Almost unable to despise

The thirty-second of Leopardi’s Pensieri (Thoughts), written in 1837, translated by J.G. Nichols:

As he advances every day in his practical knowledge of life, a man loses some of that severity which makes it difficult for young people, always looking for perfection, and expecting to find it, and judging everything by that idea of it which they have in their minds, to pardon defects and concede that there is some value in virtues that are poor and inadequate, and in good qualities that are unimportant, when they happen to find them in people. Then, seeing how everything is imperfect, and being convinced that there is nothing better in the world than that small good which they despise, and that practically nothing or no one is truly estimable, little by little, altering their standards and comparing what they come across not with perfection any more, but with reality, they grow accustomed to pardoning freely and valuing every mediocre virtue, every shadow of worth, every least ability that they find. So much so that, ultimately, many things and many people seem to them praiseworthy that at first would have seemed to them scarcely endurable. This goes so far that, whereas initially they hardly had the ability to feel esteem, in the course of time they become almost unable to despise. And this to a greater extent the more intelligent they are. Because in fact to be very contemptuous and discontented, once our first youth is past, is not a good sign, and those who are such cannot, either because of the poverty of their intellects or because they have little experience, have been much acquainted with the world. Or else they are among those fools who despise others because of the great esteem in which they hold themselves. In short, it seems hardly probable, but it is true, and it indicates only the extreme baseness of human affairs to say it, that experience of the world teaches us to appreciate rather than to depreciate.

I think of the opening of Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry”:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important
beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it,
one discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

It’s rapture that counts

From Ashbery’s poem “So Many Lives,” in A Wave: Poems:

It’s rapture that counts, and what little
There is of it is seldom aboveboard

First encountered some years ago in Philip Lopate’s introduction to Rudy Burckhardt.

The lines remind me of these from Auden’s “Orpheus”:

What does the song hope for? And the moved hands
A little way from the birds, the shy, the delightful?
To be bewildered and happy,
Or most of all the knowledge of life?

But the beautiful are content with the sharp notes of the air;
The warmth is enough. O if winter really
Oppose, if the weak snowflake,
What will the wish, what will the dance do?

Admirers so few and so languid

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, age 18, to his brother George, with a very green poem setting Euclidean reasoning to verse:

Dear Brother,

I have often been surprising that Mathematics, the quintessence of Truth, should have found admirers so few and so languid. Frequent consideration and minute scrutiny have at length unravelled the case; viz. that though Reason is feasted, Imagination is starved; whilst Reason is luxuriating in its proper Paradise, Imagination is wearily travelling on a dreary desert. To assist Reason by the stimulus of Imagination is the design of the following production. In the execution of it much may be objectionable. The verse (particularly in the introduction of the ode) may be accused of unwarrantable liberties, but they are liberties equally homogeneal with the exactness of Mathematical disquisition, and the boldness of Pindaric daring. I have three strong champions to defend me against the attacks of Criticism; the Novelty, the Difficulty, and the Utility of the work. I may justly plume myself, that I first have drawn the nymph Mathesis from the visionary caves of abstracted Idea, and caused her to unite with Harmony. The first-born of this Union I now present to you; with interested motived indeed—as I expect to receive in return the more valuable offspring of your Muse.

This is now—this was erst,
Proposition the first—and Problem the first.

I.

On a given finite line
which must no way incline;
To describe an equi—
—lateral Tri—
—A, N, G, E, L, E.
Now let A. B.
Be the given line
Which must no way incline;
The great Mathematician
Makes the Requisition,
That we describe an Equi—
—lateral Tri—
—angle on it:
Aid us Reason—aid us Wit!

II.

From the centre A. at the distance A. B.
Describe the circle B. C. D.
At the distance B. A. from B. the centre
The round A. C. E. to describe boldly venture.
(Third postulate see.)
And from the point C.
In which the circles make a pother
Cutting and slashing one another,
Bid the straight lines a journeying go.
C. A. C. B. those lines will show
To the points, which by A. B. are reckon’d,
And postulate the second
For authority ye know.
A. B. C.
Triumphant shall be
An Equilateral Triangle,
Not Peter Pindar carp, nor Zoilus can wrangle.

III.

Because the point A. is the centre
Of the circular B. C. D.
And because the point B. is the centre
Of the circular A. C. E.
A. C. to A. B. and  B. C. to B. A.
Harmoniously equal must forever stay;
Then C. A. and B. C.
Both extend the kind hand
To the basis A. B,
Unambitiously join’d in Equality’s Band.
But to the same powers, when two powers are equal
My mind forebodes the sequel;
My mind does some celestial impulse teach,
And equalizes each to each.
Thus C. A. with B. C. strikes the same sure alliance.
That C. A. and B. C. had with A. B. before
And in mutual affiance
None attempting to soar
Above another,
The unanimous three
C. A. and B. C. and A. B.
All are equal, each to his brother,
Preserving the balance of power so true:
Ah! the like would the proud Autocratix do!
At taxes impending not Britain would tremble,
Nor Prussia struggle her fear to dissemble;
Nor the Mah’met-sprung wight
The great Mussulman
Would stain his Divan
With Urine the soft-flowing daughter of Fright.

IV.

But rein your stallion in, too daring Nine!
Should Empires bloat the scientific line?
Or with dishevell’d hair all madly do ye run
For transport that your task is done?
For done it is—the cause is tried!
And Proposition, gentle maid,
Who soothly ask’d stern Demonstration’s aid,
Has prov’d her right, and A. B. C.
Of angles three
Is shown to be of equal side;
And now our weary stead to rest in fine,
‘Tis raised upon A. B. the straight, the given line.

The drama of consciousness

Jackson Mathews’s introduction to his translation of Paul Valéry’s Monsieur Teste:

Valéry saw everything from the point of view of the intellect. The mind has been said to be his only subject. His preoccupation was the pursuit of consciousness, and no one knew better than he that his pursuit led through man into the world. Valéry’s deep concern was always with some possibility, some potential of the mind. He looked at seashells, read mathematical physics, went to the theater, or waked early in the morning, all for the same purpose—to receive the light from these diverse angles, times, and objects upon his obsessive center: the conscious mind.

Consciousness is in itself dramatic, embodied as it is in its opposite, the human flesh. It is that quality which cannot be isolated or known. […] Like the wind, it may be “seen” only in other things. […]

It is this “point of view” of the intelligence that tells us the nature of Valéry’s work. It has been said that his Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci was rather an introduction to his own method, for what he did was to imagine the structure and operation of a mind so complete, so universal, that all the sciences and all the arts were its tools. If such a man ever actually existed, said Valéry, it was certainly Leonardo.

[…] The mind as it knows and suffers in man, as it lives in science, myth, or the arts; consciousness as it ranges from the lower limits of sleep upward through stages of waking and knowing, to the extreme limits of thought; the mind as it rises from the rich muck of the unconscious to the complex structures of the artistic or mathematical imagination; the human and historical condition of consciousness, the drama of consciousness: this may be the central subject of Valéry’s work. He called it the Intellectual Comedy.

Monsieur Teste is Valéry’s novel. Test himself may be seen as an ordinary fictional character, the lonely man of modern city life, a problem in everyday human relations. On the other hand, he is a mind behaving as a man, or to put it the other way, “a man regulated by his own powers of thought.” Monsieur Teste is the story of consciousness and its effort to push being off the stage.

But is it possible for a man to be all mind? Is Monsieur Teste possible? If not why is he impossible? That question, Valéry says, is the soul of Monsieur Taste: he is impossible because consciousness cannot entirely consume being and continue to exist. Consciousness depends on being. Sensibility is its home, knowledge is its profession. That is why Valéry had to invent Madame Test, all soul and sensibility; and Teste’s friend, his knowledge of the world.

The pieces that make up the present volume of Monsieur Teste are the occasional results of a lifetime of meditation on this question: how would a complete mind behave as an everyday man?

[…]

Valéry’s first conception of Monsieur Test was a kind of abstract man without a name—merely “the portrait of a certain Monsieur.” It may be that Valéry himself had not yet fully realized the importance of his creation and was hardly prepared to take Monsieur Test seriously. But that impression was erased when Valéry posed his basic question: Que peut un homme?”What is a man’s potential?” Here Valéry sounds his fundamental note.

On “the light from these diverse angles,” I think of the “innumerable reflections” in Ortega y Gasset’s preface to Meditations on Quixote. And on “sensibility is its home,” I am reminded of May Swenson’s “Question,” and the second stanza of Anne Sexton’s “The Poet of Ignorance“:

Perhaps I am no one.
True, I have a body
and I cannot escape from it.
I would like to fly out of my head,
but that is out of the question.
It is written on the tablet of destiny
that I am stuck here in this human form.
That being the case
I would like to call attention to my problem.

