It is as if their souls have gone into hiding, to await tenure or some other deliverance

From Lisa Ruddick’s When Nothing Is Cool , an abridgement of which is available online (with a citation for the full piece there as well). I’m several years late to the game and this is out of my normal wheelhouse as well but it’s rare something contemporary has so resonated with me.

In the course of interviewing some seventy graduate students in English for a book on the state of literary criticism, I’ve encountered two types of people who are having trouble adapting to the field. First, there are those who bridle at the left-political conformity of English and who voice complaints familiar from the culture wars. But a second group suffers from a malaise without a name; socialization to the discipline has left them with unaccountable feelings of confusion, inhibition and loss.

Those in the latter group share a quality of inwardness. In interviews, they strike me as reflective, intuitive individuals, with English teacher written all over them. These are the people who say that something in this intellectual environment is eating them alive. Gina Hiatt, the president of a large coaching service for academic writers, tells me that many of her clients in the humanities have a similar experience. She believes these clients sense “an immorality they can’t put their finger on” in the thought-world of the humanities. They struggle as writers because talking the talk would make them feel complicit, yet they cannot afford to say, in Hiatt’s words, that “the emperor has no clothes.” Some keep their best ideas out of their scholarship for fear that if they violate certain ideological taboos, others will “hate” them (a verb Hiatt hears repeatedly). Hiatt describes these individuals as “canaries in the mine.”

Is there something unethical in contemporary criticism? This essay is not just for those who identify with the canaries in the mine, but for anyone who browses through current journals and is left with an impression of deadness or meanness. I believe that the progressive fervor of the humanities, while it reenergized inquiry in the 1980s and has since inspired countless valid lines of inquiry, masks a second-order complex that is all about the thrill of destruction. In the name of critique, anything except critique can be invaded or denatured. This is the game of academic cool that flourished in the era of high theory. Yet what began as theory persists as style. Though it is hardly the case that everyone (progressive or otherwise) approves of this mode, it enjoys prestige, a fact that cannot but affect morale in the field as a whole.

and a bit further in:

As I have already intimated, an intellectual regime so designed discourages initiates from identifying with their own capacity for centered, integrated selfhood. Some will identify instead with the aggressor, turning against the soft “interiority” that the profession belittles. As a more moderate option, scholars can adopt a neutral historicist voice that allows them to handle the inner life—someone else’s—as a historical curiosity, without attributing value to it. (As one of my interviewees ruefully remarked, “You can write about anything so long as it is dead.”) Either way, the distanced attitude toward inwardness takes a toll.

The management scholar Ann Rippin, borrowing an image from a fairy tale, describes the “silver hands” with which organizations endow their members. Recruits to professional organizations, Rippin writes, are trained in glossy but dehumanized ways of speaking and feeling. The work they learn to do “is silver service done at arm’s length, hygienically, through a polished, highly wrought intermediary instrument.” In time, many of those so socialized “report feeling unable to bring their whole selves to work, [and] being obliged to dismember or disaggregate themselves, having to suspend feelings, ethics, values on occasion.” I think our profession has its own version of silver-handedness, exacerbated by theoretical orthodoxies that suggest we never had a “whole self” to lose in the first place. Nothing inherently makes the theories that dismiss the idea of integrated selfhood better than the alternatives; they are just preferred by this academic community.
I believe that when a scholar traffics in antihumanist theories for purposes of professional advancement, his or her private self stands in the doorway, listening in. When it hears things that make it feel unwanted—for example, that it is a “Kantian” or “bourgeois” fantasy—it can go mute. I have spoken with many young academics who say that their theoretical training has left them benumbed. After a few years in the profession, they can hardly locate the part of themselves that can be moved by a poem or novel. It is as if their souls have gone into hiding, to await tenure or some other deliverance.

Ludwig Tieck’s Rune Mountain

From Ludwig Tieck’s Rune Mountain (Der Runenberg). I never know what to do with works where no extractable part feels sufficiently reflective of the interest offered by the whole. So here I’m doing a bunch because this one deserves it.

First is a link to the the whole followed by as good a passage as I can find. The linked translation is Thomas Carlyle’s. There is a more recent one (that I use for the quote below) in Penguin’s Tales of the German Imagination. Next is the concluding paragraph of an article that attempts a Jungian reading of the story. Last is the article itself.

The following day the father went for a walk with his son and repeated to him some of the things Elisabeth had told him; he warned him to embrace piety and that he had better turn his spirit to godly reflections.

