The poem that philosophically makes good the defect of languages

from Erasmus’s dedicatory letter to Pieter Gillis, secretary of Antwerp, at the opening of the Parabolae, translated by R. A. B. Mynors, in volume 23 of the Collected Works of Erasmus, published by the University of Toronto:

Friends of the commonplace and homespun sort, my open-hearted Pieter, have their idea of relationship, like their whole lives, attached to material things; and if ever they have to face a separation, they favor a frequent exchange of rings, knives, caps, and other tokens of the kind, for fear that their affection may cool when intercourse is interrupted or actually die away through the interposition of long tracts of time and space. But you and I, whose idea of friendship rests wholly in a meeting of minds and the enjoyment of studies in common, might well greet one another from time to time with presents of the mind and keepsakes of a literary description. Not that there is any risk that when our life together is interrupted we may slowly grow cold, or that the great distance which separates our bodies may loosen the close tie between our minds. Minds can develop an even closer link, the greater space that comes between them. Our aim would be that any loss due to separation in the actual enjoyment of our friendship should be made good, not without interest, by tokens of this literary kind.

And so I send a present—no common present, for you are no common friend, but many jewels in one small book. Jewels I well may call them, these parallels selected from the richly furnished world of the greatest authors of antiquity. Of late, as I reread Aristotle, Pliny, and Plutarch for the enrichment of my Adagiorum chiliades, and cleared Annaeus Seneca of the corruptions by which he was not so much disfigured as done away with altogether, I noted down by the way these passages, to make an offering for you which I knew would not be unwelcome. This I foresaw, knowing as I did your natural bent toward elegance of expression, and perceiving that not polish alone but almost all the dignity of language stems from its metaphors. For the Greek parabolê, which Cicero latinizes as collatio, a sort of comparison, is nothing more than a metaphor writ large. Of the other ornaments of style, each makes its own peculiar contribution to its charm and flexibility; metaphor taken alone adds everything in fuller measure, while all the other kinds of ornament add one thing each. Do you wish to entertain? Nothing adds more sparkle. Are you concerned to convey information? Nothing else makes your point so convincingly, so clearly. Do you intend to persuade? Nothing gives you greater penetration. Have you a mind to expatiate? Nowhere is plenty readier to your hand. Or to be brief? Nothing leaves more to the understanding. Have you a fancy to be grand? Metaphor can exalt anything, and to any height you please. Is there something you wish to play down? Nothing is more effective for bringing things down to earth. Would you be vivid and picturesque? Metaphor brings it become one’s eyes better than anything else. What gives their spice to adages, their charm to fables, their point to historical anecdotes? Metaphor, which doubles the native riches of a pithy saying, so that Solomon himself, an inspired author, chose to recommend his wise sayings to the world by calling them Parabolae. Deprive the orators of their arsenal of metaphor, and all will be thin and dull. Take metaphor and parable, parabolê, away from the Prophets and the Gospels, and you will info that a great part of their charm has gone.

Someone will say, perhaps, ‘This man has a pretty knack of making his work sound important, as though it were really difficult to produce parallels, when they lie to hand everywhere.’ But I have not chosen what was ready to hand, nor picked up pebbles on the beach; I have brought forth precious stones from the inner treasure-house of the Muses. The barber’s shop, the tawdry conversation of the marketplace are no source for what is to be worth the attention of the ears and eyes of educated men. Such things must be unearthed in the innermost secrets of nature, in the inner shrine of the arts and sciences, in the recondite narratives of the best poets or the record of eminent historians. In this field there is a twofold difficulty, and double praise is to be won. That first task is already something, to have tracked down what is really good. But it is no less labor to arrange neatly what you have discovered, just as it is something to have found a precious jewel in the first place, but there is credit to be won from its skillful mounting on a scepter or a ring. I will add an example to make my point clear. Hemlock is poisonous to man, and wine neutralizes hemlock; but if you put an admixture of wine into your hemlock, you make its venom much more immediate and quite beyond treatment, because the force and energy of the wine carries the effect of the poison more rapidly to the vital centers. Now merely to know such a rare fact in nature is surely both elegant and interesting as information. Suppose then one were to adapt this by saying that adulation poisons friendship instantly, and that what neutralizes that poison is the habit of speaking one’s mind, which Greek calls parrhesia, outspokenness. Now, if you first contaminate this freedom of speech and put a touch of it into your adulation, so that you are flattering your friend most insidiously while you most give the impression of perfect frankness, the damage is by now incurable. Would this not win credit as an ingenious application of the parallel? I think it would.

[…]

Basel, 15 October 1514

Of jewels, cf. the conclusion of Hannah Arendt’s 1968 introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations:

Whatever theoretical revisions Benjamin may subsequently have made in these theological-metaphysical convictions, his basic approach, decisive for all his literary studies, remained unchanged: not to investigate the utilitarian or communicative functions of linguistic creations, but to understand them in their crystallized and thus ultimately fragmentary form as intentionless and noncommunicative utterances of a “world essence.” What else does this mean than that he understood language as an essentially poetic phenomenon? And this is precisely what the last sentence of the Mallarmé aphorism, which he does not quote, says in unequivocal clarity: “Seulement, sachons n’existerait pas les vers: lui, philosophiquement remunère le défaut des langues, complément supérieur“—all this were true if poetry did not exist, the poem that philosophically makes good the defect of languages, is their superior complement. All of which says no more, though in a slightly more complex way, than what I mentioned before—namely, that we are dealing here with something which may not be unique but is certainly extremely rare: the gift of thinking poetically.

And this thinking, fed by the present, works with the “thought fragments” it can wrest from the past and gather about itself. Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past—but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and dissolves what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living—as “thought fragments,” as something “rich and strange,” and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene.