Oct 16 2022

Left Blinker, Right Turn: Tricked by My Imagination

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Left Blinker, Right Turn: Tricked by My Imagination

In the fourth book of the Confessions, Rousseau of Geneva says his imagination was too fertile to appreciate Paris:

How contrary to what I had expected was my first sight of Paris! The external ornament I had seen in Turin, the fine streets, the symmetry and disposition of the houses, all this made me look for something better still in Paris. I had imagined a city as broad as it was fair, whose every aspect was imposing, where all one would see were magnificent streets and palaces of marble and gold. Entering by the Faubourg Saint-Marceau, I saw nothing but dirty, stinking little streets, dark and ugly houses, an air of filth and poverty, beggars, carters, old crones mending, hawkers of herbal teas and old hats. I was so immediately and so forcibly struck by it all that none of the true splendour I later saw in Paris has erased this first impression, and I have been left ever since with a secret dislike of living in this capital.

It could even be said that such time as I have spent there since has been wholly devoted to acquiring the means to enable me to live somewhere else. Such is the fruit of too lively an imagination, which exaggerates still further the exaggerations of others, and always enhances what it is told. I had always heard Paris acclaimed in such terms that I had pictured it to myself as a second Babylon, although, had I seen this city, I might perhaps have found that it, too, fell no less short of the portrait I had painted of it in my mind’s eye.

The same thing happened at the Opéra, which I rushed to visit the next day; the same thing happened later at Versailles, later still when I saw the sea, and the same thing will always happen when I see sights that have been too warmly recommended: for it is impossible for men and difficult for nature herself to outdo my fertile imagination.

(Confessions (1779), trans. Angela Scholar, ed. Patrick Coleman, (New York: Oxford, 1994, 2008), IV, p. 155.)

And these thoughts on imagination from Rousseau came to me in the middle of traffic—when I saw the blinker to the car in front of me indicating it would soon turn left. Then, of course, the car slowed down and turned right.

The expectation I imagined (of the car turning left) turned out to be false. It turned out to be the exact opposite of what one should expect from such an indication.

Chaucer might’ve said of this an example that “Thou hast a veyn imaginacioun,” (The Knight’s Tale, Part I, ll. 1091–93).

Spenser might’ve said that I have a “gross imagination” from reading too many “rude Irish books,” (See Endnote).

Milton might add to this conversation that “man will hearken to his glozing lies,” (Paradise Lost, III, 93)––whether “his” means the lies of Satan or those of other men.

But then comes Lord Bacon, to remind me that:

Fascination is the power and act of imagination intensive upon other bodies than the body of the imaginant, for of that we spake in the proper place….

But for mine own judgemt it, if it be admitted that imagination hath power, and that ceremonies fortify imagination, and that they be used sincerely and intentionally for that purpose.

(The Advancement of Learning (1605), ed. William Aldis Wright (1858), (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957, fifth edition), (II, xi, 2), p. 146.)

For “superstition,” Bacon tells readers, “erecteth an absolute monarchy in the minds of men.” Still:

There is a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best if they go furthest from the superstition formerly received; therefore care would be had that (as it fareth in ill purgings) the good be not taken away with the bad; which commonly is done when the people is the reformer.

(“Of Superstition,” Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral (1625) in Essays, ed. Brian Vickers, (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), pp. 39–40.)

I am but at the mercy of my imagination, whether it be vain, gross, rude, glozing with lies, or perhaps fascinating, or perhaps, as seems to be somewhat the case with the insincere blinker in Austin traffic, superstitious.


An endnote from Spenser:

Eudox. Believe me, this observations of yours, Irenaeus, is very good and delightfull; far beyond the blinde conceipt of some, who (I remember) have upon the same word Ferragh, made a very blunt conjecture, as namely Mr. Stanihurst, who though he be the same country man borne, that should search more nearly into the secret of these things; yet hath strayed from the truth all the heavens wyde, (as they say,) for he thereupon groundeth a very groose imagination, that the Irish should descend from the Egyptians which came into that Island, Irish should descend from the Egyptians which came into that Island, first under the leading of one Scota the daughter of Pharoah, whereupon the use (saith he) in all their battailes to call upon the name of Pharaoh, crying Ferragh, Ferragh. Surely he shootes wyde on the bow hand, and very far from the marke. For I would first know of him what auncienet ground of authority he hath for such a senselesse fable, and if he have any of the rude Irish books, as it may be hee hath, yet (me seems) that a man of his learning should not so lightly have bin carried away with old wives tales, from approvance of his owne reason; for whether it be a smack of any learned iudgment, to say, that Scota is like an Egyptian word, let the learned iudge. But his Scota rather comes of the Greek [Greek], that is, darknes, which hath not let him see the light of the truth.

(A View of the State of Ireland (c. 1596, 1633), eds. Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley, (Oxford: Blackwell’s, 1997), p. 60.)

Apr 26 2017

Too Fat for Ireland (Forget the Famine)

Too Fat for Ireland (Forget the Famine)

I’ve been trying to lose weight before I head off to Ireland.

Can you imagine anything more absurd than someone uttering the phrase “I’m trying to lose weight” in mid-19th century potato-famished Ireland?

I recall some vivid moments in William Carleton‘s (1794-1869) novel The Black Prophet:a Tale of Irish Famine (1847), such as thinning one’s plate when starving in Ireland:

The next morning the Sullivan family rose to witness another weary and dismal day of incessant rain, and to partake of a breakfast of thin stirabout, made and served up with that woful ingenuity, which necessity, the mother of invention in periods of scarcity, as well as in matters of a different character, had made known to the benevolent hearted wife of Jerry Sullivan. That is to say, the victuals were made so unsubstantially thin, that in order to impose, if possible, on the appetite, it was deemed necessary to deceive the eye by turning the plates and dishes round and round several times, while the viands were hot, so as by spreading them over a larger surface, to give the appearance of a greater quantity. It is, heaven knows, a melancholy cheat, but one with which the periodical famines of our unhappy country have made our people too well acquainted. [1]

Or sometimes laying on one’s belly:

“What is the matter with you, Con?” asked his mother, “you seem dreadfully uneasy.”

“I am ill, mother,” he replied—“the fever that was near taking Tom away, is upon me; I feel that I have it by the pains that’s in my head and the small o’ my back.”

“Lie down a little, dear,” she added, “its only the pain, poor boy, of an empty stomach—lie down on your poor bed, God help you, and when the supper’s ready you’ll be better.”[2]

UPDATE: Forgot about this gem from the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser (1553-1599), who lived in Ireland for much of his adult life:

Out of every corner of the woods and glynnes they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legges could not beare them; they looked like anatomies of death, they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves; they did eate the dead carrions, happy where they could finde them, yea, and one another soone after, insomuch as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves; and, if they found a plot of water-cresesses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue therewithal; that in short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentifull country suddainely left voyde of man and beast; yet sure in all that warre, there perished not many by the sword, but all by the extrremitie of famine, which they themselves had wrought. [3]


[1] Carleton, William. The Black Prophet: a Tale of Irish Famine. Belfast: Simm and McIntyre. 1847. “III, A Family on the Decline—Omens.” 34–35.

[2] Carleton, The Black Prophet: a Tale of Irish Famine. “XI, Pity and Remorse.” 107.

[3] Spenser, Edmund. A View of the State of Ireland. 1596. 1633. Edited by Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley. Blackwell, Oxford. 1997. pp. 101–02.