Tag Archives: Sevan Nişanyan

On the Odyssey, Book I

  • In reading his rendition of the Iliad, having enjoyed hearing Chapman speak out loud and bold;

  • having enjoyed writing here about each book, particularly the last ten books in ten days on an Aegean beach in September of this year (2019);

  • having taken the name of this blog from the first line of the Odyssey;

  • having obtained, from Homer Books here in Istanbul, Emily Wilson’s recent translation (New York: Norton, 2018);

  • Book on table, Wilson's Odyssey Continue reading

Şirince January 2018

In the Nesin Mathematics Village recently, I was joined at breakfast one morning by a journalist called Jérémie Berlioux. He knew Clément Girardot, the journalist whom I had met in the Village in the summer of 2016. This was before the coup attempt of July 15, but after the terror attack at Atatürk Airport on June 28. I wrote about this attack the next day in “Life in Wartime” on this blog. Then I headed off to Şirince to join a “research group.” My wife and colleague came along, though not to be part of the group; afterwards we headed up the coast for a beach holiday. We were at the beach when the coup attempt happened, as I wrote in my next blog article, “War Continues.” I contrasted politics with mathematics, which was an inherently nonviolent struggle. This was the kind of struggle engaged in by the research group in the Math Village.

Large clay pot against dark vines

Outside the Nişanyan Library

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On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book II

Index | Text

Even gods must sleep; but under the weight of his responsibility to Thetis, Zeus cannot. As Achilles pointed out in Book I, “dreams are often sent from Jove”; now we shall have a case in point (Chapman’s lines 4–7).

… Al waies cast; this coūsel seru’d his mind
With most allowance: to dispatch, a harmefull dreame to greet
The king of men; and gaue this charge: Go, to the Achiue fleet,
(Pernicious dreame) …

The dream comes to Agamemnon as Nestor, telling him (lines 19–24):

… (Ioues messenger,) who, though farre off from thee,
Is neare thee yet; in ruth, and care: and giues command by me,
To arme thy whole hoast. Thy strong hand, the broad-waid towne of Troy,
Shall now take in: no more the Gods, dissentiously imploy
Their high-housd powers: Iunos suite, hath wonne them all to her;
And ill fates ouer-hang these towres, addrest by Iupiter.

This is a lie, though one might quibble and say that the Greeks will indeed ultimately take Troy. That is so, but it will not happen now. Homer acknowledges this (lines 28–31):

… O foole, he thought to take
In that next day, old Priams towne; not knowing what affaires
Ioue had in purpose; who prepar’d, (by strong fight) sighes and cares
For Greekes, and Troians …

One is a fool to trust a god! Rather, one is a fool to think one knows the mind of God. There would seem to be many fools abroad today.

Agamemnon calls a council, “of old great minded men, At Nestors ships” (lines 41–2). He relates his dream. He will test the army by proposing to turn tail and run back home. If the men actually try do this, their leaders should stop them.

Can any idea be more stupid than Agamemnon’s?

If anybody else but Agamemnon reported such a dream, Nestor says, one would question it and interpret it as actually recommending flight. This is just what Agamemnon proposes to recommend ironically. Nestor however does not appear to recognize any irony in his own words. He just says they all must accept the dream as true, “since our Generall Affirmes he saw it” (lines 66–7). He does not question Agamemnon’s proposal.

The councillors disperse to call the troops. In a marginal note, Chapman labels a simile as such. The army are like swarming bees (lines 71–8):

… as when, of frequent Bees
Swarmes rise out of a hollow rocke, repairing the degrees
Of their egression endlesly; with euer rising new,
From forth their sweet nest: as their store, still as it faded, grew,
And neuer would ceasse sending forth, her clusters to the spring
They still crowd out so; this flocke here; that there, belabouring
The loaded flowres. So from the ships, and tents, the armies store,
Troopt to these Princes, and the Court; along th’vnmeasur’d shore:

Agamemnon stands up with a scepter, which is given a more detailed history than Achilles’s in Book I. Hephaustus made it and gave it to Zeus, who gave it to Hermes, who gave it to Pelops, who gave it to his son Atreus, who left it to his brother Thyestes, who left it in turn to his nephew, Atreus’s son Agamemnon (lines 87–93):

His scepter, th’elaborate worke, of fierie Mulciber:
Who gaue it to Saturnian Ioue; Ioue to his messenger;
His messenger (Argicides,) to Pelops, skild in horse;
Pelops, to Atreus chiefe of men; he dying, gaue it course
To Prince Thyestes, rich in heards; Thyestes to the hand
Of Agamemnon renderd it, and with it, the command
Of many Iles, and Argos, all …

The Greek army are more than ten times as numerous as the Trojan; however, the Trojan army have been augmented with foreigners (lines 111–2):

But their auxiliarie bands; those brandishers of speares,
(From many cities drawne) are they, that are our hinderers;

We should give up and go home, says Agamemnon. The army agree; they are moved by Agamemnon’s words, just as water and wheatfields are moved by the wind (lines 121–8):

… All the crowd, was shou’d about the shore;
In sway, like rude, and raging waues, rowsd with the feruent blore
Of th’East, and South winds; when they breake, from Ioues clouds, and are borne
On rough backs of th’ Icarian seas: or like a field of corne
High growne, that Zephyrs vehement gusts, bring easily vnderneath,
And make the stiffe-vp-bristl’d eares, do homage to his breath:
For euen so easily, with the breath, Atrides vsde, was swaid
The violent multitude …

Masses of men are easily swayed. The Greeks would leave Troy, did Hera not send Athena to tell Odysseus to stop them. He heeds the call. He wields the scepter of Agamemnon. To the better sort, the “prince, or man of name,” he counsels obedience, saying (line 161),

You know not clearely (though you heard, the kings words) yet his mind.

The worst sort, he cudgels with the scepter and with words of derision (lines 172–3):

We must not all be kings: the rule, is most irregularre,
Where many rule …

The men are now assembled, but their flight has been stopped. Thersites addresses them, taking Achilles’s side in the quarrel with Agamemnon, and urging all to fly home. Perhaps it is not meaningful, in Homer’s terms, to say whether Thersites is actually right. Agamemnon is leading the men into disaster. Nonetheless, Homer describes Thersites as being inferior in body and mind. He is a loudmouth, if not the class clown (lines 181–4):

… A most disorderd store
Of words, he foolishly powrd out; of which his mind held more
Then it could manage; any thing, with which he could procure
Laughter, he neuer could containe …

Odysseus threatens to lash Thersites if he ever speaks this way again. As it is, Odysseus strikes Thersites with Agamemnon’s scepter, and Thersites cries.

Standing with Odysseus, Athena gets the army to listen. According to Odysseus, after nine years of an unsuccessful seige, going home now would be “absurd and vile” (line 259). Back at Aulis, where the Greek fleet assembled, a snake was seen to eat eight sparrow chicks. The mother made a ninth, and then Zeus turned the snake to stone. Calchas explained the meaning: Troy would be taken in the tenth year.

Members and supporters of the ruling party in Turkey today are at war, but as on the plain of Troy, not all are equally keen to fight. Technically here, “party” should be understood loosely, since the president of the country is not supposed to belong to any official political party. He was however a founder of the party that has held a majority in parliament since 2002. Not all supporters of this party supported a yes vote on the referendum of April 16. The question was whether to abolish the office of prime minister, giving all power to the president. The vote was close, and given the “irregularities” observed during the voting, I think the referendum was not rightfully approved by the voters. However, it is being counted as approved. In any case, before the vote, on April 11, apparently a worker for the Istanbul municipality wrote on Facebook:

Dear Friends! The Republican People’s Party [CHP] has openly declared war and is doing all that it can [against us]. The attacks [the CHP] have started at the parliament with all their rhetoric and action now targets yes-sayers. On April 17, after we win the war, their wives and daughters are available as loot [and] as halal to [those who vote] yes.

