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:

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.

You are quite right about that, too.

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?

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

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.

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

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?

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

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?

By no means.

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.

No, at least, probably not.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A total devotion to hedgehoggism

Richard Powers in conversation with Jeffrey Williams, Cultural Logic, spring 1999:

RP: I was the kind of kid who really didn’t make great distinctions between different fields and who took huge amounts of pleasure in being able to solve problems in very different intellectual disciplines. If anything, I would say my problem-solving abilities in math and science were always a good deal stronger than my verbal skills. I always thought that I would end up becoming one kind of scientist or another. It wasn’t always physics. For a while it was oceanography. For a while it was paleontology.

JW: Unusual for a novelist . . .

RP: Well, I’m not sure what the usual novelist trajectory is! But my orientation was definitely empirical, a real bias toward the “non-subjective” disciplines. I guess the difficulty for me growing up was this constant sensation that every decision to commit myself more deeply to any of these fields meant closing several doors. Specializing involved almost perpetual leave-taking from other pursuits that I loved and that gave me great pleasure. I really resisted the process, as long as I could. I just wanted to arrive somewhere where I could be the last generalist and do that in good faith. I thought for a long time that physics might be that place.

We have this notion of physics—especially cosmology, I guess—as representing a fundamental kind of knowledge, and that it’s a great field to be in if you want the aerial view of how things work. In fact, in some ways, almost the opposite may be true. The enormous success of the reductionist program depends upon absolute applications of Occam’s razor on every level. You have to make yourself expert in a field that’s too small even to be called a specialization. The whole overwhelming success of physics as a discipline depends upon dividing and conquering, on separating fields of research into ever smaller domains. And so it became clear to me pretty quickly, to use Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog and fox distinction, that rather than becoming a fox, I had in fact landed in a place that demanded of me a total devotion to hedgehoggism. I got pretty claustrophobic pretty quickly, and it made me look for other fields where I could preserve that sense of multiplicity, of generalism.

JW: So that induced your turn to literature?

RP: That’s right. Initially, I thought that in the study of literature, I’d really found that aerial view again.

JW: So you thought that you’d be a literary critic and a professor?

RP: Right, or at least that that’s how I would make my living. Since literature seemed to be about everything that there is—about the human condition—I figured that a good literary critic would have to make himself expert at that big picture. It didn’t take me long to realize that the professionalization of literary criticism has taken reductionism as its model, and that it too can lead to learning more and more about less and less until you’re in danger of knowing everything there is to know about nothing.

Friends of lento

from Nietzsche’s 1886 preface to Daybreak, translated by R. J. Hollingdale:

A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento. It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading:—in the end I also write slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste—a malicious taste, perhaps?—no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry’. For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow—it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento.

Some fine net of classification

Sontag, “Remembering Barthes,” The New York Review of Books, May 1980, collected in Under the Sign of Saturn:

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.

A great deal of simplification

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.