Thousands of excellent nouns

The opening of Mencken’s preface to A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949):

In my title I revive the word chrestomathy in its true sense of “a collection of choice passages from an author or authors,” and ignore the late addition of “especially one compiled to assist in the acquirement of a language.” In the latter significance the term is often used by linguists, and some of the chrestomathies issued by them in recent years—for example, Dr. Edgar H. Sturtevant’s “Hittite Chrestomathy” of 1935—are works of capital importance. But I see no reason why they should have a monopoly on what is not, after all, their invention. Nor do I see why I should be deterred by the fact that, when this book was announced, a few newspaper smarties protested that the word would be unfamiliar to many readers, as it was to them. Thousands of excellent nouns, verbs and adjectives that have stood in every decent dictionary for years are still unfamiliar to such ignoramuses, and I do not solicit their patronage. Let them continue to recreate themselves with whodunits, and leave my vocabulary and me to my own customers, who have all been to school. Chrestomathy is actually more than a century old in English, which makes it quite as ancient as scientist, which was invented by William Whewell in 1840, or anesthetic, which was proposed by Oliver Wendell Holmes I in 1846. In Greek, where it was contrived by joining chrestos, meaning useful, and mathein, meaning to learn, it goes back to Proclus Disdochos, who used it in Athens in the year 450.

Whether anyone will find anything useful in what follows, or learn from it otherwise, is not for me to guess, but at all events I like the word better than the omnibus, reader, treasury, miscellany, panorama and portable that have been so horribly overworked of late.

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.

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.

Why not be, rather, fully human?

Schönberg, preface to the first edition, Harmonielehre, 1911, translated by Roy E. Carter; on searching for the sake of searching, cf. Walker Percy:

This book I have learned from my pupils.

In my teaching I never sought merely ‘to tell the pupil what I know’. Better to tell him what he did not know. Yet that was not my chief aim either, although it was reason enough for me to devise something new for each pupil. I labored rather to show him the nature of the matter from the ground up. Hence, I never imposed those fixed rules with which a pupil’s brain is so carefully tied up in knots. Everything was formulated as instructions that were no more binding upon the pupil than upon the teacher. If the pupil can do something better without the instructions, then let him do so. But the teacher must have the courage to admit his own mistakes. He does not have to pose as infallible, as one who knows all and never errs; he must rather be tireless, constantly searching, perhaps sometimes finding. Why pose as a demigod? Why not be, rather, fully human?

I have never tried to talk my pupils into believe me infallible—only a ‘Gesangsprofessor’ (professor of singing) finds that necessary. On the contrary, I have often risked saying something that I had later to retract; I have often risked giving instructions that, when applied, proved to be wrong and so had to be corrected. Perhaps my mistakes did not benefit the pupil, but they hardly caused him much harm. Indeed, the fact that I openly acknowledged them may have set him to thinking. As for myself, since the instructions I gave were untested products of my own thought, I was compelled by my errors, which were quickly exposed, to examine my instructions anew and improve their formulation.

This, then, is the way this book came into being. From the errors made by my pupils as a result of inadequate or wrong instructions I learned how to give the right instructions. Successful completion of assignments by the pupils established the soundness of my efforts without luring me into the fallacy that I had solve the problem definitively. And I think neither the pupils nor I have fared badly that way. Had I told them merely what I know, then they would have known just that and nothing more. As it is, they know perhaps even less. But they do know what matters: the search itself!

I hope my pupils will commit themselves to searching! Because they will know that one search for the sake of searching. That finding, which is indeed the goal, can easily put an end to striving.

Our age seeks many things. What is had found, however, is above all: comfort. Comfort, with all its implications, intrudes even into the world of ideas and makes us far more content than we should ever be. We understand today better than ever how to make life pleasant. We solve problems to remove an unpleasantness. But, how do we solve them? And what presumption, even to think we have really solved them! Here we can see most distinctly what the prerequisite of comfort is: superficiality. It is thus easy to have a ‘Weltanschauung’, a ‘philosophy’, if one contemplates only what is pleasant and gives no heed to the rest. The rest—which is just what matters most. In the light of the ‘rest’ these philosophies may very well seem made to order for those who hold to them, whereas, in that light, the tenets which constitute these philosophies are are seen to spring above all from the attempt at self-vindication. For, curiously enough, people of our time who formulate new laws of morality (or, even more to their liking, overthrow old ones) cannot live with guilt! Yet comfort does not consider self-discipline; and so guilt is either repudiated or transformed into virtue. Herein, for one who sees through it all, the recognition of guilt expresses itself as guilt. The thinker, who keeps on searching, does the opposite. He shows that there are problems and that they are unsolved. As does Strindberg: ‘Life makes everything ugly.’ Or Maeterlinck: ‘Three quarters of our brothers [are] condemned to misery.’ Or Weininger and all others who have thought earnestly.

Comfort as a philosophy of life! The least possible commotion, nothing shocking. Those who so love comfort will never seek where there is not definitely something to find.

There is a mechanical puzzle that consists of three small metal tubes of different diameters sealed in a glass-covered box. The problem is to get the smaller tubes inside the larger. Now one can try to do it methodically; then it usually takes quite a long time. But it can also be done another way. One can just shake the box at random until the tubes are inside one another. Does that happen by chance? It looks that way, but I don’t think so. For an idea lurks behind this method. Namely, that movement alone can succeed where deliberation fails. Is it not the same with the learner? What does the teacher accomplish through methodology? At most, activity. If everything goes well! But things can also go badly, and then what he accomplishes is lethargy. Yet lethargy produces nothing. Only activity, movement is productive. Then why not start moving right away? But comfort!? Comfort avoids movement; it therefore does not take up the search.

Either [tentative, perhaps random] movement generates searching or else searching generates movement—one or the other way must be taken. It does not matter which. Only action, movement, produces what could truly be called education or culture (Bildung): namely, training (Ausbildung), discipline and cultivation (Durchbildung). The teacher who does not exert himself because he tells only ‘what he knows’ does not exert his pupils either. Action must start with the teacher himself; his unrest must infect the pupils. Then they will search as he does. Then he will not be disseminating education (Bildung), and that is good. For ‘education’ means today: to know something of everything without understanding anything at all. Yet, the sense of this beautiful word, Bildung, is entirely different; and, since the word now carries a derogatory connotation, it should be replaced by Ausbildung and Durchbildung.

It should be clear, then, that the teacher’s first task is to shake up the pupil thoroughly. When the resultant tumult subsides, everything will have presumably found its proper place.

Or it will never happen!

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.

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.

Inevitably irritated into writing it

The preface to T. E. Hulme’s posthumously published collection of meditations on language and philosophy, “Cinders”:

The history of philosophers we know, but who will write the history of the philosophic amateurs and readers? Who will tell us of the circulation of Descartes, who read the book and who understood it? Or do philosophers, like the mythical people on the island, take in each other’s washing? For I take it, a man who understands philosophy is inevitably irritated into writing it. The few who have learnt the jargon must repay themselves by employing it. A new philosophy is not like a new religion, a thing to be merely thankful for and accepted mutely by the faithful. It is more of the nature of food thrown to the lions; the pleasure lies in the fact that it can be devoured. It is food for the critics, and all readers of philosophy, I suppose, are critics, and not faithful ones waiting for the new gospel.

With this preface I offer my new kind of food to tickle the palate of the connoisseurs.

Friends of lento

from Nietzsche’s 1886 preface to Daybreak, translated by R. J. Hollingdale:

A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento. It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading:—in the end I also write slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste—a malicious taste, perhaps?—no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry’. For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow—it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento.