Aug 2 2019

Meditations of Being a Writer no. 02

book spines

As a writer, I read something and hope to get something out of it: new ideas, ways of thinking, better understanding—I hope to get something.

Nine years before Edward Young (1683–1765) penned his questions on how broad reading affected Shakespeare and Milton differently, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), though twenty-six years younger than Young, recognized the dangers of excessive hope. Johnson counsels readers as well as writers, to rethink the “anticipation of happiness”:

The understanding of a man naturally sanguine [courageous, a delight in bloodshed], may, indeed, be easily vitiated [spoiled or corrupted] by the luxurious indulgence of hope, however necessary to the production of every thing great or excellent, as some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun which gives life and beauty to the vegetable world….

Perhaps no class of the human species requires more to be cautioned against this anticipation of happiness, than those that aspire to the name of authors. A man of lively fancy no sooner finds hint moving in his mind, than he makes momentaneous excursions to the press, and to the world, and, with a little encouragement from flattery, pushes forward into future ages, and prognosticates the honours to be paid him, when envy is extinct, and faction forgotten, and those, whom partiality now suffers to obscure him, shall have given way to the triflers of as short duration as themselves. [1]

Would-be authors imagine the titles of books they want to write but fail to realize the contents such books must contain. I have a problem of too much planning, an over-abundant need to pre-read things before I write. Too much sun leads only to cancer (ask Icarus). Instead I might need to start doing less planning, more writing. As the esteemed Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky teach us:

Biases in the evaluation of compound events are particularly significant in the context of planning. The successful completion of an undertaking, such as the development of a new product, typically has a conjunctive character: for the undertaking to succeed, each of a series of events must occur. Even when each of these events is very likely, the overall probability of success can be quite low if the number of events is large. The general tendency to overestimate the probability of conjunctive events leads to unwarranted optimism in the evaluation of the likelihood that a plan will succeed or that a project will be completed on time.[2]

Or as Tacitus succinctly put it: “Our men’s over-confidence might even have led to serious disaster. But Agricola was everywhere at once,” (Agricola XXXVII).

Back to Johnson:

That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked….

There would, however, be few enterprises of great labour or hazard undertaken, if we had not the power of magnifying the advantages which we persuade ourselves to expect from them when the knight of La Mancha gravely recounts to his companion the adventures by which he is to signalize himself in such a manner, that he shall be summoned to the support of empires, solicited to accept the heiress of the crown which he has preserved, have honours and riches to scatter about him, and an island to bestow on his worthy squire, very few readers, amidst their mirth or pity, can deny that they have admitted visions of the same kind; though they have not, perhaps, expected events equally strange, or by means equally inadequate. When we pity him we reflect on our own disappointments; and when we laugh, our hearts inform us that he is not more ridiculous than ourselves, except that he [Quixote] tells what we [other writers, including Cervantes] have only thought.

In other words, too often writers magnify their advantages for their own advantage, never considering how such magnification distorts the goal of actually writing something that is worth reading (and rereading). I see advantages in pre-reading before writing. But I magnify those advantages, and like ants at the mercy of children, get burned by the magnification.

NOTES

wood

[1] Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, no. 02, Saturday, 24 March 1750. Johnson’s line of—“As some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun”—might be compared to Hamlet being “too much in the sun,” (I, ii, 67).

[2] Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” Science 185 (1974) in Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) 428.


Jul 12 2019

Meditations on Writing no. 1

book spines
Meditations on Writing no. 1

I’ve felt some anxiety lately over the quality of my writing. Maybe I rely too much on quotation, too much name-dropping…. Perhaps I need to focus more on personal experience––more personal family stories, anecdotes from my travels through Europe, or my discoveries in genealogy? I think my writing needs more personal experience of life, less pre-published exegesis from the library.

Perhaps it’s all a question of means over ends—what Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) was writing about in 1780 with his biography of the poet Edward Young (1683–1765):

The attention which Young bestowed upon the perusal of books is not unworthy imitation. When any passage pleased him he appears to have folded down the leaf. On these passages he bestowed a second reading. But the labours of man are too frequently vain. Before he returned to much of what he had once approved he died. Many of his books, which I have seen, are by those notes of approbation so swelled beyond their real bulk that they will hardly shut…. (“Life of Young,” Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (c. 1779–81))

So Young did a lot of reading, found good passages and marked them, but ran out of time to use them. He couldn’t get back around to rereading what he knew was worth rereading so he could then use it in his own writing.

