The varieties of lexicographic experience

Some instances of an understudied genre, predominantly satirical:

Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Flaubert, Dictionary of Received Ideas

Fowler, Dictionary of Modern English Usage [which I include under the banner of satirical for such entries as “genteelism”]

Heifetz, Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary

Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective

Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary

How far can the dictionary form depart from the norm? Can there be a dictionary (or encyclopedia?) of—say, jokes? What else? Another lexicographic genre is that of the collection of keywords (not quite a straightforward glossary or scholarly lexicon)—for a culture, for a theme, for a discipline. Some examples:

Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse

Jay, Cultural Semantics: Keywords of Our Time

Lewis, Studies in Words

Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society

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.

Perpetual and immense

Some choice passages from Renée Neu Watkins’s translation (Waveland Press, 1999) of Leon Battista Alberti’s magnificently shrewd De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (The advantages and disadvantages of books), written in Latin around 1430:

[…] I have meditated and thought long and hard, searching with all my ingenuity for a subject I could treat adequately and which would prove the quality of my intellect, so as to satisfy them if it lay within me. But nothing came to mind that had not been beautifully dealt with by the divinely inspired classical authors, so that no one of our time, however learned, could deal with it better than they, nor did there seem to be some topic left of the kind they had treated, that I could handle well and with grace. The ancients had encompassed all serious and comic material, leaving to us only the opportunity to read them and the obligation to admire. Older contemporaries of ours have seized on a few subjects that lay hidden, perhaps overlooked by the ancients, and have thus gained honor and fame. If one wants glory, however, one must be willing to write something that is not perfect and ideal rather than allow oneself to grow old in erudite silence.


I earnestly beg you, my brother (if I may borrow your own phrasing in Ephebis) to read this little book of ours, correct it according to your own unswerving judgment, and by your emendations kindly make it better and more beautiful.


The life men of learning live is necessarily hard and harsh; by this I mean the ones who, as they should, abandon all other things for the sake of intellectual work. No art, however minor, demands less that total dedication if you want to excel in it. What we know to be true of all arts is most especially true of reading and writing; there is no freedom from striving at any age.


In my experience, however, you won’t find many rich men who think books, let alone the delights of study, are worth the effort.


Who, with a mind occupied by love, will be able to focus whole and steadfast attention on texts? Who can then be fully absorbed in his work, intent on the teachings, ready and able to store up and retain them? Who, when captive to the madness of love, will have the will power and intellectual vigor and enthusiasm to perfect himself in any noble art? Don’t we know how love usually affects people? Sapping energy, corrupting conduct, perverting the intelligence, loading the mind with obsessions, filling the intellect with errors, driving a man to madness: these are its well-known services, the gifts that it bestows.


A brief period away from study has the power to disperse more material than many long hours of application can restore; things placed in memory slip away faster than they can be rememorized or recaptured.

[Cf. the pianist’s quip, variously attributed to Liszt, Rubinstein, and Paderewski: “If I miss one day of practice, I notice; two days, and my friends notice; three days, and everybody notices.”]

When you wish to buy clothes, isn’t it true that your library will say to you: “You owe me that money, I forbid…” If you wish to pursue the hunt, or music, or the martial arts or sports, won’t the books says: “You are stealing this energy from us, we will not bring you fame and reputation!” If you inquire into technical knowledge or painting or three dimensional design, the philosophical disciplines will react strongly: “This is the way you defraud us of your energies. From you we will withhold knowledge of the highest things…!”


If you want to refresh your spirit by a country excursion […] the vocation you have taken up will pull you back from there to books and writing, and if you do not with much labor and long hours devote yourself totally to these, the books themselves will threaten you with shattering disgrace.


