Fancy with fact is just one fact the more

From Robert Browning’s The Ring and The Book (1.451-526), the narrator responding to an imagined reader’s question about the nature of the poem’s tale.

“A pretty piece of narrative enough,
“Which scarce ought so to drop out, one would think,
“From the more curious annals of our kind.
“Do you tell the story, now, in off-hand style,
“Straight from the book? Or simply here and there,
“(The while you vault it through the loose and large)
“Hang to a hint? Or is there book at all,
“And don’t you deal in poetry, make-believe,
“And the white lies it sounds like?”

Yes and no!
From the book, yes; thence bit by bit I dug
The lingot truth, that memorable day,
Assayed and knew my piecemeal gain was gold,—
Yes; but from something else surpassing that,
Something of mine which, mixed up with the mass,
Made it bear hammer and be firm to file.
Fancy with fact is just one fact the more;
To-wit, that fancy has informed, transpierced,
Thridded and so thrown fast the facts else free,
As right through ring and ring runs the djereed
And binds the loose, one bar without a break.
I fused my live soul and that inert stuff,
Before attempting smithcraft, on the night
After the day when,—truth thus grasped and gained,—
The book was shut and done with and laid by
On the cream-coloured massive agate, broad
‘Neath the twin cherubs in the tarnished frame
O’ the mirror, tall thence to the ceiling-top.
And from the reading, and that slab I leant
My elbow on, the while I read and read,
I turned, to free myself and find the world,
And stepped out on the narrow terrace, built
Over the street and opposite the church,
And paced its lozenge-brickwork sprinkled cool;
Because Felice-church-side stretched, a-glow
Through each square window fringed for festival,
Whence came the clear voice of the cloistered ones
Chanting a chant made for midsummer nights—
I know not what particular praise of God,
It always came and went with June. Beneath
I’ the street, quick shown by openings of the sky
When flame fell silently from cloud to cloud,
Richer than that gold snow Jove rained on Rhodes,
The townsmen walked by twos and threes, and talked,
Drinking the blackness in default of air—
A busy human sense beneath my feet:
While in and out the terrace-plants, and round
One branch of tall datura, waxed and waned
The lamp-fly lured there, wanting the white flower.
Over the roof o’ the lighted church I looked
A bowshot to the street’s end, north away
Out of the Roman gate to the Roman road
By the river, till I felt the Apennine.
And there would lie Arezzo, the man’s town,
The woman’s trap and cage and torture-place,
Also the stage where the priest played his part,
A spectacle for angels,—ay, indeed,
There lay Arezzo! Farther then I fared,
Feeling my way on through the hot and dense,
Romeward, until I found the wayside inn
By Castelnuovo’s few mean hut-like homes
Huddled together on the hill-foot bleak,
Bare, broken only by that tree or two
Against the sudden bloody splendour poured
Cursewise in day’s departure by the sun
O’er the low house-roof of that squalid inn
Where they three, for the first time and the last,
Husband and wife and priest, met face to face.
Whence I went on again, the end was near,
Step by step, missing none and marking all,
Till Rome itself, the ghastly goal, I reached.
Why, all the while,—how could it otherwise?—
The life in me abolished the death of things,
Deep calling unto deep: as then and there
Acted itself over again once more
The tragic piece. I saw with my own eyes
In Florence as I trod the terrace, breathed
The beauty and the fearfulness of night,
How it had run, this round from Rome to Rome—

Symbolic and serial perception

From Byung-Chul Han’s The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present.

Symbolic perception is gradually being replaced by a serial perception that is incapable of producing the experience of duration. Serial perception, the constant registering of the new, does not linger. Rather, it rushes from one piece of information to the next, from one experience to the next, from one sensation to the next, without ever coming to closure. Watching film series is so popular today because they conform to the habit of serial perception. At the level of media consumption, this habit leads to binge watching, to comatose viewing. While symbolic perception is intensive, serial perception is extensive. Because of its extensiveness, serial perception is characterized by shallow attention. Intensity is giving way everywhere to extensity. Digital communication is extensive communication; it does not establish relationships, only connections.

The neoliberal regime pushes serial perception, reinforces the serial habitus. It intentionally abolishes duration in order to drive more consumption. The permanent process of updating, which has now extended to all areas of life, does not permit the development of any duration or allow for any completion. The everpresent compulsion of production leads to a de-housing [Enthausung], making life more contingent, transient and unstable. But dwelling requires duration.

Attention deficit disorder results from a pathological intensification of serial perception. Perception is never at rest: it has lost the capacity to linger. The cultural technique of deep attention emerged precisely out of ritual and religious practices. It is no accident that ‘religion’ is derived from relegere: to take note. Every religious practice is an exercise in attention. A temple is a place of the highest degree of attention. According to Malebranche, attention is the natural prayer of the soul. Today, the soul does not pray. It is permanently producing itself.

The crying need of our modern civilisation

From The Feast of Nemesis, in Saki’s Beasts and Super-Beasts:

“The trouble is,” said Clovis to his aunt, “all these days of intrusive remembrance harp so persistently on one aspect of human nature and entirely ignore the other; that is why they become so perfunctory and artificial.  At Christmas and New Year you are emboldened and encouraged by convention to send gushing messages of optimistic goodwill and servile affection to people whom you would scarcely ask to lunch unless some one else had failed you at the last moment; if you are supping at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve you are permitted and expected to join hands and sing ‘For Auld Lang Syne’ with strangers whom you have never seen before and never want to see again.  But no licence is allowed in the opposite direction.”

“Opposite direction; what opposite direction?” queried Mrs. Thackenbury.

“There is no outlet for demonstrating your feelings towards people whom you simply loathe.  That is really the crying need of our modern civilisation.  Just think how jolly it would be if a recognised day were set apart for the paying off of old scores and grudges, a day when one could lay oneself out to be gracefully vindictive to a carefully treasured list of ‘people who must not be let off.’  I remember when I was at a private school we had one day, the last Monday of the term I think it was, consecrated to the settlement of feuds and grudges; of course we did not appreciate it as much as it deserved, because, after all, any day of the term could be used for that purpose.  Still, if one had chastised a smaller boy for being cheeky weeks before, one was always permitted on that day to recall the episode to his memory by chastising him again.  That is what the French call reconstructing the crime.”

“I should call it reconstructing the punishment,” said Mrs. Thackenbury; “and, anyhow, I don’t see how you could introduce a system of primitive schoolboy vengeance into civilised adult life.  We haven’t outgrown our passions, but we are supposed to have learned how to keep them within strictly decorous limits.”

“Of course the thing would have to be done furtively and politely,” said Clovis; “the charm of it would be that it would never be perfunctory like the other thing.  Now, for instance, you say to yourself: ‘I must show the Webleys some attention at Christmas, they were kind to dear Bertie at Bournemouth,’ and you send them a calendar, and daily for six days after Christmas the male Webley asks the female Webley if she has remembered to thank you for the calendar you sent them.  Well, transplant that idea to the other and more human side of your nature, and say to yourself: ‘Next Thursday is Nemesis Day; what on earth can I do to those odious people next door who made such an absurd fuss when Ping Yang bit their youngest child?’  Then you’d get up awfully early on the allotted day and climb over into their garden and dig for truffles on their tennis court with a good gardening fork, choosing, of course, that part of the court that was screened from observation by the laurel bushes.  You wouldn’t find any truffles but you would find a great peace, such as no amount of present-giving could ever bestow.”

“I shouldn’t,” said Mrs. Thackenbury, though her air of protest sounded a bit forced; “I should feel rather a worm for doing such a thing.”

“You exaggerate the power of upheaval which a worm would be able to bring into play in the limited time available,” said Clovis; “if you put in a strenuous ten minutes with a really useful fork, the result ought to suggest the operations of an unusually masterful mole or a badger in a hurry.”