To which Christian replied: ‘Gladly, father. I often feel such a sense of well-being, and everything seems to succeed; it’s the strangest thing, for a long while, for years on end, I’m inclined to lose sight completely of my true self, and to slip with ease, so it seems, into someone else’s life; but then all of a sudden it is as if my own ascendant star, the real me, rises in my heart like a new moon and defeats the strange force. I could be completely contented, but once on one wondrous night an arcane sign passed through my hands and was imprinted deep in my heart; often that magical figure is asleep, unnoticeable – I mean it’s absent from my spirit – but then, all of a sudden, it wells up again like a poison and invades my every move. And once it has got hold of me all my thoughts and feelings are ruled by it, everything else is transformed, or rather engulfed, by its force. Just as a lunatic shrinks back in terror at the sight of water and the poison intensifies in his veins, so I am affected by all sharp-angled shapes, by every line, by every glimmer; everything in me wants to be free of that immanent presence and to hasten its delivery like a baby, and my spirit and body are riddled with fear. Just as the heart received it from a feeling in response to external stimuli, that sentient muscle writhes and wrestles to retransform it into an externally directed feeling just to be rid of it and at peace.’

And from Harry Vredeveld’s Ludwig Tieck’s Der Runenberg: An Archetypal Interpretation. The full article is conveniently available here

Der Runenberg, we may conclude, is not an Erlösungsmarchen [redemption fairy tale] like that told by Klingsohr in Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen. The tales of redemption typically have this triadic pattern: a) unity; b) loss of unity, conflict; c) renewed unity on a higher level, synthesis. Tieck, as is clear from our analysis, inverts this pattern. His story proceeds from a) disunity (split between the magic realm and the profane) to b) synthesis (the harmonious life on the plain following the ‘Runenberg’-vision), to c) disunity (tragic split between the two realms). Where Novalis writes fairy tales which are intended to portray the future synthesis, Tieck writes ‘infernal fairy tales’ about the present. The totality of being to which Christian briefly attains is of the nature of a fairy tale; in the world of the present such a synthesis and such a Paradise cannot last for long. In the end, therefore, Tieck’s world is not a world of unity but of division, not of totality but of opposing camps.

The elevator must be able to withstand the entrance of the least-educated academician

From Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Tale of the Troika, what may be the only elevator in literature with personality (pace Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator).

An unbelievable hubbub reigned on the platform of the first floor in front of the elevator cage. The door of the shaft was open, as was the door into the elevator itself. Many lights were burning, the mirrors were sparkling, and the polished surfaces gleamed. Under the old, peeling banner that proclaimed “Let’s Get the Elevator Up by the Holiday!” huddled a crowd of curiosity seekers and people wanting rides.

They were all listening politely to Modest Matveevich Kamnoedov, the deputy director, who was giving a speech before some electricians from the Solovetsk Boiler Supervisor’s Department.

“This must be stopped,” Modest Matveevich exhorted. “This is an elevator, not some spectroscope or microscope. The elevator is a powerful means of locomotion—that’s primary. It is also a means of transportation. The elevator must be like a dump truck: it gets you there, dumps you out, and comes back. That’s point one. The administration has long been aware that many of our fellow scientists, and that includes some academicians, do not know how to use an elevator. We are combating this, and we will put an end to it. There will be examinations for licenses for operating an elevator, and past services to us will not be taken into consideration … the establishment of the title of Senior Elevator Operator … and so on. That’s my second point. And on their part the electricians must guarantee uninterrupted service. There’s no use in falling back on objective conditions as an excuse. Our slogan is ‘elevators for everyone.’ No matter who. The elevator must be able to withstand the entrance of the least-educated academician.”

We made our way through the crowd and moved on. The pomp of that improvised meeting impressed me greatly. I had the feeling that today the elevator would actually, finally, be running and would continue running maybe for as much as twenty-four hours. That was impressive. The elevator had always been the Achilles’ heel of the institute and of Modest Matveevich, personally. Actually, there was nothing special about it. It was an elevator like any other, with its good points and its bad points. As befits a proper elevator, it constantly strove to get stuck between floors, was always occupied, burned out the bulbs that were screwed into it, and demanded irreproachable behavior and a deft touch with the gate. Getting into the elevator, one could never say with any certainty where and when one would be getting out.

But our elevator did have one unique trait. It could not stand going above the thirteenth floor. I mean, of course, that there are recorded instances in the history of the institute of individual skilled craftsmen who managed to overcome the contrariness of the mechanism and, giving it its head, went up to absolutely fantastic heights. But for the average man, the endless territory of the institute looming above the thirteenth floor was just a blank. There were all kinds of rumors, some contradictory, about those territories, almost completely cut off from the world and the influence of the administration. It was maintained, for example, that the one hundred twenty-fourth floor had an exit into an adjoining space with different physical properties, that on the two hundred thirtieth floor lived a mysterious race of alchemists—the spiritual descendants of the famous Union of the Nine established by the enlightened Indian king Asoka, and that on the one thousand seventeenth floor, the old man, his wife, and the Golden Fish still lived on the shore of the Blue Sea.

