Of Texas, to Teach and Learn from that State No More

Western book stack

Of Texas, to Teach and Learn from that State No More

With regard to Texas as something to ever be discussed for any reason, I agree with much of what Jay Leeson of Lubbock wrote this week:


I too “am out.” The bad guys have won, and it is time to go all the way and “abandon all hope” as Dante says before the Gates of Hell, rather than try to cut one’s losses.

A slightly witty essay that uses Edmund Burke to explain the book-banning situation in Texas won’t change minds or votes or status quos regarding rural Texas. Therefore, I don’t intend to write any more of them.

I will instead, pursue the truth about contemporary Texas, not that it can teach me anything, not so I can teach Texans anything, but simply to love the pursuit.

As a very non-Texan, Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) once explained, the desire to find the truth for oneself has little to do with teaching truth(s) to others. Montaigne would rather know someone also seeking the truth rather than try to teach that person anything about it:

The active pursuit of truth is our proper business.

We have no excuse for conducting it badly or unfittingly. But failure to capture our prey is another matter. For we are born to quest after it; to possess it belongs to a greater power….

The world is but a school of inquiry. It does not matter who hits the ring, but who runs the best course. The man who says what is true may be as foolish as the man who utters falsities, for we are concerned with the manner of speaking, not with the matter. It is my nature to consider the form as much as the substance, the advocate as much as the cause….

And every day I entertain myself by browsing among books without a thought for their learning; and examining their authors’ style, not their subject. In the same way, I seek the company of some famous mind, not so that he may teach me, but that I may know him.

(Essais, Tome III in Essays, (New York: Penguin, 1958, 1988), trans. J. M. Cohen, “8. On the Art of Conversation,” pp. 292–93. [Cohen’s numeration follows Montaigne’s Édition Municipale.])

René Descartes (1596–1650) also got tired of teaching as well as learning. So he decided he would start being independent in his thinking, and would muster no enthusiasm for teaching others the methods of life he had learned for himself. He wanted to describe the vision of his method, not teach that method to (un)willing students:

My present design, then, is not to teach the Method which each ought to follow for the right conduct of his Reason, but solely to describe the way in which I have endeavored to conduct my own.

(Discours de méthode (Discourse on Method)(c. 1637), The Method, Meditations, and Philosophy of Descartes, trans. John Veitch, (New York: Tudor Publishing, 1901), (§ I), p. 150)

Later John Locke (1632–1704) affirms that “I pretend not to teach, but to inquire” into the “dark room” of how the mind understands itself. Locke desired to “inquire” and to “examine,” but not to “teach”:

I pretend not to teach, but to inquire; and therefore cannot but confess here again,—that external and internal sensation are the only passages I can find of knowledge to the understanding.

These alone, as far as I can discover, are the windows by which light is let into this DARK ROOM.

For, methinks, the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without: which, would they but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them.

These are my guesses concerning the means whereby the understanding comes to have and retain simple ideas, and the modes of them, with some other operations about them.

I proceed now to examine some of these simple ideas and their modes a little more particularly.

(An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) [1689], Fifth Edition (1706), ed. Roger Woolhouse, (New York: Penguin, 1997, 2004), (II, xi, 17), p. 158)

Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) seems to have gotten closer to the source of the phenomenon of the abandonment of teacherhood. The student learns differently than the teacher, for their imaginations, at least, according to Vico, function in slightly different ways:

Just as old age is powerful in reason, so is adolescence in imagination. Since imagination has always been esteemed a most favorable omen of future development [divination?], it should in no way be dulled.

Furthermore, the teacher should give the greatest care to the cultivation of the pupil’s memory, which, though not exactly the same as imagination, is almost identical with it.

In adolescence, memory outstrips in vigor all other faculties, and should be intensely trained.

Youth’s natural inclination to the arts in which imagination or memory (or a combination of both) is prevalent (such as painting, poetry, oratory, jurisprudence) should by no means be blunted.

Nor should advanced philosophical criticism, the common instrument today of all arts and sciences, be an impediment to any of them.

The Ancients knew how to avoid this drawback.

In almost all their schools for youths, the role of logic was fulfilled by geometry.