Young himself speculated on Shakespeare and Milton’s range of reading, and how it affected the quality of their work:

Who knows whether Shakespeare might not have thought less, if he had read more? Who knows if he might not have laboured under the load of [Ben] Johnson’s learning? … If Milton had spared some of his learning, his muse would have gained more glory, than he would have lost, by it. (Conjectures on Original Composition, (c. 1759), ed. Edith J. Morley (Oxford: Manchester University Press; London: Longman’s Green & Co, 1918) 35, 36)

Yes, writers must read in order to be writers. But reading can impart no magical powers of writing onto the writer who reads. The quintessence will not be transmuted.


Jun 12 2019

Reading in the Hospital

porticos in Bologna, Italia

C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) once confessed what his ideal reading situation would be:

Johnson once described the ideal happiness which he would choose if he were regardless of futurity. My own choice, with the same reservation, would be to read the Italian epic—to be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read these poems eight hours of each happy day. (The Allegory of Love, (Oxford UP, 1936; Second Edition, 1946) 304)

Lewis is referring (I think) to Samuel Johnson’s (1709-1784) choice of Shakespeare:

Having fallen into a very serious frame of mind, in which mutual expressions of kindness passed between us, such as would be thought too vain in me to repeat, I talked with regret of the sad inevitable certainty that one of us must survive the other.

JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, that is an affecting consideration. I remember Swift, in one of his letters to Pope, says, “I intend to come over, that we may meet once more; and when we must part, it is what happens to all human beings.”’

BOSWELL. ‘The hope that we shall see our departed friends again must support the mind.’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes, Sir.’ Boswell. ‘There is a strange unwillingness to part with life, independent of serious fears as to futurity. A reverend friend of ours [Dr. Percy] tells me, that he feels an uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his house, his study, his books.’

JOHNSON. ‘This is foolish in [Percy]. A man need not be uneasy on these grounds: for, as he will retain his consciousness, he may say with the philosopher, Omnia mea mecum porto. [‘All that is mine, I carry with me,’ Cicero, Paradoxa, i]’

BOSWELL. ‘True, Sir: we may carry our books in our heads; but still there is something painful in the thought of leaving for ever what has given us pleasure. I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in a melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakepeare’s poetry did not exist. A lady, whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humoured my fancy, and relieved me by saying, “The first thing you will meet with in the other world will be an elegant copy of Shakspeare’s works, presented to you.”’

Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion…. (Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 69, April 1778)

But compare Lewis’s preferred hospital to those in Thomas More’s (1478–1535) Utopia (c. 1516), where:

hospital patients get first priority—oh yes, there are four hospitals in the suburbs, just outside the walls. Each of them is about the size of a small town. The idea of this is to prevent overcrowding, and facilitate the isolation of infectious cases. These hospitals are so well run, and so well supplied with all types of medical equipment, the nurses are so sympathetic and conscientious, and there are so many experienced doctors constantly available, that, though nobody’s forced to go there, practically everyone would rather be ill in hospital than at home. (Utopia (c. 1516, 1551), trans. Paul Turner, (New York: Penguin, 1965) II, 61–62)

To be a patient in Utopia is to be a king: everyone attends to you. Compare Mayra Hornbacher: “Hospital policy is to impose the least level of restriction possible,” (Madness: a Bipolar Life, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008) 5).

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bx-77roh9Ce/

Feb 27 2018

Nobility and Novelty

pencil shavings

Nobility and Novelty

I’m very happy to have another essay published in The Fortnightly Review.

In “A Charming Sense of Novelty,” I discuss nobility and novelty via Prince William’s new haircut, cognitive types, and Samuel Johnson’s knack for ferocious argumentation.

A post shared by Booknaticos10 (@booknaticos10) on


Apr 28 2017

Touring Ireland in the 1720s and 1860s

Touring Ireland in the 1720s and 1860s

First from Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) writing in the 1720s:

Nothing hath humbled me so much or shown a greater disposition to a contemptuous treatment of Ireland in some Ministers, than that high style of several speeches from the throne, delivered, as usual, after the royal assent, in some periods of the two last reigns. Such high exaggerations of the prodigious condescensions in the prince, to pass those good laws, would have but an odd sound at Westminster….

From whence it is clear, that some ministries in those times were apt, from their high elevation, to look down upon this kingdom as if it had been one of their colonies of outcasts in America….

Whoever travels in this country, and observes the face of nature or the faces, and habits, and dwellings of the natives, will  hardly think himself in a land where either law, religion, or common humanity is professed….[1]

For suppose you go to an ALEHOUSE with that base money, and the landlord gives you a quart for four of these HALFPENCE, what must the victualler do? His BREWER will not be paid in that coin, or if the BREWER should be such a fool, the farmers will not take it from them for their bere, because they are bound by their leases to pay their rents in good and lawful money of England, which this is not, nor of Ireland neither, and the ’squire their landlord will never be so bewitched to take such trash for his land; so that it must certainly stop somewhere or other, and wherever it stops it is the same thing, and we are all undone.[2]

To me, the Esau reference below makes no sense unless Swift is being hyper-ironic:

A people long used to hardships lose by degrees the very notions of liberty; they look upon themselves as creatures at mercy, and that all impositions laid on them by a stronger hand, are, in the phrase of the Report, legal and obligatory. Hence proceeds that poverty and lowness of spirit, to which a kingdom may be subject as well as a particular person. And when Esau came fainting from the field at the point to die, it is no wonder that he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage….

I entreat you, my dear countrymen, not to be under the least concern upon these and like rumours, which are no more than the last howls of a dog dissected alive, as I hope he hath sufficiently been….[3]

The gentleman they have lately made primate would never quit his seat in an English House of Lords, and his preferments at Oxford and Bristol, worth twelves hundred pounds a year, for four times the denomination here, but not half the value; therefore I expect to hear he will be as good an Irishman, upon this article, as any of his brethren, or even of us who have had the misfortune to be born in this island….[4]

This is an Irish Holyday when our Scoundrels will not work, else perhaps my Letter would have been shorter. [5]

As when some writer in a public cause
His pen, to save a sinking nation, draws,
While all is calm, his arguments prevail;
The people’s voice expand his paper sail:
Till pow’r, discharging all her stormy bags,
Flutters the feeble pamphlet into rags.
The nation scared, the author doom’d to death,
Who fondly put his trust in pop’lar breath….

Beware, and when you hear the surges roar,
Avoid the rocks on Britain’s angry shore.
They lie, alas, too easy to be found;
For thee alone they lie the island round.[6]

A generation after the 1720s on finds remarks on traveling in Ireland from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) in James Boswell’s (1740-1795) Life of Johnson (1791):

Boswell. “Pray, Mr. Dilly, how does Dr. Leland’s History of Ireland sell?” Johnson (bursting forth with a generous indignation). “The Irish are in a most unnatural state; for we see there the minority prevailing over the majority. There is no instance, even in the ten persecutions, of such severity as that which the protestants of Ireland have exercised against the Catholicks. Did we tell them we have conquered them, it would be above board: to punish them by confiscation and other penalties, as rebels, was monstrous injustice. King William was not their lawful sovereign: he had not been acknowledged by the parliament of Ireland when they appeared in arms against him….”[7]

He [Johnson], I know not why, shewed upon all occasions an aversion to go to Ireland, where I proposed to him that we should make a tour. JOHNSON. ‘It is the last place where I should wish to travel.’ BOSWELL. ‘Should you not like to see Dublin, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir. Dublin is only a worse capital.’ Boswell. ‘Is not the Giant’s-Causeway worth seeing?’ JOHNSON. ‘Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see.’

Yet he had a kindness for the Irish nation, and thus generously expressed himself to a gentleman from that country, on the subject of an UNION which artful Politicians have often had in view—‘Do not make an union with us, Sir. We should unite with you, only to rob you. We should have robbed the Scotch, if they had had any thing of which we could have robbed them….’[8]

[Johnson said] ‘Hospitality to strangers and foreigners in our country is now almost at an end, since, from the increase of them that come to us, there have been a sufficient number of people that have found an interest in providing inns and proper accommodations, which is in general a more expedient method for the entertainment of travellers. Where the travellers and strangers are few, more of that hospitality subsists, as it has not been worth while to provide places of accommodation. In Ireland there is still hospitality to strangers, in some degree; in Hungary and Poland probably more.’[9]

And from Joseph Le Fanu (1814-1873) on traveling in Ireland in the 1860s:

I don’t apologise to my readers, English-born and bred, for assuming them to be acquainted with the chief features of the ‘Phœnix Park, near Dublin. Irish scenery is now as accessible as Welsh. Let them study the old problem, not in blue books, but in the green and brown ones of our fields and heaths, and mountains. If Ireland be no more than a great capability and a beautiful landscape, faintly visible in the blue haze, even from your own headlands, and separated by hardly four hours of water, and a ten-shilling fare, from your jetties, it is your own shame, not ours, if a nation of bold speculators and indefatigable tourists leave it unexplored. [10]

NOTES

[1] Swift, Jonathan. “A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, in Clothes and Furniture of Houses, &c.” 1720? Edited with an introduction and notes by Angus Ross and David Woolley. Oxford World Classics.1984. Revised 2003. pp. 404–05.

bere: (OE or ME) clamour, outcry, shouting, roaring; the noise of voices of men or animals.

victualler: a purveyor of victuals or provisions; spec. one who makes a business of providing food and drink for payment; a keeper of an eating-house, inn, or tavern; a licensed victualler.

[2] Swift, “[Drapier’s Letters I] A Letter to the Shop-Keepers, Tradesmen, Farmers, and Common-People in General, of the Kingdom of Ireland.” 1724. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 424–25.

[3] Swift, “[Drapier’s Letters IV] A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland.” 1724. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 434–35.

[4] Swift, “[Drapier’s Letters IV] A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland.” 1724. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 434–35.

[5] Swift, “Swift to Charles Ford, August 16, 1725.” Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 467.

[6] Swift, “Horace, Book I, Ode xvi, Paraphrased and Inscribed to Ireland.” 1724. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 461, 462.

[7] Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 64, May 1773, p. 397.

[8] Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 70, October 1779, p. 744.

[9] Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 71, 1780, p. 772.

[10] Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. The House by the Churchyard. London: Tinsley, Brothers. 1863. Reprint. Dublin: James Duffey. 1904. “Chapter XVI – The Ordeal by Battle,” 74.


Jan 25 2017

Our Reconcilable Differences with Russia

bookshelf

Our Reconcilable Differences with Russia

“It is a singular anxiety which some people have that we should all think alike.”

––Thomas Jefferson

 “We are wiser than we know.”

––Ralph Waldo Emerson

“When everybody is alike, anything different becomes shocking.”

––George Santayana[1]

I dunno, Waldo. We may not be that wise. I don’t know what to make of Lee Smith’s January 17 piece in The Tablet Magazine: “What Obama Owes Putin—and Why Donald Trump is Let Holding the Bag.” It essentially takes the position I commented on by McCrew on January 9 and turns it on its head, arguing that rather than Putin, “misdirection has been Obama’s guiding principle for seven years.”

Instead of the U.S. being on the receiving end of an information war propagated by Russia, Smith seems to argue that the U.S. and Russia are actually allied on good number of things, and that the only ones left in the dark about how reality really works are everyday American and Israeli citizens who are the targets and victims of a Russo–American disinformation campaign with regard to Syria and Ukraine. Susan Hennessey and Jordan A. Brunner’s January 25 piece of LawFareBlog.comWhat Do We Know About Investigations into Trump’s Associates’ Ties to Russia?” seems to show that while friendliness between the two counties may not exist, a certain absence of malice has started to emerge.

I agree we Westerners should not goad literature to explain the world’s problems. Reading translations of Russian nineteenth-century literature is no panacea for twenty-first century political engagement. Yes, this can become a form of so-called “orientalism”—but outside the acolytes of Edward Said, does anyone in the East or the West of 2017 even believe or act on or behave as if orientalism is something related to tangible reality?  Something tells me no. Something tells me those ideas remain trapped in the 1980s (like New Wave music).

How do we proceed? When we are actually confronted with specific answers, we soon complain of being suffocated or inhibited, of being denied the opportunity to contribute “creatively” and “freely” on our own; and we at once begin—usually with some success—to pick holes in what has been presented us. But as soon as we feel we have pushed all this aside, and at last stand free and ready to make our own contribution, the human heart shrinks at its new nakedness and its new gift of what Santayana calls “vacant liberty.” We start once again to crave specific direction, and turn reproachfully, notebook in hand, on those who are now exhorting [strongly urging] us—in the very spirit we had before demanded—to “go and do likewise….”

––Walter Jackson Bate (1918–1999)[2]

On this issue of misappropriating literature for political purposes at her Tumblr account, Sandra Afrika complains (via Alexey Kovalev) about clickbait coming from Harvardpolitics.com, as if that URL alone wasn’t enough of a warning sign not to read any further. I think her complaints are a little overblown. A little. I wouldn’t believe anything from Harvardpolitics.com, or Kremlin.com, or Breitbart.com, or the Wrap or the Onion or Rotten Tomatoes.  These sites are made for nothing but clickbait, and one cannot legitimately complain and moan at a baker for baking bread.

But that doesn’t mean old literature has no use or relation to the world’s current problems. I don’t think I was wrong to recently pull some of my favorite quotations from Russian works, again, translated into English, amid a discussion of the (non)relationship between the White House and the Kremlin. But I nonetheless need to be more careful about doing so from now on.

So perhaps we are not wiser than we know. Perhaps the world is too wise for us.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;––
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

––Wordsworth

NOTES

[1] For Jefferson and Santayana see: Kallen, Horace. M. “The Laughing Philosopher.” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 61, No. 1. (January 1964.) 19–35 at 24–25. For Emerson, see “The Over-Soul.”

[2] Bate, Walter Jackson. The Burden of the Past. 1970. Harvard UP, Cambridge. p. 56. Continuing with Bate:

In a very real sense, therefore, human feelings, at least potentially, work outward toward reality, hoping to re-enforce and secure themselves by the ‘stability of truth.’ To this extent, they contain their own tension upwards and outward, if only in their need for reassurance, for external justification and support. But in order to use this to advantage there must first be some sort of exposure to what will arouse or satisfy us; our desires cannot clarify themselves or find objects to satisfy them unless we know or suspect the existence of such objects. Unless we have first tasted what we desire, hunger often remains only an uneasy and painful sensation, without a clear object. Accordingly, as a contemporary of Johnson pointed out, very young babies, suffering from physical hunger, often fight against food unless they have already experienced the taste of it….

The channeling effort toward achievement, in other words, constitutes a certain limitation: to be one thing is, by definition, not to be another. It is limitation, at least, when compared with what Santayana calls ‘vacant liberty,’ even though this blank liberty to drift without purpose in the dark is meaningless until it is again channeled into specific aims and renewed efforts. The history of human achievement is strewn with compulsive by-products—and with by-products that become, if not more pronounced, at least more striking, in proportion to the degree of concentration on the end desired. Too often, of course, we find a tendency to interpret the achievement as either the flowering or else the compensation of the secondary traces that accompany it, putting the hoof-prints before the horse, and regarding them as a pre-determined path. We are never unwilling to ‘lessen our disparity.’ We all feel disturbing psychological quirks in ourselves; and it is not unpleasing to imagine that if we allowed them to be a little more pressing, the achievement we are interpreting could be our own. (The Achievement of Samuel Johnson. Oxford UP. 1955. pp. 140–41, 155)


Oct 19 2016

Three Metaphors Using “Robinson Crusoe”

typewriter

Three Metaphors Using “Robinson Crusoe”

Let us consider the old deserted island question about which book to bring along, and let us further consider: has anyone ever answered Robinson Crusoe? Yes, Dr. Johnson praised the book and thought it not long enough, but in regard to the immediate circumstances the question addresses, might he or we want a book that offered a greater suspension of disbelief than Crusoe allows? Imagine Johnson stranded on the not-so-deserted Isle of Skye! (Is every book a potential treasure island?)

