The Riddling Imagination – Part III

pencil shavings


(Read PART I here.)

(Read PART II here.)

The pipes, the pipes are calling,
From glen to glen,
And down the mountainside.

More thoughts on imagination and Franz Kafka’s (1883–1924) final work, the riddling narrative “Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”) (1924).

Again, throughout the “story,” the narrator repeats (emphasizes?) the difference between true singing and mere piping—amid differentiating this difference emerges an enormous riddle. Here is what I imagine to be the story’s key passage:

Is it in fact singing at all? Although we are unmusical we have a tradition of singing; in the old days our people did sing; this is mentioned in legends and some songs have actually survived, which, it is true, no one can now sing. Thus we have an inkling of what singing is, and Josephine’s art does not really correspond to it. So is it singing at all? Is it not perhaps just a piping? And piping is something we all know about, it is the real artistic accomplishment of our people, or rather no mere accomplishment but a characteristic expression of our life.

We all pipe, but of course no one dreams of making out that our piping is an art, we pipe without thinking of it indeed without noticing it, and there are even many among us who are quite unaware that piping is one of our characteristics. So if it were true that Josephine does not sing but only pipes and perhaps, as it seems to me at least, hardly rises above the level of our usual piping––yet, perhaps her strength is not even quite equal to our usual piping, whereas an ordinary farmhand can keep it up effortlessly all day long, besides doing his work––if that were all true, then indeed Josephine’s alleged vocal skill might be disproved, but that would merely clear the ground for the real riddle which needs solving, the enormous influence she has.

(The Complete Short Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Schocken, 1946, 1971), p. 361)

Kafka was born only 51 years after the death of Johann von Goethe (1749–1832). They were not as far apart as sometimes seems. Early on in his autobiography Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth from My Own Life) (1811–1830), Goethe recalled the civic piping from his childhood—a piping that linked the living to the dead—generational sounds shared, all received in one accord:

It was impossible to have these ceremonies, with their power of conjuring up the past, explained to use without leading us back into former centuries and informing us of the habits, customs, and feelings of our ancestors, who in a strange way were made present to us by pipers and delegates, apparently risen from the dead, and even by tangible gifts which we might ourselves possess.

(Poetry and Truth from My Own Life, trans. R. O. Moon, (Washington D. C.: Public Affairs Press, 1949), “Book I,” p. 16)

Kafka’s narrator in “Josephine” also recognizes some social advantages to the piping—that it lets the citizen-listener forget about the workaday world for a little while:

Of course it [Josephine’s singing] is a kind of piping. Why not? Piping is our people’s daily speech, only many a one pipes his whole life long and does not know it, where here piping is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while. We certainly should not want to do without these performances. (The Complete Short Stories, p. 370)

Can one gamble on a riddle? If so, then, under the credit of my imagination, I wager that Kafka’s narrator recognizing the social advantages of piping partially answers the great riddle presented in his tale of “Josephine.”

But to gamble is to dream. It is not so much that gambling and dreaming lack certainty but that each activity slacks on certainty (or “certainality”). Without certain certainty there are only resemblances and contrasts. Camouflage versus distinction. One gambles on the resemblance (or contrast). One dreams up the resemblance (or contrast). And if concerns song or pipe, one listens for resemblance (or contrast).

Is the following a resemblance or a contrast? In the preface to his 1946 novel The Great Divorce: a Dream by C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) dreams of a hierarchy that sets the structure for all things Good. Oh, were Kafka’s narrator such a dreamer rather than a riddler! For then: if piping be not as good as singing, Good singing should then continue to differentiate itself from mediocre pipping. As Lewis theorizes:

We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision. Even on the biological level life is not like a pool but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.

Recall that readers have been told to imagine it was the Pied Piper who took away the children of Hamelin, not a singer like Josephine, nor a dreamer like Lewis. In Hamelin, piping ruined the community rather than soothed it: Yet why the piping ruined the town, remains, as in “Josephine,” the great unsolved riddle:

Parallel to their collection of Volksmärchen, the Grimms also gathered Deutsche Sagen, legends and sagas, which appeared in two volumes in 1816. Only one, but perhaps the best known in this country, is included here, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” It is, of course, not a fairy tale but a popular legend with a basis in historic fact, most probably the story of recruiting officers who enticed young people away to do battle or to colonize in the East.

