Over and over

Garry Wills in an exchange with Sean Dorrance Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus, regarding Wills’ review of their book All Things Shining, New York Review of Books, 2011:

They vaguely dance away from all that with a dismissive claim that I am talking history and they are talking philosophy—as if philosophy were a warrant for making false statements, over and over.


What makes one dream of writing

Jean-François Lyotard on Sam Francis’s “Meaningless Gesture,” 1958, in Sam Francis, Lessons of Darkness:

Le geste de peindre défère à l’autorité, à la confiance absolue, presque étourdie, que les couleurs ont en elles-mêmes. Pareillement, la fidélité des mots à la puissance immémoriale qui est en eux et à ses initiatives incessantes est ce qui fait rêver d’écrire. Cela n’empêche pas, cela explique que dans le geste de peindre il y a une impossibilité et l’interdiction de croire aux couleurs comme il y a un dégoût de s’en remettre aux mots dans le geste d’écrire.

translated by Geoffrey Bennington, 1993:

The gesture of painting defers to the authority, the absolute, almost giddy confidence that colors have in themselves. Similarly, the fidelity of words to the immemorial potential that is in them, and to its incessant initiatives, is what makes one dream of writing. This does not prevent, but explains the fact that in the gesture of painting there is an impossibility and ban on believing in colors as there is a disgust in relying on words in the gesture of writing.

The huge and microscopic career of time

William Carlos Williams, from Spring and All, 1923:

In that huge and microscopic career of time, as it were a wild horse racing in an illimitable pampa under the stars, describing immense and microscopic circles with his hoofs on the solid turf, running without a stop for the millionth part of a second until he is aged and worn to a heap of skin, bones and ragged hoofs—In that majestic progress of life, that gives the exact impression of Phidias’ frieze, the men and beasts of which, though they seem of the rigidity of marble are not so but move, with blinding rapidity, though we do not have the time to notice it, their legs advancing a millionth part of an inch every fifty thousand years—In that progress of life which seems stillness itself in the mass of its movements—at last SPRING is approaching.

The indifference of (mere) knowledge

Richard Howard’s prefatory note to Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller in 1975:

The French have a distinguishing advantage which Roland Barthes, a Frenchman through and through, has taken, has used, has exploited in his new book about what we do when we enjoy a text; the French have a vocabulary of eroticism, an amorous discourse which smells neither of the laboratory nor of the sewer, which just—attentively, scrupulously—puts the facts. In English, we have either the coarse or the clinical, and by tradition our words for our pleasures, even for the intimate parts of our bodies where we may take those pleasures, come awkwardly when they come at all. So that if we wish to speak of the kind of pleasure we take—the supreme pleasure, say, associated with sexuality at its most abrupt and ruthless pitch—we lack the terms acknowledged and allowed in polite French utterance; we lack jouissance and jouir, as Barthes uses them here. The nomenclature of active pleasure fails us—that is the “matter” Sterne had in mind when he said they order this matter so much better in France.

Roland Barthes’s translator, Richard Miller, has been resourceful, of course, and he has come up with the readiest plausibility by translating jouissance (for the most part: Barthes himself declares the choice between pleasure and the more ravaging term to be precarious, revocable, the discourse incomplete) as “bliss”; but of course he cannot come up with “coming,” which precisely translates what the original text can afford. The Bible they translated calls it “knowing” while the Stuarts called it “dying,” the Victorians called it “spending,” and we call it “coming”; a hard look at the horizon of our literary culture suggests that it will not be long before we come to a new world for orgasm proper—we shall call it “being.”

Roland Barthes, in any case, calls it jouissance, as his own literary culture entitles him to do, and he associates his theory of the text, in this new book, with what has been a little neglected in his own and other (French) studies of what we may take, what we may have, when we read: the pleasure of the text. Pleasure is a state, of course, bliss (jouissance) an action, and both of them, in our culture, are held to be unspeakable, beyond words. Here, for example, is Willa Cather, a writer Barthes has never heard of, putting in a plea of nolo contendere, which is, for all its insufferable air of customary infallibility, no more than symptomatic:

The qualities of a first-rate writer cannot be defined, but only experienced. It is just the thing in him which escapes analysis that makes him first-rate. One can catalogue all the qualities that he shares with other writers, but the thing that is his very own, his timbre, this cannot be defined or explained any more than the quality of a beautiful speaking voice can be.

In the puritanism of our expressivity, what can be said is taken—is likely—to be no longer experienced, certainly no longer enjoyed.

Yet Barthes has found, for all Cather’s strictures, a way to speak pleasure, a way which leads him to abandon the systematics of earlier studies (he has found this way before: this new book is to S/Z as his essay on Japan, L’Empire des Signes, is to Système de la Mode: a writer’s aphrodisiac); his way is to give himself away—literally, to confess, to speak with all the entranced conviction of a man in the dock: to give himself up to an evidently random succession of fragments: facets, aphorisms, touches and shoves, nudges, elbowings, bubbles, trial balloons, “phylacteries,” he calls them, of an invisible design—the design is the simple staging of the question “What do we enjoy in the text?” The design is not quite invisible, perhaps, for it obeys the most arbitrary (and apparent) of orders, the alphabetical, which governs Barthes’s series of proses in such a fashion that we feel held somewhere between the high-handed and the underhanded in the aspiration to catch pleasure out, the effort to catch up with bliss. Like filings which gather to form a figure in a magnetic field, the parts and pieces here do come together, determined to affirm the pleasure we must take in our reading as against the indifference of (mere) knowledge, determined to instance our ecstasy, our bliss in the text against the prudery of ideological analysis, so that perhaps for the first time in the history of criticism we have not only a poetics of reading—that, I think, is what Barthes has managed so marvelously to constitute in S/Z—but a much more difficult (because supposedly inexpressible, apparently ineffable) achievement, an erotics of reading.

The wisdom style of middle age

the final paragraph of Philip Lopate’s foreword to The Annotated Emerson:

I’m sure we could make the case for Emerson’s relevance today by molding him into a proto-postmodernist, a covert wild man with dark imagination, or a progressive fighter for multicultural diversity. My own fondness for him rests on his intelligence and his truthfulness, his questioning, nondogmatic sanity. He wrote some of the best reflective prose we have; he was a hero of intellectual labor, a loyal friend, and, taking into account all his flaws and prejudices, a good egg who always tried to do the right thing. True, he was middle-class and wrote increasingly in the wisdom style of middle age. Can we forgive him? Yes; we can even revere him, as a model of how to overcome anxiety and despair, and eloquently wed uncertainty to equanimity.

Blind to all excellence but its own

Hazlitt, on Shakespeare and Rembrandt, from Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners (1821):

His genius consisted in the faculty of transforming himself at will into whatever he chose: his originality was the power of seeing every object from the exact point of view in which others would see it. He was the Proteus of human intellect. Genius in ordinary is a more obstinate and less versatile thing. It is sufficiently exclusive and self-willed, quaint and peculiar. It does some one thing by virtue of doing nothing else: it excels in some one pursuit by being blind to all excellence but its own. It is just the reverse of the cameleon; for it does not borrow, but lends its colour to all about it; or like the glow-worm, discloses a little circle of gorgeous light in the twilight of obscurity, in the night of intellect that surrounds it. So did Rembrandt. If ever there was a man of genius, he was one, in the proper sense of the term. He lived in and revealed to others a world of his own, and might be said to have invented a new view of nature. He did not discover things out of nature, in fiction or fairy land, or make a voyage to the moon ‘to descry new lands, rivers or mountains in her spotty globe,’ but saw things in nature that every one had missed before him and gave others eyes to see them with. This is the test and triumph of originality, not to show us what has never been, and what we may therefore very easily never have dreamt of, but to point out to us what is before our eyes and under our feet, though we have had no suspicion of its existence, for want of sufficient strength of intuition, of determined grasp of mind, to seize and retain it.

An engine of discovery

from the preface to Cell Biology by the Numbers, Ron Milo and Rob Phillips:

One of the great traditions in biology’s more quantitative partner sciences such as chemistry and physics is the value placed on centralized, curated quantitative data. Whether thinking about the astronomical data that describes the motions of planets or the thermal and electrical conductivities of materials, the numbers themselves are a central part of the factual and conceptual backdrop for these fields.  Indeed, often the act of trying to explain why numbers have the values they do ends up being an engine of discovery.

The cleansing and deepening of the dispute

Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind, 1952:

Anyone engaged in the study, teaching, and criticism of literature as a university discipline is likely to become at some time or other aware of one fundamental problem raised by his own pursuits, of a difficulty that is all his own and is not, or at least not to the same extent, shared by his colleagues in other subjects. For however sincerely he may struggle against bias and prejudice in his own approach and appreciation, his work will still be very intimately related to his experiences in wider fields. […] and this, he will see, is no shortcoming of his own discipline, to be conquered in scientific campaigns or disguised by scientific masquerades, but is in fact its distinctive virtue. […] thus he would be ill-advised to concentrate exclusively on those aspects of his discipline which allow the calm neutrality of what is indisputably factual and “objective”. His business, I think, is not the avoidance of subjectivity, but its purification; not the shunning of what is disputable, but the cleansing and deepening of the dispute.

A distant and subtle poetry

Rafael Arévalo Martinez, “Mi vida es un recuerdo”:

Cuando la conocí me amé a mí mismo.
Fue la que tuvo mi mejor lirismo,
la que encendió mi obscura adolescencia,
la que mis ojos levantó hacia el cielo.

Me humedeció su amor, que era una esencia,
doblé mi corazón como un pañuelo
y después le eché llave a mi existencia.

Y por eso perfuma el alma mía
con lejana y diluida poesía.

translated by William George Williams and William Carlos Williams, published in Others, 1916:

When I met her I loved myself.
It was she who had my best singing,
she who set flame to my obscure youth,
she who raised my eyes toward heaven.

Her love moistened me, it was an essence.
I folded my heart like a handkerchief
and after I turned the key on my existence.

And thus it perfumes my soul
with a distant and subtle poetry.