Jan 25 2017

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!



[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”

bookbread typewriter

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]


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]


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]


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.



[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


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]



[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)

bookbread athens

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

bookbread typewriter

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.

Mar 25 2011

Second of Three Proposals: Toward a Frankenstein-like Poetics

Continued from First of Three Proposals: Toward a Poetics of Ignorance

See also Third of Three Proposals: Toward Reconciling a Poetics of Ignorance with a Frankenstein-like Poetics

1.0 All books of power are made from prior books of power. A few of these books are elaborate tapestries, however, most are patchwork quilts. All books are literally scrapbooks: books made from the scraps of other books.[1]

1.1 These scraps, or parts of prior books, are also the prior parts of dead peoples’ thoughts, ideas, and memories—so these book-parts are no different than the lifeless limbs of dead men and women.

1.2 A writer reassembles, reanimates the dead parts of people to make a book, therefore: any book of power is a “Frankenstein” monster, a kind of zombie text.

2.0 The doubts expressed by a writer stimulate, reanimate the parts, and quicken the book to breathe before the reader.[2]

3.0 A library is a cemetery[3]––the writer is a ghoul, a grave robber, hence the truism: “All writers steal.”

[1] Heed the words of Harold Bloom:

“Each poem is an evasion not only of another poem, but also of itself, which is to say that every poem is a misinterpretation of what it might have been.” (Anxiety of Influence. 1975. Oxford UP. p. 120.)

Bloom bestows a schematic, but Robert Graves gives writers a method:

The method may be called “analeptic mimesis”: one slowly copies out the poem by hand, as if it were a first draft of one’s own. When the pen checks at a word or a phrase, one becomes intuitively aware of laziness, doubt, stupidity, or some compromise with moral principle.

(Oxford Lectures on Poetry. 1962. Cassell. p. 4.)

 [2] As De Quincy puts it:

Now, if it be asked what is meant by communicating power, I, in my turn, would ask by what name a man would designate the case in which I should be made to feel vividly, and with a vital consciousness, emotions which ordinary life rarely or never supplies occasions for exciting, and which had previously lain unwakened, and hardly within the dawn of consciousness— as myriads of modes of feeling are at this moment in every human mind for want of a poet to organize them. I say, when these inert and sleeping forms are organized, when these possibilities are actualized, is this conscious and living possession of mine power, or what is it?

 [3] See Jonathan Swift, Battle of the Books (1704), Samuel Johnson Rambler 02 (1750).

Aug 25 2010

A Love for the Love of Reading

(A Dialogue between the Brothers Grimm)

Wilhelm: Today I woke up believing how, like Montaigne, each of us brothers is the kind of person who has: “forgotten it all; for though I am a man of some reading, I am one who retains nothing,” (01). We read, yes, but what do we retain? I mean not just the text itself, but do you or I retain the memory of the act of reading the text and not just a remembrance of texts past? How does that affect our interpretation and recall?

Jacob: Yes, along those same lines, sometimes I don’t know whether I wield or wax or wane away my love for books simply for the sake of a deeper devotion: the love for the love of books.

Wilhelm: Well, after all, Psyche fell in love with love itself … perhaps we should not be so surprised. (02)

Jacob: Were that true, we might dare to call ourselves “selfless readers.”

Wilhelm: I remember an opening remark by the enlightened bookman Samuel Johnson, in his Rambler No. 02 (1750), and in introducing us to his essay (whose topic happens to be authorship), we find Johnson’s words apply to the way we Brothers Grimm see ourselves reading:

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; and as this practice is: a commodious subject of raillery to the gay, and of declamation to the serious, it has been ridiculed with all the pleasantry of wit, and exaggerated with all the amplifications of rhetoric. Every instance, by which its absurdity might appear most flagrant, has been studiously collected; it has been marked with every epithet of contempt, and all the tropes and figures have been called forth against it. (03)

Wilhelm: Take Johnson’s first line: 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—when I read those words of Johnson’s they remind me of how I generally want to read all the books behind the book that’s in my hand at the moment.

Jacob: Oh?

Wilhelm: And while doing so, I think: “Which books should I have read before this book I have now?” In short, I dismiss the book at hand.

Jacob: But then remember that Emerson advises us: “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” (04)

Wilhelm: Yes, if I knew what I should’ve read, I could anticipate the arguments of the book at hand.

Jacob: Okay, but please elaborate on this desire for anticipation.

Wilhelm: Take M. Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967)—

Jacob: —Oh, do I have to?

Wilhelm: So I ordered, received the book from Amazon. It’s a thick, heavy, pretty book with nice paper. But, browsing through its index, I see that I should probably read more deeply in Condillac, Freud, Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Levi’-Strauss, Nietzsche, and Rousseau before I fully plunge into the grammatology of M. Derrida. I feel as though I need to read what he’s read so I can anticipate him, that I may then “know” his text and acquire gnosis of it before I’ve even read it.

