With more temperament than information

Walter Lippmann in the New Republic reviewing Harold Stearns, Liberalism in America (1919), December 31, 1919:

The theater in which events have taken place is so vast and the factors so complex that a complete diagnosis is not yet possible. But it is possible to come much closer to the problem than Mr. Stearns has come. His book seems to me the work of a man who has attempted to write about a very great historical event with more temperament than information. His bibliography tells the story and so do his citations. They move entirely in the realm of interesting opinion, of things that a man might notice by reading some magazines and newspapers and books during the war and talking much with a circle of friends who had the same irritations as he himself.

Neat, plausible, and wrong

Two versions of the opening of Mencken’s essay “The Divine Afflatus”:

I. As it appears in A Mencken Chrestomathy

Every man who writes, or paints, or composes knows by hard experience that there are days when his ideas flow freely and clearly and days when they are damned up damnably. On his good days, for some reason quite incomprehensible to him, all the processes and operations of his mind take on an amazing ease and slickness. Almost without conscious effort he solves technical problems that have badgered him for weeks. He is full of novel expedients, extraordinary efficiencies, strange cunnings. He has a feeling that he has suddenly and unaccountably broken through a wall, dispersed a fog, got himself out of the dark. So he does a double or triple stint of the best work that he is capable of—maybe of far better work than he has ever been capable of before—and goes to bed impatient for the morrow. And on the morrow he discovers to his consternation that he has become almost idiotic, and quite incapable of any work at all.

This unpleasant experience overtakes poets and contrapuntists, critics and dramatists, painters and sculptors, and also, no doubt, philosophers and journalists; it may even be shared, so far as I know, by advertisement writers and the rev. clergy. The characters that all anatomists of melancholy mark in it are the irregular ebb and flow of the tides, and the impossibility of getting them under any sort of rational control. The brain, as it were, stands to one side and watches itself pitching and tossing, full of agony but essentially helpless. Here the man of creative imagination pays a ghastly price for all his superiorities and immunities; nature takes revenge upon him for dreaming of improvements in the scheme of things. Sitting there in his lonely room, gnawing the handle of his pen, racked by his infernal quest, horribly bedeviled by incessant flashes of itching, toothache, eye-strain and festering conscience—thus tortured, he makes atonement for his crime of having ideas. The normal man, the healthy and honest man, the good citizen and householder—this man, I daresay, knows nothing of all that travail. It is the particular penalty of those who pursue strange butterflies into dark forests, and go fishing in enchanted and for bidden streams.

How are we to account for it? My question, of course, is purely rhetorical. Explanations exist; they have existed for all times, for there is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. The ancients laid the blame upon the gods: sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand, and one reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by the souls of the departed, and even by the devil. In our own day there are explanations less supernatural but no less fanciful—to wit, the explanation that the whole thing is a matter of pure chance, and not to be resolved into any orderly process—to wit, the explanation that the controlling factor is external circumstance, that the artist happily married to a dutiful wife is thereby inspired—finally, to make an end, the explanation that it is all a question of Freudian complexes, themselves lurking in impenetrable shadows. But all these explanations fail to satisfy the mind that is not to be put off with mere words. Some of them are palpably absurd; others beg the question. The problem of the how remains, even when the problem of the why is disposed of. What is the precise machinery whereby the cerebrum is bestirred to such abnormal activity on one day that it sparkles and splutters like an arc-light, and reduced to such feebleness on another day that it smokes and gutters like a tallow dip?

II. As it appears in Prejudices: Second Series

The suave and oedematous Chesterton, in a late effort to earn
the honorarium of a Chicago newspaper, composed a thousand words
of labored counterblast to what is called inspiration in the arts.
The thing itself, he argued, has little if any actual existence; we
hear so much about it because its alleged coyness and fortuitousness
offer a convenient apology for third-rate work. The man taken in such
third-rate work excuses himself on the ground that he is a helpless
slave of some power that stands outside him, and is quite beyond his
control. On days when it favors him he teems with ideas and creates
masterpieces, but on days when it neglects him he is crippled and
impotent–a fiddle without a bow, an engine without steam, a tire
without air. All this, according to Chesterton, is nonsense. A man who
can really write at all, or paint at all, or compose at all should be
able to do it at almost any time, provided only “he is not drunk or
asleep.”