The ‘old man, his wife, and the Golden Fish’ refers to a tale of Alexander Pushkin’s.

A centenarian being dragged in a Bath chair around the Great Exhibition in London

From Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), the opening to the novel’s great set-piece analysis of Sicily and, more particularly, its failings. I feel there’s more of Lampedusa here than of his character and likely more of post-WW2 than of 1860 – but that only modifies how you engage with the argument.

“Just listen to me, Chevalley, will you? If it were merely a question of some honor, a simple title to put on a visiting card, no more, I should be pleased to accept; I feel that at this decisive moment for the future of the Italian State it is the duty of us all to support it, and to avoid any impression of disunity in the eyes of those foreign States which are watching us with alarm or with hope, both of which will be shown unjustified but which do at the moment exist.”

“Well, then, Prince, why not accept?”

“Be patient now, Chevalley, I’ll explain in a moment; we Sicilians have become accustomed, by a long, a very long hegemony of rulers who were not of our religion and who did not speak our language, to split hairs. If we had not done so we’d never have coped with Byzantine tax gatherers, with Berber Emirs, with Spanish Viceroys. Now the bent is endemic, we’re made like that. I said ‘support,’ I did not say ‘participate.’ In these last six months, since your Garibaldi set foot at Marsala, too many things have been done without our being consulted for you to be able now to ask a member of the old governing class to help develop things and carry them through. I do not wish to discuss now whether what was done was done well or badly; for my part I believe it to have been done very badly, but I’d like to tell you at once what you’ll understand only after spending a year among us.

“In Sicily it doesn’t matter whether things are done well or done badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of ‘doing’ at all. We are old, Chevalley, very old. For more than twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of a superb and heterogeneous civilization, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own. We’re as white as you are, Chevalley, and as the Queen of England; and yet for two thousand and five hundred years we’ve been a colony. I don’t say that in complaint; it’s our fault. But even so we’re worn out and exhausted.”

Chevalley was disturbed now. “But that is all over now, isn’t it? Now Sicily is no longer a conquered land, but a free part of a free State.”

“The intention is good, Chevalley, but it comes too late; and anyway I’ve already said that it is mainly our fault. You talked to me a short while ago about a young Sicily facing the marvels of the modern world; for my part I see instead a centenarian being dragged in a Bath chair around the Great Exhibition in London, understanding nothing and caring about nothing, whether it’s the steel factories of Sheffield or the cotton spinners of Manchester, and thinking of nothing but drowsing off again amid beslobbered pillows and with a pot under the bed.”

He was still talking slowly, but the hand around St. Peter’s had tightened and later the tiny cross surmounting the dome was found snapped. “Sleep, my dear Chevalley, sleep, that is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who ‘tries to wake them, even in order to bring them the most wonderful of gifts; and I must say, between ourselves, I have strong doubts whether the new Kingdom will have many gifts for us in its luggage. All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really wish-fulfillment: our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death; our laziness, our spiced and drugged sherbets, a hankering for voluptuous immobility, that is, for death again; our meditative air is that of a void wanting to scrutinize the enigmas of nirvana. That is what gives power to certain people among us, to those who are half awake: that is the cause of the well-known time lag of a century in our artistic and intellectual life – novelties attract us only when they are dead, incapable of arousing vital currents; that is what gives rise to the extraordinary phenomenon of the constant formation of myths which would be venerable if they were really ancient, but which are really nothing but sinister attempts to plunge us back into a past that attracts us only because it is dead.”


“Stia a sentirmi, Chevalley; se si fosse trattato di un segno di onore, di un semplice titolo da scrivere sulla carta da visita e basta, sarei stato lieto di accettare; trovo che in questo momento decisivo per il futuro dello stato italiano è dovere di ognuno dare la propria adesione, evitare l’impressione di screzi dinanzi a quegli stati esteri che ci guardano con un timore o con una speranza che si riveleranno ingiustificati ma che per ora esistono.” “Ma allora, principe, perché non accettare?” “Abbia pazienza, Chevalley, adesso mi spiegherò; noi Siciliani siamo stati avvezzi da una lunghissima egemonia di governanti che non erano della nostra religione, che non parlavano la nostra lingua, a spaccare i capelli in quattro. Se non si faceva così non si sfuggiva agli esattori bizantini, agli emiri berberi, ai viceré spagnoli. Adesso la piega è presa, siamo fatti così. Avevo detto ‘adesione’ non ‘partecipazione’. In questi sei ultimi mesi, da quando il vostro Garibaldi ha posto piede a Marsala, troppe cose sono state fatte senza consultarci perché adesso si possa chiedere a un membro della vecchia classe dirigente di svilupparle e portarle a compimento; adesso non voglio discutere se ciò che si è fatto è stato male o bene; per conto mio credo che parecchio sia stato male; ma voglio dirle subito ciò che Lei capirà da solo quando sarà stato un anno fra noi. In Sicilia non importa far male o far bene: il peccato che noi Siciliani non perdoniamo mai è semplicemente quello di ‘fare’. Siamo vecchi, Chevalley, vecchissimi. Sono venticinque secoli almeno che portiamo sulle spalle il peso di magnifiche civiltà eterogenee, tutte venute da fuori già complete e perfezionate, nessuna germogliata da noi stessi, nessuna a cui abbiamo dato il ‘la’; noi siamo dei bianchi quanto lo è lei, Chevalley, e quanto la regina d’Inghilterra; eppure da duemila cinquecento anni siamo colonia. Non lo dico per lagnarmi: è in gran parte colpa nostra; ma siamo stanchi e svuotati lo stesso.”

