The necessary art of expressing them

Erasmus, De ratione studii, 1511, translated for the first time into English by William Harrison Woodward, 1904:

All knowledge falls into one of two divisions: the knowledge of truths and the knowledge of words—and if the former is first in importance, the latter is acquired first in order of time. They are not to be commended who, in their anxiety to increase their store of truths, neglect the necessary art of expressing them. For ideas are only intelligible to us by means of the words which describe them; wherefore defective knowledge of language reacts upon our apprehension of the truths expressed. We often find that no one is so apt to lose himself in verbal arguments as the man who boasts that facts, not words, are the only things that interest him.

Attacking too loudly here, worshipping too loudly there

from Lillian Hellman’s introduction to The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1955:

When I was young we used to play a game called what-famous-writer-would-you-most-like-to-have-dinner-with? and a lot of our choices seem surprising to me now, though we stuck pretty close to serious writers as a rule and had sense enough to limit our visiting time to the dinner table. Maybe we knew even then that writers are often difficult people and a Tolstoy—on too big a scale—might become tiresome, and a Dickens unpleasant, and a Stendhal—with his nervous posturing—hard to stand, and a Proust too special, and a Dostoevski too complex. You can argue that greatness and simplicity often go hand in hand, but simple people can be difficult too and by and large the quality of a man’s work seems to have little to do with the pleasure of his company. There are exceptions to this—thank God—and Anton Chekhov seems to have been one of them. […]

Chekhov was a pleasant man, witty and wise and tolerant and kind, with nothing wishywashy in his kindness nor self righteous in his tolerance, and his wit was not ill-humored. He would have seen through you, of course, as he did through everybody, but being seen through doesn’t hurt too much if it’s done with affection. He was neurotic, but unlike most neurotic men he had few crotchets and no nuisance irritabilities, nor pride, nor side, nor aimless vanity, was unlikely to mistake scorched potatoes for high tragedy, didn’t boast, had fine manners and was generous and gay. It is true that he complained a lot about his ailments and his lack of money, but if you laughed at him he would have laughed with you. Such a nature is rare at all times, but it is particularly remarkable in a period when maudlin soul-searching was the intellectual fashion. Chekhov lived in that time that gave us our comic-strip picture of the Russian. While many of his contemporaries were jabbering out the dark days and boozing away the white nights, turning revolutionary for Christmas and police spy for Easter, attacking too loudly here and worshipping too loudly there, wasting youth and talent in futile revolt against anything and everything with little thought and no selection, Anton Chekhov was a man of balance, a man of sense.

 

Essays in intellectual love

from José Ortega y Gasset’s first bookMeditations on Quixote, 1914, translated by Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marín:

Under the title of Meditations this first volume announces several essays on various subjects of no very great consequence to be published by a professor of Philosophy in partibus infidelium. Some of them, like this series of Meditations on Quixote, deal with lofty subjects; others with more modest, even humble, subjects; but they all end by discussing Spanish “circumstances” directly or indirectly. These essays are for the author—like the lecture-room, the newspaper, or politics—different means of carrying on one single activity, of expressing the same feeling of affection. I do not claim that this activity should be recognized as the most important in the world; I consider myself justified when I observed that it is the only one of which I am capable. The devotion which moves me to it is the keenest one which  find in my heart. Reviving the fine name which Spinoza used, I would it amor intellectualis. These are therefore essays in intellectual love. They have no informative value whatever; they are not summaries, either—they are rather what a humanist of the seventeenth century would have called “salvations.” What is sought in them is the following: given a fact—a man, a book, a picture, a landscape, an error, a sorrow—to carry it by the shortest route to its fullest significance. We want to place the objects of all kinds which life, in its perpetual surge, throws at our feet like the useless remains of shipwreck, in such a position that the sun as it strikes them may give off innumerable reflections.