Among other things, Robinson Crusoe (1719) prophesizes the self-reliance of Emerson, Thoreau’s hikes through the wilderness, Frederick Jackson Turner’s (1861–1932) long goodbye to the frontier, and the American experience of enslavement of natives. Of the personal life of Professor Turner I know nothing, but I know Defoe went to the pillory on charges of publishing controversial religious-political pamphlets, and I know Thoreau went to local jail for protesting the payment of a tax. Emerson, meanwhile, never skirted the fringes of law, but in 1826 he did visit St Augustine, which exposed him to a geography and climate remarkably similar to Crusoe’s island.

But all of the above are based on literal interpretations of Defoe and his book––what about analogical interpretations? How has Crusoe been used as a metaphor? Here follow some examples, beginning with a general observation from British jurist Frederic Harrison (1831–1923):

Nay, Robinson Crusoe contains (not for boys but for men) more religion, more philosophy, more psychology, more political economy, more anthropology, than are found in many elaborate treatises on these special subjects. And yet, I imagine, grown men do not often read Robinson Crusoe, as the article has it, “for instruction of life and ensample of manners.” The great books of the world we have once read; we take them as read; we believe that we read them; at least, we believe that we know them.[1]

(1) THE METAPHOR OF SLAVE NAMES:

Sooner or later any discussion of Crusoe turns to slavery. Yes, before his shipwreck, the character Crusoe, who was already a plantation owner, had intended to enter the slave-trade. But soon enough Crusoe the castaway was captured by a Moor and made a slave.[2] Then enters, much later in the book, the character of Friday, who binds himself to Master Crusoe in voluntary servitude:

I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me; and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever. [3]

Now compare ex-slave William Wells Brown (1814–1884) and his metaphor for Friday:

I resolved on adopting my old name of William, and let Sandford go by the board, for I always hated it. Not because there was anything peculiar in the name; but because it had been forced upon me. It is sometimes common at the south, for slaves to take the name of their masters. Some have a legitimate right to do so. But I always detested the idea of being called by the name of either of my masters. And as for my father, I would rather have adopted the name of “Friday,” and been known as the servant of some Robinson Crusoe, than to have taken his name.[4]

And consider how much stock Robinson Crusoe puts into his own name:

My father being a foreigner of Bremen … lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called—nay we call ourselves and write our name—Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.[5]

Crusoe embraces a name corrupted by his peers, a nickname that disguises his cultural origins, while Brown refused to accept the name his master gave him. Brown would not be enslaved by an ill-fit name, because, as fellow ex-slave Frederick Douglass put it, slavery “saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth.” [6] Brown’s defiance and Douglass’s passion complement Thoreau’s observation:

It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. [7]

(2) THE METAPHOR OF TECHNOLOGICAL ADAPTATION

Several times in my random readings have I come across someone so impressed by Crusoe’s usage of technology and its adaptation amid isolation that they couldn’t resist making a metaphor of either the character or his situation. Take again Frederic Harrison:

Where in this terrible world was man? Scanty in umber, confined to a few favourable spots, dispersed, and alone, man sustained a precarious existence, not yet the lord of creation, inferior to many quadrupeds in strength, only just superior to them in mind—nothing but the first of the brutes. As are the lowest of all savages now, no doubt even lower, man once was. Conceive what Robinson Crusoe would have been had his island been a dense jungle overrun with savage beasts without his gun, or his knife, or his knowledge, with nothing but his human hand and his human brain.[8]

From literary critic George Saintsbury (1845–1933):

The poets are always in a Robinson Crusoe condition, and worse: for Robinson had at least seen the tools and utensils he needed, if he did not know how to make them. The scops and scalds were groping for the very pattern of the tools themselves.[9]

And from poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945):

Aren’t you the Robinson Crusoe of the mind? Cast away within himself, remaking in his island of the will his own truths along with the tolls that are required…. Other points to be made. I am owed nothing. I don’t expect anything from other people. This leads to a kind of Crusoeism. I live on a desert island where I manufacture my own tools. And what comes to me from other people is simply jetsam, debris washed up on the shore. [10]