Adesso Chevalley era turbato. “Ma ad ogni modo questo adesso è finito; adesso la Sicilia non è più terra di conquista ma libera parte di un libero stato.”

“L’intenzione è buona, Chevalley, ma tardiva; del resto le ho già detto che in massima parte è colpa nostra; Lei mi parlava poco fa di una giovane Sicilia che si affaccia alle meraviglie del mondo moderno; per conto mio mi sembra piuttosto una centenaria trascinata in carrozzella alla Esposizione Universale di Londra, che non comprende nulla, che s’impipa di tutto, delle acciaierie di Sheffield come delle filande di Manchester, e che agogna soltanto di ritrovare il proprio dormiveglia fra i suoi cuscini sbavati e il suo orinale sotto il letto.”

Parlava ancora piano, ma la mano attorno a S. Pietro si stringeva; l’indomani la crocetta minuscola che sormontava la cupola venne trovata spezzata. “Il sonno, caro Chevalley, il sonno è ciò che i Siciliani vogliono, ed essi odieranno sempre chi li vorrà svegliare, sia pure per portar loro i più bei regali; e, sia detto fra noi, ho i miei forti dubbi che il nuovo regno abbia molti regali per noi nel bagaglio. Tutte le manifestazioni siciliane sono manifestazioni oniriche, anche le più violente: la nostra sensualità è desiderio di oblio, le schioppettate e le coltellate nostre, desiderio di morte; desiderio di immobilità voluttuosa, cioè ancora di morte, la nostra pigrizia, i nostri sorbetti di scorsonera o di cannella; il nostro aspetto meditativo è quello del nulla che voglia scrutare gli enigmi del nirvana. Da ciò proviene il prepotere da noi di certe persone, di coloro che sono semidesti; da ciò il famoso ritardo di un secolo delle manifestazioni artistiche ed intellettuali siciliane: le novità ci attraggono soltanto quando le sentiamo defunte, incapaci di dar luogo a correnti vitali; da ciò l’incredibile fenomeno della formazione attuale, contemporanea a noi, di miti che sarebbero venerabili se fossero antichi sul serio, ma che non sono altro che sinistri tentativi di rituffarsi in un passato che ci attrae appunto perché è morto.”

A roadside picnic, on some road in the cosmos

From Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. The ‘visitation’ is the major background event of the novel, an unobserved alien arrival and departure that left behind, at its place of occurrence, a ‘zone’ filled with unexplainable technology and even more bizarre non-tangible effects. Coming more from the Tarkovsky film – also written by the Strugatskys – I hadn’t fully appreciated before how good a partner this passage makes to Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice.

“Really? Well, who cares about him anyway. What do you think about the Visitation? You can answer unseriously.”

“All right, I’ll tell you. But I must warn you that your question, Richard, comes under the heading of xenology. Xenology: an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. It’s based on the false premise that human psychology is applicable to extraterrestrial intelligent beings.”

“Why is that false?” Noonan asked.

“Because biologists have already been burned trying to use human psychology on animals. Earth animals, at that.”

“Forgive me, but that’s an entirely different matter. We’re talking about the psychology of rational beings.”

“Yes. And everything would be fine if we only knew what reason was.”

“Don’t we know?” Noonan was surprised.

“Believe it or not, we don’t. Usually a trivial definition is used: reason is that part of man’s activity that distinguishes him from the animals. You know, an attempt to distinguish the owner from the dog who understands everything but just can’t speak. Actually, this trivial definition gives rise to rather more ingenious ones. Based on bitter observation of the above-mentioned human activities. For example: reason is the ability of a living creature to perform unreasonable or unnatural acts.”