This is reported by Pınar Tremblay in “Has Turkey’s referendum emboldened hate?” (Al-Monitor, April 21, 2017). Apparently the quoted municipal worker has since closed his Facebook account; but an image of his original post (linked to in the article) was preserved, and I transcribe it:

SEVGİLİ DOSTLAR!!!! Chp açıkça savaş ilan ederek bu hususta elinden geleni ardına koymamaktadır. Meclis de başladıkları saldırganlıklarını tüm eylem ve söylemleri ile EVET çilerin üzerine çevirmişlerdir. 17 Nisan günü savaşı kazanınca, bunların karıları ve kızları GANİMET olarak EVET çilere HELALDİR

The word ganimet here means loot, spoil, booty. The word is Arabic, according to both the Redhouse Turkish-English dictionary and Sevan Nişanyan’s etymological dictionary of Turkish; but it certainly looks like the Greek Ganymede (Γανυμήδης). This came into English as “catamite,” defined delicately in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a boy kept for unnatural purposes.”

The quoted municipal worker is perhaps only following Nestor, who urges the Greek army (lines 310–2),

… let therefore none, once dreame of coward flight,
Till (for his owne) some wife of Troy, he sleepes withall; the rape
Of Hellen wreaking; and our sighes, enforc’t for her escape.

Since our woman was raped, we must rape their women.

Nestor also recommends that Agamemnon have the men “arraid In tribes and nations” (lines 317–8), so that he can see who fights well or not, and who leads well or not. This advice will justify the “Catalogue of Ships,” tedious today, with which the book will end. Meanwhile, if Agamemnon can judge the strengths of the various divisions of his army, then he will be able to know whether to attribute a loss in the war to a false prophecy or to human weakness (lines 321–4):

And then shalt thou, if thou destroist not Troy,
Know if the prophecies defect, or men thou dost employ
In their approu’d arts, want in warre: or lacke of that braue heate
Fit for the ventrous spirits of Greece, was cause to thy defeate.

Agamemnon wishes he had ten counsellors like Nestor: then he could take Troy instantly. If he ever makes friends with Achilles again—and Agamemnon admits he started the quarrel—Troy will fall in an hour. Meanwhile, the army should still prepare to fight, after a good meal; and then, nobody must hold back, on pain of death (lines 345–8):

He said, and such a murmure rose, as on a loftie shore
The waues make, when the Southwind comes, and tumbles them before
Against a rocke, growne neare the strand, which diuersly beset
Is neuer free; but here and there, with varied vprores beat.

For the ritual meal, “The king of men, an Oxe of fiue yeares spring / T’almightie Ioue slue: call’d the Peeres” (lines 351–2); but Menelaus does not need to be called. He can see that something is afoot, and so he comes. This seems to be Homer’s first naming of Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon, husband of Helen, for whose sake the war is being fought. Listeners are expected to know this basic story.

Agamemnon prays to Zeus that the sun may not set before Agamemnon destroys Troy. “Ioue heard him not, but made, more plentifull the birth / Of his sad toiles; yet tooke his gifts” (lines 366–7). God takes what you offer, but may give nothing in return. In the imaginary state that he describes in the Republic, if Socrates wants to raise a “pious generation” as the current Turkish president does, then Socrates would seem to do right in banishing Homer.

Nestor calls for a pep rally. Athena is the cheerleader for the Greeks; in place of pom-poms, she wields the peculiar tasselled aegis (lines 381–90):

The Ioue-kept kings, about the king, all gatherd, with their aide
Rang’d all in tribes and nations. With them the gray-eyd maide
Great Aegis (Ioues bright shield) sustain’d, that can be neuer old;
Neuer corrupted, fring’d about, with serpents forg’d of gold,
As many as suffisde to make, an hundred fringes, worth
A hunderd oxen, euerie snake, all sprawling, all set forth
With wondrous spirit. Through the host, with this the Goddesse ranne
In furie, casting round her eyes; and furnisht euerie man
With strength; exciting all to armes, and fight incessant. None
Now lik’t their lou’d homes like the warres …

That the aegis is Zeus’s shield is Chapman’s interpretation. It seems we don’t quite know what the aegis is.