See also Rebecca Golstein’s novel The Mind-Body Problem.

You can get some way towards the secret

Coleridge’s “Metrical Feet: Lessons for a Boy” (1834), written for his sons:

Trochee trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks; strong foot! yet ill able
Ever to come up with Dactyl’s trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long;—
With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.
One syllable long, with one short at each side,
Amphibrachys hastes with a stately stride;—
First and last being long, middle short, Amphimacer
Strikes his thundering hoofs like a proud high-bred racer.


A taxonomy of metrical feet from George Sainsbury’s A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912):


From Sainsbury’s preface, a little too tortured by classical learning, in the manner of Shaw:

As I approach, contemplating it still from whatever distance, the end of these studies of metre and rhythm which I may never reach, that sense of the unending endless quest,” which I suppose all but very self-satisfied and self-sufficient persons feel, impresses itself more and more upon me. An, I suppose, youthful reviewer of some different but kindred work of mine not very long ago, reproached me with ignorance or neglect of the fact that he and his generation had quite given up positive deliverances in criticism. They regarded it (I think he said) as hopeless and wrong and to “pin” something or other “to the rainbow beauty of what was really a miracle of incrustation.” The proceeding appeared to me to be difficult, if not impossible, and the phrase to be really a miracle of galimatias. But, as a fact, I hope that almost all who have read me will acquit me of the impudence or the folly of thinking that I could say even an interim last word on the secrets of rhythmical charm, whether in the slightly more tangible form of verse, or the far more intangible one of prose. Here, as everywhere, and almost more than anywhere, beauty incipit in mysterio as well as exit in mysterium. Here, and almost more also, it is as when you see a face and say to it with Browning—

Lie back; could thought of mine improve you?

and decide that, if improvement is possible, the interpretation of the actual charm is equally so. You can get some way towards the secret. The spring of the wing of the nostril; the plunge into the clear pool of the eyes, with its impenetrable background of agate or lapis lazuli, of chrysoprase or avanturine; the sweep of the cheek-edge from ear to chin; the straight descent, or curved and recurved wave, of the profile; the azure net-work of the closed eyelids; “the fringed curtains” at their juncture; the infinite intricacies of the mouth and hair,—ask yourself about any one of these, and you cannot tell why it is beautiful, why the combination of the whole makes a beautiful face. But you can, to some extent, fix for yourself the character of those parts and the composition of that whole, and, so far at least, you are ahead of the mere gaper who stares and “likes grossly.”

So it is with literature. You can never get at the final entelechy which differentiates Shelley and Shakespeare from the average versifier, Cluvienus and myself from Pater or from Browne. But you can attend to the feature-composition of the beautiful face, to the quality of the beautiful features, in each of these masters, and so you can dignify and intensify your appreciation of them. That this is best to be done in prose, as in verse, by the application of the foot-system—that is to say, by studying the combinations of the two great sound-qualities which, for my part, I call, as my fathers called them from the beginning, “long” and “short,” but which you may call anything you like, so long as you observe the difference and respect the grouping—I may almost say I know; having observed the utter practical failure of all other systems in verse, and the absence even of any attempt to apply any other to prose.

With this I may leave the present essay to its chances; only repeating my acquaintance with two quotations which I made thirty-six years ago when touching, for the first time, the subject of Prose Style generally. One was Nicholas Breton’s warning “not to talk too much of it, having so little of it,” and the other, Diderot’s epigram on Beccaria’s ouvrage sur le style où il n’y a point de style. These are, of course, “palpable hits” enough. But you may criticise without being able to create, and you may love beauty, and to the possible extent understand it, without being beautiful.


from Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (1965):

Because the concept of the foot is an abstraction, we will never encounter a pure example of any of the standard feet. “For that matter,” as Hugh Kenner says, “you will never encounter a round face, though the term is helpful; and if the idea of a circle had never been defined for you, you might not be clearly aware of how a round face differs from a long one, even though the existence of some sort of difference is evident to the eye. The term ‘iambic foot’ has the same sort of status as the term ’round face.'” Although we will probably never meet a really pure spondee or pyrrhic, in which the two syllables are of exactly the same weight, there would seem to be no need for such over scrupulous formulations as the terms “pseudo-spondee” or “false spondee,” which suggest that our work as scansionists and critics ought to be more objective and accurate than of course it ever can be. The goal of what we are doing is enjoyment: an excessive refinement of terms and categories may impress others but it will probably not help us very much to appreciate English poetic rhythms.