But I would not want to obscure the true nature of scholars by concluding that they devote themselves to books with no idea of pleasure. They could not perform such great labors without some notion of pleasure in their minds. There are those who willingly go into mourning, because they take pleasure from being considered very faithful and true to the memory of friendship. Many actions by which we satisfy convention and public opinion seem less painful to us than they really are. The pleasure of study, however, is such that it might better be called pain: sedentary all the time, reading all the time, thinking hard, always alone, renouncing festivities and play. I am not so bitter and hard a man that I would dare call this a pleasant way to live. […] To satisfy the desire to learn is indeed a pleasure, but the very hard work of study and the accompanying anxiety that oppresses the spirit always bring more mental torment than joy. So if we indeed take a certain pleasure in learning, huge cares and labors undermine it. There is a big difference, moreover, between the burden of fighting the intrigues and assault of enemies, which is experienced relatively briefly, and the scholar’s daily anxiety, which is perpetual and immense. For there are innumerable things in books that are supremely worth knowing, nor is it easy to describe how the desire to learn presses upon a scholar. He may participate in difficulty scholarly debates, or explore some elegant, worthy, and learned subject; while he does so, he does not sleep, does not eat, does not rest, and feels almost no satisfaction. The desire to know and to remember it all is constantly gnawing at him. He takes on immense projects, is entangled in an array of possible rhetorical devices, is constantly tense. On top of this, he is always coming across things previously unknown to him: he encounters in his reading adroit, subtle, and clever ideas, finds some unusual illustrative anecdote, or learns new refinements of the power of persuasion; these things provoke in him the desire to learn more, and he is unable to set limits or stop, nor is he granted any peace of mind as long as he has not cleared up every obscurity. Thus, as you see, the scholar is a very complex puzzle himself, and neither physically nor mentally ever, or hardly ever, gets any rest. Bleak solitude, hard labor, endless hours, great anxiety, difficulty questions, total absorption, intense anxiety—as there is no pleasure to be found in this man, so in his whole life there is almost no break in the onslaught of work and worry.

To Alberti’s unremittingly bleak, if otherwise unsurpassed, characterization of the obsessively acquisitive and self-reinforcing anxiety at the heart of bibliophilia (epistemophilia?), one might counterpose a finer appreciation of the compensating blisses and ecstasies: Barthes’s “pleasure of the text,” Feynman’s “pleasure of finding things out,” Morris’s account of “pleasure in the work itself” (which he writes about here and here), something—appropriately, I cannot remember what—in Emerson. See also: Aristotle’s “desire to know,” Wordsworth’s “bliss of solitude,” Joyce’s “luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure.”

διπλοῦν ὁρῶσιν οἱ μαθόντες γράμματα

An inscription at the University of Edinburgh

My title, “Diploun horosin hoi mathontes grammata”—those who learn the letters [or alphabet] see double—appears in the Γνῶμαι Μονόστιχοι, Gnomai Monostichoi, of Menander, a collection of one-line sayings (not necessarily Menander’s own) with a long legacy in literary education. It is line 657, on page 359, in the version collected in Μeineke’s Fragmenta Comicorum Graecorum, Volume IV, Fragmenta Poetarum Comoediae Novae:

The only English translation is by John Maxwell Edmonds, The Fragments of Attic Comedy After Meineke, Bergk, and Kock, volume IIIb, where he renders the line “Who learns to read doubles his power of sight.” (Though it is not at all what Wittgenstein meant, I am reminded of 5.6 in the Tractatus, “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt”—the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.)

The Gnomai represent the genre of the gnomologium, a sort of textbook anthology or chrestomathy of wisdom for rhetorical or moral instruction, especially popular throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages. Erasmus mentions the genre (and cites Menander) in his Adages:

There were those, especially among the Greeks, who willingly undertook the task of making gnomologies, collections of aphorisms, notably Johannes Stobaeus. I would rather praise their work than imitate it.

Compare the commonplace book.

