Aug 22 2022

The Imagination: Toy for the Child, Tool for the Adult

pencil shavings

We need more imagination to address our traffic congestion, our housing shortages, our mass-shooter threats, as well as our energy supplies and climate alterations. We need incubators and accelerators of imaginative thought (not just for the arts) but to aid in determining solutions to our greatest social pains. For where there’s pain, there is a problem. But there, there is also life; because only what is dead feels no pain.

I don’t pretend to be clever enough to know exactly what that fully entails—but I believe it begins with taking imagination very seriously—seriously enough to study it and analyze it (at least for starters).

And if, at the start, we’re too ill-equipped to undertake such an analysis, let us, if nothing else, attempt to analyze the findings of those who have already analyzed the human imagination.

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Let’s cut to the chase by beginning with Hamlet (II, i), where he is confronted by his old buddies from university Guildenstern and Rosencrantz:

HAMLET
What you have,
my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune,
that she sends you to prison hither?

GUILDENSTERN
Prison, my lord!

HAMLET
Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ
Then is the world one.

HAMLET
A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

ROSENCRANTZ
We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET
Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so
: to me
it is a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ
Why then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too
narrow for your mind. 

Hamlet here seems a bit childish. And one of the major questions, throughout the earlier parts of the play, concerns the audience, along with the rest of the play’s characters, all trying to decide: how authentic is Hamlet’s childish behavior?

While the word imagination isn’t used in this passage, Hamlet’s holding here that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” marks a possible origin to imaginative thought.

I interpret one of the meanings to the line “thinking makes it so” to mean: the act of thinking allows one to discern a difference between two or more things, in this case, the difference between good and bad (whatever that difference may be).

But even if this is but a single legitimate meaning to the line “thinking makes it so”—one might still label it a childish judgment on Hamlet’s behalf.

Rosencrantz tells Hamlet that it is the latter’s “ambition” that “makes” Denmark seem like a prison.

So, from this scene, a reader might extrapolate (or perhaps daydream) the hypothesis that imagination begins either from thinking or from ambition.

Certainly thinking in-and-of-itself is generally not considered to be childish. (But an over-abundance of ambition might be so considered.)

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For the Enlightenment-age sociologist Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), imagination is part of the complex relationship between reason and memory:

Just as old age is powerful in reason, so is adolescence in imagination. Since imagination has always been esteemed a most favorable omen of future development, it should in no way be dulled. Furthermore, the teacher should give the greatest care to the cultivation of the pupil’s memory, which, though not exactly the same as imagination, is almost identical with it. In adolescence, memory outstrips in vigor all other faculties, and should be intensely trained. Youth’s natural inclination to the arts in which imagination or memory (or a combination of both) is prevalent (such as painting, poetry, oratory, jurisprudence) should by no means be blunted…. The Ancients required their youths to learn the science of geometry which cannot be grasped without a vivid capacity to form images.

This is why, writes Vico elsewhere:

As the children of the new-born human race, the first people believed that the sky was no higher than their mountain heights, just as children today think it no higher than the rooftops….

People living in the world’s childhood [that is, the earliest days of humanity] were by nature sublime poets….

By nature, children retain the ideas and names of the people and things they have known first, and later apply them to others they meet who bear a resemblance or relation to the first.

Therefore:

The sublimest task of poetry is to attribute sense and emotion to insensate objects. It is characteristic of children to pick up inanimate objects and to talk to them in their play as if they were living persons.

(Vico, De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Time) (1709), trans. Elio Gianturco, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990), pp. 13–14; Vico, La Scienza Nuova (The Third New Science) (1725), trans. David Marsh, (New York: Penguin, 1999), “Idea of the Work” [¶ 4] 3; I, § 2, xxxvii, [¶ 186], p. 89; I, § 2, lxviii, [¶ 206], p. 92. See also Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophie der Psychologie – Ein Fragment (Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment) [formerly Philosophical Investigations Part II] in Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001), Revised Fourth Edition by Hacker and Schulte, (2009) (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009), (II, xi, 148), p. 208.)

