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.
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.
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.
from Irving Howe, “The New York Intellectuals,” Dissent, 1969:
In their published work during these years, the New York intellectuals developed a characteristic style of exposition and polemic. With some admiration and a bit of irony, let us call it the style of brilliance. The kind of essay they wrote was likely to be wide-ranging in reference, melding notions about literature and politics, sometimes announcing itself as a study of a writer or literary group but usually taut with a pressure to “go beyond” its subject, toward some encompassing moral or social observation. It is a kind of writing highly self-conscious in mode, with an unashamed vibration of bravura. Nervous, strewn with knotty or ﬂashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle—such, at its best or most noticeable, was the essay cultivated by the New York writers. Until recently its strategy of exposition was likely to be impersonal (the writer did not speak much as an “I”) but its tone and bearing were likely to be intensely personal (the audience was to be made aware that the aim of the piece was not judiciousness, but, rather, a strong impress of attitude, a blow of novelty, a wrenching of accepted opinion, sometimes a mere indulgence of vanity).
In some of these essays there was a sense of tournament, the writer as gymnast with one eye on other rings, or as skilled inﬁghter juggling knives of dialectic. Polemics were harsh, often rude. And audiences nurtured, or spoiled, on this kind of performance, learned not to form settled judgments about a dispute until all sides had registered their blows: surprise was always a possible reward.
This style may have brought new life to the American essay, but among contemporary readers it often evoked a strong distaste, even fear. “Ordinary” readers could be left with the fretful sense that they were not “in,” the beauties of polemic racing past their sluggish eye. Old-line academics, quite as if they had just crawled out of The Dunciad, enjoyed dismissing the New York critics as “unsound.” And for some younger souls, the cliffs of dialectic seemed too steep. Seymour Krim has left a poignant account of his disablement before “the overcerebral, Europeanish, sterilely citiﬁed, pretentiously alienated” New York intellectuals. Resentful at the fate which drove them to compare themselves with “the overcerebral, etc., etc.,” Krim writes that he and his friends “were often tortured and unappeasably bitter about being the offspring of this unhappily unique-ingrown-screwed-up breed.” Similar complaints could be heard from other writers who felt that New York intellectualism threatened their vital powers.
At its best the style of brilliance reﬂected a certain view of the intellectual life: free-lance dash, peacock strut, daring hypothesis, knockabout synthesis. For better or worse it was radically different from the accepted modes of scholarly publishing and middlebrow journalism. It celebrated the idea of the intellectual as antispecialist, or as a writer whose speciality was the lack of a speciality: the writer as dilettante-connoisseur, Luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories.
Sontag in conversation with Geoffrey Movius, Boston Review, January 1975:
I’m not against simplicity, as such. There is a dialectical exchange between simplicity and complexity, like the one between self-revelation and self-concealment. The first truth is that every situation is extremely complicated and that anything one thinks about thereby becomes more complicated. The main mistake people make when thinking about something, whether an historical event or one in their private lives, is that they don’t see just how complicated it is. The second truth is that one cannot live out all the complexities one perceives, and that to be able to act intelligently, decently, efficiently, and compassionately demands a great deal of simplification. So there are times when one has to forget—repress, transcend—a complex perception that one has.
I was just going to say, when I was interrupted, that one of the many ways of classifying minds is under the heads of arithmetical and algebraical intellects. All economical and practical wisdom is an extension or variation of the following arithmetical formula: 2+2=4. Every philosophical proposition has the more general character of the expression a+b=c. We are mere operatives, empirics, and egotists, until we learn to think in letters instead of figures.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table