Nicely Said

When I come across something I think is particularly well written or well said, or that I admire for the writer’s creative choice of words, effective syntax, and clarity of thought, I like to share them with you.

“To those who judged him by his quirky manner and his ill-fitting, wrinkled, off-the-rack uniform, the cuffs of his trousers always two or three inches above his boots, the badge sometimes missing from the peaked cap, Lawrence did not cut a soldierly figure, so most of them failed to notice the intense, ice-blue eyes and the unusually long, firm determined jaw, a facial structure more Celtic than English. It was the face of a nonreligious ascetic, capable of enduring hardship and pain beyond what most men would even want to contemplate, a true believer in other people’s causes, a curious combination of scholar and man of action, and most important of all, a dreamer.”
HERO The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda, page 6.

I love the rhythm of these two sentences as they accumulate essential information–concrete details and abstract words–about one of the most extraordinary, enigmatic, brilliant men who ever lived, T.E. Lawrence.

I’m reading Korda’s book, Hero, a gripping, detailed examination of Lawrence’s most remarkable life. Hero is an apt title; Lawrence is no mere mortal but a hero on a grand scale. David Lean’s majestic 1962 film starring Peter O’Toole only scratches the surface of the man famous throughout the world as Lawrence of Arabia.

If I were to list all T.E. Lawrence’s accomplishments (and his quirks), this post would go on far too long. Just a sampling (and I’m only half way through the book!): Lawrence was a brilliant scholar and an acclaimed writer, author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, rated  “a masterpiece of British literature” (the movie is based on this autobiographical book); he was an utterly fearless warrior and one of history’s greatest military strategist, inventor of modern guerilla warfare as still practiced by today’s insurgents, such as the Taliban; an expert archaeologist as well as a daring adventurer (Indiana Jones could be based on Lawrence’s exploits in the Arabian desert); though low ranking, he was Britain’s most influential intelligence officer of World War I and helped shape the modern Middle East (and we live with the consequences); a man of amazing  physical strength and endurance (though he was so short of stature that one British officer referred to him as a “pipsqueak”); charismatic and handsome, Lawrence repressed all sexual feelings and hated to be touched.

How do you introduce your readers to an individual of so many superlatives, someone so complex, contradictory and unconventional? Korda does a splendid job in this paragraph early on in Hero.

“For 25 years, I tried to kill my mother-in-law with kindness, but eventually realized she was never going to change.”

So starts a letter appearing in an advice column, Annie’s Mailbox, I saw in my local newspaper.  The writer, Gotta Do What You Gotta Do, then goes on to tell how she and her husband are now “living in peace and happiness together” and their quality of life has “improved 200 percent” because they put 3 thousand miles between them and her mother-in-law, with whom, she states emphatically, they no longer have any contact, and the old lady can just stew in her own miserable juices.

The opening sentence grabbed me. I was compelled to read on, though as I did I was a little disappointed that GDWYGD didn’t provide any examples of mother-in-law’s emotional atrocities during those 25 long years. We’re only getting the story from the wife’s point-of-view.

Wife also says, “My husband still strives for her love and will never get it.”  I can see her curling her lip as she says this, eying her husband with a fierce look that dares him to contradict her.

Perhaps the most tragic figure in this story is the husband, caught between two strong, flinty women.

Another letter starts, “My husband and I have been together for 20 years, and the spark has left our relationship.”

This is depressing, prosaic stuff, far removed from the grand, heroic, fascinating life of T.E. Lawrence.

Wasted years in relationships that end badly. Years of precious existence thrown away, imprisoned with some toxic, joyless person.

Lives spent in “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau says, curling his lip and glancing over at me.

Hey, we can’t all be Lawrence of Arabia.

Besides, I just read the part where Lawrence is buggered by Turkish soldiers. Maybe he should write Annie’s Mailbag about how to deal with that, especially as he admits in his autobiography that the beating, whipping, humiliation and anal rape he received in his brief captivity aroused some of his repressed sexual feelings.


Speaking of Thoreau, today I came across a quote from his good friend and neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which has been shown!”

It reminds me of a Navajo creation story quoted at the start of another book I just started reading: Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith and the Search for Order by George Johnson.

When all the stars were ready to be placed in the sky First Woman said, “I will use these to write the laws that are to govern mankind for all time. These laws cannot be written on the water as that is always changing its form, nor can they be written in the sand as the wind would soon erase them, but if they are written in the stars they can be read and remembered forever.”

Fire in the Mind is about the human need to see patterns in randomness, to bring order into chaos, and to make something meaningful that would otherwise be arbitrary, like the constellations we map in the night sky.

We are pattern-seekers—it’s wired into the human brain.

The constellations we see in the night sky, the patterns we imagine in random stars, only exist in the human mind

The Navajo see in the stars First Man and First Woman, a creation myth that gives their lives meaning: to keep the universe running through rituals that balance opposing spirits and maintain order. Emerson looked up at the awe inspiring heavens and saw the spiritual loss, the shrinking of the human soul,  in a society becoming more industrialized and materialistic.

And in the stars which we now study in detail, scientists see “mass-energy interacting in an arena of space and time” and theorize about dark matter  and dark energy taking up 95% of the universe.

Which means the norm in the universe ain’t us. It’s the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that maintains the order of the universe. We are just superfluous.

As humans, we have this basic drive to explain why things are as they are, the underlying truth to our existence.