So far Chesterton. The formula of the argument is simple and familiars
to dispose of a problem all that is necessary is to deny that it
exists. But there are plenty of men, I believe, who find themselves
unable to resolve the difficulty in any such cavalier manner–men whose chief burden and distinction, in fact, is that they do not employ
formulae in their thinking, but are thrown constantly upon industry,
ingenuity and the favor of God. Among such men there remains a good
deal more belief in what is vaguely called inspiration. They know
by hard experience that there are days when their ideas flow freely
and clearly, and days when they are dammed up damnably. Say a man of that sort has a good day. For some reason quite incomprehensible to
him all his mental processes take on an amazing ease and slickness.
Almost without conscious effort he solves technical problems that have
badgered him for weeks. He is full of novel expedients, extraordinary
efficiencies, strange cunnings. He has a feeling that he has suddenly
and unaccountably broken through a wall, dispersed a fog, got himself
out of the dark. So he does a double or triple stint of the best work
that he is capable of—maybe of far better work than he has ever been
capable of before—and goes to bed impatient for the morrow. And on
the morrow he discovers to his consternation that he has become almost idiotic, and quite incapable of any work at all.

I challenge any man who trades in ideas to deny that he has this
experience. The truth is that he has it constantly. It overtakes
poets and contrapuntists, critics and dramatists, philosophers and
journalists; it may even be shared, so far as I know, by advertisement
writers, chautauqua orators and the rev. clergy. The characters that
all anatomists of melancholy mark in it are the irregular ebb and flow
of the tides, and the impossibility of getting them under any sort of
rational control. The brain, as it were, stands to one side and watches
itself pitching and tossing, full of agony but essentially helpless.
Here the man of creative imagination pays a ghastly price for all
his superiorities and immunities; nature takes revenge upon him for
dreaming of improvements in the scheme of things. Sitting there in his
lonely room, gnawing the handle of his pen, racked by his infernal
quest, horribly bedevilled by incessant flashes of itching, toothache,
eye-strain and evil conscience—thus tortured, he makes atonement for
his crime of being intelligent. The normal man, the healthy and honest
man, the good citizen and householder—this man, I daresay, knows
nothing of all that travail. It is reserved especially for artists
and metaphysicians. It is the particular penalty of those who pursue
strange butterflies into dark forests, and go fishing in enchanted and
forbidden streams.

Let us, then, assume that the fact is proved: the nearest poet
is a witness to it. But what of the underlying mystery? How are
we to account for that puckish and inexplicable rise and fall of
inspiration? My questions, of course, are purely rhetorical.
Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always
a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and
wrong. The ancients, in the case at bar, laid the blame upon the gods:
sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand in the matter, and so one
reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by
the souls of the departed, and even by the devil. In our own day there
are explanations less super-natural but no less fanciful—to wit,
the explanation that the whole thing is a matter of pure chance, and
not to be resolved into any orderly process—-to wit, the explanation
that the controlling factor is external circumstance, that the artist
happily married to a dutiful wife is thereby inspired–finally, to
make an end, the explanation that it is all a question of Freudian
complexes, themselves lurking in impenetrable shadows. But all of these explanations fail to satisfy the mind that is not to be put off with
mere words. Some of them are palpably absurd; others beg the question. The problem of the how remains, even when the problem of the why is disposed of. What is the precise machinery whereby the cerebrum is bestirred to such abnormal activity on one day that it sparkles and splutters like an arclight, and reduced to such feebleness on another day that it smokes and gutters like a tallow dip?

