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Monday, June 1, 2020


Many years ago, more than forty now, I gave a talk at Hampshire College in South Amherst.  My theme was the relative unimportance in the struggle for social justice of disquisitions on the philosophical subtleties and niceties of Marxist theory.  Invoking an image I had used before and would use again, I said that social change was not like brain surgery, where the slightest misstep could lead to death, but rather like a landslide, with huge boulders and uprooted trees sliding down a mountainside, accompanied by countless branches, clods of dirt, and even little pebbles.  The important thing in life was not how big a boulder you were, but rather that you were tumbling down the right side of the mountain.

During the discussion period after the talk, a student asked, “If that is what you believe, why do you write books about the subtleties and niceties of Marxian theory?”  I replied, “Writing books is a quite minor contribution to the struggle, but I am good at it, and I enjoy it, which means I will keep on doing it even when there is not much excitement in the struggle.  Not everyone can be a boulder, but I think my pebble is rolling down the right side of the mountain.”

At times like these, when my world is exploding and I am sitting in my study, self-quarantined and offering my opinions to a world otherwise occupied, I remember that talk and comfort myself that at least I am bouncing down the right hillside.


Jerry Brown said...

Well I will attempt a translation of the title of your post. "Apology for my life"? Those years of Latin in high school were a long time ago and I have not dealt with many speakers of it since. Apology for the life of mine?

I can't understand how the Romans were able to think in such a language where the words could be in just about any order. Obviously, I never mastered the language. Or, the language, I never mastered it, obviously. Such is life.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Exactly right. Also the title of a famous book by John Cardinal Newman. Chomsky is marvelous on the sense we all have that the order of words ordained by our language is the one and only order that follows the order of our thoughts

Robert Paul Wolff said...

p.s. I don't know any Latin at all.

s. wallerstein said...

Not "Apology for my Life", but rather "Apology for one's own life". "Sua" is third person, not first person.

Jerry Brown said...

Um, and the difference between 'my life' and 'one's own life' is significant? Been many years and this one was never really good at Latin translations at the best of times. You should have seen my English to Latin attempts- they were worse and probably unintelligible for any Roman.

Come on Wallerstein- just give me a passing grade here :) I'd settle for a B-. That is mostly what I got in high school for Latin. Don't be that 'et tu' guy

Anonymous said...

I always took it to be " apology for his life" imagining that that eminent Victorian was referring to himself in the third person.

Charles Pigden said...

'Defense of his own life' would be a better translation of Newman's title. It's quite a good book especially the bits where he puts the knife into Kinglsley.

On sentence order:

LUKE (to Yoda): Why after all these years do you still talk backwards?

YODA (to Luke): Backwards I do not talk. Anglocentric your conception of sentence-structure is.

Not mine unfortunately. I saw it in a cartoon somewhere.

Jerry Brown said...

Charles, at least Wikipedia says you are correct about that. Retire I will from translating completely. Willingly.

Matt said...

Russian has, at least, much looser word order than English does. (It's not, as far as I could tell, totally free word order, but looser than English. There are more or less normal ways of saying lots of things, but it's not that unusual to change things around.) Because of this, when I was trying to learn Russian, I'd often try to say phrases in different order than I would in English, in the hope that this would help me become less "stuck" on word order, and be less unbalanced when the words were not in the order I'd expect. I'm not actually sure how useful this was for me, though.

Also, for one reason or another, lots of Russians I knew would want to say "you're lucky" to me for one reason or another. (I didn't feel especially lucky, but maybe I was.) They would almost always say, "Lucky you are". It was hard for me not to respond, "backwards talking you do".

s. wallerstein said...

If you live in a society where they speak another language long enough and you use that language in your daily life including in your home, with your children, with your partner, it becomes as "natural" as your first language.

I go for months without speaking English at all, although I write it daily and read about half of what I read in English and half in Spanish. Since I haven't used English as my daily language since 1977 (except during 5 trips back to the U.S.), there are concepts that I learned in Spanish and have to google them to find their English equivalent.

The last time I was in the U.S., 11 years ago, I was asking a young woman in a bakery about the varieties of whole grain bread and I couldn't quite recall the names of all the grains and seeds in English. She was getting annoyed at me because I was slowing up customer service and finally, I told her that I wasn't from here, without specifying what I meant. She smiled and became more diplomatic since, as I can see, she now took me for a visiting tourist, not a senile old fool.

Still, my written English is better than my written Spanish and I make more mistakes in both spoken and written Spanish, although I generally correct them quickly.

Murthwaite said...

I've encountered word order problems when learning Chinese. Chinese is unusual in that it has postpositions instead of prepositions as in English or most European languages. This feature is not often stressed in certain kinds of introductory learning material (which often claims that Chinese grammar is trivially easy to the point of non-existence). One day, while visiting my Chinese sister-in-law, (when I was still learning the language), we were sitting in the living room, and she asked me where I had put my shoes. For some reason there was a large extra bed in the room, and I told her that I had put my shoes 'under the bed'. She burst out laughing. I later realized that I should have said, not following English word order 'under the bed' (xia chuang), but 'bed under' (chuang xia). The first expression means something like 'get down from the bed', as the postposition 'xia' becomes a verb when used before a noun. So, by following English word order, I had told my sister-in-law that my shoes had gotten down from the bed.

Jen said...

"One's life" is general, but retains the de se ("reflexive") element of "my life".