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So I interpret Vico to say: there is this thing called imagination, and its ingredients (or perhaps catalysts) are memory and reason.

But why talk about thinking and memory and reason when the discussion should be about imagination? The terms and concepts keep multiplying, but it seems better to keep it simple and as few as possible.

Yes, the terms and concepts keep multiplying, but that is because, as journalist and social-theorist Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) has explained, when it comes to discussing the particular act of thinking we call imagination, simply because it is a word, it is (and shall always remain) a metaphor for something else:

The chief difficulty here seems to be that for thinking itself—whose language is entirely metaphorical and whose conceptual framework depends entirely on the gift of the metaphor, which bridges the gulf between the visible and the invisible, the world of appearances and the thinking ego—there exists no metaphor that could plausibly illuminate this special activity of the mind, in which something invisible within us deals with the invisibles of the world. All metaphors drawn from the sense will lead us into difficulties for the simple reason that all our senses are essentially cognitive, hence, if understood as activities, have an end outside themselves; they are not Energeia, an end in itself but instruments enabling us to know and deal with the world.

(The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking, p. 123)

In other words, we readers cannot “start from zero” (ex nihilo), for—just as there is no emoji for the word emoji––there is no metaphor for metaphor.

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Imagination isn’t just a mental activity—it can also mean a mental place where such activity can occur. In the tale “Night on the Galactic Railroad” (1927), Japanese novelist-poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896–1933) the child character of Giovanni does this effortlessly:

I’m a great big locomotive! Watch as I speed down this incline! And look, my shadow has slipped out in front of me, swaying like a compass needle, he played around in his imagination.

(Night on the Galactic Railroad & Other Stories from Ihatov, trans. Julianne Neville, (Long Island City, New York: One Peace Books, 2014) “§ The Centaurus Festival,” 54)

But one shouldn’t accept Vico’s statements on children and imagination at face value. Some people, like Canadian comedian (and social philosopher) Norm MacDonald (1959–2021) as a child, imagination takes a tremendous amount of effort psychological effort:

So I decided right then and there to see the picture as it really was. I stared at the thing long and hard, trying to only see the paint. But it was no use. All my eyes would allow me to see was the lie. In fact, the longer I gazed at the paint, the more false detail I began to imagine. The boy was crying, as if afraid, and the woman was weaker than I had first believed. I finally gave up. I understood then that it takes a powerful imagination to see a thing for what it really is.

(Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir, (New York: Random House, 2017), pp. 20–21)

This passage serves as a kind of over-arching metaphor for Norm’s book—readers don’t really know completely what is fiction or fact or some combination of the two, blended by memory.

Adults too, make use of imagination as a place where they can imagine they know things that they actually don’t know. As the glad genius Umberto Eco (1932–2016) once explained:

Even though I too am incapable of telling an elm from a beech, I can easily recognize mangroves (which I was able to identify one day thanks to having read about them in many travel books) and banyan trees, about which I had received plentiful instructions in Emilio Salgari’s adventure books. But I was convinced I knew nothing about the paletuviere (mentioned equally frequently in Salgari’s books), until on reading an encyclopedia one day I discovered that, in Italian, paletuviere is simply another word for mangrovia. Now I could reread Salgari, imagining mangroves every time he mentioned paletuviere. But what did I do for years and years, from childhood on, reading about these paletuviere without knowing what they were? From the context I had deduced that they were plants, something like trees or bushes, but this was the only property I could manage to associate with the name. Nevertheless, I was able to read on by pretending to know what they were. I used my imagination to integrate what little I had been able to glimpse within the half-open box, but in fact I was taking something on trust.