Untrue in the self that uttered them

Erich Heller, “Wittgenstein and Nietzsche,” The Artist’s Journey into the Interior, 1968:

Like Nietzsche, then, [Wittgenstein] knew that philosophical opinion was not merely a matter of logically demonstrable right or wrong. This most rigorous logician was convinced that it was above all a matter of authenticity—and thus, in a sense, not at all of negotiable opinions. What assumed with him so often the semblance of intolerable intellectual pride, was the demand, which he made upon himself still more than upon others, that all utterances should be absolutely authentic. The question was not only “Is this opinion right or wrong?” but also “Is this or that person entitled to this or that opinion?” At times this lent to his manner of debating the harsh tone of the Old Testament prophets: he would suddenly be seized by an uncontrollable desire to mete out intellectual punishment. He reacted to errors of judgment as if they were sins of the heart, and violently rejected opinions, which in themselves—if this distinction were possible—might have been harmless enough or even “correct,” and rejected them because they were untrue in the self that uttered them: they lacked the sanction of the moral and intellectual pain suffered on behalf of truth.

The very opposite of hebetude

Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980, translated by Richard Howard:

I decided then to take as a guide for my new analysis the attraction I felt for certain photographs. For of this attraction, at least, I was certain. What to call it? Fascination? No, this photograph which I pick out and which I love has nothing in common with the shiny point which sways before your eyes and makes your head swim; what it produces in me is the very opposite of hebetude; something more like an internal agitation, an excitement, a certain labor too, the pressure of the unspeakable which wants to be spoken.

Preaching one’s own heresy

Chesterton on Bernard Shaw, 1909:

A peculiar difficulty arrests the writer of this rough study at the very start. Many people know Mr. Bernard Shaw chiefly as a man who would write a very long preface even to a very short play. And there is truth in the idea; he is indeed a very prefatory sort of person. He always gives the explanation before the incident; but so, for the matter of that, does the Gospel of St. John. For Bernard Shaw, as for the mystics, Christian and heathen (and Shaw is best described as a heathen mystic), the philosophy of facts is anterior to the facts themselves. In due time we come to the fact, the incarnation; but in the beginning was the Word.

This produces upon many minds an impression of needless preparation and a kind of bustling prolixity. But the truth is that the very rapidity of such a man’s mind makes him seem slow in getting to the point. It is positively because he is quick-witted that he is long-winded. A quick eye for ideas may actually make a writer slow in reaching his goal, just as a quick eye for landscapes might make a motorist slow in reaching Brighton. An original man has to pause at every allusion or simile to re-explain historical parallels, to re-shape distorted words. Any ordinary leader-writer (let us say) might write swiftly and smoothly something like this: “The element of religion in the Puritan rebellion, if hostile to art, yet saved the movement from some of the evils in which the French Revolution involved morality.” Now a man like Mr. Shaw, who has his own views on everything, would be forced to make the sentence long and broken instead of swift and smooth. He would say something like: “The element of religion, as I explain religion, in the Puritan rebellion (which you wholly misunderstand) if hostile to art — that is what I mean by art — may have saved it from some evils (remember my definition of evil) in which the French Revolution — of which I have my own opinion — involved morality, which I will define for you in a minute.” That is the worst of being a really universal sceptic and philosopher; it is such slow work. The very forest of the man’s thoughts chokes up his thoroughfare. A man must be orthodox upon most things, or he will never even have time to preach his own heresy.

The garden of letters

From the Phaedrus, 275d ff., circa 370 BC, translated by Harold N. Fowler:

Socrates
Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

Phaedrus
You are quite right about that, too.

Socrates
Now tell me; is there not another kind of speech, or word, which shows itself to be the legitimate brother of this bastard one, both in the manner of its begetting and in its better and more powerful nature?

Phaedrus
What is this word and how is it begotten, as you say?

Socrates
The word which is written with intelligence in the mind of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows to whom it should speak, and before whom to be silent.

Phaedrus
You mean the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image.