Homer continues immediately with a long string of similes, though, strangely, Chapman does not indicate this with his marginal notes (at least as they are supplied in the Allardyce Nicoll edition). I enumerate them:

  1. The armor shines like a forest fire.

  2. The men and horses sound like flocks of birds.

  3. They are thick as flowers,

  4. or spring leaves,

  5. or flies on pails of milk.

  6. Their leaders can distinguish them into tribes and nations as easily as goatherds can distinguish their herds.

  7. Agamemnon has eyes like Zeus,

  8. breast like Poseidon,

  9. waist like Ares.

  10. He is the bull of the herd.

Here is the whole passage (lines 390–412):

… And as a fire vpon
A huge wood, on the heights of hils, that farre off hurles his light:
So the diuine brasse shin’d on these, thus thrusting on for fight;
Their splendor through the aire reacht heauen: and as about the flood
Caister, in an Asian meade, flockes of the airie brood,
(Cranes, Geese, or long-neckt Swans) here, there, proud of their pinions flie,
And in their fals lay out such throats, that with their spiritfull crie
The meddow shrikes againe: so here, these many nation’d men,
Flow’d ouer the Scamandrian field; from tents, and ships; the din
Was dreadfull, that the feete of men, and horse, beate out of earth.
And in the florishing meade they stood, thicke as the odorous birth
Of flowres, or leaues bred in the spring; or thicke as swarmes of flies
Throng then to ship-coates; when each swarme, his erring wing applies
To milke deawd on the milke maids pailes: all eagerly disposd,
To giue to ruine th’Ilians. And as in rude heapes closd
Though huge Goate-heards are at their food, the Goate-heards easly yet,
Sort into sundry heards; so here, the Chiefes in battell set,
Here tribes, here nations, ordring all. Amongst whom shin’d the king,
With eyes, like lightning-louing Ioue; his forehead answering,
In breast like Neptune; Mars in waste: and as a goodly Bull
Most eminent of all a heard, most strong, most masterfull;
So Agamemnon, Ioue that day, made ouerheighten clere,
That heauen-bright armie; and preferd, to all th’Heroes there.

Now we have the transition to the Catalogue of Ships, which I have nothing to say about, except that Nestor has prepared us for it. Homer does make a pious acknowledgement of human ignorance (lines 413–6):

Now tell me Muses, you that dwell, in heauenly roofes (for you
Are Goddesses; are present here, are wise, and all things know;
We onely trust the voyce of fame, know nothing:) who they were
That here were captains of the Greekes? Commanding Princes here.

After many verses, we are given a shorter catalogue of the Trojan forces. Iris comes to Priam, reporting that the Greek forces are like autumn leaves, or sand on the beach. Since many have come to fight in defense of Troy, “of other lands and languages,” Hector should organize them. Recognizing the voice of a deity, Hector dismisses the war council and gets to work. The men and horses rush out of the city ports.

The “auxiliary bands” are distinguished, outside of town, at a place that Chapman calls a column, though the Greek is κολώνη “hill.” English “column” comes from Latin and is related to “excel”; the Greek for column or pillar is κίων. So perhaps Chapman made a simple mistake here.

Chapman gives the human name of the hill as Batieia, after the Greek Βατίεια. The Wikipedia article “Batea” currently says the hill is named for King Teucer’s daughter, who would seem to be Priam’s great-great-great grandmother; but the authority for such a claim is not clear. Lattimore calls Batieia the “Hill of the Thicket.”

Whatever the humans call the hill, the gods call it “Myrine’s famous sepulchre, the wondrous active dame.” Apparently we are not too sure who Myrine is either.

In Book III we shall meet Paris, who stole Menelaus’s woman.

Free Sevan Nişanyan

Note added July 17, 2018: Sevan Nişanyan is now free, in the sense of having escaped from prison—an open prison—and from Turkey. The story is told well in an article by Lauren Frayer on NPR, September 28, 2017. Alev Scott visited Sevan on the Greek island of Samos and wrote about it in the Times Literary Supplement, July 4, 2018; the article is behind a paywall, but there’s a free version. The friends and colleagues mentioned at the beginning of my own essay are not currently under detention, though trials of them and others continue. My essay remains as an expression of the value of freedom of speech.

We want freedom for our friends and colleagues who are being held in pre-trial detention for their supposed support of terrorism through advocating peace.

İlyastepe, Şirince, May 2013

İlyastepe, Şirince, May 2013

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Bosphorus Sky

This is about the morning of Thursday, December 18, 2014, a morning I spent by the Bosphorus, thinking mostly about poetry, and photographing the sky.


When I first came to Turkey in August of 1998, I travelled with my future spouse Ayşe, and it was her recommendation that we bring a guidebook from the United States. The one we selected was Turkey: The Rough Guide (third edition, London, March 1997), by Rosie Ayliffe, Marc Dubin, and John Gawthrop, with additional contributions by Stephanie Capparell, Bradley Mayhew, Dave Muddyman, and Sevan Nişanyan. I write out the names here, on the general principle of giving credit where it is due, and because of the significance of one of those names. Sevan Nişanyan has been in prison for more than a year now, serving a sentence of something like fifteen years, although originally it was less; and as far as I know, his nominal crime was building a house on protected land. His lawyers ask if anybody else has ever served prison time for such a crime, and no answer has been forthcoming. Nişanyan’s illegal house is outside Şirince, Selçuk, İzmir; and it is used as a dormitory for the Nesin Mathematics Village. That village has been a summer retreat for Ayşe and me for several years now.


The Bosphorus Strait can serve as a more local retreat for somebody living in Istanbul. I have always remembered what the Rough Guide says about the strait (p. 71):

The Bosphorus—the straits dividing Europe and Asia—should be visited as often as possible during the course of a trip, since how much you enjoy Istanbul may well depend on how often you can escape to its shores.


I remembered this, for the thirteen years that I came to Istanbul as a visitor from Ankara; but I did not see that it was true. There is not a lot on the Bosphorus for the visitor to do, but most sightseeing is likely to be inland.

When Ayşe and I would visit the European side of Istanbul, for the film festival perhaps, or a mathematics conference, or a wedding, and our time in the city was up, we would usually then take a ferry over to Harem on the Asian side. This was a pleasant way to travel. From Harem, we would take the next bus back to Ankara.


The views around the Nesin Mathematics Village are an important part of my sense of the place. What one sees are olive orchards, and vineyards, and pine trees higher up on the slopes. It is important to me that I can hike into the landscape. I do this regularly when I am there. I have found circuits that can be walked in two or three hours.

When I lived in Ankara, the Bosphorus never seemed to have an importance like that of the Şirince landscape. When the opportunity arose, it was good to see the Bosphorus and to be out on it; but I did not long to see it while I was away. Now that I actually live in Istanbul, I do.


The original purpose of this article is to record the experience of one session by the Bosphorus. I use the word “session” here in its root sense of sitting. For a couple of hours, I just sat by the Bosphorus, unless I was moved to get up and take a photograph of the sky above the water.


I was at the building used first for the lower house of the Ottoman Parliament. That house was, in modern Turkish, Mebuslar Meclisi, the “Deputies Chamber”; but the Persian Turkish used in Ottoman times was Meclis-i Mebusân, “Chamber of Deputies.” This is still the name of the section of the shore road that passes the building; nonetheless, the building itself came to be used for the Mekteb-i Sanayi-i Nefise-i Şâhâne, the “Imperial School of Fine Arts,” which ultimately became Mimar Sinan Güzel Sanatlar Üniversitesi, “Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University.”


