Seeing Order: Four Random Birthdays

Today, February 24, is the birthday of many people, obviously.* I have selected four whom I find especially interesting for personal reasons. Strangely, however, I see an order among them: namely, the act of seeing order itself. I leave these tidbits uninterpreted and undigested–you may find in them what order you like, and attempt a thesis statement in the comments, or simply leave them unassimilated and enjoy each for its own sake. Also, do follow the links: some are quite fun, in a bookish way.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (2.24.1463–11.17.1494): Note those dates and do the math: Pico died about three months shy of his 32 birthday–which means I’ve outlived him by almost five months. Still, Pico managed to cram more into his 31.75 years than I’m likely to, even if I make it past a century. From an early age, Pico studied pretty much everything there was study: all the languages, philosophy, theology, and science his milieu had to offer. So, having learned everything, he then proceeded to try and make it all fit together. (In fact, this was such a consuming interest for Pico that his friends dubbed him “Princeps Concordiae,” or “the Prince of Harmony.”) After laying the foundation for his project with his De hominis dignitate (Oration on the Dignity of Man), Pico issued 900 theses that attempted to harmonize pretty much every school of thought he knew about. (Here’s a chart of the project.) A problem arose, however, in the form of a papal bull: it seems that along the way, Pico had made a few claims the Pope thought heretical. There was an inquisition, Pico did time in a French jail, and his 900 theses become “the first printed book ever universally banned by the Church.” Less than ten years later, he was dead under suspicious circumstances. Still, 31.75 years was enough: De hominis dignitate became the manifesto of the Italian Renaissance and Pico himself a “founding father” of the humanist endeavor.

Wilhelm Carl Grimm (2.24.1786–12.16.1859): This fellow you should recognize, dear reader, especially when I pair him with his brother, Jacob. Yes, Wilhelm was the younger of the Brothers Grimm, who were famous for collecting fairy tales and, if you believe Terry Gilliam, fighting monsters. (Wilhelm was Matt Damon, if you’re curious.)

For me, though, the important thing about the Grimms is their philological work in Germanic languages, most famously manifest in the eponymous Grimm’s Law. (Usually Jacob alone is credited with this work, but the brothers were partners in all their endeavors, so it seems stingy to deny Wilhelm his share of praise.) Grimm’s Law is an observation about a particular pattern of phonetic changes among diverse Indo-European languages. These phonetic changes were a big part of what made some families of IE languages distinct from others: specifically, Grimm’s Law describes what sets the Germanic languages (German, English, and Scandinavian languages) apart from non-Germanic IE languages like Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin. For example, in the shift to Germanic, “p” becomes “f” and “t” becomes “th” (like “thorn”): therefore, the same ancient word that became “pater” in Latin, became “father” in English. Do not be fooled by the dullness of this endeavor: for scholars of the Grimms’ time, this was like lightning from the blue. Think of the possibilities: if the distinctions between languages can be reduced to predictable patterns, why can we not work backwards–reverse Babel, learn the language of Adam, learn the language of God? That may sound too grandiose, but it’s not too far from what did arise out of this work: the reconstruction of the proto-Germanic language. (Want to read a story in proto-Germanic?  Here you go.)

Winslow Homer (2.24.1836–9.29.1910): Perhaps you recognized the painting at the head of this post, dear reader; I certainly hope so. That is The Gulf Stream, painted by Winslow Homer in 1899. It’s a painting from his later years, his so-called “Darwinian” phase, which is typified by brutal realism. And, truly, what could better symbolize man at the mercy of chaotic elements than this lonely boatman, tossed by the tumult of the waves, hunted by a frenzied mob of sharks? But all is not chaos in this painting. Click to expand it, and look again: see the tiny ship in the upper left, opposite the waterspout? Now look back to the central focal point of the picture, the dark cavity of the tiny boat’s hold, with the boatman’s right foot lying on the deck in front of it. Move your gaze from the foot to the ship in the upper left, now across to the waterspout on the right, then back down to the foot. See it? A symmetrical upside-down triangle. There’s a second triangle as well: begin at the waterline in the upper right, and follow the dark line of waves to the center of the left side, then back down the black ridge of shark-infested water to the bottom right. Again, symmetry. Both triangles can be read as thematic, I think. The first shows man in the balance between the might of civilization (the three-masted ship) and the might of nature (the waterspout); also, perhaps, the result of collision between the two, manifest in his own tiny boat with its single broken mast. The second triangle is a more aesthetic effect: an acute triangle of light water in an otherwise black sea, with the darkness ready to snap down jaw-like on the boatman. Did I make those triangles up, or did Homer put them there on purpose? Not sure–I’m just an amateur who can spot a triangle!

August William Derleth (2.24.1909–7.4.1971): Ah, August Derleth–how he frustrates me! I first met this gentlemen after he had introduced himself as someone else. When I bought The Watchers Out of Time, it was because H.P. Lovecraft’s name was on the cover. I became suspicious a couple stories in when it suddenly struck me that both stories I’d read were longer, flabbier versions of Lovecraft tales I liked better. Then I turned to the front of the book and saw the copyright citing August Derleth, and knew I’d been snookered. That bit of imposture is probably the publisher’s fault, not Derleth’s; still, Lovecraft fans do have good reason for holding strong opinions about August Derleth. True, we owe him much: because of Derleth, much of Lovecraft’s work that might have been lost was preserved and stayed in print, initially through Derleth’s own publishing company, Arkham House. On the other hand, he also coined the term “Cthulhu Mythos” to describe the shared universe of Lovecraft’s many stories of eldritch horror. This phrase, catchy albeit unpronounceable, is to some Lovecraftians his greatest offense, for it implies that there is a system, an ur-plot, in a fictional corpus best characterized as a paean to chaos. Derleth believed there was such a system, and in his pastiches of Lovecraft he enthusiastically imposed it, settling Lovecraft’s nihilistic nightmares within a cosmos of ordered good and evil. It is an ill fit, and, to my mind, blunts the force of Lovecraft’s horror. Which is more frightening: the ultimate evil who hates humanity and seeks to destroy it out of actual malice, or an utterly alien being of god-like power who doesn’t even notice when it melts our world? My money is on the latter, and that’s Lovecraft’s brand of horror. So, thanks, August, for all your hard work in preserving Lovecraft for us–but I’ll just read him, thank you. No offense meant!

* It is also Steve Jobs’s birthday, but that’s an entirely different sort of imposed order.

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