(Kant e lornitorinco (Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition), trans. Alastair McEwen, (New York: Harcourt, 1997), p. 292)

Finally, compare the imagination of patient Leonard L. in the Awakenings (1973) report by Dr. Oliver Sacks (1933–2015), where the imagination is an aid to survival and quality of life:

Leonard L. had in fact, been hallucinating for years—long before he ever received L-DOPA (although he was unable or unwilling to admit this to me until 1969). Being particularly fond of ‘Western’ scenes and films, Leonard L. had, indeed, ordered the old painting of the shanty-town as long ago as 1955 for the sole and express purpose of hallucinating with it—and it was his custom to ‘animate’ it for a hallucinatory matinée after lunch every day….

Most of the patients’ hallucinations lack the ambivalent, often paranoiac, and in general uncontrollable nature of schizophrenic hallucinations; but that they are, in contrast, very like scenes of normal life, very much like that healthy reality from which these pathetic patients have been cut off for years (by illness, institutionalization, isolation, etc.). The function (and form) of schizophrenic hallucinations, in general, has to do with the denial of reality; whereas the function (and form) of the benign hallucinations seen in Mount Carmel has to do with creating reality, imagining a full and happy and healthy life of a sort which has been cruelly denied to them through Fate. Thus I regard it as a sign of these patients’ health, of their enduring wish to live, and live fully—if only in the realms of imagination and hallucination, which are the only realms where they still enjoy freedom—that they hallucinate all the richness and drama and fullness of life. They hallucinate to survive—as do subjects exposed to extreme sensory, motor, or social isolation; and for this reason, whenever I learn from such a patient that he constructs a rich and benign hallucinatory ‘life,’ I encourage him to the full, as I encourage all creative endeavours which reach out to life.

(Awakenings, (New York: Random House, 1973; Vintage Books, 1990), pp. 214–15)


Feb 11 2022

Book Review: “Coyote Songs” (2018) by Gabino Iglesias

Western book stack

Book Review: “Coyote Songs” (2018) by Gabino Iglesias

I don’t read a lot of horror, but occasionally I find myself gandering afield. So I feel confident enough to claim Gabino Iglesias’s novel Coyote Songs: a barrio noir (El Paso: Broken Books, 2018) can, at times, be just as vicious as parts of other novels I’ve encountered such as McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), a lot of the little I’ve read of Stephen King––particularly his It (1989)––and perhaps even Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse (1996).

One very poignant passage for me in Iglesias’s book was:

The men made phone calls and used the equipment in their cars to report the finding. Then came the white vans. Men and women wearing masks and latex gloves packed the bodies into black bags, zipped them up, and loaded them into the backs of the vans. The process was quiet, ceremonial. Every time they pulled a kid out, everyone looked down, refusing to make eye contact with the others. They were temporarily ashamed of being human. (Coyote Songs 132)

This is a fictional world, yet it is one akin to the world of Ayotzinapa––a world where, instead of the bright cliché of how “the eyes are the windows to the soul”—readers instead find only sight shattered, vision lost, ocular organs gouged out like Gloucester on the moor when he laments:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport. (King Lear IV, i)

Iglesias’s line––“ashamed to being human”— reminds me also of the story of Pio Bigo (1924–2013), an Italian who refused to fight for Mussolini, then, endured time in Muthausen, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald, only to return home after the war to find that no one wanted to hear his story. It seems they were too “ashamed of being human.” For to be ashamed to be human is to be human-all-too-human.

(See the thumbnail sketch of Bigo’s story in Volkhard Knigge, “To Each His Own [a Preface],” Buchenwald: Ostracism and Violence 1937 to 1945, trans., Judith Rosenthal, eds. Knigge, Michael Löffelsender, Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau and Harry Stein, (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2017) p. 126.)

What I encountered in Coyote Songs was a visceral admixture of the real-unreal-ethereal—not unlike David Dorado Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution: an Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893–1923 (El Paso: Cinco Punto, 2005), a factual text whose epilogue involves a literal encounter with un fantasma de Pancho Villa—and also not unlike how Cabeza de Vaca’s (1488–1560) La Relación (Narrative of the Navárez Expedition) (c. 1542) includes not only cannibalism and three kinds of mosquitos, but an encounter with a dark, devilish spirit.

(Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, La Relacíon, ed. Harold Augenbraum, (New York: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 2013), pp. 72, 93, 107–08. For other, recent devilish encounters in modern America, see Chris Arnade, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, (New York: Sentinel, 2019), p. 111; Ray Wyle Hubbard with Thom Jurek, A Life … Well, Lived, (Wimberly, Texas: Bordello Records, 2015), p. 132.)

Finally, while I did happen to notice the line––

She wanted to show her white liberal friends how some of their discourses were thinly-cloaked attempts to make up for their racist families or white guilt or just crap they’d picked up from popular television personalities and later regurgitated with ludicrous levels of self-assuredness and conviction. (Coyote Songs 45)

––let me finish by reaffirming that (while I’m a straight, white (liberal?) male) I’m also but a reviewer, not an Ivy-League gatekeeper, not an editor (except to myself), not a Rogan listener or a Trump voter, or vaccine denier, nor a gangster of love; nor do I wield any influence, bear any wealth, possess any insight, claim any authority, nor manifest any charisma to “change the System,” (though a change might be nice, particularly in the world of publishing). But I nonetheless think all readers here at Bookbread should check out Iglesias’s book(s). I know that, for me, this first encounter is not enough; I want more.


Jun 30 2020

Short Story Review: “Animation” by Chris Dangle

pencil shavings

I once knew a writer in the mid-80s, one of nondenominational Christian songs, and about the only lyric I can now remember (for I was then but a child) is “my life’s a vapor.”

This writer was in his twenties then; he later died in his forties (some kind of cancer, I heard about it third- or fourth-handed years later). So, like some poets, his lyrics (or at least the one I remember) ended up being prophetic.

So, when part of your childhood mindset is “life’s a vapor,” carpe diem and all that, it is quite natural to be suspicious of something that calls itself “flash fiction.”

I used to think flash fiction was just a gimmick to lure Gen-Z readers and writers into the ever nonlucrative world of modern publishing.

And there is Hamlet’s remark that “brevity is the soul of wit,” but he may be mad when he says it, and besides, not all brief texts, whether fiction or otherwise, are witty.

All that being said, I’m willing to reconsider things after reading Chris Drangle’s “Animation” (Chattahoochee Review Spring 2018), for here one finds intense, interesting brevity.

Here is a barest-of-bones narrative told seamlessly (or perhaps one should say “without fracture”)—like James Thurber’s (1894–1961) “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” (1939), the Ficciones of Jorge Borges (1899–1986), and some of Kafka’s (1883–1924) parables.

I shall now be more receptive to this genre (and may sometimes admit that even I make mistakes.)


Apr 27 2020

Pity for Poverty

typewriter

[The following was a major cut made to a book review I’ve submitted for publication. But I find the cut interesting enough.]

Even if we approve of a person who, from a sense of duty in charity, is sorry for a wretch, yet he who manifests fraternal compassion would prefer that there be no cause for sorrow. It is only if there could be a malicious good will (which is impossible) that someone who truly and sincerely felt compassion would wish wretches to exist so as to be objects of compassion. Therefore some kind of suffering is commendable, but none is loveable.

––Augustine, Confessions (3.3.3)[i]

BOSWELL. ‘Sir, I have not so much feeling for the distress of others, as some people have, or pretend to have: but I know this, that I would do all in my power to relieve them.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is affectation to pretend to feel the distress of others, as much as they do themselves. It is equally so, as if one should pretend to feel as much pain while a friend’s leg is cutting off, as he does. No, Sir; you have expressed the rational and just nature of sympathy.’

––Boswell, Life of Johnson, March 25, 1776

After reading, among other things, Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (2019), I find myself often wavering between the sympathies of Bishop Augustine, Dr. Johnson, and James Boswell above and the considerations below from longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983):

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.