That is where Ayşe and I work today; but we work in the mathematics department, which is housed away inland. The central administration stays in the old building, which is why we had to visit. My business was quickly taken care of, though Ayşe’s was not. As the day was looking fine, and my time was my own, I stayed and sat by the water.


I am sorry that I had not studied the university’s original name when I was talking to students a few weeks ago about mathematics as a fine art. We say güzel sanat for this today; but the Ottoman expression was sanayi-i nefise, and today the Arabic word sanayi is used for industry, as in oto sanayii, “automobile industry;” but sanayi is related to sanat, “art.”


As I mentioned Sevan Nişanyan before, I should point out that one of my resources on Turkish words is his book, Sözlerin Soyağacı: Çağdaş Türkçenin Etimolojik Sözlüğü (“The Family Tree of Words: An Etymological Dictionary of Contemporary Turkish,” Istanbul; first edition, October, 2002; third edition, expanded and corrected, March 2007). In the preface, Nişanyan thanks the provincial bureaucrats who gave him the opportunity to finish the dictionary—in Selçuk Prison. Selçuk is the district where the village of Şirince lies, and Nişanyan went to prison for—illegal construction.


Before heading out to the Bosphorus, I was studying a mathematical proof in a book. I noticed that, instead of referring to a finite set {x1, …, xn}, from which one derives something denoted by

(x1ε1, …, xnεn),

one can just refer to a finite set X, from which one derives

(xεx : xX).


From graduate school, I remember an algebraic topology textbook that used austere notation like this. We seem normally to be taught that a finite set with n elements should be “indexed” by the first n counting numbers; but we can more simply use the elements of the set to index themselves.


Working yesterday on these things, I thought of the sequence of four human backs in relief, sculpted over the years by Matisse and on display in the sculpture garden of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. Our art teacher called the sequence to our attention when he took us to the museum in fourth grade. It was a good trip we had then, albeit an elitist one: out of a class of forty-four boys, only eight or ten were chosen to visit the Hirshhorn. This made general discussions in front of specific works possible; but then there should have been several visits, giving all students the chance to visit the museum, even if they seemed uninterested in art. Every student had to practice drawing and painting in class; why not give them all the opportunity to think about what it was all for? I hope that today we give our students at Mimar Sinan the opportunity to think about what mathematics is for. I hope that they will understand that mathematics can be as useful as a painting in a museum.


Matisse’s sculptures of backs become more abstract as the artist grows older. Did Matisse know where he was going when he made the first? I seem to recall wondering why he did not just make the last sculpture first. The simplest answer to the question is that Matisse could not yet see so simply.


Sitting by the Bosphorus yesterday, I read from the November (2014) issue of Poetry magazine. I had found it in Pandora bookshop here in Istanbul. I had been aware of the magazine since a ninth-grade English class, when we were given a poem by one E. McKim:


horses move across unlighted landscapes        
 of the dream. overhead the golden crows       
  form galaxies; in the foreground we are      
   shown a room, a thousand corridors, some    
    place to move, falter, or become before    
     the red storms come to scatter precious   
      emblems: horse crows men rooms all into  
       a warmer place protected from the winds 
        and sensed obscurities the mind can see

        and sensed obscurities the mind can see
       a warmer place protected from the winds
      emblems: horse crows men rooms all into
     the red storms come to scatter precious
    place to move, falter, or become before
   shown a room, a thousand corridors, some
  form galaxies; in the foreground we are
 of the dream. overhead the golden crows
horses move across unlighted landscapes


I transcribe the poem from the mimeographed sheet that I kept from school. According to the sheet,

This poem is from the October 1970 issue of Poetry, an American magazine of verse founded in 1912.

E. McKim was educated at Vassar, the Alliance Française in Paris, Trinity College, Boston University, and Cummington Community of the Arts. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. This poem marked her first appearance in Poetry.


