Bittersweet (But Better): Imagined Pain and Painful Imagination

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Bittersweet (But Better):
Imagined Pain and Painful Imagination

But imagination is not always fun and games. Pain can be imagined. Pain is part of the imagination. One can imagine being in pain. And to actually be in pain may have something to do with the imagination. And by “pain,” I don’t necessarily mean “icepick through the occipital,” kind of physical pain. It can be emotional pain, like sorrow, as with Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s–1400) and his Book of the Duchess (1368):

For [sory] imaginacioun
Is alway hoolly in my minde. (ll. 14–15)

Or imagination can couple with other emotional pains, like anxiety, like depression, as when the character of Satan recognizes early in the Paradise Lost (1667) of John Milton (1608–1674) that:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. (I, 254–55)

Or imagination may bed with amorous pains for a fling, as when Stendhal (1783–1842) recognizes in his exploration of De lamour (1822):

The difficulty of forgetting a woman with whom you have been happy is that the imagination tirelessly continues to evoke and embellish moments of the past.
(De l’amour, trans. Gilbert and Suzanne Sale, (New York: Penguin, 1957, 1975), (I, xxxix, ii), p. 129)

But too much labor and toil can wear down (and out) the imagination, as when Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) saw in his first volume of Democracy in America (1835):

In the Southern States the more immediate wants of life are always supplied; the inhabitants of those parts are not busied in the material cares of life, which are always provided for by others; and their imagination is diverted to more captivating and less definite objects. The American of the South is fond of grandeur, luxury, and renown, of gayety, of pleasure, and above all of idleness; nothing obliges him to exert himself in order to subsist; and as he has no necessary occupations, he gives way to indolence, and does not even attempt what would be useful.

But the equality of fortunes, and the absence of slavery in the North, plunge the inhabitants in those same cares of daily life which are disdained by the white population of the South. They are taught from infancy to combat want, and to place comfort above all the pleasures of the intellect or the heart. The imagination is extinguished by the trivial details of life, and the ideas become less numerous and less general, but far more practical and more precise. As prosperity is the sole aim of exertion, it is excellently well attained; nature and mankind are turned to the best pecuniary advantage, and society is dexterously made to contribute to the welfare of each of its members, whilst individual egotism is the source of general happiness.
(Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, (London: Saunders and Otley, 1835), (I, xviii), p. 364)

Even the pains of impotence can be intertwined with the imagination, as when novelist Ian Fleming (1908–1964) writes of his spy character James Bond in Casino Royale (1953):

The doctor had talked often to Bond about his injuries. He had always told him that there would be no evil effects from the terrible battering his body had received. He had said that Bond’s full health would return and that none of his powers had been taken from him. But the evidence of Bond’s eyes and his nerves refused these comforting assurances. He was still painfully swollen and bruised and whenever the injections wore off he was in agony. Above all, his imagination had suffered. For an hour in that room with Le Chiffre the certainty of impotence had been beaten into him and a scar had been left on his mind that could only be healed by experience.
(Casino Royale, (Las Vegas: Thomas and Mercer, 1953, 2012), (XXI), p. 138)

When we see an animal in pain, we fulfill fellow Venetian writer Karl Kraus’s (1874–1936) observation: “When animals yawn, they have human faces.” Or, as fellow-Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) might’ve put it: we interpret the animal’s behavior to mean what a human might feel like in pain. But we don’t imagine a dog experiencing pain in only a way a dog could experience pain. Instead, we hear it yelp and see it limp and know that it is in pain. But how? (Kraus, Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms, ed. and trans. Harry Zohn, (Montreal: Engendra Press; Reprint Chicago UP, 1976) p. 120; Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009) I. nos. 283, 285, 350.)

Elsewhere,* Wittgenstein explains:

Pain in the imagination is not a picture.


What is in the imagination is not a picture, but a picture can correspond to it.

*(“Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data’,” 317–18; Philosophical Investigations, I. no. 300–301)

The Riddling Imagination – Part IV

London - Georgian Apartments

The Riddling Imagination – Part IV

(Read PART I here.)

(Read PART II here.)

(Read PART III here.)