Sainsbury’s remark on “the combinations of the two great sound-qualities” reminds me of Quine, “Universal Library,” in Quiddities (1987):

There is a melancholy fantasy, propounded a century and more ago by the psychologist Theodor Fechner and taken up by Kurt Lassiwitz, Theodor Wolff, Jorge Luis Borges, George Gamow, and Willy Ley, of a complete library. The library is strictly complete, boasting as it does all possible books within certain rather reasonable limits. It admits no books in alien alphabets, nor any beyond the reasonable length say of the one you are now reading, but within those restrictions it boasts all possible books. There are books in all languages, transliterated where necessary. There are coherent books and incoherent, predominantly the latter. The principle of accession is simple, if uneconomical: every combinatorially possible sequence of letters, punctuation, and spaces, up to the prescribed book length, uniformly bound in half calf.

Other writers have sufficiently belabored the numbing combinatorial statistics. At 2,000 characters to the page we get 500,000 to the 250-page volume, so with say eighty capitals and smalls and other marks to choose from we arrive at the 500,000th power of eighty as the number of books in the library. I gather that there is not room in the present phase of our expanding universe, on present estimates, for more than a negligible fraction of the collection. Numbers are cheap.

It is interesting, still, that the collection is finite. The entire and ultimate truth about everything is printed in full in that library, after all, insofar as it can be put in words at all. The limited size of each volume is no restriction, for there is always another volume that takes up the tale—any tale, true or false—where any other volume leaves off. In seeking the truth we have no way of knowing which volume to pick up nor which to follow it with, but it is all right there.

We could narrow down the choice by weeding out the gibberish, which makes up the bulk of the library. We could insist on English, and we could program a computer with English syntax and lexicon to do the scanning and discarding. The residue would be an infinitesimal fraction of the original, but still hyperastronomic.

There is an easier and cheaper way of cutting down. Some of us first learned from Samuel Finley Breese Morse what others of more mathematical bent knew before this time: that a font of two characters, dot and dash, can do all the work of our font of eighty. Morse actually used three characters, namely dot, dash and space; but two will suffice. We could use two dots for the space and then admit no initial or consecutive dots in encoding any of the other old characters.
If we retain the old format and page count for our volumes, this move reduces the size of the library’s collection to the 500,000th power of two. It is still a big number. Written out it would fill a hundred pages in standard digits, or two volumes in dots and dashes. The volumes are skimpier in thought content than before, taken one by one, because our new Morse is more than six times as long-winded as our old eighty-character font of type; but there is no loss in content over all, since for each cliff-hanging volume there is still every conceivable sequel on some shelf or other.

This last reflection—that a diminution in the coverage of each single volume does not affect the cosmic completeness of the collection—points the way to the ultimate economy: a cutback in the size of the volumes. Instead of admitting 500,000 occurrences of characters to each volume, we might settle for say seventeen. We have no longer to do with volumes, but with two-inch strips of text, and no call for half-calf bindings. In our two-character code the number of strips is 2^17, or 131,072. The totality of truth is now reduced to a manageable compass. Getting a substantial account of anything will require extensive concatenation of out two-inch strips, and re-use of strips here and there. But we have everything to work with.

The ultimate absurdity is now staring us in the face: a universal library of two volumes, one containing a single dot and the other a dash. Persistent repetition and alternation of the two is sufficient, we well know, for spelling out any and every truth. The miracle of the finite but universal library is a mere inflation of the miracle of binary notation: everything worth saying, and everything else as well, can be said with two characters. It is a letdown befitting the Wizard of Oz, but it has been a boon to computers.

A distant and subtle poetry

Rafael Arévalo Martinez, “Mi vida es un recuerdo”:

Cuando la conocí me amé a mí mismo.
Fue la que tuvo mi mejor lirismo,
la que encendió mi obscura adolescencia,
la que mis ojos levantó hacia el cielo.

Me humedeció su amor, que era una esencia,
doblé mi corazón como un pañuelo
y después le eché llave a mi existencia.

Y por eso perfuma el alma mía
con lejana y diluida poesía.

translated by William George Williams and William Carlos Williams, published in Others, 1916:

When I met her I loved myself.
It was she who had my best singing,
she who set flame to my obscure youth,
she who raised my eyes toward heaven.

Her love moistened me, it was an essence.
I folded my heart like a handkerchief
and after I turned the key on my existence.

And thus it perfumes my soul
with a distant and subtle poetry.