Following the example of medical practitioners, who concentrate their efforts on seconding the bent of Nature, the Ancients required their youths to learn the science of geometry which cannot be grasped without a vivid capacity to form images.

Thus, without doing violence to nature, but gradually and gently and in step with the mental capacities of their age, the Ancients nurtured the reasoning powers of their young men.

(De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Time) (c. 1709), trans. Elio Gianturco, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990), pp. 13–14)

I don’t pretend to know exactly what Vico is getting at, other than I think he is following in the footsteps of Montaigne, Descartes, and Locke with this idea of renouncing the discipline of teaching in favor of a discipline of knowing.

But can their diagnoses concerning the problem of being a burned-out teacher find remedy through some kind of gnosis (knowing)? Vico seems to suggest this. But it also seems too much to resemble the obscurantist, the guru, the mystic. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) likes to remind us: “We gropewhen we read, particularly things tinged with mysticism, (Journals and Emerson Notebooks Vol. V (1835–1838), ed. William H. Gilman et al, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP), May 24, 1835, Journal B, p. 44; April 29, 1837, Journal C, p. 307).

Moreover, says Emerson:

The great distinction between teachers sacred or literary,—between poets like Herbert, and poets like Pope,—between philosophers like Spinoza, Kant, and Coleridge, and philosophers like Locke, Paley, Mackintosh, and Stewart,—between men of the world, who are reckoned accomplished talkers, and here and there a fervent mystic, prophesying, half insane under the infinitude of his thought,—is, that one class speak from within, or from experience, as parties and possessors of the fact; and the other class, from without, as spectators merely, or perhaps as acquainted with the fact on the evidence of third persons.

It is of no use to preach to me from without. I can do that too easily myself. Jesus speaks always from within, and in a degree that transcends all others.

In that is the miracle. I believe beforehand that it ought so to be. All men stand continually in the expectation of the appearance of such a teacher.

But if a man do not speak from within the veil, where the word is one with that it tells of, let him lowly confess it. (“The Over-Soul,” Essays: First Series (1841))

Emerson continues:

The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics! ….

Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one….

And the mystic must be steadily told,––All that you say is just as true without the tedious use of that symbol as with it.

Let us have a little algebra, instead of this trite rhetoric,––universal signs, instead of these village symbols,––and we shall both be gainers. (“The Poet,” Essays: Second Series (1844))

In Defence of Les Femmes Françaises

pencil shavings

I am very glad to my essay “In Defence of Les Femmes Françaises” out by Fortnightly Review. It uses French literature of the past to explain French beauty at present, with aid from Balzac, Camus, Montaigne, Valéry and others.

The Need to Reread, via John Wilson (& Others)

porticos in Bologna, Italia

I keep thinking about this great piece by editor John Wilson from back in July on his method of rereading. It reminded me of some other proverbs for rereading that I continue to ponder:

It consoles me too that the places I revisit and the books I re-read always smile upon me with the freshness of novelty. (Michel de Montaigne, Essais, Tome I, trans. J. M. Cohen, (New York: Penguin, 1958, 1988) “9. On liars,” p. 30.)

I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book:  one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.(Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Lectures on Literature, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982) p. 3.)

PLAYBOY: Arthur Clarke has said of the film, “If anyone understands it on the first viewing, we’ve failed in our intention.” Why should the viewer have to see a film twice to get its message?

KUBRICK: I don’t agree with that statement of Arthur’s, and I believe he made it facetiously. The very nature of the visual experience in 2001 is to give the viewer an instantaneous, visceral reaction that does not—and should not—require further amplification. Just speaking generally, however, I would say that there are elements in any good film that would increase the viewer’s interest and appreciation of a second viewing; the momentum of a movie often prevents every stimulating detail or nuance from having a full impact the first time it’s seen. The whole idea that a movie should be seen only once is an extension of our traditional conception of the film as an ephemeral entertainment rather than as a visual work of art. We don’t believe what we should hear a great piece of music only once, or see a great painting once, or even read a great book just once. Bu the film has until recent years been exempted from the category of art—a situation I’m glad is finally changing. (Eric Nordern, “Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick,” (c. 1968) in Stanley Kubrick Interviews, ed. Gene D. Phillips, (Jackson, MS: Mississippi UP, 2001) p. 48.)

But—to anticipate a point to be treated later—it’s rather odd that I tend not to feel that same panic at the thought of not having time to reread books I already love, even though I know that such rereading will surely be pleasurable. The possible pleasure of an unread book weighs more heavily on me than the sure pleasure of one I already know. (Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, (New York: Oxford UP, 2011) pp. 70–71.)

Why All Habits Are Bad: Oscar Wilde & Marcel Proust

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna

Why All Habits Are Bad: Oscar Wilde & Marcel Proust

Perez Zagorin notes: “[Proust] had actually been introduced to Wilde in Paris and invited him to dinner.”[1] One could imagine they talked of nothing but women. (Or not.) Or perhaps they discussed the meaning of the word “habit.” For Wilde, habit is the enemy of all creativity, because art destroys monotony. In Wilde’s words:

Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing … He either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would be fatal to the imagination of anybody, and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so lifelike that no one can possibly believe in their probability[2]


You are quite delightful, but your views are terribly unsound. I am afraid that you have been listening to the conversation of some one older than yourself. That is always a dangerous thing to do, and if you allow it to degenerate into a habit you will find it absolutely fatal to any intellectual development.[3]


Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine. In Art, the public accept what has been, because they cannot alter it, not because they appreciate it. [4]


“Death is the only thing that ever terrifies me. I hate it.”

“Why?” said the younger man wearily.

“Because … one can survive everything nowadays except that. Death and vulgarity are the only two facts in the nineteenth century that one cannot explain away. Let us have our coffee in the music-room, Dorian. You must play Chopin to me. The man with whom my wife ran away played Chopin exquisitely. Poor Victoria! I was very fond of her. The house is rather lonely without her. Of course, married life is merely a habit, a bad habit. But then one regrets the loss even of one’s worst habits. Perhaps one regrets them the most. They are such an essential part of one’s personality.”[5]

This last passage appears to agree with Proust somewhat: no matter how horrible are all our habits, we wouldn’t be able to psychologically function. We wouldn’t be able to “get by” without them. Memory for Proust is submissive to habit. The most vivid memories are of things most forgotten, and this is because we don’t remember what we already knew.[6] It is like, says Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), an old book we pick up and thumb through before realizing, “I read this already.”[7] As Proust puts it:

Now our love memories present no exception to the general rules of memory, which in turn are governed by the still more general rules of Habit. And as Habit weakens every impression, what a person recalls to us most vividly is precisely what we had forgotten, because it was of no importance, and had therefore left in full possession of its strength. That is why the better part of our memory exists outside ourselves, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source can make us weep again. Outside ourselves, did I say; rather within ourselves, but hidden from our eyes in an oblivion more or less prolonged. It is thanks to this oblivion alone that we can from time to time recover the creature that we were, range ourselves face to face with past events as that creature had to face them, suffer afresh because we are no longer ourselves but he, and because he loved what leaves us now indifferent. In the broad daylight of our ordinary memory the images of the past turn gradually pale and fade out of sight, nothing remains of them, we shall never find them again. Or rather we should never find them again had not a few words (such as this ‘Secretary to the Ministry of Posts’) been carefully locked away in oblivion, just as an author deposits in the National Library a copy of a book which might otherwise become unobtainable. [8]

Moreover, for Proust: “in strange places where our sensations have not been numbed by habit, we refresh, we revive an old pain.” [9]

For American philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), the habits of humans reflect the patterns of their beliefs. Habits don’t just have meaning: habits are meaning. Habits are the rules of behavior that produce our character:

The feeling of believing is a more or less sure indication of there being established in our nature some habit which will determine our actions. Doubt never has such an effect….

Most frequently doubts arise from some indecision, however momentary, in our action…. The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit…. [The] whole function of thought is to produce habits of action.


To develop [a thing’s] meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves.


And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life. We have seen that it has just three properties: First, it is something that we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and, third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit. As it appeases the irritation of doubt, which is the motive for thinking, thought relaxes, and comes to rest for a moment [stasis] when belief is reached. [10]


That which determines us, from given premisses, to draw one inference rather than another, is some habit of mind, whether it be constitutional or acquired.


Thus, both doubt and belief have positive effects upon us, though very different ones. Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises. Doubt has not the least such active effect, but stimulates us to inquiry until it is destroyed. This reminds us of the irritation of a nerve and the reflex action produced thereby; while for the analogue of belief, in the nervous system, we must look to what are called nervous associations—for example, to that habit of the nerves in consequence of which the smell of a peach will make the mouth water.[11]


Attention is the power by which thought at one time is connected with and made to relate to thought at another time; or, to apply the conception of thought as a sign, that it is the pure demonstrative application of a thought-sign…. Attention produces effects upon the nervous system. These effects are habits, or nervous associations.[12]

Finally, compare some remarks from philosopher of religion James Bissett Pratt (1975–1944), who seems to imply that creativity abides in non-belief:

The truth is, non-belief, like belief, draws its strength not only from reason but from authority; in fact, for many enthusiastic students of science the will not to believe has a good deal to do with the result. In certain scientific circles it is not good form to believe in a future life; and the ascetic ideal which would sacrifice selfish interests for the personal values of science also comes into play. Moreover non-belief, like belief, is not merely a product of logical argument, authority, habit, and volition, but is largely influenced also by the imagination; and the peculiarly objective point of view which natural science inculcates and the habit it produces of considering causation and the laws of matter universal and invariable, give a certain cast to the imagination which makes the idea of the survival of bodily death increasingly difficult.[13]


Among all peoples—and the Indians are no exceptions—authority and habit have always been two most important foundations of faith. Moreover, if they regarded nature and the experiences of life, they saw multiplicity and a world of apparently many powers. It was only among the philosophers that reason’s demand for unity was strong enough to overcome all these things.[14]

The subconscious is eminently conservative. And in whatever way you interpret the “subconscious” this remains true. The conservative nature of the physiological is painfully evident to every one who has tried to break a habit.[15]

For Pratt (as well as Wilde) habits are conservative; art is radical. Our habits make us regress, but our imaginations help us progress.



[1] Zagorin, Perez. “Proust for Historians.” New Literary History. Vol. 37, No. 2. (Spring 2006.) 389–423 at 404–05.

[2] Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde. Vol. VII. NY: The Nottingham Society. 1909. pp. 9–10.

[3] Wilde, Oscar.  “The Critic as Artist: Parts I & II.” Intentions. London: Osgood, McIlvaine, London; New York, NY: Dodd, Mead. 1891. p. 91.

[4] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. 1891.

[5] Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1890. “Chapter 19.”

[6] Plato, Meno 79C–86E.

[7] Montaigne, Michel de. Essaies. (Essays.) “On Books.” 1580.

[8] Proust, 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.”

[9] Proust, Du côté de chez Swann. (Swann’s Way.) 1913. “Swann in Love.”

[10] Peirce, Charles Sanders. “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly. Vol. 12. (January 1878.) pp. 286–302.

[11] Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly. Vol. 12. (November 1877.) pp. 1–15.

[12] Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Vol. 2. (1868.) pp. 140–57.

[13] Pratt, James Bissett. “Some Psychological Aspects of the Belief in Immortality.” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 12. No. 3. (July 1919.) 294–314 at 300–01.

[14] Pratt, The Psychology of Religious Belief. NY: Macmillan. 1908. p. 93.

[15] Pratt, “The Subconscious and Religion.” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 6. No. 2. (April 1913.) 209–28 at 224.


A Love for the Love of Reading

(A Dialogue between the Brothers Grimm)

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

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

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

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

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

That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked; and as this practice is: a commodious subject of raillery to the gay, and of declamation to the serious, it has been ridiculed with all the pleasantry of wit, and exaggerated with all the amplifications of rhetoric. Every instance, by which its absurdity might appear most flagrant, has been studiously collected; it has been marked with every epithet of contempt, and all the tropes and figures have been called forth against it. (03)

Wilhelm: Take Johnson’s first line: That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us—when I read those words of Johnson’s they remind me of how I generally want to read all the books behind the book that’s in my hand at the moment.

Jacob: Oh?

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob: —Oh, do I have to?

