Not to take root

Cioran, amidst admiration for Borges, Anathemas and Admirations, 1976:

I have never been attracted to minds confined to a single form of culture. “Not to take root, not to belong to any community”: such has been and such is my motto. Oriented toward other horizons, I have always wanted to know what was happening elsewhere; by the time I was twenty, the Balkan skyline had nothing more to offer me. This is the drama, and also the advantage, of being born in a minor “cultural” space. The foreign had become my god—whence that thirst to travel through literatures and philosophies, to devour them with a morbid ardor.

How much better not to have said it!

Orwell on Lewis Mumford on Melville, 1930:

This admirable book is rightly termed a biography, but its chief concern is to analyse Melville’s intellect—in Mr. Mumford’s words, “his ideas, his feelings, his urges, his vision of life”. Just enough detail is given to show the dismal quotidian round which enslaved Melville when his voyages were over. We see him as an overworked man of genius, living among people to whom he was hardly more than a tiresome, incomprehensible failure. We are shown how poverty, which threatened even when he was writing Moby Dick, infected him through nearly forty years with such loneliness and bitterness as to cripple his talents almost completely. Mr. Mumford does not allow this background of poverty to be forgotten; but his declared him is to expound, criticise, and—unpleasant but necessary word—interpret.

It is just this aim which is responsible for the only large fault of the book. The criticism which sets out to interpret—to be at the deepest meaning and cause of every act—is very well when applied to a man, but it is a dangerous method of approaching a work of art. Done with absolute thoroughness, it would cause art itself to vanish. And therefore when Mr. Mumford is interpreting Melville himself—analysing his philosophy and psychology, his religion and sexual life—he is excellent; but he goes on to interpret Melville’s poetry, and therein he is not so successful. For one can only “interpret” a poem by reducing it to an allegory—which is like eating an apple for the pips. As in the old legend of Cupid and Psyche, there are times when it is wise to accept without seeking knowledge.

It follows that Mr. Mumford is least happy when he is dealing with Moby Dick. He is justly appreciative and nobly enthusiastic, but he has altogether too keen an eye for the inner meaning. He asks us, in effect, to take Moby Dick as an allegory first and a poem afterwards:

Moby Dick . . . is, fundamentally, a parable on the mystery of evil and the accidental malice of the universe. The white whale stands for the brute energies of existence . . . while Ahab is the spirit of man, small and feeble, but purposive, that pits its puniness against this might, and its purpose against the blank senselessness of power . . .

That much no one will deny, but it was a pity that Mr. Mumford should pursue the allegory to the bitter end. Whaling, he continues, is the symbol of existence and livelihood, the common whales (as opposed to Moby Dick) are tractable nature, the crew of the Pequod are the races of mankind—and so forth. It is the old mistake of wanting to read too much between the lines. Here is an example of interpretation altogether too cute:

In . . . Hamlet, an unconscious incest-wish incapacitates the hero for marriage with the girl he has wooed. . . .

Very ingenious, one feels, but how much better not to have said it!

Attacking too loudly here, worshipping too loudly there

from Lillian Hellman’s introduction to The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1955:

When I was young we used to play a game called what-famous-writer-would-you-most-like-to-have-dinner-with? and a lot of our choices seem surprising to me now, though we stuck pretty close to serious writers as a rule and had sense enough to limit our visiting time to the dinner table. Maybe we knew even then that writers are often difficult people and a Tolstoy—on too big a scale—might become tiresome, and a Dickens unpleasant, and a Stendhal—with his nervous posturing—hard to stand, and a Proust too special, and a Dostoevski too complex. You can argue that greatness and simplicity often go hand in hand, but simple people can be difficult too and by and large the quality of a man’s work seems to have little to do with the pleasure of his company. There are exceptions to this—thank God—and Anton Chekhov seems to have been one of them. […]