Double, triple, quadruple hypothesis

from the first chapter, “Parole, Parole, Parole,” of Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy (2003):

As I began studying postwar Italian history, it became obvious that surrounding any crime or political event, there are always confusion, suspicion, and “the bacillus of secrecy.” So much so that dietrologia has become a sort of national pastime. It means literally “behindology,” or the attempt to trump even the most fanciful and contorted conspiracy theory. Dietrologia is the “critical analysis of events in an effort to detect, behind the apparent causes, true and hidden designs.” La Stampa has called it “the science of imagination, the culture of suspicion, the philosophy of mistrust, the technique of the double, triple, quadruple hypothesis.” It’s an indispensable sport for a society in which appearance very rarely begets reality. Stendhal wrote about it in The Character-house of Parma: “Italian hearts are much more tormented than ours by the suspicions and the wild ideas which a burning imagination presents to them.”

Consider, as counterpoint, Moravia’s short story “Non approfondire” (Don’t delve too deeply). Compare, of course, the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

There is an interesting discussion of the word at the Language Log, and it’s the subject of a column in the Economist from 2011.

Stupid for the rest of the day

From the Wikipedia page on Paul Valéry:

Valéry’s most striking achievement is perhaps his monumental intellectual diary, called the Cahiers (Notebooks). Early every morning of his adult life, he contributed something to the Cahiers, prompting him to write: “Having dedicated those hours to the life of the mind, I thereby earn the right to be stupid for the rest of the day.”

The subjects of his Cahiers entries often were, surprisingly, reflections on science and mathematics. In fact, arcane topics in these domains appear to have commanded far more of his considered attention than his celebrated poetry. The Cahiers also contain the first drafts of many aphorisms he later included in his books. To date, the Cahiers have been published in their entirety only as photostatic reproductions, and only since 1980 have they begun to receive scholarly scrutiny. The Cahiers have been translated into English in five volumes published by Peter Lang with the title Cahiers/Notebooks.

The more things have gone wrong

Colonna, in Umberto Eco’s Numero Zero, translated by Richard Dixon:

Losers, like autodidacts, always know much more than winners. If you want to win, you need to know just one thing and not waste your time on anything else: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers. The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong.

Seen from the shores of pleasure

from Barthes, Le Plaisir du Texte, translated by Richard Miller:

It can’t be helped: boredom is not simple. We do not escape boredom (with a work, a text) with a gesture of impatience or rejection. Just as the pleasure of the text supposes a whole indirect production, so boredom cannot presume it is entitled to any spontaneity: there is no sincere boredom: if the prattle-text bores me personally, it is because in reality I do not like the demand. But what if I did like it (if I had some maternal appetite)? Boredom is not far from bliss: it is bliss seen from the shores of pleasure.

The worst hundred books

Oscar Wilde’s letter to the Pall Mall Gazette on the subject of “The Best Hundred Books,” February 8, 1886, from Thomas Wright, Oscar’s Books: A Journey around the Library of Oscar Wilde (2008):

Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:—

1. Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.

2. Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.

3. Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St. Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the Essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.

The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for, the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.

Indeed, it is one that is eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much, that it has no time to admire, and writes so much, that it has no time to think. Whoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula ‘The Worst Hundred Books,’ and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.

After expressing these views I suppose I should not offer any suggestions at all with regard to ‘The Best Hundred Books,’ but I hope you will allow me the pleasure of being inconsistent, as I am anxious to put in a claim for a book that has been strangely omitted by most of the excellent judges who have contributed to your columns. I mean the Greek Anthology. The beautiful poems contained in this collection seem to me to hold the same position with regard to Greek dramatic literature as do the delicate little figurines of Tanagra to the Phidian marbles, and to be quite as necessary for the complete understanding of the Greek spirit.

I am also amazed to find that Edgar Allan Poe has been passed over. Surely this marvellous lord of rhythmic expression deserves a place? If, in order to make room for him, it be necessary to elbow out some one else, I should elbow out Southey, and I think that Baudelaire might be most advantageously substituted for Keble. No doubt, both in The Curse of Kehama and in The Christian Year there are poetic qualities of a certain kind, but absolute catholicity of taste is not without its dangers. It is only an auctioneer who should admire all schools of art.