology, philosophy and history over several millennia thrums away below the surface.

Because the Dictionary is a dictionary, it can be read in any order.  While the traditional front to back trek from introduction to conclusion will work, it is not mandatory.  Dip in anywhere, follow the cross-references (color coded) from article to article across the three cultures, or simply read at random and the book will still weave some variation on its particular spell.  Compounding the possible readings, the book exists in two editions, "male" and "female," differing from one another in only one respect, a passage of some seventeen lines (each gender of which is conveniently reproduced here).

The Dictionary was Pavić's first novel; later books of his are based on similarly open-ended structures: one is built on a crossword, reading differently depending on your choice of vertical or horizontal clues; another begins from the two ends, meeting in the middle; a third is based on the Tarot, and can be read based on your own layout of the cards.

Plainly, we are in the realm of 20th-21st Century literature that encompasses the likes of Borges and Calvino, with a great dollop of mysticism and "magical realism" a la Garcia Marquez (but without the hardcore cynicism of American tricksters such as Barth or Pynchon, or the archness of Umberto Eco).  It is a heady brew.

Pavićentric resources online are numerous, with the central station.  There you can find such items as

  • Links to two short stories that, to varying degrees, take advantage of hypertext to allow the reader to choose the paths by which the tales unfold:
  • The Glass Snail -- a Christmas story, possibly involving reincarnated Egyptian royalty and resembling "The Gift of the Magi" if only O. Henry had included more shoplifting and explosives.
  • Damascene -- "a tale for computers and compasses" set in the late 18th century and beginning with the appearance of some 800 master builders, each named "John."

(Those with the ability and inclination to read these two stories in the original Serbian can find them here.)

  • A section on Pavić in theater including photos from the adaptation of the Dictionary (the staging of which looks to have resembled Peter Brook's version of The Mahabharata), and from the Moscow Art Theater's production of For Ever and a Day, a "theatre menu" each performance of which is different and which, judging by the photos, appears in part to be the touching story of a young woman's love for her cello.  (Here is an article describing the mechanics of the latter play, which also boasts both a "male" and a "female" ending.)
  • A link to a comic-book-style version (from "Heavy Metal" magazine) of another Pavić story, Wedgwood Tea Set (which ceases being work-safe around page 9).  The same story apparently forms the basis of a 1993 film, "Byzantine Blue," about which I have been able to learn very little.  Pavić mentions the film -- and the "Byzantine mathematics" that appear in the story -- in this 1998 interview, which also includes this exchange, which makes as good an end as any for this post:

[Interviewer]: Have you ever thought about what is actually the destination of your existence?

[Pavić]:  To rescue as many pieces of beauty as possible. Tons of beauty sink every day in the Danube. Nobody notices. The one who notices it must do something to rescue it. To rescue as much beauty as he can. That is actually the role of an artist. He is the lifeguard of beauty.