(Helmut Brackert, “Introduction,” The German Library Vol. XIX: German Fairy Tales, eds. Brackert and Volkmar Sander, (New York: Continuum, 1985), p. xxix)

Things I’ve been Reading the Past Decade to Prepare for a Trip to Germany (Part II)

la casa

Things I’ve been Reading the Past Decade
 to Prepare Writing a Novel about for a Trip to Germany (Part I)

Read Part I here.

Martin Buber, Erzählungen der Chassidim (Tales of the Hasidim) (1948)

Solomon Maimon, Autobiography (1800)

Johann Herder, God, Some Conversations (1787)

Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas (1978)

Correspondence between Schiller and Goethe from 1794 to 1805

Friedrich Schiller, Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794)

–––––. “On Simple and Sentimental Poetry,” (1795)

–––––. William Tell (1804)

Charles E. Passage, Friedrich Schiller: World Dramatists (1975)

Johann Goethe, Goethe’s Letters to Zelter

–––––. Götz von Berlichingen (1773)

–––––. Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) (1774)

–––––. Iphigenieauf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris) (1779)

­­­–––––. Italienische Reise (Italian Journey) (1816–17)

–––––. Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth from My Own Life) (1811–1830)

–––––. Novella (1828)

–––––. Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors), “Preface to the First Edition of 1810.”

–––––. Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) (1795)

–––––. Faust Part I (1808)

–––––. Faust Part II (1832)

Rudolf Steiner, Goethe’s Weltanschauung (1897)

–––––. Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung (A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception) (1886)

–––––. Nietzsche, ein Kämpfer gegen seine Zeit (Friedrich Nietzsche: Fighter for Freedom) (1895)

–––––. Education as a Social Problem (1919)

–––––. The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (1922)

–––––. Mysticism and Modern Thought (1928)

George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “Preface to Phenomenology” (1807)

Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms [taken from Parerga and Paralipomena] (1851)

Nietzsche, Writings from the Early Notebooks, (1870-1873)

––––-. The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit ofMusic (1872) (1886)

–––––. On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873)

–––––. Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (Untimely Meditations) (1873–1876)

­­­–––––. Toward a Genealogy of Morality (1886)

Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher,Psychologist, Antichrist (1950)

–––––. Discovering the Mind Vol. II – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Buber (1981)


Ferdinand Tönnies, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society) (1887)

Wilhelm Dilthey, Selected Works Vol. III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences [~1865-1911] (2002)

Max Weber, Essays in Sociology [~1900-1920] (1946)

Jürgen Habermas, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) (1961)

Benedetto Croce, Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx (1900)

E. M. Butler, The Tyranny of Greece Over Germany (1935)

Oscar Jászi, The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy (1929)

Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution (1917)

Antonio Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere (Selections from the Prison Notebooks) (1929–1935)


Victor Lefebure, The Riddle of the Rhine: Chemical Strategy in Peace and War (1923)

Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (1902–1908)

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1917)

Heinrich Mann, Im Schlaraffenland (Berlin: in the Land of Cockaigne) (1900)

Heinrich Mann, Der Untertan (Man of Straw) (1918)

Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901)

–––––. “Germany and the Germans” (1945)

Nigel Hamilton, The Brothers Mann (1979)

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (1923)

Martin Buber & Franz Rosenzweig, Die Schrift und das Wort (Scripture and Translation) (1926)

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf (1927)

Arnold Zweig, Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa (The Case of Sergeant Grischa) (1927)

Erich Maria Remarque, Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) (1929)

Jaroslav Hasek, Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka zasvětové války (The Good Soldier: Schweik) (1930)

Karl Kraus, Half-truths & One-and-a-half truths: selected aphorisms [~1900-1936] (1976)

Sigmund Freud, Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious (1900)

Carl Jung, The Jung Reader [1918-1930] (2012)

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (1940)

Moritz Julius Bonn, The Wandering Scholar (1940)

Stefan Zweig, The Royal Game and Other Stories (1941)

H.G. Atkins, German Literature Through Nazi Eyes (1941)

Ernie Pyle, This is Your War: The Story of G. I. Joe (1943)

Martin Foss, The Idea of Perfection in the Western World (1946)

Karl Jaspers, The Way to WisdomAn Introduction to Philosophy (1951)

Elie Wiesel, Night (1960)

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (1971)

Walter Laqueur, Weimar: a Cultural History, 1918–1933 (1974)

–––––. The Terrible SecretAn Investigation into the Suppression of Information about Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ (1980)

–––––. Best of Times, Worst of Times: Memoirs of a Political Education (2009)

Werner Heisenberg, Across the Frontiers (1974)

Günter Grass, Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk) (2002)

Fritz Stern, Five Germanys I Have Known (2006)

George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (1961)

–––––. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975) 

–––––. The Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H. (1981)

Scribblings and Droppings no. 03: the Writer as Victim and Victor

Mark Twain in Athens

Scribblings and Droppings no. 03:
the Writer as Victim and Victor

Have you ever been involved in a creative project over a long period of time?

Did you reach a point where you felt the project was kicking your ass? Maybe you had to put it aside, like Goethe did with Faust Part II and Coleridge with Christabel?

This kind of thing happened to me when I was trying to prune an essay from 10,000+ words to under 4,000.

Was there a moment after having endured strife when you finally started to feel like you were kicking the project’s ass? Was there a moment when you realize you’d reached the apex and had overcome the obstacle?

It’s like Stephen King says: writers have to kill their darlings. (In a sick sense, you’ve got to be like Frau Goebbels.) You gotta figure out how to detox your own text, purge it of its poisons.

Now that the essay is done, I feel older, exhausted, and sore. But there’s no time for self-sympathy. Gotta get up and do all again, like the Chairman says:

Hosting the Italians: Part III of III

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Hosting the Italians: Part III of III

(Read Part II here.)


So the gang got back to Austin early Saturday afternoon, their bellies full of eclairs and kolaches and peach cobbler from die gut Volk aus (“the good folks of”) Fredericksburg. Once everything was unloaded, David and Dyhana went back to their place to rest for the afternoon, while Cosimo, Chiara, and Scott did the same at the home of the latter.

Later that evening I went to Scott’s to see everyone. Our friend Calvin (a.k.a. DJ Cal Cutta) had also stopped by. Cal was instrumental in originally introducing Cosimo to Scott––some five years ago on an internet radio show that he hosted and both Scott and Cosimo performed on. I hadn’t seen Calvin in several years, so it was an interesting reunion all around. For our entire relationship with our Italian acquaintances originated in the celebration and composition of music.

Later that night, which was both St. Patrick’s Day and the penultimate night of SXSW 2018, all of us (Cosimo and Chiara, David and Dyhana, and Scott and Ciera) went downtown for the Holodeck records show at Central Presbyterian Church at the corner of Eighth St. and Brazos. This was a somewhat unusual venue, but the church has been hosting SXSW events for the last several years. No alcohol was served, though I saw some vitamin-fortified water and granola bars available at the concession stand near the church’s portico.

At about 10:00 that night we sat in the sanctuary on crimson cushioned pews and, though we were too late to see our friend VVV’s show, we got to see a performance by another friend, Dylan Cameron. I’d seen him deejay aplenty––and, incidentally, both he and I have fathers who are musicians––but this was my first time seeing him exclusively play his own produced work.

Just before the show began social media addiction triggered me to tag my location. Next thing I knew, an old acquaintance from a disbanded book club I used to attend seated himself nearby. He said he saw my post, that he was already downtown and was “looking for something to do for South-by.”


Alas, it’s impossible to not be abstract when writing about music.[1] Overall Dylan’s performance of (what I would call) electronic impressionism was technically precise, but not so exacting as to sacrifice organic emotion. Regardless of whether the electronic instrumentation was analog or digital, the mood his music conveyed was authentic, not artificial. Psychologically, the tone proved utterly true, not just a dim clang of mere “truthiness.”

The acoustics in the church were outstanding, probably due to the woodwork on the walls where laser beams flickered, flashed, and burst against the shadows of the sanctuary. This was accompanied by a mellow aurora seeping in through the stained-glass windows that surrounded us—windows illuminated that evening from outside the church walls by Austin’s downtown nightlife.