Dramas of strength and weakness

Ian Parker on Glenn Greenwald in The New Yorker:

Greenwald was particularly struck by Sandgren’s “brave and defiant” second press conference. In response to the media’s “bullying groupthink,” he hadn’t apologized. This perception of Sandgren’s circumstances helps illuminate Greenwald’s political writing, which focusses on dramas of strength and weakness, and on the corruptions of empires. Greenwald writes aggressively about perceived aggression. His instinct is to identify, in any conflict, the side that is claiming authority or incumbency, and then to throw his weight against that claim, in favor of the unauthorized or the unlicensed—the intruder. Invariably, the body with authority is malign and corrupt; any criticisms of the intruder are vilifications or “smears.” He rarely weighs counter-arguments in public, and his policy goals are more often implied than spoken.

Greenwald’s model will satisfy readers, on Twitter and elsewhere, to the extent that they recognize the same malignancy, or agent of oppression.

A certain tincture of socialism

A selection from William Morris’s review of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Commonweal (1889), the opening paragraph of which might well have been written today:

We often hear it said that the signs of the spread of Socialism among English-speaking people are both abundant and striking. This is true; six or seven years ago the word Socialism was known in this country, but few even among the “educated” classes knew more about its meaning than Mr. Bradlaugh, Mr. Gladstone, or Admiral Maxse know nowi.e., nothing. Whereas at present it is fashionable for even West-end dinner-parties to affect an interest in and knowledge of it, which indicates a wide and deep public interest. This interest is more obvious in literature perhaps than in anything else, quite outside the propagandist tracts issued by definitely Socialist societies. A certain tincture of Socialism, for instance (generally very watery), is almost a necessary ingredient nowadays in a novel which aims at being at once serious and life-like, while more serious treatment of the subject at the hands of non-Socialists is common enough. In short the golden haze of self-satisfaction and content with the best of all possible societies is rolling away before the sun-heat bred of misery and aspiration, and all people above the lowest level of intelligence (which I take to be low gambling and statesmanship) are looking towards the new development, some timorously, some anxiously, some hopefully.

[…]

Mr. Bellamy’s ideas of life are curiously limited; he has no idea beyond existence in a great city; his dwelling of man in the future is Boston (U.S.A.) beautified. In one passage, indeed, he mentions villages, but with unconscious simplicity shows that they do not come into his scheme of economical equality, but are mere servants of the great centres of civilisation. This seems strange to some of us, who cannot help thinking that our experience ought to have taught us that such aggregations of population afford the worst possible form of dwelling-place, whatever the second-worst might be.

In short, a machine-life is the best which Mr. Bellamy can imagine for us on all sides; it is not to be wondered at then this his only idea of making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery. This view I know he will share with many Socialists with whom I might otherwise agree more than I can with him; but I think a word or two is due to this important side of the subject. Now surely this ideal of the great reduction of the hours of labour by the mere means of machinery is a futility. The human race has always put forth about as much energy as it could in given conditions of climate and the like, though that energy has had to struggle against the natural laziness of mankind: and the development of man’s resources, which has given him greater power over nature, has driven him also into fresh desires and fresh demands on nature, and thus made his expenditure of energy much what it was before. I believe that this will be always so, and the multiplication of machinery will just—multiply machinery; I believe that the ideal of the future does not point to the lessening of men’s energy by the reduction of labour to a minimum, but rather to the reduction of pain in labour to a minimum, so small that it will cease to be a pain; a gain to humanity which can only be dreamed of till men are even more completely equal than Mr. Bellamy’s utopia would allow them to be, but which will most assuredly come about when men are really equal in condition; although it is probable that much of our so-called “refinement,” our luxury—in short, our civilisation—will have to be sacrificed to it. In this part of his scheme, therefore, Mr. Bellamy worries himself unnecessarily in seeking (with obvious failure) some incentive to labour to replace the fear of starvation, which is at present our only one, whereas it cannot be too often repeated that the true incentive to useful and happy labour is and must be pleasure in the work itself.

The teat of interpretation

Andrea Long Chu in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Structural problems are problems because real people hurt real people. You cannot have a cycle of abuse without actually existing abusers. That sounds simple, which is why so many academics hate it. When scholars defend Avital—or “complicate the narrative,” as we like to say—in part this is because we cannot stand believing what most people believe. The need to feel smarter is deep. Intelligence is a hungry god.