In the spirit of Karl Ove Knausgaard perhaps, a spirit of self-exposure, I transcribe my essay about the E. McKim poem. If I feel pleased that I appreciated art, even in fourth grade, I should acknowledge how much my sense of good writing has changed. The essay also shows the psychic effects of the Cold War on one young person. At the age of fourteen and seven months, I wrote:

The untitled poem by E. McKim is very interesting. The second of its two stanzas is the same as the first except the lines are in reverse order. In the poem very strange events are described, yet is the poem just nonsense, or is it actually meaningful?

The poem is apparently about a dream. The poem opens on a lightless world that is having galaxies created above it. We, the people viewing this world, are given a complex building where we can do as we will and can have protection from the red storms and their emblems. The storms eventually destroy the building, however, so we are shown another building. In the end the world is without light once more.

The poem could be about a war with the Communists, hence “red storms.” We are protected against the Communists for a while, but they eventually destroy our protection. We must move into underground passages, perhaps Communist prisons, since the earth overhead has been destroyed by the war.

Of course, my interpretation of the poem’s meaning may be wrong, as my interpretation does not explain such things as the horses and the golden crows. However, the poem is so obscure that perhaps it does not have one definate [sic] meaning but, in fact, means whatever the reader thinks it means.


That was an entire ninth-grade essay, taking up a page and a third when written out by hand on ruled paper. I write that much now, just to get started; I hope I no longer write anything like the opening sentence.


In eighth grade, in a political geography class, I had written a term-paper called “The Principles of Communism,” based mainly on the Communist Manifesto. In a speech in French given in a ninth-grade French class, I said that Cold-War tensions made no sense to me: why could not each side explain why its way was better, then let the people decide? I had no specific proposal for how this deciding could take place. My adolescent thoughts may illustrate how I ended up in mathematics: here, at least, there is a clear standard for truth, and nobody has to go to war to settle a dispute.


My ninth-grade English teacher took issue with my closing sentence about the McKim poem, and I do think he was right: “Probably so,” he wrote, “within limitations imposed by the words themselves.” The meaning that you assign to a poem still has to fit the words. You cannot just decide that E. McKim means the same thing in her poem that Andrew Marvell does in “To His Coy Mistress,” unless you are prepared to make an argument based on the texts.


In recent years I have taken part in discussion and analysis of some modern poems; but I do not know how much the analysis aids the appreciation. I am not sure what to make of the poems I read now in Poetry. The November issue that I read from yesterday is “The Translation Issue.” The translation from the French by Rosanna Warren of a poem by Max Jacob called “Périgal-Nohor” ends with the following couplet:

Scholar foolscap collar we wear a crown that glows
The one who receives is worth him who bestows.

I was grabbed just by the music of the verses. The rhythm calls to my mind the closing couplet of a crudely erotic poem called “Wedding Dance,” in the collection Five Chambered Heart (New York: Persea Books, 1986) by the late St John’s College tutor Charles Greenleaf Bell:

Red bang—green bang—horn hot hole:
One God-swot in the all-God whole.


I transcribe the verses from the physical book that I bought at a reading given by Mr Bell at the College, in Santa Fe. I do remember the sound of Mr Bell as he read some of the poems. I do not think he read “Wedding Dance.” In any case, there is no particular reason to connect a particular Charles Bell poem to the Max Jacob poem translated in Poetry. The sound in English of the latter just reminds me of the former. Ideally the Jacobs poem would stand on its own. This assertion is a reflection of words of Collingwood on “The Comparative Method” in what its editors have called “Notes on Historiography”:

This is the apotheosis of anti-historicism in a positivistic interest. You cease to care about what a thing is, and amuse yourself by saying what it is like. (A critical discussion of the idea of similarity would be useful here.) Imagine a ‘comparative pathology’. This condition is like nasal catarrh (but it is scarlet fever).