Chekhov was a pleasant man, witty and wise and tolerant and kind, with nothing wishywashy in his kindness nor self righteous in his tolerance, and his wit was not ill-humored. He would have seen through you, of course, as he did through everybody, but being seen through doesn’t hurt too much if it’s done with affection. He was neurotic, but unlike most neurotic men he had few crotchets and no nuisance irritabilities, nor pride, nor side, nor aimless vanity, was unlikely to mistake scorched potatoes for high tragedy, didn’t boast, had fine manners and was generous and gay. It is true that he complained a lot about his ailments and his lack of money, but if you laughed at him he would have laughed with you. Such a nature is rare at all times, but it is particularly remarkable in a period when maudlin soul-searching was the intellectual fashion. Chekhov lived in that time that gave us our comic-strip picture of the Russian. While many of his contemporaries were jabbering out the dark days and boozing away the white nights, turning revolutionary for Christmas and police spy for Easter, attacking too loudly here and worshipping too loudly there, wasting youth and talent in futile revolt against anything and everything with little thought and no selection, Anton Chekhov was a man of balance, a man of sense.


As they are perceived, not as they are known

Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” 1917, translated by Lee Lemon and Marion Reis:

If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Thus, for example, all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic; if one remembers the sensations of holding a pen or of speaking in a foreign language for the first time and compares that with his feeling at performing the action for the ten thousandth time, he will agree with us. Such habituation explains the principles by which, in ordinary speech, we leave phrases unfinished and words half expressed. In this process, ideally realized in algebra, things are replaced by symbols. Complete words are not expressed in rapid speech; their initial sounds are barely perceived. Alexander Pogodin offers the example of a boy considering the sentence “The Swiss mountains are beautiful” in the form of a series of letters: T, S, m, a, b.

This characteristic of thought not only suggests the method of algebra, but even prompts the choice of symbols (letters, especially initial letters). By this “algebraic” method of thought we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack. We know what it is by its configuration, but we see only its silhouette. The object, perceived thus in the manner of prose perception, fades and does not leave even a first impression; ultimately even the essence of what it was is forgotten. Such perception explains why we fail to hear the prose word in its entirety (see Leo Jakubinsky’s article) and, hence, why (along with other slips of the tongue) we fail to pronounce it. The process of “algebrization,” the over-automatization of an object, permits the greatest economy of perceptive effort. Either objects are assigned only one proper feature—a number, for example—or else they function as though by formula and do not even appear in cognition:

I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember—so that if I had dusted it and forgot—that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.

And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.

Essays in intellectual love

from José Ortega y Gasset’s first bookMeditations on Quixote, 1914, translated by Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marín:

Under the title of Meditations this first volume announces several essays on various subjects of no very great consequence to be published by a professor of Philosophy in partibus infidelium. Some of them, like this series of Meditations on Quixote, deal with lofty subjects; others with more modest, even humble, subjects; but they all end by discussing Spanish “circumstances” directly or indirectly. These essays are for the author—like the lecture-room, the newspaper, or politics—different means of carrying on one single activity, of expressing the same feeling of affection. I do not claim that this activity should be recognized as the most important in the world; I consider myself justified when I observed that it is the only one of which I am capable. The devotion which moves me to it is the keenest one which  find in my heart. Reviving the fine name which Spinoza used, I would it amor intellectualis. These are therefore essays in intellectual love. They have no informative value whatever; they are not summaries, either—they are rather what a humanist of the seventeenth century would have called “salvations.” What is sought in them is the following: given a fact—a man, a book, a picture, a landscape, an error, a sorrow—to carry it by the shortest route to its fullest significance. We want to place the objects of all kinds which life, in its perpetual surge, throws at our feet like the useless remains of shipwreck, in such a position that the sun as it strikes them may give off innumerable reflections.

Untrue in the self that uttered them

Erich Heller, “Wittgenstein and Nietzsche,” The Artist’s Journey into the Interior, 1968:

Like Nietzsche, then, [Wittgenstein] knew that philosophical opinion was not merely a matter of logically demonstrable right or wrong. This most rigorous logician was convinced that it was above all a matter of authenticity—and thus, in a sense, not at all of negotiable opinions. What assumed with him so often the semblance of intolerable intellectual pride, was the demand, which he made upon himself still more than upon others, that all utterances should be absolutely authentic. The question was not only “Is this opinion right or wrong?” but also “Is this or that person entitled to this or that opinion?” At times this lent to his manner of debating the harsh tone of the Old Testament prophets: he would suddenly be seized by an uncontrollable desire to mete out intellectual punishment. He reacted to errors of judgment as if they were sins of the heart, and violently rejected opinions, which in themselves—if this distinction were possible—might have been harmless enough or even “correct,” and rejected them because they were untrue in the self that uttered them: they lacked the sanction of the moral and intellectual pain suffered on behalf of truth.