“Yes, that’s about us, about me, and those like me,” Noonan agreed bitterly.

“Unfortunately. Or how about this hypothetical definition. Reason is a complex type of instinct that has not yet formed completely. This implies that instinctual behavior is always purposeful and natural. A million years from now our instinct will have matured and we will stop making the mistakes that are probably integral to reason. And then, if something should change in the universe, we will all become extinct—precisely because we will have forgotten how to make mistakes, that is, to try various approaches not stipulated by an inflexible program of permitted alternatives.”

“Somehow you make it all sound demeaning.”

“All right, how about another definition—a very lofty and noble one. Reason is the ability to use the forces of the environment without destroying that environment.”

Noonan grimaced and shook his head.

“No, that’s not about us. How about this: ‘man, as opposed to animals, is a creature with an undefinable need for knowledge’? I read that somewhere.”

“So have I,” said Valentine. “But the whole problem with that is that the average man—the one you have in mind when you talk about ‘us’ and ‘not us’—very easily manages to overcome this need for knowledge. I don’t believe that need even exists. There is a need to understand, and you don’t need knowledge for that. The hypothesis of God, for instance, gives an incomparably absolute opportunity to understand everything and know absolutely nothing. Give man an extremely simplified system of the world and explain every phenomenon away on the basis of that system. An approach like that doesn’t require any knowledge. Just a few memorized formulas plus so-called intuition and so-called common sense.”

“Hold on,” Noonan said. He finished his beer and set the mug noisily on the table. “Don’t get off the track. Let’s get back to the subject on hand. Man meets an extraterrestrial creature. How do they find out that they are both rational creatures?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Valentine said with great pleasure. “Everything I’ve read on the subject comes down to a vicious circle. If they are capable of making contact, then they are rational. And vice versa; if they are rational, they are capable of contact. And in general: if an extraterrestrial creature has the honor of possessing human psychology, then it is rational. Like that.”

“There you go. And I thought you boys had it all laid out in neat cubbyholes.”

“A monkey can put things into cubbyholes,” Valentine replied.

“No, wait a minute.” For some reason, Noonan felt cheated. “If you don’t know simple things like that … All right, the hell with reason. Obviously, it’s a real quagmire. OK. But what about the Visitation? What do you think about the Visitation?”

“My pleasure. Imagine a picnic.”

Noonan shuddered.

“What did you say?”

“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car drives , off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out of the car carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Gas and oil spilled on the grass. Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around. Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind. Oil slicks on the pond. And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”

“I see. A roadside picnic.”

“Precisely. A roadside picnic, on some road in the cosmos. And you ask if they will come back.”

And maybe it’s just me but this part feels some masked Soviet-era subversion, especially given the final sentence. Substitute any favorite scientific or socio-historical theory for God and you have the same situation on a more limited scale.

There is a need to understand, and you don’t need knowledge for that. The hypothesis of God, for instance, gives an incomparably absolute opportunity to understand everything and know absolutely nothing. Give man an extremely simplified system of the world and explain every phenomenon away on the basis of that system. An approach like that doesn’t require any knowledge. Just a few memorized formulas plus so-called intuition and so-called common sense.”

Nero himself, highly annoyed to recognize himself, having been recognized

From Jean Cocteau’s Dentelles d’éternité – Appoggiatures, translated as Grace Notes. One of those random browsing finds that adds a small, unexpected delight to the day.

Starting with the fantasy of people claiming past lives but recollecting only the famous, we suspected the coachman of the carriage taking us around Rome, given certain clues and that his route always seemed to direct his horse toward the Domus Aurea, we suspected him, as I say, trained as we are in the school of dreams where nothing is extraordinary, and, I repeat, because of certain clues and a combination of discomfitures: that of a painful discovery and that of being discovered, in brief, while the horse’s hooves and the wheels made their hearse-sounds down narrow streets full of scarlet cassocks, and because Rome took on that orangey color that distinguishes it from all other capitals, we suspected, we were certain – so certain we almost got out of the carriage – that this coachman was Nero himself, highly annoyed to recognize himself, having been recognized


Partant de ce phantasme des personnes qui pretendent avoir deja vecu d’autres vies et ne so souviennent que d’illustres, nous soupconnames le cocher du fiacre qui nous promenait dans Rome, a certains indices et a une pente qui dirigeait toujours son cheval vers la Maison Doree, nous le soupconnames, dis-je dresses per l’ecole du songe ou l’extraordinaire cesse de l’etre et, je le repete, a certains indices et a un melange de genes reciproques, celle qui accompagne une decourverte penible et celle d’etre faisaient leur bruit de corbillard dans des ruelles pleines de soutanes ecarlates et que Rome prenait cette couleur orangee par quoi elle se distingue de toute autre capitale, nous soupconnames, nous eumes la certitude – certitude so forte que nous faillimes descendre du fiacre – que ce cocher etait Neron, extremement ennuye de se reconnaitre, a force d’avoir ete reconnu

You who read me, are you sure you understand my language?