“They might guess I had done it,” said Mrs. Thackenbury.

“Of course they would,” said Clovis; “that would be half the satisfaction of the thing, just as you like people at Christmas to know what presents or cards you’ve sent them.

The Schartz-Metterklume Method

From Saki’s The Schartz-Metterklume Method in his Beasts and Super-Beasts. One Lady Carlotta is mistaken for a family’s new governess and goes along with the error.

Mr. Quabarl made a welcome diversion by asking what studies the new instructress proposed to inaugurate on the morrow.

“History to begin with,” she informed him.

“Ah, history,” he observed sagely; “now in teaching them history you must take care to interest them in what they learn.  You must make them feel that they are being introduced to the life-stories of men and women who really lived—”

“I’ve told her all that,” interposed Mrs. Quabarl.

“I teach history on the Schartz-Metterklume method,” said the governess loftily.

“Ah, yes,” said her listeners, thinking it expedient to assume an acquaintance at least with the name.

* * * * *

“What are you children doing out here?” demanded Mrs. Quabarl the next morning, on finding Irene sitting rather glumly at the head of the stairs, while her sister was perched in an attitude of depressed discomfort on the window-seat behind her, with a wolf-skin rug almost covering her.

“We are having a history lesson,” came the unexpected reply.  “I am supposed to be Rome, and Viola up there is the she-wolf; not a real wolf, but the figure of one that the Romans used to set store by—I forget why.  Claude and Wilfrid have gone to fetch the shabby women.”

“The shabby women?”

“Yes, they’ve got to carry them off.  They didn’t want to, but Miss Hope got one of father’s fives-bats and said she’d give them a number nine spanking if they didn’t, so they’ve gone to do it.”

A loud, angry screaming from the direction of the lawn drew Mrs. Quabarl thither in hot haste, fearful lest the threatened castigation might even now be in process of infliction.  The outcry, however, came principally from the two small daughters of the lodge-keeper, who were being hauled and pushed towards the house by the panting and dishevelled Claude and Wilfrid, whose task was rendered even more arduous by the incessant, if not very effectual, attacks of the captured maidens’ small brother.  The governess, fives-bat in hand, sat negligently on the stone balustrade, presiding over the scene with the cold impartiality of a Goddess of Battles.  A furious and repeated chorus of “I’ll tell muvver” rose from the lodge-children, but the lodge-mother, who was hard of hearing, was for the moment immersed in the preoccupation of her washtub.

After an apprehensive glance in the direction of the lodge (the good woman was gifted with the highly militant temper which is sometimes the privilege of deafness) Mrs. Quabarl flew indignantly to the rescue of the struggling captives.

“Wilfrid!  Claude!  Let those children go at once.  Miss Hope, what on earth is the meaning of this scene?”

“Early Roman history; the Sabine Women, don’t you know?  It’s the Schartz-Metterklume method to make children understand history by acting it themselves; fixes it in their memory, you know.  Of course, if, thanks to your interference, your boys go through life thinking that the Sabine women ultimately escaped, I really cannot be held responsible.”

I am like a messenger carrying a sealed letter to its appointed place

From Friedrich von Schiller’s unfinished The Man Who Sees Ghosts (Der Geisterseher):

“Oh, stop that cloud picture dissolving for me and I will fling my burning arms about it. What joy can come from giving my blessing to visions which, like me, will be gone tomorrow?—Is not everything around me transient? Everything is thrusting forward, pushing its neighbour out of the way in order hastily to drink a drop from the well of life and then move on still parched. At this very moment now when I rejoice in my strength there is already a life somewhere in the making whose task it is to destroy me. Show me something that endures and I will be virtuous.”

“What has driven out those wholesome desires that were once the pleasure and guiding principles of your life—to sow seeds for the future, to serve a higher, eternal order—?”

“The future! Eternal order! If you take away what man has drawn out of his own feelings, imputing purpose to his imagined god and laws to nature, what do we then have left?—I see what has preceded me and what will follow me as two black and impenetrable curtains hanging down at either end of the limits of human life, and which no mortal has ever drawn back. Generations upon generations have stood before them with flaming torches trying to guess what might perhaps be behind them. Many see their own shadows, the shapes of their own passions enlarged and moving over the curtain of the future, and these start back in fear at this picture of themselves. Poets, philosophers and great statesmen have painted them with their dreams, joyful or dark, according to whether the sky above them was grimmer or brighter; and from far away the perspective was misleading. Many a charlatan, too, has battened on this universal curiosity and, by means of strange masquerades, set people’s eager fantasies alight with amazement. A deep silence reigns behind this curtain; no-one, once they are behind it, calls out in answer; all that was ever heard was a hollow echo of the question, as if one had cried out in a vault. Everyone must pass behind this curtain and they clutch at it in fear, uncertain as to who might be standing behind it and who will be there to receive them; quid sit id, quod tantum perituri vident. Among these, for sure, have been unbelievers, too, who maintained that this curtain made fools of men merely and that nothing had been seen because, behind it, nothing in fact was there; but in order to convince them, others sent them swiftly through.”

“Having no better reason than that they could see nothing was always a hasty conclusion to come to.”

“And now, my friend, you see, I have happily resigned myself to not wishing to look behind this curtain, and the wisest action will be to wean me from all curiosity. But as I draw this circle about me that I cannot step out of and enclose my whole existence in the confines of the present, so this little spot that I was in danger of neglecting through vain thoughts of mastery becomes all the more important to me. What you call the purpose of my existence is now no longer of any concern to me. I cannot escape it, I cannot further it, but I know and firmly believe that I must and do fulfill such a purpose. I am like a messenger carrying a sealed letter to its appointed place. What the letter contains does not matter to him—he has only to earn his fee for its delivery.”

The Latin is from Tacitus’ Germania ch.40, on the Langobardi (Lombards). There’s a slightly different reading in modern editions – quid sit illud instead of quid sit id – but I’m not sure whether the quoted version is due to Schiller’s text or his memory.

There is nothing noteworthy about these peoples individually, but they are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, or mother Earth. They believe that she interests herself in human affairs and rides among their peoples. In an island of the Ocean stands a sacred grove, and in the grove a consecrated cart, draped with a cloth, which none but the priest may touch. The priest perceives the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies and attends her, in deepest reverence, as her cart is drawn by heifers. Then follow days of rejoicing and merry-making in every place that she deigns to visit and be entertained. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every object of iron is locked away; then, and only then, are peace and quiet known and loved, until the priest again restores the goddess to her temple, when she has had her fill of human company. After that, the cart, the cloth and, if you care to believe it, the goddess herself are washed clean in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and a pious reluctance to ask what that sight can be that only those doomed to die may see.

Serendipity, a very expressive word

From Horace Walpole’s January 28, 1754 letter to Horace Mann, describing the background of a heraldry-related discovery. This passage is the first instance of the word serendipity.

This discovery I made by a talisman, which Mr. Chute calls the sortes Walpolianae, by which I find everything I want, a pointe nommee [at the very moment], wherever I dip for it. This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called the three Princes of Serendip: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand Serendipity? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon’s, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.

I’m reading Robert Merton (of On the Shoulders of Giants fame) and Elinor Barber’s The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science and the most (personally) interesting aspect of the word’s history is its early adoption in bibliophilic circles for the feel of small but vital delight when you unexpectedly meet a work you’d earlier sought but hadn’t found or, for me, one you hadn’t even realized you’d been wanting.

This compulsion to understand seems to me like a stigma

The next to last chapter of Christa Wolf’s Medea, a retelling of the title character’s life from Colchis to Corinth. The speaker here is Leukon, Corinth’s second astronomer.

