This is inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. After reading this 1853 novel a second time in the summer of 2018, I put some passages I liked into a LaTeX file. I added some commentary and came up with a document more than 90 A5 pages long. I recently reread it and was reminded how much I had enjoyed the novel. I thought some of my commentary could be adapted to stand alone as a blog post—this one.

Man in a field, sack over left shoulder, casts seeds with his right hand
The Sower,” 1850
Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The subject is the supernatural. In Villette, Charlotte Brontë takes the voice of Lucy Snowe, who is practically if not literally an orphan. She ends up on the Continent, an English Protestant teaching Catholic girls in a former convent that is haunted by the ghost of a nun. Lucy will see the ghost herself. To read the novel seriously and sympathetically, we have to

  • ascertain what the author thinks of ghosts;
  • be able to think the same way.

This will depend on what we already think of ghosts.

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Charles Bell’s Axiomatic Drama

Here is an annotated transcription of a 1981 manuscript by Charles Greenleaf Bell (1916–2010) called “The Axiomatic Drama of Classical Physics.” A theme is what Heraclitus observed, as in fragment B49a of Diels, LXXXI of Bywater, and D65a of Laks and Most:

We step and we do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not.
ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν, εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν.

Bell reviews the mathematics, and the thought behind it, of

  1. free fall,
  2. the pendulum,
  3. the Carnot heat engine.

In a postlude called “The Uses of Paradox,” Bell notes:

Forty-five years ago I decided that when reason drives a sheer impasse into an activity which in fact goes on, we have to think of the polar cleavage as both real and unreal.

I like that reference to “an activity which in fact goes on.” In youth it may be hard to recognize that there are activities that do go on. Bell himself goes on:

… that is a job as huge and demanding as Aristotle’s, and for me at 70, just begun.

“Look,” my friends say, “Bell’s been doing the same thing since he was 25. About that time he had a vision of Paradox as paradise, and he’s been stuck there ever since.”

Bell’s picture next to Aristotle’s Physics
The back of Bell’s Five Chambered Heart with
the front of the OCT of Aristotle’s Physics

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Index to this series

In the Platonic dialogues, Socrates frequently mentions τέχνη (technê), which is art in the archaic sense: skill or craft. The concern of this post is how one develops a skill, and what it means to have one in the first place.

Books quoted or mentioned in the text, by Midgley, Weil, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Byrne, Wittgenstein, Arendt, and Alexander

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On Playing Zpordle

After Wordle appeared, a number of variants came out. One of the least popular may be Zpordle, or ℤp-ordle. I imagine it could be more popular, if people knew it did not require advanced mathematics. It still involves numbers, to which some people declare an allergy. Nonetheless, I think Zpordle can be explained in elementary-school terms, and that is what I shall try to do here.

Zpordle screenshot
Screenshot of the Zpordle game won on May 27, 2022

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Cumberland Tour 1994

Cumberland Tour

Consider this a meditation on being from Generation X and growing up before the internet. Having watched a number of video accounts of bicycle trips along the Potomac River, I decided to dig up my own account; it is from twenty-eight years ago and is entirely verbal. I originally wrote it day by day with ballpoint pen in a composition book.

Composition books dated 1994–96

I had no plans for what I wrote, beyond informing myself for future trips. Nonetheless, my Uncle Bill used to talk about his friend Barry, whose failure to keep a diary may have kept him from writing a good book, at least in Bill’s judgment. The topic would have been the Presidential campaigns that Barry had covered for CBS News. They had all been losing.

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On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 10

Index to this series

CHAPTER V Action [3]

We come to the end of Arendt’s chapter on action. Action has two components:

  1. Getting it started (ἄρχειν).
  2. Keeping it going (πράττειν).

Anybody can do the first, but then the second is out of his (or her) exclusive control. This is a problem. You can try to avoid the problem, either by making other people your slaves, or by being a Stoic. You can also just recognize that the problem can be mitigated by the actions of promising and forgiving.

Picnic table among trees
Yıldız Parkı, April 16, 2022
Where I did some of the next reading

Before passing to a longer summary, then to Arendt’s text itself with my annotations, I am going to say more about how I see the problem, or at least an aspect of the problem.

Many people are afraid of mathematics, or disconcerted by it: the mathematician hears or infers this from time to time. People can also be afraid of another thing done in school, namely expressing themselves artistically—or just expressing themselves, Continue reading

On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 9

Index to this series

CHAPTER V Action [2]

It can be a challenge to read Hannah Arendt. At the end of the first paragraph of the present reading, she says,

Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose reali­ties, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.

If these words are themselves not empty, what are they full of? “To establish relations and create new realities” would seem to be just what George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin have tried to do in Iraq and Ukraine, even as their words are empty and deeds brutal.

I do grant, having done the next reading too, that the end of this chapter on action is very interesting.

Picnic table under the sun in the midst of of flowering groundcover and budding trees
Yıldız Parkı, April 9, 2022
Where I did some of the next reading

In the present reading, I detect the continuation of themes from last time:

  • theoreticians make things up to explain away what they do not want to recognize;
  • what they do not want to recognize is that we are capable of action.

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On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 8

Index to this series

CHAPTER V Action [1]

We shall have three readings of the chapter on action.

All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.

Isak Dinesen

A theme of this reading is that our life is a story, but we are not the author.

Nam in omni actione principaliter intenditur ab agente, sive necessitate naturae sive voluntarie agat, propriam similitudinem explicare; unde fit quod omne agens, in quantum huiusmodi, delectatur, quia, cum omme quod est appetat suum esse, ac in agendo agentis esse modammodo amplietur, sequitur de neces­sitate delectatio. … Nihil igitur agit nisi tale existens quale patiens fieri debet.

(For in every action what is primarily intended by the doer, whether he acts from natural necessity or out of free will, is the disclosure of his own image. Hence it comes about that every doer, in so far as he does, takes delight in doing; since everything that is desires its own being, and since in action the being of the doer is somehow intensified, delight necessarily follows. … Thus, nothing acts unless [by acting] it makes patent its latent self.)


Arendt will reiterate what Dante says.

Two figures walk between buildings towards a hillside of graves, with skyscapers beyond
Zincirlikuyu Mezarlığı
March 26, 2022

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On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 7

Index to this series


With a second reading, of §§ 22 and 23, we finish now Arendt’s chapter on work. This time I haven’t got a lot of comments between the paragraphs.

High-rise under construction, the base hidden behind the image of a tree
Nişantaşı, where there used to be trees
February 28, 2022

In the previous post, I could have noted at the top how, in ¶ 20.8, Arendt paradoxically distinguishes between the automatic and the mechanical. Today we might use either word for activity without passion or thought. However, etymologically speaking at least, if something is mechanical, that means we can work on it; but the automatic goes its own way. I investigated this in my notes last time, in part because I had already done so, at least regarding the automatic, in the post named for the goddess Automatia.

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On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 6

Index to this series


In The Human Condition, we have passed now from the chapter on labor to the chapter on work. The two subjects are inseparable in practice, since for example the ongoing process of labor uses tools that are made by work. The main issue now is that, as steam power has been replaced by electricity, our tools have become machines. No longer does the worker go to work with his (or her) tools, but the work comes to the worker on a conveyor belt. That belt has its own rhythm. This is not a problem for the human quâ laborer, basically since labor is rhythmic anyway. It is a problem for the worker and his (or her) products. Products now conform to the limitations of the machine, rather than to the standards of the human.

Municipal workers, a truck, and bags of earth, the sea visible over the trees
Landscaping in Yahya Kemal Parkı, Beşiktaş:
labor or work?

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