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

Jacob: Johnson continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Difference between Quoting and Vomiting up the Words and Works of Authors

(A Dialogue of Diagnosis between the Brothers Grimm)

Let us try to clarify what we said earlier….

JACOB: So brother, did you dream of any books last night?

WILHELM: Yes, again I dreamed of books, of authors, of words, and even ideas—ones read before and ones I can’t remember.

JACOB: I too have forgotten most of my readings from the stacks and shelves and piles of books scattered around my parlor.

WILHELM:  Yes, all words and works inside my mind have fermented into squalor.

JACOB: I am losing my sense of taste as well—it now seems that all books are bland.

WILHELM:  All literature lukewarm…

JACOB: Yes, and frequently cited but not enough studied are the words of Lord Bacon, who once suggested: “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and a few to be chewed and digested,” (01). But because I find it difficult to remember what I’ve read, it’s to a point where I don’t even know whether they were books I wanted to read.  Perhaps it reflects a tendency of mine to fixate on the desire rather than the act of reading.

WILHELM: My memory has lost words once absorbed as well as ideas once articulated by others—everything now dims toward dementia. But I take a touch of comfort in knowing that I’m not unlike Montaigne.

JACOB: How so?

WILHELM: Recall who Montaigne was: a man who retired to read, who attempted (or “essayed”) to discover himself as he put his thoughts on paper—here was a man who, after holding up a book marked full of strange notes in its margins, hesitated upon realizing that the book which seemed foreign should actually have been familiar to him, because the notes were written by Montaigne, and only afterwards did he remember having already read the book (02).

JACOB:  The devil he didn’t bother telling us the name of the book.

WILHELM:  True, he must not have digested it properly, but instead, read and chewed and ate too fast, as often occurs to people in opulent retirement.

JACOB: Often for me a book appears unfamiliar because I didn’t read it closely enough—

WILHELM:  —Because you tend not to savor the flavors of those spicy sentences.

JACOB:  I forget to fasten them to my memory, probably because I am strapped more to the idea, rather than the act, of reading books. I attend to the context of reading something while ignoring that something’s contents.

WILHELM: Perhaps Montaigne fell in love with the idea of reading his unnamed book but cared little for its contents?

JACOB: That difference, a desire for method over meaning, confounds me.

WILHELM: Ah, but haven’t you heard how preferring methods over meanings is what it means to be modern? “The medium is the message” and all that?

JACOB: I remember in another place where Montaigne compares his readings of books to: “the excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always indigested,” (03). Montaigne reveals an attitude similar to the advice on reading prescribed by Bacon, but the Frenchman’s humility makes him more honest (more intimate) than the English Lord.

WILHELM: So when it comes to reading books, do you prefer eating “excrement” or “bacon”?

JACOB: Ah, brother, but wouldn’t a far number of Muslim and Jewish readers equate the two?

WILHELM: As I am neither, I can respond only with an old pirate’s proverb: Why fart and waste it, when you can burp and taste it?

JACOB: I am astonished at your ability for over-specificity.

WILHELM: Dear brother, I am only trying to get at how it seems as though Montaigne were about to spout a kind of “bookish bulimia” onto his readers—a projectile vomit full of anorexic annotations of God knows what obscure Latin authors Montaigne read as a child. He probably quoted them aloud and at random—

JACOB: —As we ourselves often do—

WILHELM: —As does Bookbread on his blog.

JACOB: And well before Montaigne, there was Epictetus—a man who, unlike Montaigne, owned no library of books to organize his thoughts, nor castle in the French countryside with which to house them—yet still that slave and Stoic recognized:

Accordingly if any conversation should arise among uninstructed persons about any theorem, generally be silent; for there is great danger that you will immediately vomit up what you have not digested. And when a man shall say to you, that you know nothing, and you are not vexed, then be sure that you have begun the work (of philosophy). For even sheep do not vomit up their grass and show to the shepherds how much they have eaten; but when they have internally digested the pasture, they produce externally wool and milk. Do you also show not your theorems to the uninstructed, but show the acts which come from their digestion. (04)

WILHELM: In other words, we have both the ancient Epictetus and the more recent Renaissance men (Montaigne and Bacon) warning us against this habit of reading books and then regurgitating their quotations before we have let them settle in the stomachs of our souls.  And they warn us because such a habit fails to provide the mind of the reader with any sort of mental-nutritional value?