It all reminded me of the great German writer Goethe (1749–1832) who once recalled that both music and architecture can charm in the same way.[2] Thinking along similar lines as Goethe, the socialite Madame de Staël (1766–1817) once remarked that “architecture reminds me of frozen music.”[3] Or, to bring the conversation closer to home, one could compare a line from the novel The Big Road (1931) by Texas writer Ruth Cross (1887–1981), when her character of David realizes that “music was a sort of cathedral.”[4]


After the show we talked to Dylan (and his companion, the voluptuous Vi) for a few minutes. But it was approaching midnight, and with the inebriated city crowds participating in both St. Paddy’s Day and SXSW, we all knew we needed to get out of the downtown area as soon as possible. Traffic was beginning to clog near Congress Avenue. The crowd was beginning to roar, approaching full climax. Recalling that moment, I’m again reminded of Goethe:

I don’t pretend to be a great actor or a great singer. But this I do know: when music accompanies bodily movements, enlivening and at the same time controlling them, and the manner of delivery and the expression needed are indicated to me by the musical composer, then I am a totally different person from when I have to create these for myself, as I have to in a spoken drama, inventing my own tempo, my own manner of speaking, and always liable to be disturbed in this by my fellow actors.[5]

We were all muttering to one another about where we should go next to get a drink and some food when I was suddenly put on the spot:

“Christopher Landrum, you know this town better than anybody—why don’t you tell us where to go?” says Scott in a tone that was both asking and assertive.

So I shrugged my shoulders, did my best “awe shucks” gesture, and suggested going to Mr. Tramps––a self-described “sports pub and café” in our old neighborhood (that is, Scott, David, Dyhana, and my old neighborhood) in north Austin. A place well away from the chaos of the final hours of the music festival that was unfolding downtown.

At Mr. Tramps we had pizza and drinks. We also saw our mutual friend James, who is also a musician in a couple of bands who play things in the key of classical punk.


The next day, Sunday March 18, Cosimo and Chiara shopped around Austin (including the novel experiences of strolling down the aisles of Walmart and Ross). Then we all said our temporary goodbyes as they prepared for their drive to New York. By March 22 they would be on their way home to Italy.

Yes, temporary, because we all intend to see them again someday soon. And when we do, we shall share even more stories and music with one another.



[1] Perhaps similar to a passage from by Texas writer Ruth Cross:

These stories possessed her by night…. Sometimes the people in the story did one thing, sometimes another. But a few basic scenes persisted, and these she told over and over to herself, like variations on a beautiful theme in music. Only she didn’t know much about music, except that it was supreme—even over books. It could say what it wanted, straight and sure, without getting itself blunted and deflected and lost in words. (The Golden Cocoon, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924) II, 10.)

[2] Goethe writes: “A heavenly music which issued from the building charmed me still more than this pattern of architecture,” in Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth from My Own Life) (1811–1830), trans. R. O. Moon, (Washington, D. C.: Public Affairs Press, 1949). II, p. 43.

[3] Quoted from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, eds. William H. Gilman et al, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960–82).  Vol. IV (1832–1834), Journal Q, September 14, 1832, [p. 55], p. 40. Emerson is quoting Corinne, ou l’Italie, (1807) Bk. IV, ch. 3… [Editor’s note:] “In 1834 Emerson traced the origins of this phrase much further. See p. 337, n. 250 below [ibid].”

[4] Cross, The Big Road, (New York: Longmans, Green & Co, 1931) I, xvi, 66.

[5] Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) (1795–96) ed. and trans. Eric A. Blackall, (New York: Suhrkamp Publishers, 1983) II, xii, 74.

That “Religion” does not Equal “Culture”


That “Religion” does not Equal “Culture”

I don’t quite understand Rod Dreher today when he writes:

In 1966, Philip Rieff [(1922–2006)] observed [in Triumph of the Therapeutic]:

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.[1]

By this standard, Christianity in the US is dying. Rieff saw this happening in the mid-1960s; it is much, much farther along today. Christian churches and Christian schools have plainly failed to meet the challenges of aggressive secularism.

It seems as if Dreher is taking Rieff’s use of the word “culture” and applying it to “Christianity in the US” as a whole, but a culture is not quite the same thing as a religion. A Hindu religious culture is not the same thing as the practice of Hinduism. An individual living in a Hindu culture is not the same as “being Hindu.”

