Of lunatics and vocabulary

I recently finished reading Rebecca West’s classic 1940 tome Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, chronicling her travels through what was then Yugoslavia along with pretty much everything she learned about the history of that region. There are many, many things I could comment on in that book, and maybe I will in the coming days, but one thing I find sticking with me is her distinction between “idiots” and “lunatics.” When West learns that the King of Yugoslavia has been assassinated and reacts with horror, her nurse assumes she must have known the man personally. West comments:

Her question made me remember that the word “idiot” comes from a Greek root meaning private person. Idiocy is the female defect: intent on their private lives, women follow their fate through a darkness deep as that cast by malformed cells in the brain. It is no worse than the male defect, which is lunacy: they are so obsessed by public affairs that they see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature.

I could observe that the last eighty years have brought us to the point where women are as apt to be lunatics as men, and where the prevalence and penetration of public media into daily life makes it difficult for anyone to be an idiot, however hard they may try: think of the elderly shut-in who does little all day but watch television and thus has an opinion on every damned thing that happens in the world. A hundred years ago she would have been an idiot; now she is, at best, a kind of lunato-idiot hybrid, kept from full lunacy by her incapacity for action. But set that aside.

What’s really interesting to me about this distinction is simply that West makes it. Here are two words apt to be used almost interchangeably by way of dismissing their object, which become, thanks to this combination of etymology and poetry, useful tools for distinguishing among similar concepts, yet endowed with the power of metaphor to prevent those distinctions from growing too narrow. What words ought to be, I think. Much later in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon West observes that women’s idiocy has often been the only thing to save civilization from men’s lunacy, and the words are both shorthand and illustration, at once zipping up an argument and unpacking it. Beautiful.

This reminds me of one of my pet peeves, which is the interchangeability of all the various words we have to praise a thing, the words we trot out when “good” isn’t enough. All come from different roots, and considered etymologically ought surely to mean different things, or at least to shade meaning differently. Excellent is fairly clinical: to excel, to exceed, to stand outside the usual and the expected. Wonderful ought to mean full of wonders, a thing to be wondered at, a mystery. Fantastic suggests fantasy, a thing that surely cannot be real. Fabulous also suggests untruth, but more pointedly: a fabulist is a liar. A thing truly awesome ought to bring us to our knees in an attitude almost of worship. And so on.

Homeschooling: A valediction

(Valediction: “a farewell, a bidding farewell,” 1610s, from past participle stem of Latin valedicere “bid farewell, take leave,” from vale “farewell!,” second person singular imperative of valere “be well, be strong” (from PIE root *wal- “to be strong”) + dicere “to say” (from PIE root *deik- “to show,” also “pronounce solemnly”).

My daughter graduated from homeschool high school at the end of May and is headed to college in the fall. For seven years, through middle and high school, I taught her math, science, and arts every week, plus a bonus-senior-year literature class. As this means that I am also graduating, in a sense, or at least retiring, I thought I should be allowed to make a speech. And since there’s no one around to stop me, here it is. I’ll keep it short.

Biodiesel people vs. electric car people

The subject of biodiesel came up last week, and in explaining the concept to my daughter I remembered how much I’m drawn to it—as opposed to electric cars, which I instinctively distrust. That statement says as much about me as it does about the two technologies, so let me unpack it a little.

Here’s why I’m drawn to biodiesel:

1. Biodiesel piggybacks on existing technology. We already know how to build and maintain diesel engines.
2. At its best, biodiesel turns waste material—used vegetable oils—into fuel rather than requiring new production.
3. You can literally make biodiesel in your back yard. More practically, it can be made on a community scale.

Will biodiesel solve all the world’s problems? No. It is a small and partial solution to an enormous global problem, which though it cannot solve the whole, nevertheless—by virtue of being small!—empowers people to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Moreover, in principle, it creates no new problems that others will have to solve later, e.g. waste that will have to be cleaned up.