From Borges’ The Library of Babel (La Biblioteca de Babel)

The impious assert that absurdities are the norm in the Library and that anything reasonable (even humble and pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception. They speak (I know) of “the febrile Library, whose hazardous volumes run the constant risk of being changed into others and in which everything is affirmed, denied, and confused as by a divinity in delirium.” These words, which not only denounce disorder but exemplify it as well, manifestly demonstrate the bad taste of the speakers and their desperate ignorance. Actually, the Library includes all verbal structures, all the variations allowed by the twenty-five orthographic symbols, but it does not permit of one absolute absurdity. It is pointless to observe that the best book in the numerous hexagons under my administration is entitled Combed Clap of Thunder; or that another is called The Plaster Cramp; and still another Axaxaxas Mlö. Such propositions as are contained in these titles, at first sight incoherent, doubtless yield a cryptographic or allegorical justification. Since they are verbal, these justifications already figure, ex hypothesi, in the Library. I cannot combine certain letters, as dhcmrlchtdj, which the divine Library has not already foreseen in combination, and which in one of its secret languages does not encompass some terrible meaning. No one can articulate a syllable which is not full of tenderness and fear, and which is not, in one of those languages, the powerful name of some god. To speak is to fall into tautologies. This useless and wordy epistle itself already exists in one of the thirty volumes of the five shelves in one of the uncountable hexagons—and so does its refutation. (An n number of possible languages makes use of the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library admits of the correct definition ubiquitous and everlasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or anything else, and the seven words which define it possess another value. You who read me, are you sure you understand my language?)


Afirman los impíos que el disparate es normal en la Biblioteca y que lo razonable (yaun la humilde y pura coherencia) es una casi milagrosa excepción. Hablan (lo sé) de «la Biblioteca febril, cuyos azarosos volúmenes corren el incesante albur de cambiarse en otros y que todo lo afirman, lo niegan y lo confunden como una divinidad que delira». Esas palabras que no sólo denuncian el desorden sino que lo ejemplifican también, notoriamente prueban su gusto pésimo y su desesperada ignorancia. En efecto, la Biblioteca incluye todas las estructuras verbales, todas las variaciones que permiten los veinticinco símbolos ortográficos, pero no un solo disparate absoluto. Inútil observar que el mejor volumen de los muchos hexágonos que administro se titula «Trueno peinado», y otro «El calambre de yeso» y otro «Axaxaxas mlo». Esas proposiciones, a primera vista incoherentes, sin duda son capaces de una justificación criptográfica o alegórica; esa justificación es verbal y, ex hypothesi, ya figura en la Biblioteca. No puedo combinar unos caracteres dhcmrlchtdj que la divina Biblioteca no haya previsto y que en alguna de sus lenguas secretas no encierren un terrible sentido. Nadie puede articular una sílaba que no esté llena de ternuras y de temores; que no sea en alguno de esos lenguajes el nombre poderoso de un dios. Hablar es incurrir en tautologías. Esta epístola inútil y palabrera ya existe en uno de los treinta volúmenes de los cinco anaqueles de uno de los incontables hexágonos, y también su refutación. (Un número n de lenguajes posibles usa el mismo vocabulario; en algunos, el símbolo biblioteca admite la correcta definición ubicuo y perdurable sistema de galerías hexagonales, pero biblioteca es pan o pirámide o cualquier otra cosa, y las siete palabras que la definen tienen otro valor. Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?).

Judicial error does not exist

From Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal Danger (Il Contesto), the opening of a speech by the President of the Supreme Court that I find the (not-so)secret core of the novel and that maybe best explains Sciascia’s concluding comment in the afterword – ‘Lastly, I should add that I kept this fable in a drawer in my desk for more than two years. Why? I don’t know, but this could be one explanation: I began to write it with amusement, and as I was finishing it I was no longer amused.’

“Have you ever thought about the problem of passing judgment on a man?” For a moment, he threw himself back in his chair, as if he were in the throes of death because of that problem.
“Constantly,” Rogas said.
“Have you solved it?”
“No.”
“Exactly, you have not solved it…. I have, obviously…. But not once and for all, not definitively … Here and now, speaking with you, and mindful of the next case whose outcome I shall have to preside over, I can even say I have not solved it. But, mind you, I am speaking of the next case. Not about the case that has just ended for me or about a case from ten or twenty or thirty years ago. For all the cases in the past, I solved the problem, always; and I solved it by the very fact of judging them, in the act of judging them…. You are a practicing Catholic?”
“No.”
“But Catholic?”
Rogas made a gesture that signified: like everyone else. And in fact he did believe that all men everywhere were a little bit Catholic.
“Of course, like everyone else,” the President inter­preted correctly. Assuming the posture of a priest at catechism: “Let us take, well, the Mass, the mystery of transubstantiation, the bread and the wine that become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. The priest may even be unworthy in his personal life, in his thoughts. But the fact that he has been ordained means that at each celebration of the Mass the mystery is com­pleted. Never, I say never, can it happen that the transub­stantiation not take place. And so it is with a judge when he celebrates the law: justice cannot not be revealed, not transubstantiated, not completed. A judge may torment himself, wear himself out, tell himself, ‘You are un­worthy; you are full of meanness, burdened by passions, confused in your ideas, liable to every weakness and every error’—but in the moment when he celebrates the law, he is so no longer. And much less so afterward. Can you imagine a priest who, after celebrating Mass, says to himself, ‘Who knows if the transubstantiation took place this time, too?’ There’s no doubt; it did take place. Most assuredly. I would even say inevitably. Think of that priest who was seized by doubt and who, at the moment of the consecration, discovered blood on his vestments. I can say this: no judgment has ever bloodied my hands, has ever stained my robes….”
Without meaning to, Rogas made a sound much like a groan. The President looked at him with disgust. And as in a fireworks display, when everything seems to be over, in the stunned silence and darkness one more lumi­nous, elaborate, and thunderous rocket explodes, Riches said, “Naturally, I am not a Catholic. Naturally, I am not even a Christian.”
“Naturally,” Rogas echoed. And indeed he was not surprised.
The President was disappointed and irritated, like someone who has just performed a magic turn only to have a child jump up and say he has understood the trick. With a note of hysteria, he proclaimed, “Judicial error does not exist.”
“But the different levels of courts, the possibility of petitions, of appeals—” Rogas objected.
“—postulate, you mean to say, the possibility of error. But this is not so. They postulate merely an opinion—let us call it a lay opinion—about justice, about the adminis­tration of justice. An outside opinion. Now, when a reli­gion begins to take lay opinion into account, it is already dead even if it doesn’t know it. And so it is with justice, with the administration of justice. I use the term ‘ad­ministration’ to please you, clearly, and without granting it the slightest statutory or bureaucratic meaning.”

Bad books as food wrappings, part 2

A while back I made a post about bad books as food wrappings. A reference in John Webster’s To the Reader in his The White Devil reminded me that I’ve since found several other examples of the same idea.

Martial, Epigrams 4.86. Webster includes the Latin of the first two bolded lines in his address. The ‘tiresome tunic’ (tunica molesta) was a shirt smeared with pitch or some other highly flammable material that those condemned to execution by fire were forced to wear.

If you wish to be approved by Attic ears, little book, I urge and admonish you to please learned Apollinaris. None more meticulous and erudite, but none more benevolent and kind. If he holds you in his heart and on his lips, you will not fear the sneers of the ill-disposed nor supply mackerel with “tiresome tunics.” If he damns you, you may as well run straight to the bookcases of the saltfishmongers, fit for schoolboys to plough your backside.


Si vis auribus Atticis probari,
exhortor moneoque te, libelle,
ut docto placeas Apollinari.
nil exactius eruditiusque est,
sed nec candidius benigniusque.
si te pectore, si tenebit ore,
nec rhonchos metues maligniorum,
nec scombris tunicas dabis molestas.

si damnaverit, ad salariorum
curras scrinia protinus licebit,
inversa pueris arande charta

An earlier instance from Martial, 3.2

Whose present do you wish to be, little book? Hurry to find yourself a protector, lest hustled off to a sooty kitchen you wrap sprats in your sodden papyrus or become a cowl for incense or pepper. Do you fly to Faustinus’ bosom? You are wise. Now you may walk oiled with cedar, your twin brows handsomely adorned, 2 luxuriating in your painted bosses, clothed in dainty purple, your proud title blushing scarlet. With him to protect you, have no fear of Probus himself.


Cuius vis fieri, libelle, munus?
festina tibi vindicem parare,
ne nigram cito raptus in culinam
cordylas madida tegas papyro
vel turis piperisve sis cucullus.

Faustini fugis in sinum? sapisti.
cedro nunc licet ambules perunctus
et frontis gemino decens honore
pictis luxurieris umbilicis,
et te purpura delicata velet,
et cocco rubeat superbus index.
illo vindice nec Probum timeto.

And a later, more indirect version from 6.61 (citing only the relevant lines here):

How many good poets are food for moths and bookworms, and only cooks buy their accomplished verses!

quam multi tineas pascunt blattasque diserti,
et redimunt soli carmina docta coci!