In this way, Avital’s case has become a strange referendum on literary study. Generations of scholars have been suckled at the teat of interpretation: We spend our days parsing commas and decoding metaphors. We get high on finding meaning others can’t. We hoard it, like dragons. We would be intellectually humiliated to learn that the truth was plain: that Avital quite simply sexually harassed her student, just as described. Sometimes analysis is simply denial with more words. Sometimes, as a frustrated student in a first-year literature course always mutters, the text just means what it says it means.

What has not been (properly) talked about

from Susan Sontag’s introduction to The Best American Essays, 1992:

The word essay comes from the French essai, attempt—and many essayists, including the greatest of all, Montaigne, have insisted that the distinctive mark of the essay is its tentativeness, its disavowal of closed, systematic ways of thinking. Its most obvious trait, however, is assertiveness of one kind or another.

To read an essay properly, one must understand not only what it is arguing for but what it is arguing against. Reading the essays written by our contemporaries, we easily supply the context, the public argument, the opponent, explicit or implicit. The passage of a few decades can make this almost impossible.

Essays end up in books, but they start their life in magazines. (It’s hard to imagine a book of recent but previously unpublished essays.) The perennial comes now mainly in the guise of the topical and, in the short run, no literary form has as great and immediate an impact on contemporary readers. Many essays are discussed, debated, reacted to in a way that poets and writers of fiction can only envy.

The influential essayist is someone with an acute sense of what has not been (properly) talked about, what should be talked about (but differently). But what makes essays last is less their argument than the display of a complex mind and a distinctive prose voice.

Wisdom will get in anyhow

from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1872):

I tell you what,—he said,—there’s so much intelligence about nowadays in books and newspapers and talk that it’s mighty hard to write without getting something or other worth listening to into your essay or your volume. The foolishest book is a kind of leaky boat on a sea of wisdom; some of the wisdom will get in anyhow. Every now and then I find something in my book that seems so good to me, I can’t help thinking it must have leaked in. I suppose other people discover that it came through a leak, full as soon as I do. You must write a book or two to find out how much and how little you know and have to say. Then you must read some notices of it by somebody that loves you and one or two by somebody that hates you. You’ll find yourself a very odd piece of property after you’ve been through these experiences. They’re trying to the constitution; I’m always glad to hear that a friend is as well as can be expected after he’s had a book.

Not one-tenth of them

from Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting” (1931), translated by Harry John:

Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method. At this point many of you will remember with pleasure the large library which Jean Paul’s poor little schoolmaster Wutz gradually acquired by writing, himself, all the works whose titles interested him in book fair catalogues; after all, he could not afford to buy them. Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like. You, ladies and gentlemen, may regard this as a whimsical definition of a writer. But everything said from the angle of a real collector is whimsical. Of the customary modes of acquisition, the one most appropriate to a collector would be the borrowing of a book with its attendant non-returning. The book borrower of real stature whom we envisage here proves himself to be an inveterate collector of books not so much by the fervor with which he guards his borrowed treasures and by the deaf ear which he turns to all reminders from the everyday world of legality as by his failure to read these books. If my experience may serve as evidence, a man is more likely to return a borrowed book upon occasion than to read it. And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?”

In praise of the antilibrary

from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007):

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

[…]

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.

Casting off this useless burden

from Simeon Potter, Our Language (1950):