––The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)[ii]

I waver because for the past twenty years I have ridden the city bus to either school or work in Austin, Texas. As a straight white male alumnus of the University of Texas I have had on that bus the privilege to witness and encounter the less-privileged laugh, converse, fight, beg, pontificate, flirt, and sleep on buses and at bus stops. I’ve seen addicts, the unlucky, and the mentally ill ask strangers for directions to navigate the city, money for bus fares, cigarettes and lights, and even request prayer from strangers who—judging by the perplexions on their faces––seemed never to have prayed before. (But pray they all did!)

Yes, within this city I’ve stepped over a live body sprawled on the sidewalk, stiff and oblivious in a trance induced by the synthetic pseudo-cannabis called K2. I’ve handed my doggy bag full of fresh leftovers from lunch to the passerby beggar asking for something to eat. Very rarely (but not quite never) have I given a downtrodden individual a small amount of cash and a strong hug.

Occasionally I’ve traveled abroad and (again) witnessed and encountered les míserables in larger cities such as London, Paris, Dublin, and Berlin as well as smaller ones like Belfast, Oxford, Seville, and Bologna. Though I don’t recall any encounters with homelessness in Stratford, throughout my travels on the local bus and overseas I have, as Jacques says in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “gained my experience.”[iii] But the price for the “rich eyes” of a traveler means that, also like Jacques, I now possess the “poor hands” and empty pockets that so unimpressed fair Lady Rosalind. Such has been the life of writer Chris Landrum. Thus:

“We may have uneasy sensations from seeing a creature in distress, without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them.”

––Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)[iv]

“Pity is one form of being convinced that someone else is in pain.”

––Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)[v]

“The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention” is love.”

––Simone Weil (1909–1943)[vi]

NOTES

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[i] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) (III, iii, 1), p. 37.

[ii] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §11, p. 23.

[iii] William Shakespeare, As You Like It IV, i.

[iv] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 18 July 1763.

[v] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001; revised Fourth Edition eds. Hacker and Schulte, 2009) I. no. 287.

[vi] Simone Weil, “Human Personality,” (1943), Simone Weil: an Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, (London: Virago Press, 1986) 92.


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

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[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/

Dec 26 2017

14 Different Ways to Think About Books

Western book stack

14 Different Ways to Think About Books:
Or, Do Good Questions Make Good Books?

I’ve been thinking about Kevin Kelly’s book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016) where toward the end of his rather interesting book he lists some provoking questions. Their provocation led my thinking to take an initiative. So I went ahead and transposed the word “book” for the word “question” in this quotation from Kelly:

  1. A good [book] is not concerned with a correct answer.

  2. A good [book] cannot be answered immediately.

  3. A good [book] challenges existing answers.

  4. A good [book] is one you badly want answered once you hear it, but had no inkling you cared before it was asked.

  5. A good [book] creates new territory of thinking.

  6. A good [book] reframes its own answers.

  7. A good [book] is the seed of innovation in science, technology, art, politics, and business.

  8. A good [book] is a probe, a what-if scenario.

  9. A good [book] skirts on the edge of what is known and not known, neither silly nor obvious.

  10. A good [book] cannot be predicted.

  11. A good [book] will be the sign of an educated mind.

  12. A good [book] is one that generates many other good questions.

  13. A good [book] may be the last job a machine will learn to do.

  14. A good [book] is what humans are for. [1]

I think the transposition works well for intriguing lines of thoughts and, ironically enough, questions, except perhaps for no. 14. If the statement is understood as a good book is made for humans, I see no problem. But if the statement means humans are made for good books, I feel I’m on shakier ground. Yet here I recall Owen Barfield (1898-1997) once recalling Oscar Wilde (1854-1900):

Oscar Wilde’s mot—that men are made by books rather than books by men—was certainly not pure nonsense; there is a very real sense, humiliating as it may seem, in which what we generally venture to call our feelings are really Shakespeare’s ‘meaning’. [2]

NOTES

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[1] Kelly, The Inevitable, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016) 288–89.