Toward the end of 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), the narrator asks:

Was her actual piping notably louder and more alive than the memory of it will be? Was it even in her lifetime more than a simple memory? Was it not rather because Josephine’s singing was already past losing in this way that our people in their wisdom prized it so highly?
(The Complete Short Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, (New York: Schocken, 1946, 1971), p. 376)

Here readers are asked to ask: is holding the memory of the piping more important than unlocking the riddle to whether or not the piping is singing? Compare a reflection in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Dom dzienny, dom nocny (House of Day, House of Night) (1988):

Oddly, it’s never the actual story that comes back to me, but the memory of Marta telling it, a small figure, with her round shoulders in the cardigan with the loose buttonholes and her bony fingers.
(House of Day, House of Night), trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2002), p. 5)

But suppose it is important for readers to consider the question of whether Josephine’s piping is prosaic, while true singing is something poetic? Does her piping constitute a sort of poetry? Or is piping mere prose, so that true singing, then, is true poetry? What if Kafka’s narrator is tone-deaf? And what do readers of Kafka remain blind to when reading “Josephine the Singer?”


While discussing blind John Milton (1608–1674), Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), himself nearly half-blind since childhood, once explained that:

Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason…. Invention is almost the only literary labour which blindness cannot obstruct, and, therefore, he [Milton] naturally solaced his solitude by the indulgence of his fancy, and the melody of his numbers.
(“Milton,” Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779))

Compare that to when Wittgenstein (1889–1951) spoke of blindness and imagination:

When blind people speak, as they like to do, of blue sky and other specifically visual phenomena, the sighted person often says “Who knows what he imagines that to mean”––But why doesn’t he say this about other sighted people? It is, of course, a wrong expression to begin with.
(Bermerkungen Über Die Farben (Remarks on Colour), ed. G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. Linda L. McAlister and Margarete Schättle, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978), III, no. 294)

What might the right expression be? According to Owen Barfield (1898–1997):

In a word, imagination involves a certain disappearance of the sense of ‘I’ and ‘Not I’. It stands before the object and feels ‘I am that’.
(Romanticism Comes of Age, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1967), p. 30)

In other words, imagination is not “I am” or “I am that I am,” but––“I am that”––as when uttering the old folk phrase, There but for the grace of God go I. As Barfield explains, imagination “seeks to sink itself entirely in the thing perceived,” (Romanticism Comes of Age, p. 39).

And this ability to momentarily lose one’s sense of ‘I’ in imagining ‘I am that’—is a kind of freedom, as Lessing (1729–1781) recognized:

Now that only is fruitful which allows free play to the imagination. The more we see the more we must be able to imagine; and the more we imagine, the more we must think we see….. In poetry a robe is no robe. It conceals nothing. Our imagination sees through it in every part.
(Laokoön oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (Laocoön: an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry) (1766), trans. Ellen Frothingham, (Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers, 1887), III, V)

Finally, let readers here at Bookbread return to Johnson on Milton, and how:

These are very imperfect rudiments of Paradise Lost; but it is pleasant to see great works in their seminal state, pregnant with latent possibilities of excellence; nor could there be any more delightful entertainment than to trace their gradual growth and expansion, and to observe how they are sometimes suddenly advanced by accidental hints, and sometimes slowly improved by steady meditation.

Kafka’s works are, if nothing else, pregnant with latent possibilities of excellence. Reading them requires steady meditation—the kind of meditation that leads to self-abnegation––where one loses one’s sense of an ‘I’ while reading.

I find this particularly true of his final work “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” Or should I say: I find this particularly true upon reflection of the memory of reading Kafka (but perhaps not during the act of reading Kafka)? ’Tis but another riddle I imagine.

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.)

Immoral Temptations: The Case Against Imagination as a Tool to Ease Society’s Pains


Immoral Temptations:
The Case Against Imagination as a Tool to Ease Society’s Pains

Maybe everything I wrote about imagination last week was wrong.

Maybe my convictions on the subject were too tight and need to be loosened a bit.

Perhaps, like Louis Renault, the police captain in Casablanca (1942), I should “have no convictions,” be “master of my fate” and “blow with the wind.”

Maybe imagination has a flipside full of adventure, criminality, corruption, immorality—full of things that won’t help my neighbors and me as we confront our society’s greatest perplexities with regard to traffic, housing, public safety (including classrooms), drought, and equality in broadband internet capabilities for both urban and rural areas.

Maybe there aren’t any silver bullets to slay these social werewolves with. Maybe our imaginations fooled us into believing in the bullets. Maybe that was too much to ask.

Maybe readers and voters should be wary of the adventurous side to imagination, as when poet-and-politician John Milton (1608–1674) has Satan say in Paradise Lost (1667):

let us try
Adventurous work (X, 254–55)

And later:

and now expecting
Each hour their great Adventurer from the search
Of foreign worlds, (X, 439–41)

And British novelist Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) has his narrator Marlow say of sailor Jim (who will go on to become Lord Jim):

After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the regions so well known to his imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure. He made many voyages.

(Lord Jim (1900) in Lord Jim: The Authoritative Text, ed. Thomas C. Moser, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), II, p. 7)

Compare French writer André Gide (1869–1951) and his conspiratorial, comedic novel Les caves du Vatican (1914), usually translated as Lafcadio’s Adventures. In it, Gide elaborates on the juncture of crime and imagination:

“A crime without a motive,” went on Lafcadio, “what a puzzle for the police! As to that, however, going along beside this blessed bank, anybody in the next-door compartment might notice the door open and the old blighter’s shadow pitch out. The corridor curtains, at any rate, are drawn…. It’s not so much about events that I’m curious, as about myself. There’s many a man thinks he’s capable of anything, who draws back when it comes to the point…. What a gulf between the imagination and the deed! … And no more right to take back one’s move than at chess. Pooh! If one could foresee all the risks, there’d be no interest in the game! …. Between the imagination of a deed and … Hullo! the bank’s come to an end.”

He preferred adventure—a word as pliable as his beaver and as easily twisted to suit his liking.

(Les caves du Vatican (Lafcadio’s Adventures) (1914), trans. Dorothy Bussy, (New York: Knopf, 1953), (V, i), p. 186; (V, ii), p. 192)

Later when Conrad (a Polish sailor writing in Victorian English) penned his novel of Russian affairs Under Western Eyes (1911), he was in a mood to renounce imagination; although, at the same time, he seems to be, as the English say, “laying it on a bit thick”:

In the conduct of an invented story there are, no doubt, certain proprieties to be observed for the sake of clearness and effect. A man of imagination, however inexperienced in the art of narrative, has his instinct to guide him in the choice of his words, and in the development of the action. A grain of talent excuses many mistakes. But this is not a work of imagination; I have no talent; my excuse for this undertaking lies not in its art, but in its artlessness. Aware of my limitations and strong in the sincerity of my purpose, I would not try (were I able) to invent anything. I push my scruples so far that I would not even invent a transition.

(Under Western Eyes (1911), (New York: Modern Library, 1996),(II, i), p. 77)


In her novel The Custom of the Country (1913), American Edith Wharton (1862–1937) has the character Ralph conclude that the best solution in his particular situation is to restrain his imagination:

An imagination like his, peopled with such varied images and associations, fed by so many currents from the long stream of human experience, could hardly picture the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered. Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it. He was beginning to understand this, and learning to adapt himself to the narrow compass of her experience. The task of opening new windows in her mind was inspiring enough to give him infinite patience; and he would not yet own to himself that her pliancy and variety were imitative rather than spontaneous.

(The Custom of the Country (New York: Scribner, 1913), II, xi, 147)

One might here compare the realization by the character Jesse in Sherwood Anderson’s (1876–1941) American novel Winesburg, Ohio (1919):

He invented a machine for the making of fence out of wire. Faintly he realized that the atmosphere of old times and places that he had always cultivated in his own mind was strange and foreign to the thing that was growing up in the minds of others. The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him.

(Winesburg, Ohio (1919), (New York: Viking, 1960), “[VII] Godliness – Part II,” pp. 58–59)

Finally, German writer Thomas Mann’s (1875–1955) first novel Buddenbrooks (1922) tells how the character of Thomas Buddenbrook “found himself forever falling behind his own active imagination.” In a similar vein, William Yeats (1865–1939) has discussed how hatred may be the “basis of imagination,” which, in the case of Ireland, led, in his opinion, to literal sexual abstinence as well as imaginative impotence:

The symbol without emotion is more precise and, perhaps, more powerful than an emotion without symbol. Hatred as a basis of imagination, in ways which one could explain even without magic, helps to dry up the nature and make the sexual abstinence, so common among young men and women in Ireland, possible. This abstinence reacts in its turn on the imagination, so that we get at last that strange eunuch-like tone and temper. For the last ten or twenty years there has been a perpetual drying of the Irish mind with the resultant dust-cloud….