English has likewise been fortunate in shedding grammatical gender. Just as we say der Fussdie Hand, and das Auge in Modern German, so in Old English foot was masculine, hand feminine, and eye neuter, epicene, or common. All nouns were placed into one of these three inherited categories which were not primarily associated with sex. Womanquean, and wife were synonymous in Old English, all three meaning ‘woman’, but they were masculine, feminine, and neuter,  respectively. Horsesheep, and maiden were all neuter. Earth, ‘Mother Earth’, was feminine, but land was neuter. Sun was feminine, but moon, strangely enough, was masculine. Day was masculine, but night feminine. Wheat was masculine, oats feminine, and corn neuter. Clearly, there was no conceivable relationship between grammatical gender and any quality in the object denoted. English has surely gained everything and lost nothing by casting off this useless burden which all the other well-known languages of Europe still bear to their great disadvantage. How, may we ask, has English contrived to cast it off? Is there such a thing as the ‘genius of the language’? Can a language be changed by the ‘corporate will’ of the people who speak it? Perhaps we should look for more specific causes. The gender of an Old English substantive was not always indicated by the form of the ending as it was, with rare exceptions, in Latin and Greek, but rather by the terminations of the adjectives and demonstrative pronouns used in agreement. When these distinguishing terminations were lost in everyday speech, all outward marks of grammatical gender were likewise lost. Weakening of inflexions and loss of gender went on together. In the north where inflexions weakened earlier the marks of gender likewise disappeared first. They were retained in the south as late as the fourteenth century.


from Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language,” in A Tramp Abroad (1880):

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print—I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

Gretchen.
Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

Wilhelm.
She has gone to the kitchen.

Gretchen.
Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

Wilhelm.
It has gone to the opera.

To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female—tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it—for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.

Now, by the above dissection, the reader will see that in Germany a man may think he is a man, but when he comes to look into the matter closely, he is bound to have his doubts; he finds that in sober truth he is a most ridiculous mixture; and if he ends by trying to comfort himself with the thought that he can at least depend on a third of this mess as being manly and masculine, the humiliating second thought will quickly remind him that in this respect he is no better off than any woman or cow in the land.

In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib) is not—which is unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither. To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description; that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse. A German speaks of an Englishman as the Engländer; to change the sex, he adds inn, and that stands for Englishwoman—Engländerinn. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: “die Engländerinn,”—which means “the she-Englishwoman.” I consider that that person is over-described.


from Otto Jespersen, Progress of Language: With Special Reference to English (1894):

This doctrine of an antagonism between language and history is a pet theory which Schleicher never abandons; in his first book (ii., p. 134) he speaks of “die geschichte, jene feindin der sprache”; and in his Darwinian period he puts it in this way: “The origin and development of language is previous to history, properly and strictly speaking. . . . History shows us nothing but the aging of languages according to fixed laws. The idioms spoken by ourselves, as well as those of all historically important nations, are senile relics.”

According to Schleicher, then, we witness nothing but retrogression and decay; but as the same view is found as early as Bopp, and as it is the fundamental belief, more or less pronounced, of many other linguistic speculators, we are justified in supposing that with Schleicher the theory is not really due to the Hegelian train of argument, but that here, as not unfrequently, reasoning is summoned to arms in defence of results arrived at by instinct. And the feeling underlying this instinct, what is it but a grammar-school admiration, a Renaissance love of the two classical languages and their literatures? People were taught to look down upon modern languages as mere dialects, and to worship Greek and Latin; the richness and fulness of forms found in those languages came naturally to be considered the very beau idéal of linguistic structure. To men fresh from the ordinary grammar-school training no language would seem respectable that had not four or five distinct cases and three genders or that had less than five tenses and as many moods in its verbs. Accordingly, such poor languages as had either lost much of their original richness in grammatical forms (e.g., French, English, or Danish), or had never had any (e.g., Chinese), were naturally looked upon with something like the pity bestowed on relatives in reduced circumstances, or the contempt felt for foreign paupers.

[…]

In Jacob Grimm’s singularly clever (though nebulous) essay on the Origin of Language (1851), I find such passages as the following: “Language in its earliest form was melodious, but diffuse and straggling (weitschweifig und haltlos); in its middle form it was full of intense poetical vigour; in our own day it seeks to remedy the diminution of beauty by the harmony of the whole, and is more effective though it has inferior means”; he arrives at the result that “human language is retrogressive only apparently and in particular points, but looked upon as a whole it is progressive, and its intrinsic force is continually increasing”. The enthusiastic panegyric on the English language with which he concludes his essay forms a striking contrast to Schleicher’s opinion that English shows “how rapidly the language of a nation important both in history and literature can sink”.