In fact, “culture,” as a word, is pretty darn arbitrary––if we follow Leo Strauss’s (1899–1973) interpretation of Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) understanding of that word:

Nietzsche has a deeper reverence than any other beholder for the sacred tables of the Hebrews as well as of the other nations in question. Yet since he is only a beholder of these tables, since what one table commends or commands is incompatible with what the others command, he is not subject to the commandments of any. This is true also and especially of the tables, or “values” of modern Western culture. But according to him, all scientific concepts, and hence in particular the concept of culture, are culture-bound; the concept of cultures is an outgrowth of 19th century Western culture; its application to “cultures” of other ages and climates is an act stemming from the spiritual imperialism of that particular culture. There is then a glaring contradiction between the claimed objectivity of the science of cultures and the radical subjectivity of that science. Differently stated, one cannot behold, i.e., truly understand, any culture unless one is firmly rooted in one’s own culture or unless one belongs in one’s capacity as a beholder to some culture. But if the universality of the beholding of all cultures is to be preserved, the culture to which the beholder of all cultures belongs, must be the universal culture, the culture of mankind, the world culture; the universality of beholding presupposes, if only by anticipating it, the universal culture which is no longer one culture among many. The variety of cultures that have hitherto emerged contradicts the oneness of truth. Truth is not a woman so that each man can have his own truth as he can have his own wife. Nietzsche sought therefore for a culture that would no longer be particular and hence in the last analysis arbitrary.[2]

And when Dreher writes:

 It is troubling, from a believer’s point of view, that not everyone in Christendom actually held the faith, and that not all lived up to its tenets. But at least the values of Christianity were what we collectively professed. That was something.

I agree that one should not make the perfect the enemy of the good, which is something I think Dreher is getting at, nor could any concept of a “perfect Christianity” be achieved by human means alone. But in this passage, Dreher also seems to be saying that words speak louder than actions, that whatever was “collectively professed” once made for a sufficient Christianity despite many (laity and clergy) who did not live “up to its tenants.” But, as Goethe (1749–1832), the last true pagan (and hence someone who can never truly be followed by disciplines born in our age of disenchantment), words are not enough. One must turn words into actions:

Words are good, but they are not the best. The best is not made clear by words. The spirit in which we act, is what is highest. Action can only be grasped by spirit and portrayed by spirit. No one knows what he is doing when he acts rightly, but we are always conscious of what is wrong. He who works only with signs, is pedant, a hypocrite or a botcher. There are many such, and they get on well together. Their gossiping impedes the student, and their persistent mediocrity alarms those who are best. The teaching of a real artist opens up sense; for where words are lacking, action speaks. A true pupil learns how to unravel the unknown from the known, and thereby develops toward mastery.[3]

And as far as the “cultural elites” go (mentioned in Rieff’s quotation by Dreher), I don’t know if Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was quite right (or serious) when he said: “It is to do nothing that the elect exist.”[4] I do understand LBJ’s observation that “the greatest bigots in the world are the Democrats on the East Side New York.” As a “true vulgarian,” I’m not interested in following East Coast elites, and my uninterest has very little to do with whether or not I’m a Christian (the way Dreher’s quotation of Rieff regarding “cultural elites” seems to imply).

Alfarabi (872–950 AD), following Plato and Aristotle, held that the elect can do very little for the vulgar:

The vulgar confine themselves, or should be confined, to theoretical cognitions that are in conformity with examined common opinion. The elect do not confine themselves to any of their theoretical cognitions to what is in conformity with examined common opinion but reach their conviction and knowledge on the basis of premises subjected to thorough scrutiny. Therefore whoever thinks that he is not confined to what is in conformity with unexamined common opinion in his inquiries, believes that in them he is of the “elect” and that everybody else is vulgar….

Whoever has a more perfect mastery of the art that qualifies him for assuming an office is more appropriate for inclusion among the elect. Therefore it follows that the most elect of the elect is the supreme ruler. It would appear that this is so because he is the one who does not confine himself in anything. He must hold the office of the supreme ruler and be the most elect of the elect because of his state of character and skill. As for the one who assumes a political office with the intention of accomplishing the purpose of the supreme ruler, he adheres to thoroughly scrutinized opinions. However, the opinions that caused him to become an adherent or because of which he was convinced that he should use his art to serve the supreme ruler were based on mere conformity to unexamined opinions; he conforms to unexamined common opinion in his theoretical cognitions as well. The result is that the supreme ruler and he who possesses the science that encompasses the intelligibles with certain demonstrations belong to the elect. The rest are the vulgar and the multitude. Thus the methods of persuasion and imaginative representation are employed only in the instruction of the vulgar and the multitude of the nations and the cities, while the certain demonstrative methods, by which the beings themselves are made intelligible, are employed in the instruction of those who belong to the elect.[5]



[1] Dreher, “Goodbye Jehovah,” The American Conservative, April 26, 2018.