In the eighteenth century Scotland believed itself religious, moral and gloomy, and its national, poet Burns came not to speak of these things but to speak of lust and drink and drunken gaiety. Ireland, since the Young Irelanders, has given itself up to apologetics. Every impression of life or impulse of imagination has been examined to see if it helped or hurt the glory of Ireland or the political claim of Ireland. A sincere impression of life became at last impossible, all was apologetics. There was no longer an impartial imagination, delighting in whatever is naturally exciting. [William] Synge was the rushing up of the buried fire, an explosion of all that had been denied or refused, a furious impartiality, an indifferent turbulent sorrow. His work, like that of [Robert] Burns, was to say all the people did not want to have said. He was able to do this because Nature had made him incapable of a political idea.’

(Mann, Buddenbrooks (1922), trans. John E. Woods, (New York: Knopf. 1993), (VII, v), p. 369; Yeats, Extracts from a Diary Kept in 1909 in The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, (New York: Doubleday, 1958), (“Estrangement,” XLII), p. 330; (“The Death of Synge,” XXX), p. 352)

So perhaps Texans should be so quick to “applaud innovation” that comes from imagination:

(Harvey is, however, usually right when it comes to analyzing Texas politics.)

Short Story Review: “Earning Disapproval” by Shashi Bhat

pencil shavings

[Prefatory note: Here at Bookbread I’m starting a new series, one where I will review short stories I’ve read. I’ll try to review one at a time (in about one paragraph), but possibly intersperse those singular reviews with commentary that compares and contrasts various stories. But I want to keep the general focus on one-short-story-at-a-time. Most of the things I’ll review were written in the last five years.]

Sashi Bhat’s short story “Earning Disapproval,” published in The Puritan magazine (Winter 2019), is a story that focuses much on an abundance of detail. This surplus renders for readers something between a sense of verisimilitude and nostalgia for the life of a Hindu Indian-Canadian girl in middle school during the mid-late ’90s.

Some of the details mentioned I recall from my own days in middle school–such as girls’ enthusiasm for the film The Craft (1996) and the slime toy Gak (which smelled awful) made by Nickelodeon.

Other details I wasn’t so familiar with, such as the narrator’s mention of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), a very popular Indian film I was unaware of; although, after watching a clip from it, I recognized the star Shah Rukh Khan from things I once watched for an Indian film class in college.

Overall, reading “Earning Disapproval” reminded me of a remark by critic George Saintsbury (1845-1933) when, in his essay on Milton, the critic mentions:

… the famous “Miltonic vague”—the preference of vast but rather indeterminate pictures, tinted with a sort of dim gorgeousness or luridity, as the case may be—to sharper outlines and more definite colours….
(Saintsbury, “Milton, § 22 His versification and style,” The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, Volume VII: English Cavalier and Puritan, eds. A. W. Ward & A. R. Waller, (Cambridge UP, 1907–1921).)

“A sort of dim gorgeousness or luridity….” yet containing things with “sharper outlines and more definite colours” is the lasting impression I have after reading Bhat’s story. I find these traits in my own attempts at fiction, so perhaps I’m being overly critical of Bhat because of my self-awareness.

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.



[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.

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.

A Dialogue of High Adventure & Misdemeanors

bookbread typewriter

A Dialogue of High Adventure & Misdemeanors

let us try / Adventurous work

––Satan, Paradise Lost[1]

Everything is legal.

––Thénardier, Les Misérables[2]

SCENE: Consider the Plagiarist who was successful and had money to spare and how he encountered the Crime Writer who was muddling through her career, sometimes writing fiction, sometimes non:


CRIME WRITER: Has anyone ever called you a criminal?

PLAGIARIST: I prefer to be called a “master of disguising quotations.” It’s the thrill of masquerade when all the world’s a stage….

CRIME WRITER: Has anyone ever accused you of being an adventurer?

PLAGIARIST: No, but I think I know what you mean. There is something of a riddle in how adventure sometimes functions as a synonym for criminal enterprise. An Oxford don named Tolkien played around with this idea in the opening chapter of The Hobbit (1936). But I first learned of this riddle from that Gallic journalist André Gide (1869–1951) and his character of Lafcadio in The Caves of the Vatican (1914): a motiveless criminal:

“No doubt his apparent inconsequence hides what is in reality, a subtler and more recondite sequence—the important point is that what makes him act should not be a matter of interest, or, as the usual phrase is, that he should not be merely actuated by interested motives…. A crime without a motive,” went on Lafcadio, “what a puzzle for the police! As to that, however, going along beside this blessed bank, anybody in the next-door compartment might notice the door open and the old blighter’s shadow pitch out. The corridor curtains, at any rate, are drawn…. It’s not so much about events that I’m curious, as about myself. There’s many a man thinks he’s capable of anything, who draws back when it comes to the point…. What a gulf between the imagination and the deed! … And no more right to take back one’s move than at chess. Pooh! If one could foresee all the risks, there’d be no interest in the game! …. Between the imagination of a deed and … Hullo! the bank’s come to an end….”  He preferred adventure—a word as pliable as his beaver and as easily twisted to suit his liking…. There is no reason that a man who commits a crime without reason should be considered a criminal.[3]

CRIME WRITER: You certainly can quote when called upon. But don’t expect me today to pay you for yesterday’s words.

PLAGIARIST: There’re plenty who do pay. I don’t need you. And I can perplex at will. I will perplex you with a question: can one be a law-abider––a non-criminal, full of motives or empty of inclinations––and still, nonetheless, possess “the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do?” Or is that urge something that happens only amid the anarchy in the heart of the African jungle of Nod, rather than the governance of the Arabic garden of Eden?[4]

CRIME WRITER: With all my experience of writing about high adventures and misdemeanors, I well remember what Captain Conrad taught me:

Curiosity being one of the forms of self-revelation, a systematically incurious person remains always partly mysterious.[5]

which was why––

After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the regions so well known to [Jim’s] imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure. He made many voyages.[6]

So to seek adventure—to pursue crime—is rather boring, at least for crime writers like me. Yet the incurious teem with intrigue….


CRIME WRITER: Gide, Conrad, and Gramsci. Besides being a bunch of men, how are these relevant to our dialogue?

PLAGIARIST: the political prisoner Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), whether or not technically a “criminal,” certainly possessed motives and rendered them upon the pages of his notebooks. He was motived to philosophize in order to rise above religion and common sense:

Philosophy is intellectual order, which neither religion nor common sense can be. It is to be observed that religion and common sense do not coincide either, but that religion is an element of fragmented common sense. Moreover common sense is a collective noun, like religion: there is not just one common sense, for that too is a product of history and a part of the historical process. Philosophy is criticism and superseding of religion and “common” sense. [7]

On the other hand, for sea captain Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) if a society’s objects of royalty and religion make not good targets for terrorists (who are criminals, members of anti-society), then– at least in his novel The Secret Agent (1907)––science emerges as the preferred target for terrorists, the new motive of criminality:

“You are too lazy to think,” was Mr Vladimir’s comment upon that gesture. “Pay attention to what I say. The fetish of to-day is neither royalty nor religion. Therefore the palace and the church should be left alone. You understand what I mean, Mr Verloc?” …. But there is learning—science. Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but he believes it matters somehow. It is the sacrosanct fetish….[8]

Finally, through his character of James Duffy, exiled penman James Joyce (1882–1941) shows that to be a good citizen of a murderous empire, a non-criminal needs merely no royalty (if Irish at least), a few friends, and a little religion. These things make the life of the good citizen “adventureless”:

He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed. He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died. He performed these two social duties for old dignity’s sake but conceded nothing further to the conventions which regulate the civic life. He allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his hank but, as these circumstances never arose, his life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale.[9]

CRIME WRITER: Crime and adventure….

PLAGIARIST: Advice and censure….



[1] Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 1667. X, 254–55. Compare 439–41.

[2] Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. 1860. IV, vi, i.

[3] Gide, André. Les caves du Vatican. (Lafcadio’s Adventures.) 1914. Translated by Dorothy Bussy. NY: Knopf. 1953. IV, vii; V, i and ii.

[4] Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. § I.

[5] Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale. 1907. XI.

[6] Conrad, Lord Jim. 1900. II.

[7] Gramsci, Antonio. Quaderni del carcere. 1929–1935. (Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci.) Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. NY: International Publishers. 1971. “The Study of Philosophy” 325–26.

[8] Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale II.

[9] Joyce, James. Dubliners. 1914. “A Painful Case.”

Great Books Once Read

Texas wildflowers

Great Books Once Read

The great books of the world we have once read; we take them as read; we believe that we read them; at least, we believe that we know them. But to how few of us are they the daily mental food! For once that we take down our Milton, and read a book of that “voice,” as Wordsworth says, “whose sound is like the sea,” we take up fifty times a magazine with something about Milton, or about Milton’s grandmother, or a book stuffed with curious facts about the houses in which he lived, and the juvenile ailments of his first wife.

Frederic Harrison (1831-1923)

The Choice of Books. Chicago, IL: R. R. Donnelley’s Sons Co. 1891. pp. 106-07.

Why We Retell Stories


Why We Retell Stories

The sentiment is probably assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family has struck into the soil…. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town.

–Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter [1]

I. The Place

Often while traveling down a road–one familiar though not taken weekly, or even monthly––I and members of my family have retold stories to ourselves. Indeed, as if unconsciously hypnotized by a mantra, we “sit indulgent” and “partake rural repast” by these retellings.[2] We partake in tales involving particular places along the way to wherever we’re going. Often they can’t even be categorized as stories, at least not in the sense of possessing a beginning, middle, and end. Instead they are but blots of memory and splotches of myth.

One of the stories that comes up while traveling in northern Williamson County, Texas along Highway 183 where it meets County Road 121 tells how in the early 1900s, my grandad’s grandad’s uncle Cyrus planted a tree. It was a tree that could be seen about a hundred yards away from the east side of the highway, and it was a tree that was seen for about hundred years until it fell over around 2010. It’s absurd that we know neither why he planted it nor what species eventually grew alone in a field on the edge of Shin Oak Ridge and Briggs Prairie, but because Cyrus’s older brother Livy operated nurseries and orchards throughout his life, I suppose it was some kind of fruit tree. The tree was always short, and the only explanation to which we could satisfy ourselves was that Uncle Cyrus perhaps planted it in soil rocky enough to stunt the tree’s growth.

But why did we repeat this vignette whenever we passed by the tree, or repeat it nowadays while driving past where it once stood? It’s because we seek stability while traveling and retell a tale to remind us so. Something in the subconscious says: “See that! Something happened there. Today I call attention to the place, and by telling you about it, that spot further becomes a part of me, and also now a part of you the listener.”[3] Just as in Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country (1913), the mother of the main character, a New York transplant from the Midwest, resorts to retelling:

Mrs. Spragg liked to repeat her stories. To do so gave her almost her sole sense of permanence among the shifting scenes of life.[4]


II. The Placeless

On the other hand, I wonder which stories get told only once. I bet it’s those that are quite forgettable. I further wonder: do the stories that get told only once evoke in their readers and listeners a sense of placelessness?—perhaps even a sense of instability? Are some stories too unstable to be retold? Perhaps that speculation works for stories, perhaps not, but on the other hand a poem can certainly evoke placelessness and at the same time be good enough to qualify as unforgettable. Consider the twenty-eighth sonnet of Shakespeare, where readers encounter a wanderer who asks:

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night, and night by day, oppressed?
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright,
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven.
So flatter I the swart-complexioned night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

The speaker wishes without hope––an individual stuck between twinkling night and radiant morn.

Or is the speaker free rather than trapped? Has the poet captured the psychology of one coursing through a place of non-existence just as the clouds course through the air? While the speaker tells the day and flatters the night, unlike Mrs. Spragg, this particular poet doesn’t retell a tale in an attempt to craft a place of permanence. Is this because Shakespeare wasn’t an American?

We should seek to discover how, given the American people as they are, and American economic and social life as it now exists—and not as those things can be imagined to be—we can find means of resisting the steady homogenization of the world. This means cultivating a strong sense of place wherever we find it—and thereby cultivating the human goods that depend upon an enduring sense of place and are impossible without it.[5]



[1] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. “The Custom-House.”

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 3–4.

[3] Compare Job 38:4–7: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding….”

[4] Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country.  NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1909. I, vi, p. 79.

[5] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 7.