But one means worship and the other means washing, and that is the distinction

From Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature (full text here), a pseudo-dialogue in six parts structured in imitation of Coleridge’s ‘cyclical mode of discoursing’ – argumentation through amplifying and refining repetition – and attempting to define how to distinguish ‘fine literature’ from everything else.

I am glad it strikes you as a big question: to me it seems the question, the question which covers the final dogma of literary criticism. Of course after we have answered this prerogative riddle, there will be other questions, almost without end, classes, and sub-classes of infinite analysis. But this will be detail; while the question I have propounded is the question of first principles; it marks the parting of two ways, and in a manner, it asks itself not only of literature, but of life, but of philosophy, but of religion. What is the line, then; the mark of division which is to separate spoken, or written, or printed thought into two great genera?

Well, as you may have guessed, I have my solution, and I like it none the less, because the word of the enigma seems to me actually but a single word. Yes, for me the answer comes with the one word, Ecstasy. If ecstasy be present, then I say there is fine literature, if it be absent, then, in spite of all the cleverness, all the talents, all the workmanship and observation and dexterity you may show me, then, I think, we have a product (possibly a very interesting one), which is not fine literature.

Of course you will allow me to contradict myself, or rather, to amplify myself before we begin to discuss the matter fully. I said my answer was the word, ecstasy; I still say so, but I may remark that I have chosen this word as the representative of many. Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown. All and each will convey what I mean; for some particular case one term may be more appropriate than another, but in every case there will be that withdrawal from the common life and the common consciousness which justifies my choice of “ecstasy” as the best symbol of my meaning. I claim, then, that here we have the touchstone which will infallibly separate the higher from the lower in literature, which will range the innumerable multitude of books in two great divisions, which can be applied with equal justice to a Greek drama, an eighteenth century novelist, and a modern poet, to an epic in twelve books, and to a lyric in twelve lines.


 “Here is a temple, here is a tub,” we may suppose a child to say, learning from a picture-alphabet; but the temple may be a miserably designed structure, in ruinous condition, and the tub is, perhaps, a miracle of excellent workmanship. But one means worship and the other means washing, and that is the distinction.

And continuing the thought in section 3:

This, then, is the fourfold work of literature, and if you want to be perfect you must be perfect in each part. Art must inspire and shape each and all, but only the first, the Idea, is pure art; with Plot, and Construction, and Style there is an alloy of artifice. If then any given book can be shown to proceed from an Idea, it is to be placed in the class of literature, in the shelf of the “Odyssey” as I think I once expressed it. It may be placed very high in the class; the more it have of rapture in its every part, the higher it will be: or, it may be placed very low, because, for example, having once admired the Conception, the dream that came to the author from the other world, we are forced to admit that the Story or Plot was feebly imagined, that the Construction was clumsily carried out, that the Style is, æsthetically, non-existent. You will notice that I am never afraid of blaming my favourites, of finding fault with the books which I most adore. I can do so freely and without fear of consequences, since having once applied my test, and having found that “Pickwick,” for example, is literature, I am not in the least afraid that I shall be compelled to eat my words if flaws in plot and style and construction are afterwards made apparent. The statue is gold; we have settled that much, and we need not fear that it will turn into lead, if we find that the graving and carving is poor enough. Once be sure that your temple is a temple, and I will warrant you against it being suddenly transmuted into a tub, through the discovery of scamped workmanship.

I like Machen’s theory more than some of his application of it – as when it leads to dismissing Austen and George Eliot. He doesn’t pretend to a fixed definition of ecstasy, but we do get a firm sense of what he thinks it isn’t. And from that it feels like he doesn’t allow for its relativity (or that of its various stand-in semi-synonyms). More critically, you could also point out that all he does is shift the argument up a layer of abstraction – from ‘is this fine literature?’ to ‘does this contain elements of ecstasy?’

A Tantalus of letters

From Miguel de Cervantes’ Novel of the Glass Lawyer (Novela del licenciado Vidriera):

In the crowded circle of people who, as we have said, were always listening to him, was an acquaintance of his in a lawyer’s cassock and cloak whom someone called Señor Licentiate. And since Vidriera knew that the man did not even have a bachelor’s degree, he said to him:

“Be careful, compadre, that the friars who redeem captives don’t find your diploma, because they’ll take it from you as common property.”

To which his friend responded:

“Let us treat each other nicely, Señor Vidriera, for you already know I am a man of high and profound letters.”

Vidriera replied:

“I know you are a Tantalus of letters, because some get away from you because they are too high and you cannot reach the profound ones.”

En la rueda de la mucha gente que, como se ha dicho, siempre le estaba oyendo, estaba un conocido suyo en hábito de letrado, al cual otro le llamóSeñor Licenciado; y, sabiendo Vidriera que el tal a quien llamaron licenciado no tenía ni aun título de bachiller, le dijo:

-Guardaos, compadre, no encuentren con vuestro título los frailes de la redempción de cautivos, que os le llevarán por mostrenco.

A lo cual dijo el amigo:

-Tratémonos bien, señor Vidriera, pues ya sabéis vos que soy hombre de altas y de profundas letras.

Respondióle Vidriera:

-Ya yo sé que sois un Tántalo en ellas, porque se os van por altas y no las alcanzáis de profundas.

Day of deep students, most contentful night

From Hymnus in Noctem in George Chapman’s The Shadow of Night. This excerpt is from an old edition edited by Charles Algernon Swinburne (available here, poem beginning on page 89). There’s also a more recent Poems of George Chapman by Phyllis Bartlett.

And as when hosts of stars attend thy flight,
Day of deep students, most contentful night,
The morning (mounted on the Muses’ steed)
Ushers the sun from Vulcan’s golden bed,
And then from forth their sundry roofs of rest,
All sorts of men, to sorted tasks address’d,
Spread this inferior element, and yield
Labour his due : the soldier to the field,
Statesmen to council, judges to their pleas.
Merchants to commerce, mariners to seas :
All beasts, and birds, the groves and forests range,
To fill all corners of this round Exchange,
Till thou (dear Night, O goddess of most worth)
Lett’st thy sweet seas of golden humour forth ;
And eagle-like dost with thy starry wings
Beat in the fowls and beasts to Somnus lodgings
And haughty Day to the infernal deep,
Proclaiming silence, study, ease, and sleep.
All things before thy forces put in rout.
Retiring where the morning fired them out.

He hasn’t even seen her face

I was reading Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms last week and was struck throughout by the main subject’s unconscious insistence on literalizing as his main reading/interpretational strategy. Today I’ve been reading my university’s copy of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling and find that I’ve been preceded by someone with an almost equally strong literalizing tendency. Their marginal commentary was kept up throughout and by the end passed from annoying to accidental Mystery Science Theater. Here are some highlights:

Act 3, Quieting Dead Metaphors

Act IV, The Spatial Poetics of Obscurity

Act V, Unmasking Metaphors: Reading Radical Literalism in Jacobean Tragedy

And two bonuses – because no modern academic reading is complete without finding ‘fallic’ (sic) imagery or pointing out performativity.

Mundus vult decipi

From Jame Branch Cabell’s Figures of Earth, the first (narrative) volume of Cabell’s Biography of the Life of Manuel series.

Thereafter the florid young Count of Poictesme rode east, on a tall dappled horse, and a retinue of six lackeys in silver and black liveries came cantering after him, and the two foremost lackeys carried in knapsacks, marked with a gold coronet, the images which Dom Manuel had made. A third lackey carried Dom Manuel’s shield, upon which were emblazoned the arms of Poictesme. The black shield displayed a silver stallion which was rampant in every member and was bridled with gold, but the ancient arms had been given a new motto.

“What means this Greek?” Dom Manuel had asked.

Mundus decipit, Count,” they told him, “is the old pious motto of Poictesme: it signifies that the affairs of this world are a vain fleeting show, and that terrestrial appearances are nowhere of any particular importance.”

“Then your motto is green inexperience,” said Manuel, “and for me to bear it would be black ingratitude.”

So the writing had been changed in accordance with his instructions, and it now read Mundus vult decipi.

The change to the Latin is from ‘the world deceives/beguiles’ to ‘the world wishes to be deceived/beguiled.’

That infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation can afford

From Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue

It was a freak of fancy in my friend (for what else shall I call it?) to be enamored of the night for her own sake; and into this bizarrerie, as into all his others, I quietly fell; giving myself up to his wild whims with a perfect abandon. The sable divinity would not herself dwell with us always; but we could counterfeit her presence. At the first dawn of the morning we closed all the messy shutters of our old building; lighting a couple of tapers which, strongly perfumed, threw out only the ghastliest and feeblest of rays. By the aid of these we then busied our souls in dreams—reading, writing, or conversing, until warned by the clock of the advent of the true Darkness. Then we sallied forth into the streets arm in arm, continuing the topics of the day, or roaming far and wide until a late hour, seeking, amid the wild lights and shadows of the populous city, that infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation can afford.

It was a riddle which he could not solve, whether he was dreaming now, or had before dreamed of a wife and friend

From Ludwig Tieck’s The Fair-Haired Eckbert (as Thomas Carlyle renders Der Blonde Eckbert). Tieck is one of those chance treasures that literary nomadism occasionally yields and while I’m not surprised he’s today out of fashion – at least with English readers – I am surprised Borges either never read him or never (that I can find) found occasion to comment on him. Just count the Borgesian preoccupations below.

This passage is from near the end of the tale. It’s not a direct spoiler but it would likely color a first reading. The full English is here and German here.

He set out, without prescribing to himself any certain route; indeed, he took small heed of the country he was passing through. Having hastened on some days at the quickest pace of his horse, he, on a sudden, found himself entangled in a labyrinth of rocks, from which he could discover no outlet. At length he met an old peasant, who took him by a path leading past a waterfall: he offered him some coins for his guidance, but the peasant would not have them. “What use is it?” said Eckbert. “I could believe that this man, too, was none but Walther.” He looked round once more, and it was none but Walther. Eckbert spurred his horse as fast as it could gallop, over meads and forests, till it sank exhausted to the earth. Regardless of this, he hastened forward on foot.

In a dreamy mood he mounted a hill: he fancied he caught the sound of lively barking at a little distance; the birch-trees whispered in the intervals, and in the strangest notes he heard this song:

Alone in wood so gay,
Once more I stay;
None dare me slay,
The evil far away:
Ah, here I stay,
Alone in wood so gay.

The sense, the consciousness of Eckbert had departed; it was a riddle which he could not solve, whether he was dreaming now, or had before dreamed of a wife and friend. The marvellous was mingled with the common: the world around him seemed enchanted, and he himself was incapable of thought or recollection.

Er zog fort, ohne sich einen bestimmten Weg vorzusetzen, ja er betrachtete die Gegenden nur wenig, die vor ihm lagen. Als er im stärksten Trabe seines Pferdes einige Tage so fortgeeilt war, sah er sich plötzlich in einem Gewinde von Felsen verirrt, in denen sich nirgend ein Ausweg entdecken ließ. Endlich traf er auf einen alten Bauer, der ihm einen Pfad, einem Wasserfall vorüber, zeigte: er wollte ihm zur Danksagung einige Münzen geben, der Bauer aber schlug sie aus. – »Was gilt’s«, sagte Eckbert zu sich selber, »ich könnte mir wieder einbilden, daß dies niemand anders als Walther sei.« – Und indem sah er sich noch einmal um, und es war niemand anders als Walther. – Eckbert spornte sein Roß so schnell es nur laufen konnte, durch Wiesen und Wälder, bis es erschöpft unter ihm zusammenstürzte. – Unbekümmert darüber setzte er nun seine Reise zu Fuß fort.

Er stieg träumend einen Hügel hinan; es war, als wenn er ein nahes munteres Bellen vernahm, Birken säuselten dazwischen, und er hörte mit wunderlichen Tönen ein Lied singen:

Mich wieder freut,
Mir geschieht kein Leid,
Hier wohnt kein Neid,
Von neuem mich freut

Jetzt war es um das Bewußtsein, um die Sinne Eckberts geschehn; er konnte sich nicht aus dem Rätsel herausfinden, ob er jetzt träume, oder ehemals von einem Weibe Bertha geträumt habe; das Wunderbarste vermischte sich mit dem Gewöhnlichsten, die Welt um ihn her war verzaubert, und er keines Gedankens, keiner Erinnerung mächtig.

Incidentally, the concept of Waldeinsamkeitwald (forest) + einsamkeit (solitude/isolation/loneliness) – has a lengthy history in later Romanticism and beyond.

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.