Here they come leaping out again, my constellations. How I hate these dreary repetitions. How loathsome all this is to me. I cannot say that to anyone, but it is also the case that there is no longer anyone who would want to hear it. So I sit here alone and drink wine and watch the movements of the stars. And I must see the images again and again, whether I want to or not, must hear the voices that haunt me. I did not know what a human being could endure. Now I sit here, obliged to tell myself that it is this ability to bear what is unbearable and to go on living, to go on doing what one is used to doing—it is this uncanny ability that the existence of the human species is based on. If I said this previously, I did so in the words of a spectator, for a man is a spectator as long as there is no other person close to him, as long as no one else’s misfortune can break his heart. Of all the unnamed stars in the heavens, I have named the brightest one Arethusa, and every time it sets in the western sky, as it is doing now, I feel the same pain. Among all these distant worlds I am alone in my world, and I like it less the better I know it. And understand it, I cannot deny that. As much as I search my heart, and as little as I wish to admit what that search reveals, I cannot find that there was a single one of the recent atrocities—and I was a witness to them—where I did not understand both sides. Not that I excuse them, no, but I understand. Humans in their blindness. This compulsion to understand seems to me like a stigma that I cannot get rid of and that isolates me from other people. Medea knew about such things.

How can I forget that last look she cast toward me as the two guards who were holding her by the arms expelled her from my city of Corinth through the southern gate, after she had been led, as is customary with scapegoats, through the city streets, which were lined by a hate-frothing, screaming, spitting, fist-shaking mob? And I (who would believe me?), I felt something like envy for this dirty, besmirched, exhausted woman, who was banished from the city with a shove from the guards and a curse from the High Priest. Envy, because she, the innocent victim, was free from inner conflict. Because the rift did not run through her, but gaped between her and those who had slandered and condemned her, who drove her through the city, insulted her, spat upon her. So that she could pick herself up out of the filth into which they had shoved her, could raise her arms toward Corinth and with all that remained of her voice announce that Corinth is doomed. Those of us who were standing near the gate heard this threat and walked without speaking back into the deathly still city, which seemed empty to me without the woman. But together with the burden that Medea’s fate laid upon my heart, I felt pity for the Corinthians, these pathetic, misguided wretches, who could not otherwise free themselves from their fear of the plague and of the ominous signs in the heavens and of hunger and of the palace’s encroachment upon their lives than by shifting their fear onto that woman. Everything is so transparent, everything is so clear and obvious, it can make one crazy.

What good is counting others’ treasures

From Yung-chia‘s Song of Enlightenment, in Red Pine/Bill Porter’s translation.

I learned a lot when I was young
I read sutras and shastra and studied commentaries
the names and terms never seemed to end
like counting sand in the sea it was such a waste of effort

Scolded by the Tathagata
what good is counting others’ treasures
I realized all my efforts had been in vain
all the years I had wasted braving dust and wind

Misguided from the start my understanding wrong
I didn’t know how the Buddha’s sudden teaching worked
why devotees of lesser paths didn’t see the Way
why unbelievers might be smart but not wise

They’re so foolish so stupid
pointing to their palm to explain what’s real
mistaking a finger for the moon
turning objects of the senses into ghost stories

Who doesn’t see a thing is a tathagata
hence the name Looking from on High
those who understand are free of karmic burdens
those who don’t still have old debts to pay
a hunger that keeps them from sharing a royal meal
a sickness even a great physician can’t cure

To meditate despite desire is the power of prajna
why a lotus isn’t burned in a fire
Yung-shih committed crimes then realized nothing is born
he became a buddha and is still one today

When the Lion roars its fearless teaching
it pities confused obstinate fools
who only see offenses that prevent buddhahood
blind to the secret the Tathagata revealed

Two monks were guilty of crimes
so judged Upali with his firefly light
Layman Vimalakirti dismissed their doubts
as if the sun melted the snow