The very opposite of hebetude

Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980, translated by Richard Howard:

I decided then to take as a guide for my new analysis the attraction I felt for certain photographs. For of this attraction, at least, I was certain. What to call it? Fascination? No, this photograph which I pick out and which I love has nothing in common with the shiny point which sways before your eyes and makes your head swim; what it produces in me is the very opposite of hebetude; something more like an internal agitation, an excitement, a certain labor too, the pressure of the unspeakable which wants to be spoken.

A kind of inundation

T. S. Eliot, “Religion and Literature,” in Essays Ancient and Modern, 1935:

The fact that what we read does not concern merely something called our literary taste, but that it affects directly, though only amongst many other influences, the whole of what we are, is best elicited, I think, by a conscientious examination of the history of our individual literary education. Consider the adolescent reading of any person with some literary sensibility. Everyone, I believe, who is at all sensible to the seductions of poetry, can remember some moment in youth when he or she was completely carried away by the work of one poet. Very likely he was carried away by several poets, one after the other. The reason for this passing infatuation is not merely that our sensibility to poetry is keener in adolescence than in maturity. What happens is a kind of inundation, of invasion of the undeveloped personality, the empty (swept and garnished) room, by the stronger personality of the poet. The same thing may happen at a later age to persons who have not done much reading. One author takes complete possession of us for a time; then another; and finally they begin to affect each other in our mind. We weigh one against another; we see that each has qualities absent from others, and qualities incompatible with the qualities of others: we begin to be, in fact, critical; and it is our growing critical power which protects us from excessive possession by any one literary personality. The good critic—and we should all try to be critics, and not leave criticism to the fellows who write reviews in the papers—is the man who, to a keen and abiding sensibility, joins wide and increasingly discriminating reading. Wide reading is not valuable as a kind of hoarding, an accumulation of knowledge, of what sometimes is meant by the term “a well-stocked mind.” It is valuable because in the process of being affected by one powerful personality after another, we cease to be dominated by any one, or by any small number. The very different views of life, cohabiting in our minds, affect each other, and our own personality asserts itself and gives each a place in some arrangement peculiar to ourself.

Preaching one’s own heresy

Chesterton on Bernard Shaw, 1909:

A peculiar difficulty arrests the writer of this rough study at the very start. Many people know Mr. Bernard Shaw chiefly as a man who would write a very long preface even to a very short play. And there is truth in the idea; he is indeed a very prefatory sort of person. He always gives the explanation before the incident; but so, for the matter of that, does the Gospel of St. John. For Bernard Shaw, as for the mystics, Christian and heathen (and Shaw is best described as a heathen mystic), the philosophy of facts is anterior to the facts themselves. In due time we come to the fact, the incarnation; but in the beginning was the Word.

This produces upon many minds an impression of needless preparation and a kind of bustling prolixity. But the truth is that the very rapidity of such a man’s mind makes him seem slow in getting to the point. It is positively because he is quick-witted that he is long-winded. A quick eye for ideas may actually make a writer slow in reaching his goal, just as a quick eye for landscapes might make a motorist slow in reaching Brighton. An original man has to pause at every allusion or simile to re-explain historical parallels, to re-shape distorted words. Any ordinary leader-writer (let us say) might write swiftly and smoothly something like this: “The element of religion in the Puritan rebellion, if hostile to art, yet saved the movement from some of the evils in which the French Revolution involved morality.” Now a man like Mr. Shaw, who has his own views on everything, would be forced to make the sentence long and broken instead of swift and smooth. He would say something like: “The element of religion, as I explain religion, in the Puritan rebellion (which you wholly misunderstand) if hostile to art — that is what I mean by art — may have saved it from some evils (remember my definition of evil) in which the French Revolution — of which I have my own opinion — involved morality, which I will define for you in a minute.” That is the worst of being a really universal sceptic and philosopher; it is such slow work. The very forest of the man’s thoughts chokes up his thoroughfare. A man must be orthodox upon most things, or he will never even have time to preach his own heresy.