JACOB: Precisely.

WILHELM: Should we (as readers) then behave like dogs—dare we return to our own vomit?

JACOB: There you go with that over-specificity again, brother, but recall the old proverb: if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog….

01. Bacon, Francis. “Of Studies.” The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral. (1625).  Project Guttenberg. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/575/575-h/575-h.htm#2H_4_0050>.

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

03. Montaigne, Michel de. Essays III, ix “On Vanity.” (1580).  Trans. Charles Cotton.  Project Guttenberg. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3600/3600-h/3600-h.htm#2HCH0102>.

04. Epictetus, Encheiridion (“The Manual”) xlvi, pp. 400–401.  Trans. George Long.  Google Books. <http://books.google.com/books?id=qgwqAAAAYAAJ&dq=Epictetus&source=gbs_navlinks_s>.

Some Bookish Bulimia of the Brothers Grimm (a dialogue)

JACOB: So brother, did you dream of any books last night?

WILHELM: Yes, again I dreamed of books, of authors, of words, and even ideas—ones I’ve read before and ones I can’t remember. It’s difficult to remember what I’ve read.

JACOB: And still more difficult to remember are those vast volumes from the future, those books already written and yet to be dreamed, wouldn’t you agree?

WILHELM: Yes, Lord Bacon once accurately suggested that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and a few to be chewed and digested,” (01). Like Bacon, I too have forgotten most of my readings from the piles of books in my parlor.

JACOB: Oh, come on, bruder, it can’t be that bad.

WILHELM: Ah, but I am afraid that the poets are dead, they are no longer read, and even nowadays it seems I have lost the words I once absorbed. In such a state, I am not unlike Montaigne who confesses in “On Books” (1580) to have held up a book full of strange notes only to then hesitate upon realizing that what seems foreign is actually familiar to him, because the notes are Montaigne’s own notes, and only later can he remember having already read the book (02). It is in such a state that I now find my mind in.

JACOB: Oh, but I remember in another essay entitled “On Vanity” where Montaigne compares his readings of books to “the excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always indigested,” (03). When I read this line, it seems as though Montaigne were about to spout a kind of “bookish bulimia”—of reading books and then vomiting up their quotes without letting them digest, never to give the mind any kind of mental-nutritional value.

WILHELM: Yes, brother, I often feel the same way.

JACOB: It is true that you and I have aged like Montaigne. Each of us is the kind of person who has “forgotten it all; for though I am a man of some reading, I am one who retains nothing,” (04). Sometimes I don’t know whether I possess a genuine love for books or merely a love for the love of books. Perhaps I don’t care much for reading so much as care for those who care about reading, because it seems that now, brother Wilhelm, after several lifetimes worth of reading, I must quote at near random whatever remnants of digested books bother to burp their way up to my attention.

WILHELM: Well, if “quoting” is type of borrowing, it should not bother us to be like Montaigne. Here is someone who wishes to “be judged from what I borrow whether I have chosen the right means of exalting my theme. I make others say what I cannot, sometimes from poverty of expression, sometimes from lack of understanding. I do not count my borrowings, I weigh them,” (05).

01. Bacon, Francis. “On Studies.” Francis Bacon, the Essays [1625]. ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford World Classics. (1999). pp. 114–115. Based upon Bacon’s Works ed. James Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath London (1857–74), New York (1968), London (1996).

02. Montaigne, Michel de. “On Books.” (1580). ed. J. M. Cohen. Penguin Classics. (1958). (1988 printing). p. 171.

03. Montaigne, Michel de. “On Vanity.” (1580). The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Vol. III. Translated by Charles Cotton. Second Edition, Revised. (1908). Ed. by W. Carew Hazlitt. George Bell & Sons, London. p. 180. [On Google Books].

04. Montaigne, Michel de. “On Books.” (1580). ed. J. M. Cohen. Penguin Classics. (1958). (1988 printing).  p. 159.

05. Ibid.