The electric car, by contrast, promises a total solution to that enormous global problem—but one that, by its very totality, disempowers people. The electric car…

On “good work” and the Tao

I have been (slowly, irregularly) making my way through Jonathan Star’s translation of, and commentary on, the Tao Te Ching. I read another translation of the Tao some years ago and remember little enough of it. I like this edition because Star offers not only a literary translation by line and verse but a verbatim translation: an analysis of the various possible meanings of each character in the original, thus giving the Westerner a better idea of just how difficult and dangerous a literary translation may be. As he explains in his introduction:

Ancient Chinese is a conceptual language; it is unlike English and other Western languages, which are perceptual. Western languages are rooted in grammar that frames events in real time, identifies subject and object, clarifies relationships, and establishes temporal sequences. Ancient Chinese is based on pictorial representations, without grammar. Characters symbolize concepts that can be interpreted as singular or plural; as a noun, a verb, or an adjective; as happening in the past, present, or future. (p. 3)

Any specific literary translation into English should therefore be held lightly—if not taken lightly; the concept is dear, but any specific perception of it is necessarily partial. I offer this as preface to everything I may say about the Tao: I know about enough to be dangerous, and anything I say should also be held lightly (if not, again, taken lightly).

I ought also to admit that I am approaching the Tao with a particular guiding question, which has to do with what I will loosely call good work. This is not the proper way to introduce that concept, but I’ll try to get around to an introduction later. What I mean right now by good work has to do particularly with technological making, and I’m guided to the Tao for insight into questions about work and technology by Alan Jacobs’ essay in the New Atlantis last year, “From Tech Critique to Ways of Living,” which I strongly recommend.

So. This morning I was poring over verse 3, in which the Sage “shows people how to be simple and live without desires,” which is boilerplate religious wisdom, but also “to be content and not look for other ways,” which could be taken as a repetition of the prior line but struck me as subtly and significantly different.

using a spokeshave at the shaving horse

What we talk about when we talk about hand tools

using a spokeshave at the shaving horse

In the spring of 2021 I started writing, elsewhere, a series of think-pieces about technology in the woodshop, beginning with the question What is a hand tool, anyway?, continuing through the effects of tools and tool use on the worker and the world, and working towards, as I found, a sort of rubric for evaluating tools for wise and responsible use. As I mean to pick up this thread, I have moved the pieces here and am linking to them below, in the order written, and will link new pieces here as I write them. I am also tagging them with work and the worker, which opens a few more doors and will likely range a little further.

A couple of things to note. First, I mean this to be a practical discussion, not a purely philosophical one. Second, although my particular interest is woodworking, I believe the discussion and tentative conclusions are applicable far more widely. In fact, I think there’s real value, at this point in time, to come at the problem of technology use from a perspective other than that of the digital — i.e., other than that unique to this point in time. We’ll see if it bears fruit.

  1. What is a “hand tool,” anyway?
  2. Hand tools and “traditional woodworking”
  3. Tools and externalities
Interior of the Baptistry at St. Marks

The Sexton

Interior of the Baptistry at St. Marks

After William Merritt Chase, In the Baptistry of St. Mark’s, Venice (1878)

On Saturdays, at terce
I polish the brass. One by one
the candles from their unlit altar
in my calloused hands I carry
to a bench of pine my ancestors made.

Outside the sun bakes pilgrims in the square.
I sit in shadows, back against cool marble.

The candlesticks rest in my lap.
The polish stains my apron.
I peel away the hardened
husks of thrice-said prayers,
and with a cloth gentled by laundering
caress their graceful necks, their
swollen bellies, archéd feet.

I have no hurry. I have
polished this candlestick a thousand
years. I shall polish the next
a thousand more

until the light from high
windows the dark stones swallow
finds each arc, each surface,
makes it gleam.

I need no candle here.
I make the unseen visible.
My eyes will find
my work when it is finished.

men raising a barn

Of useful work and community

men raising a barn
People still do raise barns. Photograph by Rebecca Siegel licensed Creative Commons.

In the spring of 1941, a farmer named Victor Zimmerman of Seipstown, Pennsylvania, lost his barn to a fire. This was, sadly, no unusual occurrence. A barn stuffed with hay and straw is a tinderbox waiting for a spark, and fires were a continual risk in farming communities. When, one month later, thirty-four of Victor Zimmerman’s neighbors showed up to help build him a new one, that too was only to be expected. But the days of the barn raising were numbered. Soon enough that neighborly work would be something only the Amish did, and for the rest of us merely a symbol of community rather than its expression. Indeed by 1941 it was already a curiosity to many people. And so the Allentown Morning Call sent a reporter out to rural Lehigh County to cover it.