(3) THE METAPHOR OF IMPROVISATION

Kafka admired Crusoe for his ability to survey the situation. Crusoe acted and did not theorize. He explored and exploited his position on the island. He made no excuses and became self-reliant:

Had Robinson Crusoe never left the highest, or more correctly the most visible point of his island, from desire for comfort, or timidity, or fear, or ignorance, or longing, he would soon have perished; but since without paying any attention to passing ships and their feeble telescopes he started to explore the whole island and take pleasure in it, he managed to keep himself alive and finally was found after all, by a chain of causality that was, of course, logically inevitable.[11]

In other words, when Crusoe surveyed his position on the island, he didn’t get caught in any analysis-paralysis, and Kafka admires Crusoe’s method of improvisation, this muddling through. For those who are self-reliant suffer no anxiety of influence.

NOTES

wood-h-small

[1] Harrison, Frederic. The Choice of Books. Chicago, IL: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co. 1891.pp. 106–07.

[2] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. II.

[3] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. XIV.

[4] Brown, William Wells. The Narrative of William W. Brown: An American Slave. Boston, MA: Anti-Slavery Office. 1847. p. 98.

[5] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. I.

[6] Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, July 5, 1852?”

[7] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods. 1854.“Ch. I – On Economy.”

[8] Harrison, The Meaning of History. 1894. NY: Macmillan. 1911. pp. 27–28.

[9] Saintsbury, George. The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory. London: Blackwood & Sons. 1897. p. 269.

[10] Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1931. AP, XV, 161–63.) pp. 78, 161. The sentiment is not reserved only to Valéry. Consider Eliot on Blake:

We have the same respect for Blake’s philosophy (and perhaps for that of Samuel Butler) that we have for an ingenious piece of home-made furniture: we admire the man who has put it together out of the odds and ends about the house. England has produced a fair number of these resourceful Robinson Crusoes; but we are not really so remote from the Continent, or from our own past, as to be deprived of the advantages of culture if we wish them. (“Blake,” The Sacred Wood. NY: Knopf. 1921)

And take Frye on all of the above:

T. S. Eliot in an essay on Blake … speaking of Blake’s resourceful Robinson Crusoe method of scrambling together a system of thought out of the odds and ends of his reading. (The Great Code: the Bible and Literature. 1981. NY: Mariner Books. 2008. p. xxi)

[11] Kafka, Franz. Parables and Paradoxes. NY: Schocken. 1961. p. 185.


Jun 15 2016

Stuck in Class: A Pseudo Story

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Stuck in Class: A Pseudo Story

If all language is metaphor, then, there is literary nothing literal.

––C. S. Lewis[i]

Attempt to defrag: You are Charlie Parton. You step over the dead snakes in the street and enter a convenience store where everything smells clean but many (though not all) products have been used and/or opened, not as if the place has been robbed or vandalized, but as if someone had earlier been invited there by the proprietor for a random, rampant, unsealing of the wares…. And out in the parking lot the trees see you, but the forest sees through you….

Come to think of it–have you actually been daydreaming in class this whole time and are now about to get called out for it? Hasn’t Professor Lewis just been explaining to you how, when you don’t play, you argue, that whenever you misplace your creativity, you turn to deliberation?[ii]

I remember misplacing my creativity the day I raised my hand, and got called on from behind the lectern, and thereby confessed that I wanted no more to read about local food and national politics, not when humans are being merely advertised rather than advertised to.[iii] I attempted to say: “Just because it’s on the radio doesn’t mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses.”[iv]

But Professor Tolkien curtly replied back: “It is to idols that men turned (and turn) for quick and literal answers.”[v] And I say what’s wrong with being weary of idols and advertisers and empty answers? Yet this failure of my intellect left me impatient.[vi] After all, Tolkiens answer was an easy answer! Were these words mine I would’ve said to the advertisers that “I despised them for daring so little when they could do so much, they lacked faith and I had it.”[vii]

NOTES

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[i] Lewis, Clive Staples. “Bluspels and Flalansferes” Rehabilitations and Other Essays. London: Oxford UP. 1939. Reprinted in The Importance of Language. Edited by Max Black. NJ: Prentice-Hall. 1962. 36–50 at 45.

[ii] Rhetoric is the readiest substitute for poetry (Lewis, Allegory of Love. Oxford 1936. Second Edition. 1946. p. 56). “The greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them,” (ibid 7). Proverbs were often admired for their rhetorical beauty, but not their substance (ibid 101). And:

Very roughly, we might almost say that in Rhetoric imagination is present for the sake of passion (and, therefore, in the long run, for the sake of action), while in poetry passion is present for the sake of imagination, and therefore, in the long run, for the sake of wisdom or spiritual health—the rightness and richness of a man’s total response to the world. (ibid 54)

When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: It only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (Lewis, Mere Christianity. 1944. Macmillan, NY. 1952. p. 10)

[iii] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Boston, MA: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “IV. Sounds.”

[iv] Delillo, Don. White Noise. NY: Penguin. 1985. VI, 22–23.

[v] Tolkien, J. R. R. “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics” Monsters and Critics – the Essays of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. 1983. 2006. Harper Collins. 44.

[vi] Johnson, Samuel. “Rambler No. 32 – Saturday, 7 July 1750.”

[vii] Camus, Albert. “Le renégat.” From The Fall and Exile and the Kingdom. Translated by Justine O’Brien. New York: Modern Library. 1957. 187.

 


Feb 12 2016

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) & Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

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From Carol Zaleski at ChristianCentury.org–I never knew this:

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein loved to read Johnson’s prayers as much as he disliked to read anyone else’s. There was something so human about Johnson, Wittgenstein said; and this was no faint praise, since for Wittgenstein, philosophy’s supreme task was to understand one’s own humanity and recognize the humanity of others.

Read the rest here.


Aug 28 2015

A Funny, Brazen Franzen Friday

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A Funny, Brazen, Franzen Friday

Over at National Post, Emily M. Keeler has some apt and awfully funny observations about American novelist Jonathan Franzen (Not Yet Read). In reference to Franzen’s recent interview in The Guardian, Keeler writes:

In the words [Franzen] used, in the Guardian, against everyone young: “I thought [young] people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me.” It’s here, in his inability to humanely imagine what it might be like to occupy the consciousness of a person under the age of 40, where the novel falls down. Instead of portraying characters with fully realized consciousnesses of their own, he uses them as too-often artless ciphers for the rage he wishes people my age would feel.

His anger at millennial feminism, at the incrementalization of public opinion after the advent of social media, at young people in general, with our apparent lack of an appropriate response to the world he lives in, is more alienating than it is engaging. Even as he throws in a few great jokes to chew on – the novelist has repeatedly been made into an example of male privilege, targeted by other writers for his blithe sense of male entitlement, and so includes in this book a section by a male journalist who is so neutered by love for his feminist artist girlfriend that he sits down to urinate as a gesture of his willingness to handicap his masculine privileges – his disdain for his reader is as clear as his displeasure in the world he’s depicting.

(Read the whole thing.) And isn’t disdain just another word for resentment? And isn’t that just what America needs, more resentment? Some supporters of Donald Trump seem to think so. But, having recently written how resentment only breeds resentment, I can only add an observation from the late great Walter Jackson Bate:

The whole range of misunderstandings, rivalries, and resentments that divide human beings from each other is viewed, in short, as the product of imagination acting upon what we now call ‘anxiety,’ or the chronic, crippling preoccupation with our own problems and fears. Johnson himself uses the word, as when he states that ‘anxiety’ tends to increase itself. By keeping a man ‘always in alarms,’ and looking at all costs for safety, it leads him ‘to judge of everything in a manner that least favours his own quiet, fills him with perpetual stratagems of counteraction,’* and, by wearing him out ‘in schemes to obviate evils which never threatened him,’ causes him to contribute unwittingly to the very situations he fears.

–The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1956)

To find out if Purity, Franzen’s latest work “fills him with perpetual stratagems of counteraction,” one will have to ask him. But I’m somewhat filled with counteraction in the sense that I’ve had little desire to read Franzen’s work up until now. A new experience awaits.