The human brain can not only contemplate the universe, it can contemplate itself contemplating the universe. How did this happen? Why can we do this?

As Johnson asks, “How does life arise from the random jostling of dead molecules? How does the mind arise from the brain?”

It’s said that the scientist seeks truth, while the religious man already knows The Truth. But is the  truth in the external world the same as the truth inside our heads,  the “fire in the mind”?

Scientists are often arrogant, close-minded, and dismissive about anything smacking of the spiritual, magical or religious–of any “knowledge” acquired outside of empirical evidence [that’s my opinion, not Johnson’s].

But I think Johnson is going to show me that this arrogance and closed-mindedness  is a roadblock to exciting and profound scientific breakthroughs.

“Are there really laws governing the universe? Or is the order we see imposed by the prisms of our nervous systems, a mere artifact of the way evolution wired the brain? Do the patterns found by science hold some claim to universal truth, or would a visitor from another galaxy find them as quaint and culturally determined, as built on faith, as the world’s religions?”

“Transported to a different part of the galaxy,” Johnson writes, “we would be startled to see our constellations stretched and squeezed, distorted by a new vantage point. But how hard it is to appreciate that one person’s distortion can be another person’s reality, that we look at the world through different eyeglasses, that there are different ways of carving up the sky.”

Sometimes scientists follow along a historical path of discovery, going so far down one particular, even accidental, path that they no longer can back up and see that there are other, alternative explanations, other paths.

“… there are different ways of carving up the sky.”  Yeah, I’m having fun reading this. I read a couple of pages and then have to stop and spend two or three days thinking about it.

This may all be too complex for the human brain, that 3 pounds of jelly in our skulls, to ever comprehend. Or, there may be no explanation, no Grand Scheme of Things to find.

“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”
Umberto Eco

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.
There is another which states that this has already happened.”
Richard Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

4 thoughts on “Nicely Said

  1. sblazak says:

    Another example of how the human brain seeks patterns: music.

    In a health magazine I was reading in the doctor’s office, I found this:
    “Dr. [Oliver] Sacks states that Parkinson’s and stroke patients respond to music therapy because the human brain is uniquely programmed to respond to rhythmic sound. More than any other mammals, humans are pre-wired to tap their feet while listening to music.”

    In researching this, I came across the following:
    “The brain is a pattern seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear. The music of Bach, for example, embodies a lot of the pattern forming process.”

    That’s from an article titled “Audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope” by Richard Gray in the UK newspaper The Telegraph (March 26, 2011)

    This ties into Johnson’s speculation: “Are there really laws governing the universe? Or is the order we see imposed by the prisms of our nervous systems, a mere artifact of the way evolution wired the brain?”

    Given the limitations of the human brain, is there another path we can take to universal truth? If not through reason and the mind, perhaps by way of the heart and faith. See my posting on Blaise Pascal.

  2. sblazak says:

    In April, Annie’s Mailbox ran a response from a reader to Gotta Do What You Gotta Do. Here it is:

    “I read the letter from “Gotta Do What You Gotta Do,” who finaly moved across the country to be rid of her mother-in-law.

    “When I was engaged, I had a dim view of my fiance’s parents. I had never met them, yet had heard plenty about them from my boyfriend when he needed to vent. Before I met his family, I decided that no matter how fake I had to be, I was going to be nice.

    “Fast forward a few years. My mother-in-law has become closer to me than my own mother. She is kind-hearted and compassionate and simply wants to love us. It is well worth the effort to treat your mother-in-law with respect and decency right from the start. Things can change.”

  3. sblazak says:

    Stars of the Northern Hemisphere is the title of a poster available from Ashland Astronomy Studio

    If you are interested in the night sky but don’t know quite where to begin this poster will come in quite useful. You probably already have a pair of binoculars so using the poster you will quickly be able to identify some great targets.

    Along with Over 2,400 stars including the locations of stars with their own planets (extra solar planets), the poster includes enlargements of the Pleiades (above) and Hades star clusters too. If you’ve never looked at the Pleiades through binoculars do it you will be amazed at what you see. You will be amazed. Hint, use a lawn chair/recliner/ or air mattress to be comfy.

    The constellations, asterisms and notable stars are all named in this 36 by 24 inch poster which is one of the best ones on the market and at a very reasonable price. So whether for a classroom, bedroom wall or especially to have handy to find interesting things to see in the night sky, this poster is well worth owning.

    From Tom’s Astronomy blog

  4. sblazak says:

    Interesting article in American History magazine that gives a less heroic portrait of Lawrence than I found in Michael Korda’s book:
    Lowell Thomas, T.E. Lawrence and the Creation of a Legend

    Here’s an excerpt: “A complex, enigmatic man, Lawrence remained a puzzle even to those closest to him. While he continued to correspond with Thomas for several years, he often expressed frustration with the fame the American had thrust upon him. In 1922 Lawrence attempted to escape the spotlight by enlisting in the Royal Air Force under an assumed name, but his secret was soon discovered and he was discharged. Later he joined the Tank Corps as an enlisted man, again under a pseudonym. His retreat from publicity was due directly to his discomfort at his fame as Lawrence of Arabia. He also suffered from the psychological aftereffects of a reputed rape and vicious beating he endured when briefly captured by the enemy in 1917, and from the cumulative stress of serving two incompatible masters—Arab nationalism and British imperialism. He died near his home in 1935 after a motorcycle accident.”

    For a much more in-depth look at an amazing human being, read Korda’s book.

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