[2] Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections” Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, (University of Chicago Press, 1983) 148–49.

[3] Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) (1795–96), ed. and trans. by Eric A. Blackall, (New York: Suhrkamp Publishers, 1983) VII, ix, 303–04.

[4] Wilde, “The Critic as Artist – II.” (1891).

[5] Alfarabi, “The Attainment of Happiness,” Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Muhsin Mahdi, (Chicago, IL: Agora Books, 1969) pp. 41–42, iv, ¶ 50–51.

Two Brief Thoughts on Reading Books

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Two Brief Thoughts on Reading Books

A ghost––either of Isaac D’Israeli (1766–1848), or Andrew Lang (1844–1912), or Jorge Borges (1899–1986)––asks how differently I read a book (or author) when:

(1) I’ve bought the book,

(2) I’ve been lent the book from a friend or library,

(3) I’ve been given the book (and cannot re-gift it), or

(4) I’ve stolen the book?[1]

For scenarios (1) and (4), the answer involves me as an individual recognizing my own need to read. But in scenarios (2) and (3), it is someone else who recognizes the need for me to read something I have yet to get around to or perhaps deserve to reread. For I read differently when I want to read compared to the times when someone else wants me to read, either silently to myself or aloud to anyone around.


When I was a child there were two kinds of trees: those you could climb, and those you couldn’t. Funny, I don’t remember thinking of buildings this way, even though the same principle would apply. But architecture is frozen music,[2] while books are trees. My childish eyes looked only for attainable branches to grab, sturdy knots to claw, and convenient toeholds to brace.

And these days I think I still think of books like that: books and trees that can be read or climbed versus those that can’t, or, at least on initial inspection, look too challenging to attempt. For example Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) is a towering redwood whose canopy I slowly approach. ’Tis a big book, one I began reading in June of this year, and, after taking about 60 pages worth of notes, am only about a third of the way through. I scoot up its trunk with some fear and much trembling, not knowing what I’ll find when I reach the top, or how I’ll safely get back down.



[1] Andrew Lang, The Library, (New York, NY: Macmillan & Co, 1881). Reprinted under Dodo Press. 2004:

The Book-Ghoul is he who combines the larceny of the biblioklept with the abominable wickedness of breaking up and mutilating the volumes from which he steals … He prepares books for the American market. (p. 28)

See also D’Israeli’s essay “A Bibliognoste” in Curiosities of Literature – Vol. III, (Sixth edition, London: John Murray, 1817.)

[2] Goethe, Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, (1811–1830) in Poetry and Truth from My Own Life, (trans. R. O. Moon, Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1949) II, 43.

Unartistic Portraits We Paint of those around Us

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Unartistic Portraits We Paint of those around Us

The other day I read:

As Ronan Fanning has pointed out, the homes of the Irish Republic were adorned with the triptych of Pope John XXIII, Robert and John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s, then the Unionist household gods were the king-emperor, William III, and––above all––Carson….[1]

And this got me to thinking about how when I was growing up, I knew no one who had portraits of people other than their family members hanging on their home walls. No JFK, RFK, no Pope, no Queen, Ben Gurion, Che Guevara, no Ronald Reagan or Tom Landry.

Chiam Potok’s novel The Chosen (1968) has a scene where the narrator remarks that for many American Jews, Roosevelt’s death “was like God dying”—recall the cover photo for Look Magazine that a young Stanley Kubrick shot and was awarded for.[2]

I do know a white American woman in her fifties who’s infatuated with the late Diana, my father once named a pet dog Stevie Ray Vaughn and another Bruce the Boss, and as an adult I once visited a Mexican–American woman’s house that held a shrine dedicated to Elvis. But, for the most part, such hero worship and its accompanying iconography is deeply unfamiliar to my personal experience.

As Professor Proust teaches us, when we fall for someone––sexually, politically, philosophically, artistically—we imagine them. We image-make them. We make a portrait of them. And in doing so, we mistake the map for the territory it marks.[3]

Yet when we imagine ourselves, we distort the self-portrait of ourselves all the more. Compare that old pagan Goethe (1749–1832):

His attention was not distracted by the report of individual events or momentary emotions, sympathetic comments enlightened him without embarrassing him, and he saw a picture of himself, not like a second self in a mirror, but a different self, one outside of him, as in a painting. One never approves of everything in a portrait, but one is always glad that a thoughtful mind has seen us thus and a superior talent enjoyed portraying us in such a way that a picture survives of what we were, and will survive longer than we will.[4]

Consider André Gide (1869–1951):

You can’t imagine, because you aren’t in the trade, how an erroneous system of ethics can hamper the free development of one’s creative faculties. So nothing is further from my old novels than the one I am planning now. I used to demand logic and consistency from my characters, and in order to make quite sure of getting them, I began by demanding them from myself. It wasn’t natural. We prefer to go deformed and distorted all our lives rather than not resemble the portrait of ourselves which we ourselves have first drawn. It’s absurd. We run the risk of warping what’s best in us.[5]

And Oscar Wilde (1854–1900):

The painter bit his lip and walked over, cup in hand, to the picture. “I shall stay with the real Dorian,” he said, sadly.

“Is it the real Dorian?” cried the original of the portrait, strolling across to him. “Am I really like that?” [6]

And Paul Valéry (1871–1945):

What you don’t do; what you’d never do––that’s what draws your portrait for you. It’s my profile, my inner profile, the outline-plan of my whole being. [7]

Finally, From Karl Kraus (1874–1936):

Kokoshka has done a portrait of me. It could be that those who know me will not recognize me; but surely those who don’t know me will recognize me.[8]


[1] Jackson, Alvin. “Unionist Myths 1912–1985.” Past & Present. No. 136. (August 1992.) 164–85 at 172.

[2] Potok, Chiam. The Chosen. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1967. Fawcett Crest Book reprint. June 1968. 177.

[3] As Proust articulates:

Variance of a belief, annulment also of love, which, pre-existent and mobile, comes to rest at the image of any one woman simply because that woman will be almost impossible of attainment. Thenceforward we think not so much of the woman of whom we find difficult in forming an exact picture, as of the means of getting to know her. A whole series of agonies develops and is sufficient to fix our love definitely upon her who is its almost unknown object. Our love becomes immense; we never dream how small a place in it the real woman occupies. And if suddenly, as at the moment when I had seen Elstir stop to talk to the girls, we cease to be uneasy, to suffer pain, since it is this pain that is the whole of our love, it seems to us as though love had abruptly vanished at the moment when at length we grasp the prey to whose value we had not given enough thought before. What did I know of Albertine? One or two glimpses of a profile against the sea, less beautiful, assuredly, than those of Veronese’s women whom I ought, had I been guided by purely aesthetic reasons, to have preferred to her. By what other reasons could I be guided, since, my anxiety having subsided, I could recapture only those mute profiles; I possessed nothing of her besides. Since my first sight of Albertine I had meditated upon her daily, a thousandfold, I had carried on with what I called by her name an interminable unspoken dialogue in which I made her question me, answer me, think and act, and in the infinite series of imaginary Albertines who followed one after the other in my fancy, hour after hour, the real Albertine, a glimpse caught on the beach, figured only at the head, just as the actress who creates a part, the star, appears, out of a long series of performances, in the few first alone. That Albertine was scarcely more than a silhouette, all that was superimposed being of my own growth, so far when we are in love does the contribution that we ourself make outweigh––even if we consider quantity only––those that come to us from the beloved object. And the same is true of love that is given its full effect. There are loves that manage not only to be formed but to subsist around a very little core––even among those whose prayer has been answered after the flesh….