That, ironically, is the only way I know about Victor Zimmerman’s barn raising: it was already a curiosity. Practically all the other hundreds or thousands of similar gatherings that took place across Pennsylvania in the preceding couple of centuries are long forgotten, but Zimmerman’s came at the end of a dying tradition, after decades of upheaval and Depression, under the shadow of global war. It made good reading—so much so that seventy years later, Elaine Bogert of the Weisenberg/Lowhill (Township) Historical Society ran across the newspaper’s account of the day and republished it in the society’s newsletter.1 And then one day my father was idly googling his grandfather’s name, looking for genealogical Easter eggs, and found the article.

My great-grandfather, you see, was the contractor hired to build the barn. Victor Walbert, Builder and Contractor, Maxatawny, Pennsylvania. He died before I was born, but I have some of his tools, and use them every time I build a chair. This article was the first thing I ever learned about him that wasn’t a family story. So what would otherwise be merely a charming slice of life from the middle of the last century turns out to be personal.

But here’s the slice of life, anyhow.

Tools and externalities

Following on my previous post: In trying to define a “traditional” tool I raised the issue of toolmaking. But the way a tool is made has implications for the maker of the tool as well as (if not more than) for the end user.

The low stages of my scales suggest a toolmaker who pursues a craft in a small shop: people who make wooden molding planes, for example. That may be a kind of ideal, but it isn’t always practical.

In the middle are small, semi-industrial operations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, with relatively few workers, an emphasis on craft, and a working environment that is, for lack of a handier term, more or less flat, in that it minimizes the distance and distinction between labor and management workers being given latitude for authority and the owner is not only capable of doing some actual work but even now and then does it. That, at least, is the kind of working environment I would prefer for myself, whether as a worker or a manager ( I have been both).

At the high end of the scale, you have machine parts cranked out by machines wherever labor is cheapest for the profit of corporate shareholders.

If I value the way I work, surely I ought to try to extend that privilege to others? That’s merely the golden rule. So I might say, as a third principle, that “A tool (and its components) should be made by workers who work as the user would want to work and who are treated as the end user would want to be treated.”

There in my old-fashioned shop the new machinery had almost forced its way in—the thin end of the wedge of scientific engineering. And from the first day the machines began running, the use of axes and adzes disappeared from the well-known place, the saws and saw-pit became obsolete. We forgot what chips were like.... "The Men," thought still my friends, as I fancied, became machine 'hands.'...

Of course wages are higher—many a workman to-day receives a larger income than I was ever able to get as "profit" when I was an employer. But no higher wage, no income, will buy for men that satisfaction which of old—until machinery made drudges of them—streamed into their muscles all day long from close contact with iron, timber, clay, wind and wave, horse-strength. It tingles up in the niceties of touch, sight, scent. The very ears unawares received it, as when the plane went singing over the wood, or the exact chisel went tapping in (under the mallet) to the hard ash with gentle sound. But these intimacies are over. Although they have so much more leisure men can now taste little solace in life, of the sort that skilled hand-work used to yield to them.... The products of work are, to be sure, as important as ever... But it remains true that in modern conditions work is nothing like so tolerable as it was say thirty years ago; partly because there is more hurry in it, but largely because machinery has separated employers from employed and has robbed the latter of the sustaining delights which materials used to afford them. Work is less and less pleasant to do—unless, perhaps, for the engineer or the electrician.

—George Sturt, The Wheelwright's Shop (1923), 201–202.

The thin edge of the wedge of scientific engineering

Hand tools and “traditional woodworking”

When I asked recently “What is a ‘hand tool,’ anyway?” I considered two fairly literal definitions of a hand tool: a tool held and operated with the hands, and a tool powered exclusively by the hands (or possibly by other body parts). Neither was really satisfying. Here’s another, more complicated idea that comes up in conversations about hand tools: the idea of “traditional woodworking.” Continuing my list, I could say that

3. A hand tool reflects traditional woodworking practice.

But what do I mean by traditional?

Here we go again.