This is from page 238 of R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of History, edited by W. H. Dray and W. J. van der Dussen; Oxford, 1999, reprinted 2003. If you actually have scarlet fever, you do not want your doctors to spend time talking about a resemblance to nasal catarrh.


I was amusing myself by the Bosphorus, reading poems in Poetry, snapping photographs, and then reading an essay in the magazine called “The Medium of the English Language,” by James Longenbach. “Nothing is automatically an artistic medium,” says Longenbach—and that sounds right—, “though anything could be.” This brings out some comparisons:

A medium, says the psychoanalyst Marion Milner in On Not being Able to Paint, is a little bit of the world outside the self that, unlike the resolutely stubborn world at large, may be malleable, subject to the will while continuing to maintain its own character. The medium might be chalk, which cannot be made to produce the effects of watercolor. It might be a copper plate coated with a thin layer of silver and exposed to light. It might be a rosebush, pruned and fertilized into copious bloom, or an egg, exquisitely poached. In the realm of psychoanalysis, the medium is the analyst, a person who can be counted on to respond to the wishes of the analysand without needing to assert his own, as any person in an ordinary human relationship inevitably would.

In The Principles of Art, Collingwood is at pains to distinguish art from craft, and gardening and cookery would seem to be crafts; but then so can drawing and photography be used merely as crafts. I think one is bound to grant the possibility that cooking an egg or pruning a rosebush might rise, from being mere craft, to the level of art. Collingwood himself fancifully suggests that Archimedes’s mere cry “Eureka” might itself rise to the level of communicating, to a sufficiently tuned-in scientist, what problem Archimedes had solved.


The pliancy of the analyst is an interesting suggestion. Meanwhile Longenbach’s main theme is the multiculturalism of the English language, a language where German and Latin words live side by side, working in harmony, at least in the hands of a master like Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was a powerful writer who in his lifetime was poised at exactly the right moment to take advantage of the medium that the English language had only recently become. He could reach for effects that had been unavailable to the poets of both “The Seafarer” and The Canterbury Tales, and because of the particular power with which he did so, poems we think of as great, poems that harness the full capacity of the medium, tend to sound to us Shakespearean. But what we are really hearing in such poems is the medium at work; what we are hearing is the effort of a particular writer to reach for the effects that Modern English most vigorously enables.


I close with the analogy that Descartes introduced the language in which modern mathematics is done. But when it is said that ancient mathematicians were hampered for their lack of this language, I have to observe that language is a human creation in the first place. If we want and need the language, we find it.


Şirince 2014

This is about our second visit to the Nesin Mathematical Village in Şirince this year. The first visit was to attend the Summer School Around Valuation Theory, May 22–26. Now we have come back to teach, as usual, in the Turkish Mathematical Society Undergraduate and Graduate Summer School. This time we are teaching not just one week, but two: July 14–27. My own course, as several times in the past, is on nonstandard analysis. Each course meets every day but Thursday, two hours a day.

The Math Village only increases in beauty every year, as I mean to suggest by posting a few photographs below.

I shall also state an opinion. The summer school here in the Village used to receive some funding from TÜBİTAK (the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey); but apparently this funding is no longer forthcoming. Nonetheless, the Nesin Mathematical Village is the kind of venture that governments at their best will support. Certain Libertarians, desiring minimal government, still want government to maintain property rights, so that citizens can make money. Other people look to government to create jobs more directly. But money by itself is worthless, and some jobs are more worth doing than others. I do not say that the Nesin Mathematical Village should be supported for the technological gains that mathematics can make possible. I say that participating in the activities of the Village is itself a gain. What are you going to do when your basic animal needs are satisfied? You could do a lot worse than spend time on mathematics.

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The swift

This is about the bird and its appearance in the Quran.

We (my wife and I) live at the edge of the upper reaches of a stream valley on the European side of the Bosphorus. The stream drains a plain where Sultan Abdülmecid (1839–61) once invited immigrants to settle. That area is now called Mecidiyeköy (village of Mecid), and until the 1950s, it was mostly open fields. Continue reading