But apart from this, had the portrait been not anterior like Swann’s favourite photograph, to the systématisation of Odette’s features in a fresh type, majestic and charming, but subsequent to it, Elstir’s vision would alone have sufficed to disorganise that type. Artistic genius in its reactions is like those extremely high temperatures which have the power to disintegrate combinations of atoms which they proceed to combine afresh in a diametrically opposite order, following another type. All that artificially harmonious whole into which a woman has succeeded in bringing her limbs and features, the persistence of which every day, before going out, she studies in her glass, changing the angle of her hat, smoothing her hair, exercising the sprightliness in her eyes, so as to ensure its continuity, that harmony the keen eye of the great painter instantly destroys, substituting for it a rearrangement of the woman’s features such as will satisfy a certain pictorial ideal of femininity which he carries in his head. Similarly it often happens that, after a certain age, the eye of a great seeker after truth will find everywhere the elements necessary to establish those relations which alone are of interest to him. Like those craftsmen, those players who, instead of making a fuss and asking for what they cannot have, content themselves with the instrument that comes to their hand, the artist might say of anything, no matter what, that it would serve his purpose. Thus a cousin of the Princesse de Luxembourg, a beauty of the most queenly type, having succumbed to a form of art which was new at that time, had asked the leading painter of the naturalist school to do her portrait. At once the artist’s eye had found what he sought everywhere in life. And on his canvas there appeared, in place of the proud lady, a street-boy, and behind him a vast, sloping, purple background which made one think of the Place Pigalle. But even without going so far as that, not only will the portrait of a woman by a great artist not seek in the least to give satisfaction to various demands on the woman’s part–such as for instance, when she begins to age, make her have herself photographed in dresses that are almost those of a young girl, which bring out her still youthful figure and make her appear like the sister, or even the daughter of her own daughter, who, if need be, is tricked out for the occasion as a ‘perfect fright’ by her side—it will, on the contrary, emphasise those very drawbacks which she seeks to hide, and which (as for instance a feverish, that is to say a livid complexion) are all the more tempting to him since they give his picture ‘character’; they are quite enough, however, to destroy all the illusions of the ordinary man who, when he sees the picture, sees crumble into dust the ideal which the woman herself has so proudly sustained for him, which has placed her in her unique, her unalterable form so far apart, so far above the rest of humanity.

(À la recherche du temps perdu. (In Search of Lost Time.) Vol. II. À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. (Within a Budding Grove / In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.) 1919. § “Place Names: The Name.”)

[4] Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.) VIII, i, 309.

[5] Les caves du Vatican. (Lafcadio’s Adventures.) 1914. Translated by Dorothy Bussy. NY: Knopf. 1953. “V. Lafcadio,” ii, 195–96.

[6] The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. 1890. Barnes & Noble Classics Edition. 2003. II, 31–32.

[7] Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1912. H 12, IV, 726) [pp. 328].

[8] Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms. Edited and Translated by Harry Zohn. Engendra Press: Montreal. Reprint Chicago UP. 1976. p. 42.

Comparing Wine to Education

Comparing Wine to Education

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD):

I bring no charge against the words which are like exquisite and precious vessels, but the wine of error is poured into them for us by drunken teachers….[1]

Johann von Goethe  of Weimar (1749-1832):

The man spoke with dignity and with a certain radiance on his face. This is what he said: “the duty of a teacher is not to preserve man from error, but to guide him in error, in fact to let him drink it in, in full draughts. That is the wisdom of teachers. For the man who only sips at error, can make do with it for quite a time, delighting in it as a rare pleasure. But a man who drinks it to the dregs, must recognize the error of his ways, unless he is mad.” [2]

Karl Kraus of Vienna (1874-1936):

A school without grades must have been concocted by someone who was drunk on non-alcoholic wine.[3]


[1] Augustine, Aurelius. Saint Augustine – Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. NY: Oxford UP. 1991. I, xvi (26), p. 19.

[2] Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.) 1795–96. Edited and Translated by Eric A. Blackall. NY: Suhrkamp Publishers. 1983. VII, ix, 302.

[3] Kraus, Karl. Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms. Edited and Translated by Harry Zohn. Engendra Press: Montreal. Reprint Chicago UP. 1976. p. 75.

Goethe at a Glance

pencil shavingsGoethe at a Glance

Goethe on writing:

After my usual habit—whether a good or a bad one—I wrote down little or nothing of the piece; but worked in my mind the most of it, with all the minutest detail. And there, in my mind, pushed out of thought by many subsequent distractions, it has remained until this moment, when, however, I can recollect nothing but a very faint idea of it.

Italienische Reise, 1816–17. From Goethe’s Travels in Italy: Together with his Second Residence in Rome and Fragments on Italy. Translated by A. J. W. Morrison and Charles Nisbet. London, UK: G. Bell and Sons. 1892. “Below Taormina: on the Sea-shore, May 8, 1787” 288–89.

The complete works take up about 6 shelves:

Complete works of Goethe takes up 6 shelves #Goethe #books #library #deutschland

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Why do Artists Travel?

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Why do Artists Travel?

What foreign walls will open to a wanderer?


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


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.


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)


[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.”