[2] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning, (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928. Third Edition. Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973) 136–37.


Feb 17 2017

Why do Artists Travel?

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Why do Artists Travel?

What foreign walls will open to a wanderer?

––Statius[1]

This is my home and my homeland. It tallies with secrets my father
Left me, that talked about fate.

––Virgil[2]

Rosalind: “A traveler? By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s. Then to have seen much and to have nothing is to have rich eyes and poor hands.”

Jacques: “Yes, I have gained my experience.”

Rosalind: “And your experience makes you sad. I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad— and to travel for it, too.”

––Shakespeare [3]

The traveller that distrusts every person he meets, and turns back upon the appearance of every man that looks like a robber, seldom arrives in time at his journey’s end.

––Oliver Goldsmith[4]

It must be confessed in the main that travelers who withdraw from the limitation of their homes think they step into not only a strange but a perfectly free nature, and this delusion we could at that time cherish the more as we were not yet reminded every moment by police examinations of passports, by tolls, and other such like hindrances, that abroad things are still more limited and worse than at home.

––Goethe[5]

All the arts commonly aspire toward the principle of music….. The aim of our culture should be to attain not only as intense but as complete a life as possible…. The demand of the intellect is to feel itself alive.

––Walter Pater[6]

No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. Take an example from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate self-conscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.

––Oscar Wilde[7]

See more: Why Do Artists Travel? (Part 02)

NOTES

[1] Statius, Thebaid. Translated by Ross. XI, 730

[2] Virgil, Aeneid. VII, 123.

[3] Shakespeare, As You Like It. IV, i.

[4] Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, “26. A reformation in the gaol. To make laws complete, they should reward as well as punish.”

[5] Goethe, Dichtung und Wahrheit, XIX, 661.

[6] Pater, The Renaissance 135, 188, 220.

[7] Wilde, “The Decay of Lying.”


Nov 4 2016

Bookbread: International Voting Edition

typewriter

Bookbread: International Voting Edition

With only four days left before this election ends, I’ve noticed some readers of this blog come all the way from places such as Yerevan, Armenia and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as well as Bad Kissingen, Bavaria and even Bengaluru, Karnataka.

I wonder, what would those readers and their friends and families ask of a voter in the United States? Would they be curious for whom I voted? Do they understand the typical American’s deep ambivalence toward both candidates?

  • I will say I’ve already voted.
  • I will say never have I joined a political party nor voted a “straight ticket” for a single faction.
  • I will say I come from a modest family involved in agriculture, healthcare, and education. I grew up on a farm outside of a town with a population of less than 7,000 but now live about 60 miles away from that farm in Austin, Texas with a metro populous of over a million.
  • I will say the city traffic proposition that I voted on will affect my day-to-day life much more than any President of the United States ever can on any issue.

I cannot deny being tempted to pen, as Ovid did to his enemies in the Ibis, an elaborate curse upon these hucksters who herd us like cattle. Or should I follow Paul’s advice and shake my sandals at these clownish candidates and their supporters and declare “your blood be on your own hands,”? [1]

On the other hand, perhaps all this anxiety and confusion will revive the aesthetic significance of literature. After all, in both good times and bad, one nearly always wants better books. Yet I would be willing to face a famine that made worthwhile works scarce should that famine render an abundance of readers seriously interested in self-education. This was Andrew Lang’s audience,[2] and it is the audience this Bookbread blog continues to seek, no matter which ape be the acting President.

NOTES

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[1] Matthew 10:14; Acts 18:6.

[2] As Elanor De Selms Langstaff put it: “Lang did not write for the newly literate, but, good Scotsman that he was, speak he did to the most serious of the self-educated,” (Andrew Lang. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co. 1978. p. 14.)