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.

Only a little dirtied

Readers may be divided into four classes.

1. Sponges, who absorb all they read, and return it nearly in the same state, only a little dirtied.

2. Sand-glasses, who retain nothing, and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time.

3. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read.

4. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also.

—Coleridge, opening of Lecture II of Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare and Other Poets

You are not helpful!

I think that your fault in a discussion is this: YOU ARE NOT HELPFUL! I am like a man inviting you to tea in my room, but my room is hardly furnished; one has to sit on boxes, and the teacups stand on the floor, and the cups have no handles, etc., etc. I hustle about fetching anything I can think of to make it possible that we should have tea together. You stand there with a sulky face, say that you can’t sit down on a box and can’t hold a cup without a handle, and generally make things difficult. At least that’s how it seems to me.

—Wittgenstein to Sraffa, January 1, 1934

I have heard of Krakens

Melville to Hawthorne, November 1851:

Lord, when shall we be done growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish; — I have heard of Krakens.

A drawing by British naturalist William Evans Hoyle, 1886:

Thought in the pure enjoyment of itself

Marilynne Robinson on the humanities, The New York Review of Books, November 2017:

I have been reading lately about the rise of humanism in Europe. The old scholars often described themselves as “ravished” by one of the books newly made available to them by the press, perhaps also by translation. Their lives were usually short, never comfortable. I think about what it would have been like to read by the light of an oil lamp, to write with a goose quill. It used to seem to me that an unimaginable self-discipline must account for their meticulous learnedness. I assumed that the rigors and austerities of their early training had made their discomforts too familiar to be noticed. Now increasingly I think they were held to their work by a degree of fascination, of sober delight, that we can no longer imagine.

• • •

Then how to recover the animating spirit of humanism? For one thing, it would help if we reclaimed, or simply borrowed, conceptual language that would allow us to acknowledge that some things are so brilliant they can only be understood as virtuosic acts of mind, thought in the pure enjoyment of itself, whether in making a poem or a scientific discovery, or just learning something it feels unaccountably good to know. There is an unworldliness in the experience, and in what it yields, that requires a larger understanding than our terse vocabularies of behavior and reward can capture. I have had students tell me that they had never heard the word “beautiful” applied to a piece of prose until they came to us at the workshop. Literature had been made a kind of data to illustrate, supposedly, some graceless theory that stood apart from it, and that would be shed in a year or two and replaced by something post- or neo- and in any case as gracelessly irrelevant to a work of language as whatever it displaced. I think this phenomenon is an effect of the utilitarian hostility to the humanities and to art, an attempt to repackage them, to give them some appearance of respectability. And yet, the beautiful persists, and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.

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.

Some fine net of classification

Sontag, “Remembering Barthes,” The New York Review of Books, May 1980, collected in Under the Sign of Saturn:

Roland Barthes was sixty-four when he died on March 26, but the career was younger than that age suggests, for he was thirty-seven when he published his first book. After the tardy start there were many books, many subjects. One felt that he could generate ideas about anything. Put him in front of a cigar box and he would have one, two, many ideas—a little essay. It was not a question of knowledge (he couldn’t have known much about some of the subjects he wrote about) but of alertness, a fastidious transcription of what could be thought about something, once it swam into the stream of attention. There was always some fine net of classification into which the phenomenon could be tipped.

Dense mists of language

William Blake’s Laocoön, circa 1817:

Wittgenstein, from “Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data'” (circa 1934–1936):

Die Atmosphäre, die dieses Problem umgibt, ist schrecklich. Dichte Nebel der Sprache sind um den problematischen Punkt gelagert. Es ist beinahe unmöglich, zu ihm vorzudringen.

translated by Rush Rhees:

The atmosphere surrounding the problem is terrible. Dense mists of language are situated about the crucial point. It is almost impossible to get through to it.

Flaubert is diagnosis

from Ezra Pound, “The Serious Artist,” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound:

As there are in medicine the art of diagnosis and the art of cure, so in the arts, so in the particular arts of poetry and of literature. There is the art of diagnosis and there is the art of cure. They call one the cult of ugliness and the other the cult of beauty.

The cult of beauty is the hygiene, it is sun, air and the sea and the rain and the lake bathing. The cult of ugliness, Villon, Baudelaire, Corbiere, Beardsley are diagnosis. Flaubert is diagnosis. Satire, if we are to ride this metaphor to staggers, satire is surgery, insertions and amputations.

Beauty in art reminds one what is worth while. I am not now speaking of shams. I mean beauty, not slither, not sentimentalising about beauty, not telling people that beauty is the proper and respectable thing. I mean beauty. You don’t argue about an April wind, you feel bucked up when you meet it. You feel bucked up when you come on a swift moving thought in Plato or on a fine line in a statue.

Even this pother about gods reminds one that something is worth while. Satire reminds one that certain things are not worth while. It draws one to consider time wasted.

The cult of beauty and the delineation of ugliness are not in mutual opposition.