And my last find, from Statius’ Silvae 4.9 (citing only the opening lines here):

JESTING HENDECASYLLABICS TO PLOTIUS GRYPUS
A joke on your part, to be sure, Grypus, to send me a little book in return for a little book! But it can be thought amusing only if you were to send me a follow-up. For if you go on jesting, Grypus, it’s no jest! Look, let’s reckon up. Mine is purple, fresh paper, with a pair of handsome bosses.1 Besides myself,2 it cost me a ten-as piece. But yours! Moth eaten and moldering, like the sheets that soak up Libyan olives or keep Nile incense or pepper or cook Byzantine tunny.


HENDECASYLLABI IOCOSI AD PLOTIUM GRYPUM
Est sane iocus iste, quod libellum
misisti mihi, Grype, pro libello.
urbanum tamen hoc potest videri
si post hoc aliquid mihi remittas.
5nam si ludere, Grype, perseveras,
non ludis. licet ecce computemus.
noster purpureus novusque charta
et binis decoratus umbilicis
praeter me mihi constitit decussis:
tu rosum tineis situque putrem,
quales aut Libycis madent olivis
aut tus Niliacum piperve servant
aut Byzantiacos cocunt lacerto
s,

And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad

From Arthur Machen’s The White People. The Maupassant tale referenced at bottom is Qui sait? collected in L’inutile Beauté (French towards the bottom or English).

‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘you interest me immensely? You think, then, that we do not understand the real nature of evil?’

‘No, I don’t think we do. We over-estimate it and we under-estimate it. We take the very numerous infractions of our social “bye-laws” — the very necessary and very proper regulations which keep the human company together — and we get frightened at the prevalence of “sin” and “evil.” But this is really nonsense. Take theft, for example. Have you any horror at the thought of Robin Hood, of the Highland caterans of the seventeenth century, of the moss-troopers, of the company promoters of our day?

‘Then, on the other hand, we underrate evil. We attach such an enormous importance to the “sin” of meddling with our pockets (and our wives) that we have quite forgotten the awfulness of real sin.’

‘And what is sin?’ said Cotgrave.

‘I think I must reply to your question by another. What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?

‘Well, these examples may give you some notion of what sin really is.’

‘Look here,’ said the third man, hitherto placid, ‘you two seem pretty well wound up. But I’m going home. I’ve missed my tram, and I shall have to walk.’

Ambrose and Cotgrave seemed to settle down more profoundly when the other had gone out into the early misty morning and the pale light of the lamps.

‘You astonish me,’ said Cotgrave. ‘I had never thought of that. If that is really so, one must turn everything upside down. Then the essence of sin really is —— ’

‘In the taking of heaven by storm, it seems to me,’ said Ambrose. ‘It appears to me that it is simply an attempt to penetrate into another and a higher sphere in a forbidden manner. You can understand why it is so rare. They are few, indeed, who wish to penetrate into other spheres, higher or lower, in ways allowed or forbidden. Men, in the mass, are amply content with life as they find it. Therefore there are few saints, and sinners (in the proper sense) are fewer still, and men of genius, who partake sometimes of each character, are rare also. Yes; on the whole, it is, perhaps, harder to be a great sinner than a great saint.’



‘Your psychology is very strange to me,’ said Cotgrave, ‘but I confess I like it, and I suppose that one might fairly deduce from your premisses the conclusion that the real sinner might very possibly strike the observer as a harmless personage enough?’

‘Certainly; because the true evil has nothing to do with social life or social laws, or if it has, only incidentally and accidentally. It is a lonely passion of the soul — or a passion of the lonely soul — whichever you like. If, by chance, we understand it, and grasp its full significance, then, indeed, it will fill us with horror and with awe. But this emotion is widely distinguished from the fear and the disgust with which we regard the ordinary criminal, since this latter is largely or entirely founded on the regard which we have for our own skins or purses. We hate a murderer, because we know that we should hate to be murdered, or to have any one that we like murdered. So, on the “other side,” we venerate the saints, but we don’t “like” them as we like our friends. Can you persuade yourself that you would have “enjoyed” St Paul’s company? Do you think that you and I would have “got on” with Sir Galahad?

‘So with the sinners, as with the saints. If you met a very evil man, and recognized his evil; he would, no doubt, fill you with horror and awe; but there is no reason why you should “dislike” him. On the contrary, it is quite possible that if you could succeed in putting the sin out of your mind you might find the sinner capital company, and in a little while you might have to reason yourself back into horror. Still, how awful it is. If the roses and the lilies suddenly sang on this coming morning; if the furniture began to move in procession, as in De Maupassant’s tale!’