Jacob: Johnson continues:

Censure is willingly indulged, because it always implies some superiority; men please themselves with imagining that they have made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies, which escape vulgar observation. And the pleasure of wantoning in common topics is so tempting to a writer, that he cannot easily resign it; a train of sentiments generally received enables him to shine without labour, and to conquer without a contest. It is so easy to laugh at the folly of him who lives only in ideas, refuses immediate ease for distant pleasures, and instead of enjoying the blessings of life, lets life glide away in preparations to enjoy them; it affords such opportunities of triumphant exultation, to exemplify the uncertainty of the human state, to rouse mortals from their dream, and inform them of the silent celerity of time, that we may believe authors willing rather to transmit than examine so advantageous a principle, and more inclined to pursue a track so smooth and so flowery, than attentively to consider whether it leads to truth. (05)

Jacob: For Johnson (or at least our reading of him), behind the love for the love of reading lurks a temptation to censure, a temptation to criticize what occurs in life as well as what occurs in the act of reading.

Wilhelm: So does Johnson’s line to pursue a track so smooth and so flowery, than attentively to consider whether it leads to truth” leads us back to the “silent celerity” of time?

Jacob: For our purposes brother, the love for the love of books seems more “flowery” than a direct, immediate love of absorbing the printed word.

Wilhelm: Although Johnson specifically discusses authorship in this essay, we readers may also, as Johnson writes, be “willing to transmit than examine” our readings onto others.

Jacob: A lot of times I feel I’ve somehow censured myself (or at least my intellect) once I recognize the love for the love of reading. It is a barrier.

Wilhelm: Yes, it impedes my attention towards the text.

Jacob: With the line: “that many read but sought action” we might interpret Johnson to mean: when we Brothers Grimm read, we act out of our love for the love of reading, but the reading itself is for a kind of reading we shall never reach.

Wilhelm: Then do we read in order to escape Johnson’s foreboding phrase “the silent celerity of time”?

Jacob: Or do we read in order to envelope our attention into any book at hand and its own “silent celerity of time”?

Wilhelm: What I think Johnson means in this line is that this is what happens when style conquers truth: truth is silenced by the speed of style.

Jacob: And you look to Johnson as an authority on Style? Hmm, I see.

Wilhelm: Compare Johnson’s line “Censure is willingly indulged, because it always implies some superiority” to a passage from Lord Shaftesbury’s Sensus Communis (1711) when his lordship mentions some who are:

Imposers [who] naturally speak the best of human nature, that they may the easier abuse it. These gentlemen, on the contrary, speak the worst and had rather they themselves shou’d be censur’d with the rest, than that a few shou’d by imposture prevail over the many. For ’tis the opinion of goodness which creates easiness of trust, and by trust, we are betray’d to power; our very reason being thus captivated by those in whom we come insensibly to have an implicit faith. (06)

Wilhelm: In our case, we can take Shaftesbury to mean an implicit faith in books. It seems, at least from Shaftesbury’s point of view, that these impostor-authors have censured themselves.

Jacob: The “schemes of future felicity” mentioned earlier by Johnson are themselves schemes of censurship: schemes for readers to impose criticism onto the authors at hand.

Wilhelm: As Shaftesburian readers, we put “an implicit faith” in authors when instead, we should censure them by feeling superior to them.

Jacob: If we maintain a love for the love of books rather than the act of reading, it becomes easier to abuse our minds (our beliefs and doubts) with the texts we read. Drugs and delusions galore.

Wilhelm: Or, is it only that we desire to display the implied superiority found in censurship? Because if we are all censures, I have a hard time not believing we are little more than impostors who impose reading and our love of reading upon others.

(01) Montaigne, Michel de. Essays II, x, “On Books.” (1580). Trans. Charles Cotton. Project Guttenberg. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3600/3600-h/3600-h.htm#2HCH0067>.

(02) Apuleius, Lucius. “Cupid and Psyche.” The Golden Ass. (~200 A.D.).

(03) Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler 02. March 26, 1750. (¶ 1).

(04) Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self Reliance“. (1841).

(05) Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler 02. March 26, 1750. (¶ 2).

(06) Cooper, Anthony Ashley, Third Earl of Shaftesbury. Sensus Communis. (1711). In Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times.

Jan 29 2010

The Book Blogger’s Scepter of Censure

“Censure is willingly indulged, because it always implies some superiority; men please themselves with imagining that they have made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies, which escape vulgar observation. And the pleasure of wantoning in common topics is so tempting to a writer, that he cannot easily resign it; a train of sentiments generally received enables him to shine without labour, and to conquer without a contest.”

—Samuel Johnson

“It is a truthful sublimity which elevates the mind, and flatters it into believing such sublimity to be its own offspring and production.”


Being new, this blog is still coming into its own with providing a suitable style and proper form. Bookbread strives to provide and participate in “elevated conversations”: elevated in Longinus’ sense of the sublime—and conversations that concern books, literature, and language. But when online in the twenty-first century, the temptation is exponentially greater to “willingly indulge” in criticism on the views of others, or “censure” whatever one happens to come across while reading/browsing.

It can certainly be confessed that Bookbread still experiences moments of pleasure when imagining that [Bookbread has] made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies, which escape vulgar observation. Such pleasures are reserved for those who bear the scepter of censure.  Those bearers are called book bloggers.

Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler 02. March 26, 1750. (¶ 2).

Longinus, Dionysius. An Essay on the Sublime. (~100 C.E.). trans. by Herbert A. Giles. (1870). J. Cornish & Sons, London. (§ VII, pp. 17–18).