Socrates
Exactly. Now tell me this. Would a sensible husbandman, who has seeds which he cares for and which he wishes to bear fruit, plant them with serious purpose in the heat of summer in some garden of Adonis, and delight in seeing them appear in beauty in eight days, or would he do that sort of thing, when he did it at all, only in play and for amusement? Would he not, when he was in earnest, follow the rules of husbandry, plant his seeds in fitting ground, and be pleased when those which he had sowed reached their perfection in the eighth month?

Phaedrus
Yes, Socrates, he would, as you say, act in that way when in earnest and in the other way only for amusement.

Socrates
And shall we suppose that he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful has less sense about his seeds than the husbandman?

Phaedrus
By no means.

Socrates
Then he will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectually.

Phaedrus
No, at least, probably not.

Socrates
No. The gardens of letters he will, it seems, plant for amusement, and will write, when he writes, to treasure up reminders for himself, when he comes to the forgetfulness of old age, and for others who follow the same path, and he will be pleased when he sees them putting forth tender leaves. When others engage in other amusements, refreshing themselves with banquets and kindred entertainments, he will pass the time in such pleasures as I have suggested.

Phaedrus
A noble pastime, Socrates, and a contrast to those base pleasures, the pastime of the man who can find amusement in discourse, telling stories about justice, and the other subjects of which you speak.

Socrates
Yes, Phaedrus, so it is; but, in my opinion, serious discourse about them is far nobler, when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless, but yield seed from which there spring up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever, and which make their possessor happy, to the farthest possible limit of human happiness.

Phaedrus
Yes, that is far nobler.

A really tidy job of it

Beckett, “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, 1929:

The danger is in the neatness of identifications. The conception of Philosophy and Philology as a pair of […] minstrels out of the Teatro dei Piccoli is soothing, like the contemplation of a carefully folded ham-sandwich. Giambattista Vico himself could not resist the attractiveness of such coincidence of gesture. He insisted on complete identification between the philosophical abstraction and the empirical illustration, thereby annulling the absolutism of each conception—hoisting the real unjustifiably clear of its dimensional limits, temporalizing that which is extratemporal. And now, here am I, with my handful of abstractions, among which notably: a mountain, the coincidence of contraries, the inevitability of cyclic evolution, a system of Poetics, and the prospect of self-extension in the world of Mr. Joyce’s ‘Work in Progress’. There is the temptation to treat every concept like ‘a bass dropt neck fust in till a bung crate’ and make a really tidy job of it. Unfortunately, such an exactitude of application would imply distortion in one of two direction. Must we wring the neck of a certain system in order to stuff it into a contemporary pigeon-hole, or modify the dimensions of that pigeon-hole for the satisfaction of the analogymongers? Literary criticism is not book-keeping.

 

On turning to the ‘Work in Progress’ we find that the mirror is not so convex. Here is direct expression—pages and pages of it. And if you don’t understand it, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is because you are too decadent to receive it. You are not satisfied unless form is so strictly divorced from content that you can comprehend the one almost without bothering to read the other. This rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense is made possible by what I may call a continuous process of copious intellectual salivation. The form that is an arbitrary and independent phenomenon can fulfil no higher function than that of stimulus for a tertiary or quartary conditioned reflex of dribbling comprehension. When Miss Rebecca West clears her decks for a sorrowful deprecation of the Narcisstic element in Mr. Joyce by the purchase of 3 hats, one feels that she might very well wear her bib at all her intellectual banquets, or alternatively, assert a more noteworthy control over her salivary glands than is possible for Monsieur Pavlo’s unfortunate dogs. The title of this book is a good example of a form carrying a strict inner determination. lt should be proof against the usual volley of cerebral sniggers: and it may suggest to some a dozen incredulous Joshuas prowling around the Queen’s Hall, springing their tuning-forks lightly against finger-nails that have not yet been refined out of existence.

 

A last word about the Purgatories. Dante’s is conical and consequently implies culmination. Mr. Joyce’s is spherical and excludes culmination. In the one there is an ascent from real vegetation—Ante-Purgatory, to ideal vegetation—Terrestrial Paradise: in the other there is no ascent and no ideal vegetation. In the one, absolute progression and a guaranteed consummation: in the other, flux—progression or retrogression, and an apparent consummation. In the one movement is unidirectional, and a step forward represents a net advance: in the other movement is non-directional—or multi-directional, and a step forward is, by definition, a step back. Dante’s Terrestrial Paradise is the carriage entrance to a Paradise that is not terrestial: Mr. Joyce’s Terrestrial Paradise is the tradesmen’s entrance on to the sea-shore. Sin is an impediment to movement up the cone, and a condition of movement round the sphere. In what sense, then, is Mr. Joyce’s work purgatorial? In the absolute absence of the Absolute. Hell is the static lifelessness of unrelieved viciousness. Paradise the static lifelessness of unrelieved immaculation. Purgatory a Hood of movement and vitality released by the conjunction of these two elements. There is a continuous purgatorial process at work, in the sense that the vicious circle of humanity is being achieved, and this achievement depends on the recurrent predomination of one of two broad qualities. No resistance, no eruption, and it is only in Hell and Paradise that there are no eruptions, that there can be none, need be none. On this earth that is Purgatory, Vice and Virtue—which you may take to mean any pair of large contrary human factors—must in turn be purged down to spirits of rebelliousness. Then the dominant crust of the Vicious or Virtuous sets, resistance is provided, the explosion duly takes place and the machine proceeds. And no more than this; neither prize nor penalty; simply a series of stimulants to enable the kitten to catch its tail. And the partially purgatorial agent? The partially purged.

Untouched by the parasite idea

T. S. Eliot, “In Memory,” The Little Review, Henry James number, August 1918:

The “influence” of James hardly matters: to be influenced by a writer is to have a chance inspiration from him; or to take what one wants; or to see things one has overlooked; there will always be a few intelligent people to understand James, and to be understood by a few intelligent people is all the influence a man requires.

• • •

James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it. Englishmen, with their uncritical admiration (in the present age) for France, like to refer to France as the Home of Ideas; a phrase which, if we could twist it into truth, or at least a compliment, ought to mean that in France ideas are very severely looked after; not allowed to stray, but preserved for the inspection of civic pride in a Jardin des Plantes, and frugally dispatched on occasions of public necessity. England, on the other hand, if it is not the Home of Ideas, has at least become infested with them in about the space of time within which Australia has been overrun by rabbits. In England ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought. George Meredith (the disciple of Carlyle) was fertile in ideas; his epigrams are a facile substitute for observation and inference. Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks. James in his novels is like the best French critics in maintaining a point of view, a view-point untouched by the parasite idea. He is the most intelligent man of his generation.

Not results, but powers

George Eliot on Thomas Carlyle, 1855:

It has been well said that the highest aim in education is analogous to the highest aim in mathematics, namely, to obtain not results but powers, not particular solutions, but the means by which endless solutions may be wrought. He is the most effective educator who aims less at perfecting specific acquirements than at producing that mental condition which renders acquirements easy, and leads to their useful application; who does not seek to make his pupils moral by enjoining particular courses of action, but by bringing into activity the feelings and sympathies that must issue in noble action. On the same ground it may be said that the most effective writer is not he who announces a particular discovery, who convinced men of a particular conclusion, who demonstrates that this measure is right and that measure wrong; but he who rouses in others that activities that must issue in discovery, who awakes men from their indifference to right and wrong, who nerves their energies to seek for the truth and live up to it at whatever cost. The influence of such a writer is dynamic. He does not teach men how to use sword and musket, but he inspires their souls with courage and sends a strong will into their muscles. He does not, perhaps, enrich your stock of data, but he clears away the film from your eyes that you may search for data to some purpose. He does not, perhaps, convince you, but he strikes you, undeceives you, animates you. You are not directly fed by his books, but you are braced as by a walk up to an alpine summit, and yet subdued to calm and reverence as by the sublime things to be seen from that summit.