Departments

Perpetual Peace

FROM I. Bickerstaff, The Endower Institute History of the 21st Century, pp. 55-60 ff. Hoboken: Endower Institute Press, 2207.

In 2045 the Endower Institute organized the GSPW (Group for the Study of the Phenomenon of War) to conduct an indisciplinary study of game theory, war-gaming, and evolutionary psychology. An elaborate computer simulation had originally been planned, but finally the participants in the War Study were issued modified versions of off-the-shelf strategy board games. Over the next four months, playing these games became the jobs of the study participants in a literal sense, as they were paid based on their performance in the game. (Several nonetheless indulged in bizarre behavior, such as massing their forces in Madagascar.)

The curious first result was that players in versions of the game altered to penalize war-waging (by introducing a random element weighted towards the defeat of the aggressor), and to reward commerce and diplomacy, waged war more often than players in the unmodified games. Players in altered and unmodified versions were about equal in other suboptimal behaviors to be expected in connection with war (refusal to recognize imminent defeat, underestimation of the enemy, refusal to compromise between strategic goals when they became incompatible).

But the usual irrationalities would not suffice to explain why an increase in the difficulty and uncertainty of war would result in an increase in the rate of war waged.

The hypothesis, which the Second War Study would confirm, was that human beings were, for sound evolutionary reasons, prejudiced to regard violence in general, including war, as open-ended. As Dr. Abraham “Abe” Saintpear, then Director of the Institute, later explained in his book The Cornered Instinct:

An animal which has been backed into a corner is likelier to die than an animal being chased in a field. Although from a game-theoretical point of view, the animal should, to gain the best long-term results, instinctually fight its hardest when it has the best chance for survival, we find the opposite; it is the doomed animal, the cornered animal, that is fiercest. Likewise, we find that human beings are most admired when they exert themselves to the fullest at the last minute, or in an emergency, even to a degree which, under ordinary circumstances, would be considered absurd.

The conclusion reached by the GSPW was that these behaviors arose from a hypothetical “short-circuit” which might take place in the brains of mammals in violent situations. As Saintpear said in his 2058 lecture to the World Post War Society:

We realized that cornered behavior could not be a rational reaction at all. It must in some sense be evolutionary advantageous to be irrational in this respect. We had been studying a false dilemma. The survivability of the species required the sacrifice of the survivability of the individual in such a way that, in certain situations, the rational optimizer and the irrational gambler must be the same person.

Their insight came through a thought experiment involving two “characters”.

The first was known as the Rabbit. The Rabbit always acts in such a way as to maximize the probability of his own survival by minimizing (through avoidance) anything that threatens his survival.

The second was known as the Wolverine. The Wolverine’s maxim is always to spend higher quantities of any finite resource (energy, money, or so forth) as the probability of his survival decreases.

What should have been obvious (according to Saintpear’s memoir, My Project) but did not show up until the simulations were run, was that in most situations their behaviors would be the same; and that, while in some border cases the Wolverine lost his life unnecessarily, it was in fact the Wolverine, not the Rabbit, who stood the best chance of survival, given any nontrivial rate of dangerous situations which could not be avoided. Wrote Saintpear: “The best long-term strategy of survival, given unavoidable dangers, is in extreme probability of death to replace optimization according to probability with optimization according to possibility.” Later, he restated the principle as: “In a crazy situation, the sane thing is to go crazy.”

The solution to the problem of the high-warring gamers was then simple: “As the probability of victory decreased, so did the players’ attention to the probabilities.” As the odds turned against them, they ignored the odds.

The War Studies became the centerpiece of Saintpear’s monograph The Last Argument: The Instinct for War. In this book (an unexpected best-seller), Saintpear contended that it was human nature to regard war as open-ended, even when the conclusion was objectively foregone. Negotiations, he pointed out, are begun with some idea of the treaty likely to issue from them; trials (in the first instance), of the verdict; but everyone believes that they can win a war. “Wars are not lost once victory becomes impossible for the losing side; wars are only lost once there is nothing, however pointless, left to try; once there is no hope left to cling to.” Rational forms of conflict resolution, in Saintpear’s view, could not substitute for war because they did not make the participants feel cornered. Not feeling cornered, they were not confident that victory must, eventually, be theirs; and therefore, they would not be willing to commit themselves fully. His position was that a bloodless means of conflict resolution would require a strong admixture of irrationality and open-endedness.

It was according to this theory that Saintpear formed, with his own profits from the book and the contributions of several philanthropists (including the Estate of Wildcard Endower), the Court of Circular Appeals, a body whose stated aim was to render only provisional decisions in conflicts of international law. “It is only by offering an inexhaustible, receding supply of false hope,” wrote Saintpear to a friend, “that we can create a bloodless activity which will be the psychological equivalent of war.”

Saintpear did not make the mistake of trying to recruit the first-world nations into his scheme directly. Instead, he began by traveling with the whole Court into the most unstable areas of the world, in order to render judgements in sub-national conflicts of tribes, cartels, and so on. Soon the entourage of the Court, innumerable advocates ceaselessly debating all the causes into which the Court had interposed itself, had reached such a scale that it could not continue to travel, and took up permanent headquarters in Switzerland.

Later, when Saintpear discovered that a pair of tribes had impoverished themselves to the point of starvation to pay their advocates at the Court, he caused a portion of the Court’s fees to be diverted to humanitarian organizations, to be used in alleviating whatever misery the Court might cause.

After its first decade the Court could no longer remain in Switzerland. The road systems of that tiny, mountainous country could not support the logistical needs of the advocate corps of the first-world nations. Offers of land were made from every quarter; but, to the world’s surprise, the offer Saintpear accepted was in Israel. “It is best,” he said shortly before his death, “that the Court remain as close as possible to what have been the most fought-over regions of the world.”

Today the traveler hears the shouting of the advocate corps engaged in ceaseless argument on the plains below even before they come into sight of the shining World Headquarters of the Court of Circular Appeals upon the hill of Megiddo.

Form and Formality

Stairs are different. Architects can re-invent every other part of a building; they can contort walls and roofs, or merge them together; they can re-shape or re-organize windows; they can create views or frustrate them. But every good staircase is like every other. The form can be adorned or hidden, but not overcome (except by banishment, through one-story buildings or substitution with elevators). There is a limited range of acceptable slopes for a staircase, to which all stairs must conform, or risk injuring their users. Each step must be predictable, and exactly like every other. Stair-climbing is an unconscious, algorithmic act. So is walking, so is typing, so is riding a bicycle; but climbing stairs belongs to a different class – along with driving a car – where error risks death. For a joke, you can trip, or fall off a bicycle; but not crash a car, or fall down the stairs. You have time to get to know a new car; but a new set of stairs should not require adjustment.

Consider music. Formality is obvious in classical music. The music, to be played well, must be considered as something to be reached; and the performer can always fall along the way, by insubordination to the conductor or infidelity to the composer. Audience members have every right to resent this, however the performer excuses it. Something that mars a performance hits the listener with a jerk – it is the performer who trips up, but the audience who falls.

Formality is less obvious, but equally important, in jazz. A sequence of improvisations is not a showcase of individual performers. It is not that every player is an orchestra, but that every player is a conductor. An arrogant classical player is a rebel in a monarchy; an arrogant jazz player, a demagogue in a democracy.

But songwriting is the most formal kind of music. It is because the blues is a rigid form that it can bear the distortions of strong emotion. People are never so still as when overwhelmed by emotion. If we can, we sit to cry. All popular music has strong formal structure; which makes it easy to gather with its kin into playlists, and makes it possible for the supply to be kept up.

It is by their formality – by how much alike they are in form – that songs are individualized. Any two pieces of classical music, each with a wildly different structure, sound at first much more alike than any two popular songs, each sharing the same chord progression, rhyme scheme, and instrumentation; just as, although trees are more unlike one another than one person is unlike another, we see the difference between two people more clearly than the difference between two trees.

The danger of too much formality is easy to see. Most of what is worth attaining in life is not repeatable, and is lessened when approached as if it could be repeated. Experiences which are had only once do not benefit by formality. Of the rest, some are recurring, but not meaningfully repeatable. They can happen more than once, but are less like climbing stairs than climbing a mountain – which does not, I imagine, improve by being done often. The rest is the repeatable. And repeatable experiences are no less valuable than singular ones. Old as I become, I would not trade music for youth.

The danger of informality is easy to fall into. Consider poets. Poets are rare for reasons that have nothing to do with poetry (most become songwriters now, who would once have been poets); but the poets that are, write less than the old poets. This is because of their informality. Free verse is dangerously therapeutic. A good poem in free verse is a unique victory – not the imprint of an emotion, but its draining, its defeat. Such poets fail when they approach something that is common to all, and so cannot be exhausted; they cannot make poetry, either of the everyday, or of the ideal.

But think of Petrarch; with the sonnet for his stair he could ascend to and return from the experience of the moment in which he saw (saw so that he therefore loved) his Laura; and as many times as he climbed up to and down from that moment, he never emptied it. Informality always stays on the ground floor; to rise, you must commit yourself to some form capable of bearing you up.

Fiction and Thinking

The mind is a lazy mapmaker. When it receives the survey data for a new place, it does not draw a new map. Instead, it writes the new names on an old map. Sometimes, it tapes two old maps together to make one new; rarely, it cuts several old maps into pieces, then pastes the pieces together tile-wise. The maps from fiction are most useful to it. They are simple, at low resolution, and have few identifying features to ink over or rub out. An analogy from philosophy, history, or science does not spread generally until it has found fictional embodiment – in parable, fable, romance, epic, or tale. Think of Plato’s cave, think of the spacefaring twin and the earthbound.

Analogies do not solve problems by themselves, but they are indispensable because they show the right kind of solution – whether force, persuasion, invention, discovery, endurance or sacrifice. What we look for is what we know in advance to look for; the more we know to look for, the more we find. The more we know can happen, the less we are overwhelmed. The more we recognize folly, the less time we waste on it.

Film does more of this than literature, though less powerfully. The wrath of Achilles is perhaps less lethal, but is more frightening, than the wrath of Rambo; neither Leviathan nor Godzilla shall be drawn out with a hook, but Leviathan would not be troubled by an oxygen destroyer. I must recover from even a weak horror story, but (as an adult) a movie has never scared me; the best the medium can do is disgust or disquiet. Film is, at best, flat, distant, dreamy, intangible, and abstract; and though a wordless medium, it must still tell – with dialogue, with rovings of the camera, with caricature, with background music – things like weather, smells, the taste of air, everything that dreams lack, but writing can show. But film is more economical and more accessible. It can give more analogies faster, and over a broader range.

A multitude of analogies leads to a multitude of ideas – some of them bad ideas. The stocked imagination is like black earth: anything will grow in it. Thin soils grow less, but can absorb less labor. Thick soil is hard to manage at first, when weeds take their chance; but it grows a much larger harvest. Which is to say: because it is hard to overcome bad ideas, there is something to be said for a slash-and-burn farming of the mind, which, producing few ideas, does not disturb the good-enough ideas it has received; but good ideas can be arrived at only by having many ideas, most bad – and hoeing the bad ones down.

All this is clearest for people. People are inexhaustibly unique; without the analogies which fiction from folk tale to epic provides, we could get no traction at all in thinking about one another. Fiction is what allows us to know stranger from enemy.

Fable of the Spider and the Songbird

On the hot island of thick forest and air thicker with wet, a bright and brilliant spider like a hand, with legs like fingers, wove and strung her yellow silk into a golden web.

One day a small songbird with the sun behind him did not see the sheen of the spider’s silk or the shine of the flies and beetles wound in it. He felt a brushing at his wingtips, weight against his face, then something soft and resistlessly strong folding him at every side. He tried to pull free; but he could not even pull his wings in to his sides, for the silk held them away. He stilled and stayed himself, and hoped that he would not be noticed.

She knew that he was there. She had felt the shiver of his contact, and the ripples of his struggle when they traveled through her web and into the tips of her legs. Now she felt the subtle rumble of his tensed muscles as he held them still, and the rushing, bounding flutter of his heart; and she came for him.

When he saw her coming, he gave up hiding. He thrashed and shrieked and fought. He struggled, tossed, twisted. But she was closer now, and he was still in her web. When he felt the first strands of fresh silk fall over him, he gave up fighting.

He was lost, and he knew his defeat. So he sang it, low and low, high and quick, turning and rising and falling in circles through lungs ceaselessly propelling the whistlings and cryings of his song. His song was in him, and in the air, and among the trees, and in the web – and through the web into the tips of the legs of the spider who scuttled away into a tree as her singing web betrayed her.

When his song was finished and he was ready to die, the bird found that he was alone. The web kept some of him, of his feathers and blood; and he kept some of the web, strands that trailed from him even after he had worked himself free.

Moral: Sing, Muse.

Notebooks

The difference between writing on loose paper and writing in a notebook is the relationship of the writer and the thing written. Unless you pledge to care for them, you may expect to outlive your loose papers. They will be lost, be thrown out, or wear out – age and die. But barring catastrophe, you may expect that your notebooks will outlive you. And a notebook has a kind of life, insofar as it is hard to kill: the things which could destroy it – fire and flood – are the same as the things which could destroy you.

This is true even of cheap notebooks. Cheap paper is perishable; shouldn’t notebooks made of the same paper age at the same rate? But a closed book of whatever kind defies time. From my own slight library I have before me now, as I write, a book from 1944 containing a a pressed carnation as a messenger of the sunlight of 60 years ago; and a book from 1906 wherein is interleaved a sheet of cheap ruled paper (which has turned the brown of a paper grocery bag) with someone’s homework in Roman history. It is probably a decade or two less than a 100 years old; but it is safe to suppose that the man is long dead whom the boy became who wrote: “The Romans who were mostly peasants by working hard on their farms acquired the strength of will which made them the best soldiers of the world.” Perhaps his children are dead, and his grandchildren know little more of him than his name. But kept by covers, the cheap paper can still be unfolded and re-folded after a near-century of Louisiana summers.

To start a notebook, even while young, is to feel the reality of futurity and posterity. Decades on, your friends, your place, your name, the world may have changed; your frame and figure, your face, will have changed. What you will be, you would not now recognize. But you may still have, you may still read, you may still use that same notebook.

Or after a hundred years? Lost to accident and inconsideration; burnt up or drowned; or mouldering deep in some distant garbage dump, like a message in a bottle which never sees the shore? Or browsed by curious descendants of an unimagined generation, who would otherwise know you only as a few garbled stories, a fading or grotesquely discolored photograph, a few characteristic gestures and a bad joke on film? Or annexed to some unborn historian’s or anthropologist’s collection, as a lens through which that age to come, with its own preoccupations, may enter into sympathy with the past and gain perspective on itself? Or displayed in a museum, as a curious time capsule – or as the monument of a departed mind? Under the sky we know, or under a new sky in a city yet to be named?

We, dead, will not decide. But our notebooks are like the trees an old man plants – given, not to anyone, but for the sake of giving.

Writing on the Computer

A writer who writes on the computer must have the resistance to temptation of a desert saint. Computers make every approach to writing well – through revision, research, or rhetoric – so smooth that you can spend as long as you please approaching, without ever writing anything. Worse, a writer may attempt to mix them with writing.

1​. Revising while writing seems innocent, even wise – what is wrong with writing one perfect paragraph after another? Nothing, for each paragraph; but something for the whole, when each paragraph is disconnected from the next and might be as good if re-shuffled.

2​. Research while writing has the same effect as enlisting a Panel of Experts to stare over your shoulder as you write. This kind of writing is like driving the interstates – you need never be lost, and you need never discover anything. You may travel forever and never go anywhere.

3​. Thinking about writing, and listening to what other writers have to say about it, are good. But rules are proved in use, not in argument; you learn them to break them, and break them to prove them by the exception. If you must stop in mid-sentence to check a rule, then either you do not understand it, or you do not need it – probably the latter. On the computer, you must both resist the temptation, and ignore harassment. Spelling is important enough to check later, but not important enough to stop for; and it is no better for a computer to interrupt you, to object to your spelling or grammar, than for a stranger to look over your shoulder and do the same.

Computers are either too convenient or too inconvenient. The keyboard, with practice, can be used without thinking. It then becomes the sluice through which a flood of raw language is carried onto the screen, mixed with whatever debris or waste happens to have collected on the mind. But first – and something else always comes first on the computer. Turn it on, wait, log on, wait, start the word processor, wait, open your file, wait, write – no, wait. Choose a template, a font – what format did they need this in again – no, the margins are wrong – save it, write – no, wait. It crashed. Start over.

These waits are more than wasteful. Handwriting has its interruptions – running out of ink, blunting the lead – but the computer sets its own pace, of impetus and urgency. Often in what is written on the computer you find a uniform rhythm formed by log-ons, command lines, queries, entries, games, chats, clicks and double-clicks.

The computer is most dangerous to those most experienced with computers. Those who start young on computers have a rapport with them, not because they can keep up with them, but because they reflexively slow down to match them; those who come to computers in adulthood are impatient with them, not because they are stiff and brittle-minded with age, but because they lack this ability to synchronize themselves with computers.

At the computer we all have a way of doing what is easy at the computer. It is a wise habit of some designers to draft on paper so they can make the computer meets their ideas, instead of making their ideas meet the computer. Writers who would ever experience inspiration should beware computers. Even writers of prose, aiming to avoid the poetical, should aspire to be poets in the sense which is above meter or line breaks. And poets and computers make conspicuously bad couples – poets are from Xanadu; computers are from Porlock.

Computer files suffer a natural attrition which backups alone may not solve. A file may easily be forgotten, or confused with another. The document format becomes obsolete; the backup software becomes obsolete; even the backup hardware becomes obsolete. The price you pay for the weightlessness of computer files is that nothing holds them down; unless you hold on to them continuously, they drift away from you unnoticed.

I do write some things on computers – less than paragraphs which I see close enough to entirely in my head that what method I use to get it down does not matter; and things that I want to sound dictated. But as a rule of thumb, I never trust a computer with anything that I might possibly need more than five years from now.

I admit that none of these reasons are proofs. Each is only circumstantial evidence. I cannot call witnesses, because I cannot write the same thing twice to compare. I could only re-write what I had written before. You can never start over; what you have done, even when forgotten, shapes what you may do.

However problematic, writing well on the computer is certainly possible. I do not think that someone who writes on the computer must be a bad writer. And if some can find the self-discipline to write well on the computer, what excuse do I have not to do the same? How dare I admit to (let alone argue for) such eccentricity and self-indulgence? But I have a last plea.

What I write first on paper is all my own. Notes that I write by hand I rarely have to look at again: the act of writing so reinforces the memory that the written words are only a backup. Reading over an essay written by hand, I remember what I was thinking at each step; reading over a work of fiction, I remember the feeling I began with and how every line relates to it. This is true even of looking at a typed copy.

But what I write first on the computer is not my own. I know that I wrote it only because I recognize my style. I have no connection to it. It is through but not of me; it is mine but not my own. I do not mean that it is received through inspiration. Rather, reading it is like reading something in a dream – there because of me, but not mine.

Postscript, 2018

I rarely write by hand. This has nothing to do with progress. We have new devices, but with them new distractions – the endless hailstorm of notifications. When I write, I write in my head. How I transcribe it doesn’t matter. Writing by hand was the discipline that made writing possible for me – but I outgrew it.

Decluttering

Some people feel a certain nameless pleasure, sharp-edged and sexually tinged, in stripping others of their individuality, in shoving them back down into the uniformed background. Their principles are their expectations: what they do not expect insults them. They love the rough squaring of the round peg. This goes with Schadenfreude, but something is left over. Could it be the subconscious version of an eye for health, where aberration implies sickness? But their pleasure is not a healer’s.

Consider soldiers’ short hair and uniforms. The scheme of military alchemy which produces a soldier is to break down and build up. It is the difference between the warrior, who fights alone with his own strength, and the soldier, who fights as part of a hierarchy of units, each with the aggregate strength of its members. One of the few clear lessons of history is that soldiers beat warriors, one to hundreds: think of the British warriors under Boudica slaughtered by Roman soldiers, the British soldiers at Rorke’s Drift slaughtering Zulu warriors.

But why are businessmen short-haired? Why the uniform of the suit? Certainly, business organization is borrowed from military hierarchy, and the idea of the businesslike descends from the armed worldview of the period of universal conscription. But while it is a given, these days, that it is not the company man who creates the future of the company, the easiest way forward in life is still through the barber and the tailor. As for politicians, we are seriously considering in this country that a black man, or a woman, could now become President; but who can imagine another president with a beard?

The soldier and the careerist are both told to feel liberated in being shorn. Certainly, things are always easier for those of us who are easily categorized. That much is true of bohemianism and conformism, of tattoos and ties. But the majority mark themselves with the absence of marks. It is left to the minority to assert themselves by signs (clothes, symbols) and performances (slang, gesture).

To be human, even human, only human, is to be complex, to be distractible, to be various and try many things; to have, to keep, to pile up, to hoard. To declutter is more than just organizing and sorting out because it requires the discarding, not of what you cannot justify to yourself, but of what you cannot justify to another – especially to someone who takes money for this kind of work – someone who finds their nameless pleasure in taking things away from you.

The moralistic disapproval of possessions is only one blade of the declutter’s scissors. The other side is the idea that what is to be valued in life are not things, but experiences. “I value experiences,” they say, “because I want to be able to look back on them in old age.”

There is no debate here. On the one side are people who assert the superiority of experiences over things; on the other side are people who stubbornly keep having. There is of course a dark side, which is class. People for whom contingency is credit value experiences; “I can always buy another –”. People for whom posessions are contingencies value them; “What if I need a–”. But there is a great deal of room in the middle.

For the young, to be distracted, or to be cluttered, is to be open to surprise. The act of de-cluttering declares that the season for hope is over; that the last contraction of possibilities has taken place; that the path is chosen and mapped to its end. Since your future is known, you should keep only what the future will call for. You will hear that these are just things – which they are, if you can replace them. But if you cannot replace them, then these seemingly useless things are more than things: these are chances that you are throwing away. Only tomorrow, or whenever it is too late, will you discover what you could have done with them.

The days of old age are long. Time murders sleep. There are so many hours, they are so hard to fill. Once you have finished with the hours you set aside for reminiscence – then what? In old age the memories we formed in youth become distant and alienated. Who was that? I am not that person. But our things, being with us, are never distant, and having taken the same road, are never strangers.

The things we have, the things we have inherited, are the things we want to pass on. They link us into a chain, and in that way give us meaning and perspective that a solipsistic horde of memories cannot.

For the old, who live beyond hope, who know that it is only the inertia of their routine that carries them forward, it is only their possessions that let them claim some connection with a human race without further use or patience for them. As the memory grows porous and ghostly, everything that triggers and proves it becomes precious.

I do not have to be old to see that the nursing home or the Florida house is haunted with more than loneliness, regret, and despair. When the day comes that yours is just one more failing body among other bodies in a room among rooms in a building among buildings; when your thoughts begin to twist on themselves, skip like a scratched record, jump like disordered movie reels; when all your thoughts are not your own and even your doubt is uncertain – you do not have to be dead to be a ghost.

Postscript, 2011

My father hated having things. He loved to throw them out or, better yet, give them away. Anything he did not need he got rid of: not always his own. The rooms he lived in looked unfinished. Once they were empty, there was nothing to suggest they had ever been lived in. But somehow I carried out box after box. There was so much of it, and every item meant another new decision: what to keep, what to sell, what to give away, what to throw away. I am still making those decisions.

I have become uneasy with my own possessions. For me the fear of not being able to get what I need when I need it has always outweighed the inconvenience of leaving room for what I do not need today. But now in the back of my mind I feel my heirs, and dread the burden of decision I am preparing for them. Getting rid of things used to be hard for me. Now it is easy; it brings relief. I wrote an essay a few years ago against decluttering. I still recognize a pathological form of declutterer whose practice is among the insidiously moral cruelties. But I cannot condemn declutterers any longer; the truth is that I have become one.

Progress

I have tried, and failed, to disbelieve in progress. My question is not whether, but how. The twentieth century – and let us only say of it that every worst thing that has ever happened, happened in the twentieth century – killed the metaphysical notion of provident inevitability, of Progress as the slope down which History flows. But the worth of a faith in progress is proved not in society, but in the individual.

You may more or less share the sensibility of your age; you may find it unsympathetic, or unapproachably alien. You may fly to the remnants and inheritance of another age for the company of like minds. But however alone you are in it, there is something unworthy and childish in abandoning your own time for the past. Only a coward who would volunteer for such an amputation as to hide from the latest developments, discoveries, creations, thoughts. Only a coward would turn from the unknown, could live out their life happily within some foreknown and mapped-out stretch of time.

We rightly abhor those who would burn old books; but hiding from new books and their authors is the same error. To suppress any part of human experience is to darken the whole.

Progress is not by ascent, but by accumulation. We find that every age, every generation, every city, every circle and school and subculture has its characterizing contribution, it work and its problems. What does not meet them is either addressed to the past, which cannot answer; or to the future, which cannot reward. But only to share the work of others is to be held back by them. Whatever work you propose to do, if you do not mean to keep it only to yourself and God – or to contribute only a footnote to your age – you must allow for progress as a tactical consideration.

In science there is much which seems valuelessly obsolete: etheric vortices, caloric fluid, absolute time. But these retain their place as links in a genealogy of ideas: they were mistakes, but not terminal ones. And what were wrong turns for those who made them become signs and stories of warning for the rest of science against naive materialism, against the applicability throughout the cosmos of the experience of Earth, against the applicability throughout the eons of Earth of the experience of mankind.

Even crank theories have relevance – at the edges, in work which bears that appearance, but is not taken from that well, like Ramanujan or Dalton; and in how ready power is to champion them, like Lysenkoism.

There are eddies, where in the pursuit of a strange end, a familiar thought rings out ahead of its time – Bruno’s inhabited cosmos, Boscovitch’s grains of energy; and there are tragedies, where science take the wrong path so long that it cannot find its way back, and a good idea must be re-invented, like the nebular hypothesis. Under the appearance of successions of obsolescence, science proceeds by accumulation. It even has heroes, like Archimedes who, millennia dead, can make the front cover of a physics journal.

Worked-out systems of ideas have an imperishability and a transposability which can deposit them far from their original purpose: how the Hippocratic system of humors, intended to explain disease, has become the model for modern analyses of personality.

We are told that art is inextricable from the class, the sex, the generation that created it; that our distant appreciation must be inferior – at best, second-hand. Art, certainly cannot mean to you what it meant to those who made it, and those it was made for. You cannot catch all the puns and allusions, or interpret all the symbols. In the age of photography, you cannot recapture the sense of the miraculous in the meticulous realism of the Dutch Masters. But the notion that your circumstances fully determine the reach of your meaningful reaction to art is an injury to individuality. To any given artwork, you will not react like a person of another generation; nor would another person of that same generation have reacted in the same way as the first; nor would another person of your own generation react as you do. Art that is not valent between individuals does not endure. And it is not all lessening in the change. We may without regret say that after Walter Pater, the Mona Lisa means more to us than it did to Leonardo, or to Lisa Gherardini, or to her husband – as long as remember that it meant something different to each of those. We do not only make progress by accumulating works of arts, or by widening the range of subjects and sensibilities that art can address (Nature and ecstasy with the Romantics, horror and terror with the Moderns), but also as every work and every milieu acquires an ever-lengthening wake of associations.

Progress is real gain; but change in the world is less by introduction, than by different emphasis. Each age is distinguished by the kinds of human nature it gives scope to; but all the varieties of human nature are always with us. On the street, you may pass or meet a man whose gravitas would have fitted him to be a senator of Rome; another, hard and hungry, fit to pillage with Huns; another, patient and subtle, a born Schoolman; another, willing and pitiless, a wild-west gunslinger. They will likely be undistinguished, for in any one era, only a few kinds of people have room to unfold themselves; only a few can have or find a place of their own in the world. But they are all always with us as the armory of mankind against the uncertainty of a future as unknowable as (it is to be hoped) very long. The lesson of history is less of cause and effect, than it is a promise and threat which are the same: that whatever we are, some have been before; that whatever we have been, at worst or best, we may yet be again.

The Fifth Proposition; or, The Bridge of Asses. A Love Story by Euclid.

“ ‘I glanced over it,’ said he. “Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.’ ”

The Sign of the Four.

Let ABC be a love triangle having the side AB equally strong as the side AC; and let the unlived lives BD, CE be prolonged in a straight line with AB, AC.

I say that the agony of ABC is equal to the agony of ACB, and the anticipation of CBD to the anticipation of BCE.

Let a point F be made at random against BD; from AE the greater let AG be cut off at AF the lesser’s level; and let the straight lines FC, GB be joined at cross-purposes.

Then, since AF is no better than AG and AB than AC, the two sides FA, AC are just as bad as the two sides GA, AB, respectively; and they contain a common anxiety cornered in FAG.

Therefore the base FC is as committed as the base GB, and the triangle AFC is a lot like the triangle AGB, and the remaining answers will sound just like the remaining excuses and explanations, namely those which are all alike; that is, the angle ACF sounds just like the angle ABG, and the angle AFC acts like the angle AGB, and since the whole AF is just a whole other AG, and in this AB can be hard to tell from AC, the prospects of BF are the same as the prospects of CG.

But FC also proved as reliable as GB; therefore the two sides BF, FC, give nothing to choose between with the two sides CG, GB respectively; and the corner BFC is as close as the corner CGB; while at BC they all want the same thing; therefore the triangle BFC is also as acceptable as the triangle CGB, and the remaining anxieties will be equal to the remaining uncertainties respectively, namely those which the equal sides inspire; therefore FBC angles the same way as GCB, and BCF’s angle is the same as CBG’s.

Accordingly, since the whole angle ABG was proved as equivocal as the angle ACF, and in this the angle CBG is as confining as the angle BCF, the remaining angle ABG is the same from all angles as ACB; and they are, at base, still the triangle ABC.

But the angle FBC was proved at cross-purposes with angle CGB; and they are both asses.

Therefore: no to both.

Q.E.D.

Instinct

It is doubtful to call anything human instinctual. Drives are not instincts; drives compel thought, but instinct supplants it. Instinct is something in the individual that is not of the individual. We can see real instinct in our pets: when the dog swings a toy high into the air as if to snap its neck, or the cat which after the instinctive pounce or chase sits in front of the crippled mouse or overturned cockroach in a confusion obvious even across species (for we are all mammals here).

We must always be careful to distinguish drive from instinct. Sexual behavior is the most obvious hold that evolution has on us. With secondhand guilt, even the irreligious talk of this hold as if, because we are animals at all, we are only animals. But what we consider an overthrowing storm would be judged, by other animals, gripped by estrus, to be no more than a gentle, steering breeze. In the ways of nature what could be sillier than an animal which, when strength and spring are come, must be taught how to reproduce? For human beings instinct is unequal even to the original operation of life.

There is of course some instinctual flotsam on the unconscious: hitting with the heel of the hand, for example, or not rolling over a pet, or a baby, in your sleep. But we are too willing to consider behaviors instinctual which are only unavoidable; territoriality, for example. It is a necessity in all modes of life, one which if not learned from instinct is still enforced later as a hard lesson. Boundaries will always be encroached on, even the skin; and those whose only boundaries are for their vitals and victuals will find their lives and livelihoods in constant danger. Artificial boundaries remove the fight from the vulnerable center, as clothing wears or tears in place of skin.

We are animals, made of the same stuff as other animals; but we are not like other animals. Even without assuming a creator, we can see that the changes we make in raw materials by way of art or technology, to make them speak or show or do, are the same kind of changes that made animals into human beings. There is no line in us with instinct to one side and self on the other. What we do is what we are. Human consciousness is not a kind of animal nature; it is map and image and story of that nature.

Eating School

I came without a journey to an ideal city. It had been built, I observed, during the Renaissance; but time and romantic patination and eruptive modernity had softened its rigid geometries. Still every path through that city was like a strain of music; a harmony of architecture, geomancy, statuary, mural, ironwork and garden.

After some time wandering and admiring, I found on sitting that I was tired and hungry; so I went in search in food. In the first restaurant I came to, I saw people sitting, each alone, eating from bowls of porridge, pablum, and gruel, with glasses of a gray drink at their elbows. Health food, I thought, and looked farther; but all the restaurants were like that one.

I resolved to do as the people of the ideal city did. I sat and ordered, with an encompassing gesture, “Whatever they’re having.” Sitting among them, I could see from their hunched postures and pinched faces that they took no pleasure in their food.

The porridge had the consistency of diluted cottage cheese, and tasted of dish soap. The gray drink tasted of chalk. I asked the man at the next table: “Where can I find some real food? Maybe a hamburger?”

He laughed at me. He whispered something to the next table. I looked away, but I could still see them in reflection: they were laughing at me. A third, with his head thrown back and nose in the air, aped the act of cutting meat, reducing the others to near-hysteria.

I swept my food from the table, laid down paper in payment, and left the restaurant. Someone ran up behind me and tapped me on the back. When I turned, there stood a well-suited man with a bright chain of office around his neck. “I am the Mayor,” he said. “I want to apologize to you about that. I know that our city has a food problem. We’ve made attempts at establishing serious restaurants, but we can’t seem to keep up the patronage. But I don’t want foreigners to take home the impression that nothing is being done. In fact, we’ve just completed a major renovation of the Eating School. Would you permit me to give you a tour of the new facilities, and tell you about our programs?”

“Of course. I would be honored.”

The city was so sensibly laid out that I was not sure that we had left before we arrived. There was a long wall, and a broad gate, over which appeared in lettering worthy of Trajan’s column:

DE · GUSTIBUS · DISPUTEAMUS

“Why is it behind a gate?” I asked.

“People pay for their children to come here and have their palates trained,” said the Mayor. “How could the Eating School support itself if anyone could wander in and eat there?”

“They could pay for what they ate,” I said.

“Don’t be silly,” said the Mayor. “Good food is wasted on those not trained to appreciate it. And if you made it available to everyone, they would use up the supply. There’d be nothing left for real eaters. The Eating School is for those who live to eat, not those who eat to live.”

By this time we had been heard, and the gate was open for us. We entered onto an long avenue, where gracious brick buildings ran to either side of us, and we and they alike were shaded by the trees. Young people, from children to late teenagers, milled or ambled.

“I don’t see anyone eating,” I said, “or smell any food.”

“Eat outside!” The Mayor shook his head. “Where any passing smell could distort the olfactory experience? Or let the smells of food just drift around to clash with each other? You’re joking, sir.”

“The smell of food raises the appetite.”

“Now I see,” said the Mayor. “You think that just because we’re out of the way, we’re yokels. I’ll have you know that we begin training in appetite suppression on the very first day of school. We may not be New York or London or Paris, I grant you that, but that doesn’t mean we just gorge ourselves whenever our stomachs start rumbling. Just look over there. That’s our graduate cafeteria – the largest in the world. The chefs there can re-constitute samples of any dish known to man, from the cuisine of any country or ethnicity. Or look over there! That’s world’s largest walk-in freezer. Frozen samples of every fruit, vegetable, livestock meat, game meat, fish, grain – anything you could get anywhere from hunting, fishing, gathering, agriculture or aquaculture. I did my doctoral research there on calamari.”

“You like calamari?” I asked.

“Like!” He laughed. “As if I made a meal of a squid. I’ll have you know, sir, that I’ve sampled calamari on four separate occasions, under controlled conditions and with fully provenanced ingredients. I’ve written twelve research papers on calamari. I have, in fact, conclusively proven that it tastes nothing like chicken.”

“I believe you.”

“And look over there. There is our finest accomplishment – the Adult Eating School. Classes day and night. In a year, sir, only a year, we can take a common hardtongue – forgive my language – and teach him to distinguish at first taste between seven different grains, twelve different spices, and six kinds of meat. We hope to be able to offer sour training by the end of the year – it’s a question of keeping up the lemon supply.”

“Where do they eat? The adults you train? Your graduates?”

“Many of our finest eaters return as instructors. We also have a certain number of positions open for visiting eaters – and there are fellowships in the Eating Institute. Institute fellows are entitled to three meals a day with no charge and no teaching duties. And we have outreach programs, which make high-quality sandwiches available from roving kitchens.”

“I would like to eat something. Is there somewhere here I can get real food?”

“Of course. Here, come with me, we’ll register you.” We walked into a low building full of computers and unsmiling people, all behind a counter. The Mayor leaned meaningfully on the counter and talked to one of them in a soft voice. He returned smiling. “I threw my weight around. I can get you in for the faculty gumbo.”

“Can you show me the way?”

“I’ll send someone to show you on Tuesday.”

“That’s three days from now!”

The Mayor nodded. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get you in this month.”

I told the flabbergasted Mayor that I had lost my appetite, and took the short walk out of the ideal city.

Young and old

Even on common ground, even where much is said with profit and pleasure for each, when the old and the young talk together there is always something unsatisfactory. It is not that the young ask stupid questions; nor that the old are preoccupied; nor that the young are clever, but the old are knowledgeable; nor that the young are forward, but the old are wary. These are only obstacles; but as one is young and one is old, each wants from the other what they cannot have.

The young want the wisdom of the old without understanding what they ask for. Wisdom as the distillation of experience, as the dark sayings that illuminate, is easily found in the books where it is anatomized and catalogued. And even the young are broken to the awareness of death when first something they love dies. What the old know that the young are free of is how short and how wasteful life is before death: that no matter how narrow the range of your possibilities, even in the longest life there is not enough time to fulfill them. You must choose. You must live more by glimpses and intimations and barren plans against the someday as by doing. Wisdom is sharp, and even those who know the cut is coming cannot avoid it, so the old are generally kind enough not to pass on this poison wisdom before its time.

As the young do not get what they want from the old, the old do not get what they want from the young. They want to get to know a person while he is new, while he is strong and armored with laughter; but they are doubly frustrated.

1. To be young is only to be indignant that, not having asked to be born, so much is expected of you in return. You cannot win the hope of a place in the world to pursue, or the having of a place to defend. They must in some sense be given to you. Until then, the self remains unsettled. Who you are or will be is arrived at, not pre-established from nature or from nurture, for then like causes would yield like people—but viewed exactly and patiently, no two people are really alike. In the industrial processing (as in education or employment) and the political shepherding (by classes and groups) of human beings, categories are unavoidable; but they are openly or subtly enforced commands to a tractable conformity, not discovered human natures.

2. Even be a pre-existing individuality present, it is inaccessible. You must know yourself before others can know you. All we know of another is what we sympathize with; and what is distinct enough to in another to share in, is only what they have first distinguished for themselves. It is not that you can pass on your self-knowledge; as your face is different to the mirror, to the camera, and to the world, it is different to everyone in the world. But only stupidity is unselfconscious. If you do not know yourself rightly, you have a false idea of yourself. If you then try to be understood—or even to be recognized—you shall seem either a fool, or a mass of affectations; and if you do not try, you shall confuse or mislead. This always ends in disappointment, or in unintended betrayal.

Introspection is a form of daydream. Experiment, not reflection, obtains self-knowledge. Continual success, it is true, could lead to pride, or continual failure to despair. But as we are of clay or crooked timber, we chose pride by forgetting our failures, or how others have capacitated our successes; and as we are born weak, we choose despair by despising or spurning forgiveness. Despair implies pride, and pride leads to despair.

If you can doubt praise without disbelieving it; hear out reproof without accepting it; remember joy in shame and shame in joy without lessening either; you will learn what you can expect of yourself, while you can make use of it. Such self-knowledge, once obtained, shows like any other upheaval of the mind; knowing yourself is as unmistakable as grief, or being in love. This is as much as you may have from old age in youth, or from youth in old age.

Educational methods

I.
The more so as it is the more strictly standardized, lower education is a line to be held. Those who are below the line may hope to be lifted up to it; those who are above the line must expect to be trimmed down even with it. Provided that it is peaceful and prosperous, I suspect that a country in which many minds fall below the line will have unusually many minds above the line. This has been one of the reasons for America's success. But unless the majority of people are close to the line, a country shall be neither peaceful nor prosperous

Those who believe that education is unnecessary are fools; but those who believe that a nation's aggregate intellectual capacity is measurable through test scores are also fools. Because it cannot be made into procedures, the truth goes unnoticed: that all education is self-education. Teaching cannot be brainwashing or downloading. No complex of government regulations can do more than bring the teacher to the halfway where he must meet the student. No stake on any test and no drug can do more than bring the student to the halfway point where the teacher should meet him.

II.
I shudder whenever I hear talk of a new method in education. In the hands of a good teacher, who understands and shares its aims and principles, any method can succeed. In the hands of the rest, the shape and color of the prod do not matter: they will find a way to draw blood with it.

Sometimes a new method dredges the silt of habit which all teachers are prone to. Sometimes it solves a problem; sometimes is shows up a program in need of solving. But most methods try to reduce the teacher to catechist or technician. It is too painful for reformers of education to realize that good teachers are good, because they have good instincts. They have use for any method only when they can, as necessary, set it aside. When governments or school administrations enforce a particular method, they only waste good teachers and worsen bad ones.

III.
The most basic question of method is whether to teach knowledge or critical thinking. I once read the difference analogized in the terms of computer programming—whether program or data be more important? It is a good analogy only because it shows the misguidedness of the question. The distinction of data and program, while momently necessary, is not essential or fixed. In the most sophisticated and subtle of computer languages, Lisp—made to allow computers to mimic human thinking—what is now data may become program, and what is now program may become data.

There is no skill of critical thinking and no capacity to learn, indifferent to, or severable from, knowledge. Classroom critical thinking, when it is the communal abuse of carefully stuffed straw men or the circling of out-of-reach questions, stops at inverting every statement into a question or cavil. That is the opposite of understanding; it is active ignorance.

Nor is knowledge absorbed directly. Words are symbols, and symbols represent what symbols cannot be. You learn not by absorbing a thought from another mind, but by private analogy. Beginning with what you already know or have experienced, you recombine by aggregation and dissection until you make a likeness of what is shown to you. You build outward year by year from the experience of the cradle—to the soul and the stars. But minds are not as different as their differentiating experiences. The building and building up of analogies, beginning in the isolation of the individual, converges on the common and communicable—that is sanity.

The mind is a fire, not an attic. You cannot burn anything without fuel, and you cannot fuel what is not burning. It takes a good teacher and a good student to set the fire; and it is the sign of good teachers to understand that whatever method does not bend to serve the burning mind will smother it.

Modern letters

I.
What is considered serious in modern letters is what it is impossible to disagree with and take seriously. Most of what we read from the best modern essayists and critics, and in the best modern forums, is assembled from parting and passing shots, from the revelations of the esprit d'escalier. Everything shows the guerilla spirit of political pamphleteering; and if we view each camp from its opposite, the world seems made up of monsters and fools.

II.
It is not principally the pamphleteer's spirit which subverts modern letters; it is the missionary's. In place of scriptural or ritual religion, our secular sermonists preach according to the unspoken but sovran idea of the historical revelation—some moving catastrophe which (like a sacred book) delimits the permissible range of serious controversy. Beyond lies irrelevancy (or heresy).

WWI was such a revelation for Europe—a message of horror and futility Europe found more powerful than the Gospel. That revelation has been superseded for them by the Holocaust. Even of a Christian, one may ask which is the more meaningful image: the Man of Sorrows or the men of Dachau? Until 9/11 the principle revelation of American history was Vietnam—either as a betrayal of the people by an overreaching government, or the betrayal of victory by a weak people.

Where religion has disappeared from state liturgy and private conscience, it has been replaced with the cults and rites of the day or deed of infamy. The world of letters, and the world at large, is divided into factions, each with some actuating atrocity for which it works to broaden the basis of outrage. Fanaticisms, nationalisms, and ideologies are secondary factors. It is faction which drives events. It is impossible to explain the world today in terms of beliefs and loyalties. Everyone sees how strange are the alliances behind the forces of our time; it is common outrage which brings and ties them together. Terrorism takes its strength from the outrage of Palestine. The two wings of American politics and thought are not left and right; but outrage over 9/11, and outrage over the mirage of WMDs.

The religious can, in principle, extend tolerance and decent behavior to members of other religions. Worship, where it does not become fanaticism, leaves room in the mind for other feelings. But outrage is not a moderable or containable passion. Once undertaken, it subordinates every other feeling, crooks every observation, breaks into every chain of thought. These factions are fully as mutually deaf and mute as the most extreme fanaticisms of religon as such.

Outrage drives out justice. The blindfolded statue of justice must puzzle moderns; our goddess of punishment has her eyes taped open. Factions cannot weigh the crime, the violation, and the loss, to calculate justice; they must parade grief and trauma, talk of closure or taking action as if these were answers. But grief has no closing, and there is no satiety in extracting satisfaction, nor revenge sweet enough to mask bitterness.

Factions so conceived cannot be satisfied with the fulfillment of finite goals. Outrage substitutes for religion like drugs substitute for achievement; outrage beguiles uncertainty like a hit or a high beguiles boredom or frustration. Both being poor substitutes, both tend to subvert and consume: as drugs subvert and consume one's life, outrage subverts and consumes one's voice.

But history as such contains no revelations. It has no pivots, no keys and no locks. The lessons of history regarding humanity are only of human weakness, human fragility, and human folly. Religion can embrace history; but history can be made to yield only perishable religions—their saints, made only once, all die in time and cannot be renewed. Looking at the Somme or Cu Chi, at Auschwitz or Ground Zero, some are driven to invent something analogous to Providence; they find a meaning commensurate with the loss; they contrive to be inspired where they cannot bear despair. But history is truth, not mythos; and things happen because of what went before them, not in order to change the world afterward. No one can speak for the dead, nor do the dead speak.

III.
Our serious writing is reducible to the devotional and the penitential. What does one learn from our periodicals? How is one illuminated by them? No distinctions are introduced, no arguments are undertaken; we are expected to bow to the alternations of authoritative pronouncement and sly derision, or to be dazed by a handful of shiny statistics. The actual reading is redundant; from the forum and the subtitle you can usually deduce the contents of the article or essay in advance. You could write it yourself.

The professions of writing and reviewing seem increasingly to attract the ascetic or masochistic. Entry to the fellowship of enlightened readers is conditional to willingness to mortify one's mind with the literary equivalents of the scourge (the short story, the indigestible slice of alien life), the hair shirt (the clinically detailed novel, telling more than an analyst or confessor would dare ask), and the fast (lazy criticism, the pillow-fights of the tenured).

IV.
I cannot believe that our descendants will read our literature. Will even scholars delve it comfortably? A hundred years hence, I imagine, our literature will feel to our descendants like an old book of earnest and censorious sermons feels to us: claustrophobic and inhuman.

Curiosities

Not all curiosities are of scientific use or value; not all anomalies are indicative; but the habit of collecting curiosities, the gothic fascination which they cast, is the same as, or rises from the same disposition as, the scientific temperament. The philosopher may despise the aberrant as the defectively instantiated ideal; but to the scientist, as much as to the poet, anything out of the ordinary—anything curious, bizarre, monstrous, abstruse, singular, marvellous—whatever it proves to be on examination, in the first instance and encounter it seems the token of another world, carries the promise and scent of livid skies over far wastes, or far kingdoms with dizzying monuments and cruel ways and musical languages.

It was not in that first reaction, but only in its prosecution that scientist and magus diverged: the scientist applied Occam's razor, to find the place of the thing in the known world; the magus supposed that he could limn new worlds in the thing. Of course the scientist is sometimes wrong. It was difficult for scientists to accept the notion of meteors; now they journey to cold white wastes to find the meteoric traces of an occult commerce of planets. Wonder is properly inspired by awe at the vast—at the sky, the mountain—but there is an equal inspiration in the glamour of the small and strange: in the jests of nature; in the contextless banal illuminated and freighted with its foreignness; in the freakish, inexplicable, puzzling, or inscrutable. The wonder of the awful should not be dimmed by explanation, nor the glamour of the curious.

Philosophy

Stare hard enough at any one thing, and it becomes transparent; pull long enough, and any one thread unravels the world. This is the promise of philosophy.

Emerson said that "a false consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." But a false consistency is one one with bad foundations, or confused in execution, to be demolished and replaced; and consistency itself is so far from the concern of little minds, that it is the only law which holds even for God. Aristotle said that "philosophy begins in wonder," which is true in history and sentiment; but practically, philosophy comprises only the pursuit of consistency—the mind building up, building out, and drawing together; the mind seeking in the system of the world that necessary Parminedean perfection which perishing matter cannot show, which perishing flesh cannot see.

Philosophy alone demands all the mind's resources, all its power, all its patience and devotion. It is the only work which concentrates and unites all the disparate abilities of the mind, which justifies the problematic endowment of human beings with more intellectual power than has any practical applicability—what we burn off in the mental pilot flame of entertainment. Even the coffee-fueled mathematician, who also seeks consistency, does so only within a model world where definition always precedes realization; but the philosopher, even choosing to deny or reform language, still must account for it.

The likeness of a philosopher, in relation to the arts and sciences, is a pathfinder, or the surveyor of a road. It is the philosopher's part only to find a way and to report on it; perhaps to guide the equally intrepid along it; but not to clear the way, nor to build the road, nor to conduct passengers. In this way, the contributing work of a philosopher, unless commemorated by a plaque or namesake (Plato's Highway, for instance, where most of the traffic of mathematics flows; or Aquinas's, the artery of Catholicism), goes unnoticed.

Mathematics has displaced philosophy in cultural and academic prestige. Mathematics is more approachable: both mystify the spectator, but mathematics's applications are obviously mathematical in character, while philosophy's are at second hand. Having been adopted as part of the mental equipment, ideas become invisible, hidden by (I would name it) the Idol of the Schoolroom: Obviousness in Retrospect. We like to believe that our stock of ideas is inevitable, natural, characteristic of all thinking beings or of our degree of progress; curiously, we even find it far more comfortable to regard an idea as the precipitation of an economic climate than the work of a specific person. Where we allow individuals a place in the history of ideas, it is not as discoverers, but as menus; so that hungry and talkative intellectuals may as well ask each other: do we eat French or Chinese? Be Aristotelian or Cartesian?

If not everywhere cultivated or respected, philosophy is everywhere present, though implicit and naïve—the nakedness under all intellectual or creative attire. We are in a fallow period—we may be near its end—as in the West, the Dark Ages stored up the fuel for the incandescent syntheses of Aquinas and Lull—one of the most rational periods in history, for Reason is not reasonable. Reason requires you to be able to entertain the thought that everything you know is wrong; what passes for reason in reasonable is merely the averaging of first impressions. For serious thinking, the Age of Reason seems continuous with the Middle Ages when viewed from our night of fatuous prosperity and academic needlepoint.

What are called good reasons are not enough; everything ever believed has been believed for good reasons, most of which prove to be irrelevant. Without the telescope or Foucault's pendulum, every good reason is for the Earth as center of the universe; without the effort of studying history, every good reason is for the inborn superiority of the enslaving race over the enslaved. Nor are institutions enough. Abdicating reason may be reasonable, but is not rational. Every crime and cruelty within human power has been institutionalized at some point—mostly in the XXth century and within living memory. An accumulations of answers is nothing; reason requires the accumulation of questions: the discipline of uncertainty. Reasonable though you may be, you have not become rational until you have learned to fear Descartes's demon.

It may be that philosophy is not neglected only because it is difficult, unrespected, even disreputable; but because the stocks of ideas of the several civilizations now otherwise closely connected have hardly begun to meet. The world of ideas is at present like an avalanche of rocks, which moves in fits: ideas collide, repercuss, shape or are shaped, sunder or shatter as they roll from one coign to the next, where they settle until some new idea being added, it sends them all rolling again. In this state, a philosopher must be an adventurer, and willing to climb—a rare disposition, as philosophers have ever been walkers.

We hear much of Eastern thought; but we have hardly been introduced to Eastern thinkers, and to the diversity of Eastern schools; and for the East the same is true of the West—Eastern thinkers no more think of Western philosophers apart from Western scientists, than Western thinkers think of Middle Eastern philosophers after Averroës. There is no door into philosophy by way of culture. The substance of philosophy is as much above culture as is the phenomenon of language.

Only a fool throws over East for West—or West for East, or any other recombination of regions and heritages. Only a fool lets his birth, the accidents of blood or language or geography, dictate a taste prevailing over thought. The West has but lately learned that it is not the only spring; nor, it must learn, is it only a drain for all the waters of the world. It is a spring among springs, and as the basin world fills all waters must mix. This is the only real meaning of the word humanism, the only one an Erasmus would recognize. It may be called cultural imperialism; if so, it is an unprecedented mutual conquest—all conquered and none conquerers.

Biologists protest that the idea of race is useless to them, because individuals within races can always be adduced who are as more diverse than typical individuals of different races (though one wonders, if individuals within æras are as or more diverse than across them, is time therefore unreal?). Philosophy will not be ready for a renascence until it has banished unphilosophical categorization by region; until it is generally appreciated that Berkeley is closer to the Madhyamika than Aristotle, that Mo Tzu (the Legalist) is closer to Plato (of the Republic) than to Confucius, that Spinoza is closer to Mullah Sadra than to Kant.

Fable of the Whale and the Dolphin

It happened in a cold sea that a dolphin and a whale became friends. In the shallows they would breach and rise into sunlight together; and the whale would admire the dolphin’s burnished, piercing swiftness, and regret his fell bulk. In the deep they would talk of deep things together; and the dolphin would admire the plangent voice of the whale and the patient subtlety of whale-speech, and regret the flightiness of the skipping, glittering speech of dolphins.

Now, once when both were near the surface, there rose a great storm, and each had to flee to their own shelter – the whale to his deep and the dolphin to his cove – without the chance to appoint another meeting. After the storm had passed, the whale sang a summoning song that carried in resonant echoes of sound deep through every sea to the ends of the world; and the dolphin appointed to all his dolphin-fellows to search the whole surface of the sea. But the dolphin did not hear the whale, and news of the whale did not reach the dolphin. So after a time, when the dolphin grew annoyed with the sleepless restlesssness of his kind and the whale impatient with the memorious melancholy of his kind, they set out in search of one another.

The dolphin stretched his lungs as far as he could and dove straight down to seek the utter deep where the whales slide and the water rings forever with the thunder of their voices. He had sought that deep before, with his friend the whale. He had learned from the whale how to fill his lungs farther than he had thought possible, how to brace himself to bear the pressure of mountains on his every side. These terrors of the deep he knew; but he had never known how his great friend’s nearness, how the heat of his blood, had sheltered him from the last terror of the deep – from its cold. Cold pierced him from every side; first he was full of needles, then hollow. Realizing his mistake, he tried to turn and rise, but the cold had locked his muscles. He floated for a time until his air was spent, then drifted down dead through the substance of darkness to the snaky floor of the deep.

The whale sought out the cove where he knew his friend would hide. There were no dolphins in it he could see from without, but he thought that his friend might be waiting for him within. The dolphin had warned him against the cove, but the whale saw that there was plenty of water. He entered the cove and searched and searched it, examining every crevice with great eyes which were not used to such prolonged brightness. Then he turned to go, but found that now the cove was cut off from the sea. This was the tide he had been warned against and forgotten – but he did not fear, even as his slick heaving side was dried out by the declining sun, for he knew the tide would come back.

But the moon was waning, and the tides were low. Through weeks the whale lay on his side heaving for breath, feeling the ungracious carrion birds that would not wait for his death. Hope became courage, courage gave way to despair, and the great heart, defeated without and within, burst and stilled.

Moral: The Wise and the Happy mix at mutual Peril.

The rich and the healthy

The rich and the healthy misunderstand poverty and sickness. They see only a line to be crossed between destitution and sufficiency, between sickness and health. But there is poverty without imminent starvation, and sickness not prey for cancer or infection to eat. The fear of death is easy to sympathize with; but the rich and the healthy never understand what it means to have to choose.

Torture is not about pain; it is about humiliation and violation. Those who succumb to torture do not succumb because of the pain, but because of the horror: because such things can happen. Your mother never taught you that someday you might be given over naked and helpless into the hands of your enemies and left to their devices. Subject to torture, you cannot believe what is happening to you. It is never your will that breaks; it is always your mind.

Poverty warps the mind similarly. The lives of the rich branch out like trees or deltas; the lives of the poor and sick run on rails, along routes chosen by others. The old company store model is the extreme. What is little better about wages so low that you can survive only by shopping for food that destroys your health for sustaining your life? To be poor, if not starving, is still to have to make such unbelievable choices: food or health, a safe home or crushing debts, enough hours for a decent wage or knowing your children on sight; and when you go to a doctor, or the hospital, or to beg from your insurer—your money or your life.

There is a syndrome of poverty that results from walking such mazes, like the inanition of an animal punished repeatedly and capriciously. Hope is the leaven every mind requires to imagine, to try, to dare, to build; but it does not take very much poverty to crush hope out of a person. This living with eyes taped open, in vigilance as ceaseless as certain to be unavailing, in awaiting disaster foreknown but still inevitable, is known in the poor as laziness.

The poor must do, when they can get them, with damaged or dying machines: old cars that fume and guzzle, a dishwasher that uses so much electricity you can only run it once a week, a chainsaw that spits chips and stutters, but whose blade you cannot afford to replace or have sharpened. The same is true of their bodies. Even in the most enlightened republics it is the right of the poor, not to be healthy, but to be healthy enough for work, or at least not to draw attention. Even when medicine can do nothing for them, the rich and the sick may enjoy an excusing diagnosis, even if just a syndrome without treatment; but for the poor, what the first test does not show, does not exist. There are no follow-ups, no referrals. They cannot fight. It is in the autopsies of the rich and vocal in their sufferings that new diseases are discovered; it is therefore strange, but likely true, to think that there are a vast number of afflictions only of the poor stemming from malnutrition, stress, or hard labor, which have never been and never will be named, for they silence their victims.

This is the way of the world; the alternatives known so far are worse. The disappearance of visible poverty from parts of the first world is partly the result of fitted blinders—not just a cowardly unwillingness to see the problem—the visibility of the poor only discourages investment, and worsens their plight—and partly the result of globalization, which segregates classes in their own countries.

My interest here is sociological, because all civilizations have the poor in common, and the poor of all civilizations are alike. Details of costume, language, and climate aside, all hovels are really but one hovel, and all unskilled labor is really but one vast project, now building a pyramid, now digging a canal; now sewing shirtwaists, now sewing jeans. In thinly populated hunter-gatherer societies, or in civilizations with money to hand, there is room for culture, room to work out what it means to be human; but the poor are always and everywhere worn down to the same nub: what we all are in the end, at the last, at the core.

So many books

I.
There is but one royal and straight road to the habit and power of thinking: reading. An education that does not form a reader is a stuccoed ignorance. Read every day. Do not read programmatically; do not read with a dictionary or a notebook or a commonplace book at your shoulder. Read as mood, interest, chance or caprice moves you. Programmatic reading relies on the memory of the programmer; but our memories of where ideas and notions first moved us tend to assimilate to their best expression, and we forget the survey or introduction, the passing reference, the awkward conversation which first inspired or illuminated us. The apostles of Literature are wont to forget that beneath the summit of Parnassus there is mountain to be scaled, with many approaches. Beware of anyone who says that to learn this, you must read this or that. Try what they say; but let your mind assert its own needs for corollary, introductory, or critical materials, for a fallowing break into some other subject (or into fiction), or for backtracking. The best minds, the most skilled, are often spoiled by prideful unwillingness to reconsider their assumptions and methods, to review the basics.

Never pause while reading to look something up. It is the first encounter which cuts the furrow, builds the pigeonhole, opens the file. If you get into the habit of pausing to look up, your mind will make such spaces only at the rate it can fill them from reference works; but if you let them open at the speed of uninterrupted reading they will be there to receive answers as they come to you in reading, conversation, walking on the proverbial heath—or in an apple orchard under the moon. Search for answers, and you find few; amass questions, and the world sings with answers. There are necessary exceptions: a chronology and maps are good to have to hand while reading history; and with foreign languages it is possible to be respectably skilled without being able to desert the dictionary. Too, there is no harm in noting topics for later investigation. But inertia should be your rule and your friend: finish what you start.

Never record notes or excerpts in the heat of the moment; finish a book before you extract from it. What is eloquent or moving in context may be dull or insipid when returned to directly; what seems essential or illuminating may be obvious later, or prove an oversimplification set as a snare for you by a careless or disingenuous author—textbooks are full of such intellectual mantraps. It is harmless to record a page or paragraph to return to; but as you are mortal, you must not waste time.

II.
We remember what we learn more by the incidents of its acquisition than its place in a scheme. A book, as an article, is full of such incidents: binding, paper, cover and fonts; the author's style and voice; the circumstances where you read it; its weight on or in your hand; how you marked it or took pains not to mark or mar it; who you were when you read it; who gave to you or where you bought it or took it out; who recommended it; how old it is—new, secondhand, antique. A book is a mnemonically individual as a teacher and has the advantages of cheapness, reliable supply, permanence, and retainability—you cannot put a teacher on a shelf. Precisely because it is fixed and set, a book is not an indifferent medium (like the Internet) through which an item of data crosses from mind to mind; it is a physical thing, fraught and sensuous, whose circumstances receive and bind, like spiders' silk, gossamer and flighty thought. Love what books contain, but lust for books themselves; not with a gourmand's discrimination, but a voluptuary's delight.

The ancients, who had only fragile scrolls, and the scholars and schoolmen of the Middle Ages, who owned few books, built labyrinthine dream-palaces in their memories, full of niches and ramifying halls and galleries concocted from shards of remembered or imagined buildings. These palaces were miscellaneous as pattern books, like the strange buildings which haunt Renaissance backgrounds, D¨rer's rambling castles or the scenes where Poliphilo wandered; and which came as ruins to dominate Romantic landscapes, senseless conjunctions of towers and walls and columns; Death's city in Poe, resembling nothing which is ours. These palaces housed only commodious niches, ranged along hall walls or between arcade columns, or grouped behind doors: and in each niche, a vision lived—a nightmare, a fox-headed lady standing for a name beginning with V (vulpus); or a caricature, the goat with swollen testacles who was Cicero's testator.

But these were intimations. The true palace of memory is the library, with wings of shelves, corridors of volumes, niches of pages where memory is ensnared. The mind on its own holds but one palace; but there are books—classics—broad and deep enough to be palaces in themselves which one life cannot fill. So many counted light-years will not suffice to hold universe enough to justify, let alone satiate, the appetites and powers of the human mind; but books brought together do not add, but multiply; to be among books you know well is to be lifted out of mortal span and reach.

Dead languages

There are many dead languages in the world; most are aboriginal, but many are civilized. Sumerian is a dead language; no one reads it except to translate from it. But Latin is not a dead language. No one writes in Sumerian—and what you wrote in Sumerian, if you had that whim, would be philological caprice, not real Sumerian. But with diligence anyone can learn to write Latin; and what they write is real Latin, because Latin has been preserved and immortalized by the prescriptions of its grammarians, who sheared their language from the Tiber by making it answerable only to written, explicit, portable, unowned rules, and therefore fit to receive the genius of all peoples and ages.

There is an English-language literature, not several streams of British and American and Commonwealth literature, and English is fit to be the universal and auxiliary language of commerce and science, only because of those grammarians, and that lexicographer, who trawled and netted its vagaries, who indefatigably caught and named and pinioned and catalogued until a whole language, fit for any purpose, was anatomized and exhibited.

The English language is still vital, and thus changeful on vulgar tongues, and among scientific explorers who must quickly get over the business of giving names to their new worlds; but most of these words will die, becoming quaint or obsolete. While they live, they may serve probation to become part of the language; but likelier, they will never be cut free from their contexts, and if they come to be written at all it will be only for color.

The Latin model is not ideal for English—nor for Latin, whose grammar is modeled after Greek; but our Latinate grammar is not a cage; it is a trellis. It supports the whole structure of English literature. It is not an affected, alien imposition: it is, itself, the English language. It has not prevented English from fracturing, as is its nature—as was Latin's nature, Europe witnesses—but it has preserved over and above those dialects a true, nuclear English. I dare call it true because English as we know it is not the product of any natural development. English is an artificial language; a consciously and self-consciously made hybrid of Englisc, Norman French and Latin. The great writers and translators into our English, Mallory, Browne, Bacon, Burton, Florio, North, Urquhart, Sidney, Spencer, Shakespeare, did not use the English they found: they created the English we know. I do not believe that anyone in their time, even they, spoke as they write. But we speak their language, not a descendant of any of the argot-pidgin-creole-cant-jargon-lingoes (likely closer to Chaucer) that would have been heard in the London of their time.

Dialects, whatever the charm they have to linguists, cannot be entered into by outsiders. They presume and enforce a shared background, a particular geographic, racial, cultural economic set of coördinates. They are worthy of study; they are worthy of respect, as aspects of cultures; but, though they do not much endanger English, it is the function and duty of grammarians to cut them down, to make room for their successors. There will always be a new crop of dialects and jargons and a new harvest of what they have to offer English as such, which must then wither to make way for the next crop. English is in no danger from descriptivists and careless linguists who misapply instruments proper to study the creativity and forgetfulness of illiterate languages to literate ones—which are just as creative, but need never forget. English is stronger than its enemies; and because English is as immortal and universal as it is captured in books, English literature is being fed into by countries with nothing else but English grammar in common, and by the best minds of these countries, who know that what they write in their mother languages is only for their brothers and sisters; but what they write in English is for the world and forever.

As ever, it is the artist who knows the rules and breaks them knowingly; the fool who breaks them unknowingly; and the damn fool who neither mends nor defends their mistake, but protests its detection, as if we should sit and watch while they and their nuisance ilk pound a wedge to rive us from the continuity that English has enjoyed since Shakespeare. Now, Shakespeare was free with his language; but in every art the freedom of genius frames the rules for the rest. Anything which takes us further from Shakespeare deserves careful examination, and some period of quarantine.

English's rules are not perfect. Some are golden, the indispensable instruments of clarity (like keeping participle and subject in agreement); some are well-exampled, but questionable (they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun); some asinine, but somehow impossible to banish (aversion to the split infinitive or the hanging preposition—which one does best to carefully think about). But it is better to have bad rules among good ones than no rules. The case is rather like spelling reform. English spelling is so peculiar, so uniquely adapted for its needs—not as illogical as some imagine—that spelling reform poses a double danger.

1. Our spelling conceals from us how really diverse, especially in vowels, our dialects are. An accurate phonetic spelling of English would of necessity either become so formalized as to obviate its aim, or remain faithful to the sounds of English, and thus be slow to read. Orthographic convention distinguishes the command, "Marry merry Mary," from the assessment of Mary, that "merry Mary married," or of the ceremony, "Mary married merrily." Either we would have to be on constant guard against such ambiguities and uncertainties—every writer's spellings declaring their background—or adopt some single dialect, or commingling of dialects, as a standard source of spellings to be imposed on everyone else. Distasteful (æsthetically and patriotically, to this American) as it is to think of the mealy sounds of the King's English overlying all English literature—it is better than to think of seeing Shakespeare exhibited in print under the droning manufactured nowhere-dialect of the television anchor.

2. English orthography is so complex if it were not taught, trouble would not often be taken to learn it. Much would be transcribed; more would effectively be lost—whatever our age's critics, and public taste, did not see fit to preserve accessibly. What could we lose at the hands of a modern Rhymer or Dryden?

Latinizing missionaries who stretched native languages on the rack were able to give them Bibles in their own languages. Linguists produce accurate descriptive grammars which make beautiful epitaphs to those languages. Bahasa Indonesia has preserved Indonesian language at the cost of Indonesian languages; the French created France out of the possessions of the Capets by suppressing regional dialects; the Arabic world is a world only by its devotion to the language of the Koran.

All rules seem arbitrary until they are gone without; all systems of rules suffer rot, once useful provisions becoming shibboleths; but a language without rules is a house on fire. Fire is a kind of life, breathing and eating; but it is too much life, and it leaves only ashes. A language is not alive, something growing and maturing, until it has been settled prescriptively, not by itself but by learning from the grammarians of, and translators from, older languages. Thus, all literate languages are artificial languages; their changes belong to history, not culture. The natural development of English which descriptive grammarians would defend no longer exists. The successions of fashion are unlike the forces determining national costume or native dress; just so, the changes of of a written language belong not to the order of cultural change, but to the order of revolutions and discoveries—of change in worldview, where prescription is the necessary condition of consensus.

The Book of Mismatched Lists

[In admiration of JLB.]

PREFACE TO THE EDITION OF 1984

Jacques Cadillac, the author of The Book of Mismatched Lists, was born in 1645, in Rouen, the illegitimate son of the favorite mistress of George Blanc, the Abbé de Lamothe. The Abbé was a wealthy man, of diverse interests, but with a particular passion for philosophical languages which would later extend to the preparation of Essai du Langue Philosophique, printed in Rouen in 1688, a translation of Wilkins's Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language.

In 1655, the Abbé visited England along with his favorite mistress and his favorite bastard. During this time the Abbé, browsing (inattentively, as most do) a copy of Thomas Urquhart's Logopandecteision, discovered Urquhart's boast that his philosophical language could be taught to a boy of ten years in three months. Since the Abbé intended a long stay in England, he wrote to Urquhart to offer him a large sum of money to undertake that very task. The Abbé's own words (from his Correspondence from 1630–1687—the Abbé employed several secretaries in the maintenance of folio letter-books) are worth repeating:

It is my fondest wish and dearest hope that you, the illustrious author this most wonderful plan for a fully developed philosophical language, would undertake, with remuneration appropriate to the extraordinary service commissioned, the education of my son in your laudable Logopandecteision. My son is ten years of age; if you will only come to us, we shall be pleased for you to live among us, as one of us, during those three months of invaluable instruction.


Predictably, Urquhart, ready for comfort after his confinement to the Tower and hounded by his creditors, appeared. Urquhart's stay lasted, in fact, only two months, until the Abbé discovered that this Urquhart was the same as the translator of Rabelais into English—to the Abbé, who wore his tonsure lightly, but took his faith seriously, the whole of Europe had never held anyone else half so despicable as that scoffer Rabelais.

No immediate change in young Jacques was observed, and the Abbé concluded that the lessons Urquhart had offered had been entirely a scam. This opinion changed quickly after their return to France. Jacques's restoration to his former tutors was only to their embarrasment; he had only (the Abbé gathered, from the accounts of the thinly enlightened tutors, who had resorted to accusations of sorcery) to work out the names of subjects and their leading ideas in a language unknown to any of those tutors—unknown, but singularly beautiful and fascinating, "more sung than spoken" (as the Abbé wrote, relating the events),—to be able to evince, with but minutes of reflection, a total mastery of the discipline, from its principles to its most arcane and abstruse results. This facility was not only intellectual; he could play any instrument as soon as handle it. He ruined the reputation of his fencing master by repeatedly disarming him before his students in his own sallé.

The Abbé wrote to Urquhart in the most grovelling terms, begging him to come to France (this letter, not collected with the rest of the Abbé's correspondence, belongs to the British Museum), but Urquhart had left Britain, vanishing into the Continent. The Abbé soon realized that the intellectual facility which the language Logopandecteision gave his son—the Abbé decided to call it Adamic, considering it the rediscovery of the language of Eden—was not altogether a good. Try as he might, the Abbé could not get Jacques to attempt to teach another the language—the boy claimed to have no systematic knowledge of the grammar, as that would have been the matter of the third month of Urquhart's instruction—or to explain or write out any of the marvellous discoveries the language had allowed him to reach. "He says that while anything that may be said or written in any other language may be said in Adamic," wrote the Abbé, "very little of what may be said in Adamic can be translated into the languages stemming from the confusion of Babel."

Young Jacques spent nearly all his time in the composition of poetry—"A sonnet of Adamic, he tells me, contains more than all the treatises of Aristotle and the Schoolmen"—and in one-sided conversation with animals and plants. The Abbé found one incident startling enough to record and send on:

I went down to my family orchard, which had fallen barren in my grandfather's time; those old trees, it seemed to me, would never fruit again. I discovered that without my knowledge, my son had followed me, and was haranguing the trees in Adamic. I say haranguing, from the loudness of his voice; but his tones were rather those of a seducer. It was already autumn then. In the depth of that winter, I was riding through the village in my carriage, when an apple was thrown through my window. Astonished at seeing a fresh apple in winter in this remote place, far from the sea, I examined it by what light there was; and it seemed to me that something was familiar in its color. I bit into it; at first taste it was superbly sweet; but the sweetness grew on my tongue, until surpassing sweetness, the taste became painful and bitter, like fresh Spanish licorice. I returned swiftly to my home, and walked down through deep snow to the old orchard, where I found the withered trees with their branches obscured with apples, which frost had turned white. I ordered the apples collected and distilled to a cider, to preserve their strange quality. This spring, the trees have all died.


The profit the Abbé made from selling that extraordinary cider to eagerly curious correspondents convinced him that here was a miracle of practical consequence; so he ordered the construction of a greenhouse. The extraordinary flowers which grew there under Jacques's persuasion—roses which required two hands to hold; orchids which could be worn, properly prepared, like hats—were harvested several times a year and transported to Paris and Versailles to adorn the ladies of fashion. But yet more profitable were certain plants of medicinal virtue which could not otherwise be grown in France, and for which apothecaries were willing to pay well more than their weight in gold. The clever Abbé, looking to diversify, had several racing horses brought to his son; each of these won the first race it was entered in by an extraordinary margin, but thereafter could hardly walk. The Abbé entered a few old, undistinguished horses every year, whose remarkable victories made them, though crippled, valuable studs.

In 1669, Jacques fell fom a horse and broke his leg. The leg would never heal properly, and Jacques was nearly dumb with fear and exhaustion for some months. The Abbé, alarmed at the prospect of an end to the marvel of Adamic, and optimistic that the language could be systematized along the lines of Wilkins's new work, again attempted to convince Jacques to try to teach him Adamic. Jacques again professed his inability. The Abbé resolved on an indirect tactic—to create a dictionary of Adamic. Jacques demurred that no writing system available was sufficient to record the subtle accents of Adamic; however, he agreed to begin writing out definitions, pledging to create a writing system later.

The Abbé left with Jacques his manuscript translation of Wilkins, and embarked on a prolonged absence to visit his nominal benefice. During this time, Jacques wrote out in Latin, in a series of octavo notebooks, nearly five thousand definitions. When the Abbé returned, he wished to see them; but they seemed to him only to be gibberish, so he grew angry with Jacques, whom he accused first to trying to trick him; then, in anger, of traffic with the devil.

The Abbé indignantly quoted certain of these gibberish definitions in his letters; to his surprise, his correspondents begged to hear more of them—even correspondents who had never returned his letters before. The Abbé realized that nonsense might still have much of poetry. Jacques, irreconcileably offended by the Abbé first reaction, refused to write any more definition; but the Abbé took the existing notebooks and had them transcribed by his secretaries, then published as Liber Nominandarum (Rouen, 1670). The Abbé took charge of the whole stock, and shipped copies to his correspondents, keeping careful records of each. Of the original notebooks, history provides no further mention. The printer attempted another printing for sale, printed in Rouen but marked as if printed in Paris; these books, along with the transcription and possibly the notebooks, the Abbé had destroyed.

In 1672, the Abbé died. Jacques closed the greenhouse, gave his fortune into the hands of a firm of Rouen factors, and lived in seclusion until his own death in 1720. His only contact with the outside world was that necesssary to secure publication of the Abbe's correspondence, and of his translation of Wilkins. After Jacques's death, his and his father's papers were confiscated by the Intendant; Jacques himself was posthumously convicted of witchcraft; and Royal order commanded the utter destruction of the Liber Nominandarum.

The Abbe's careful records enabled the tracing of every copy; none survive. Three partial manuscript translations into French, and what the Abbé himself quoted in his letters, are all that remain. Between them, they comprise 612 distinct appositions, as each entry is known. One of these French manuscripts was in 1730 made the basis for an English translation, comprising 285 appositions and published in London The Complete Wonderfull Book of Mis-Matched Lists of the Abbot of Lamothe—the printer apparently being confused as to its authorship. From the English edition, all the many other direct and indirect manuscript copies have been made—for the catalogue, see Appendix A.

The influence of the Book, in France and England, is difficult to ascertain, as it was almost never quoted directly. The recipients of the Abbe's copies comprised nearly every significant figure of the period in French literature and philosophy—one copy, taken from the Royal library, was burned in the presence of Louis XV. The French never named the book itself before the burning, because, everyone knowing it, they never had to; after the burning, they were afraid to; and the English, having learned from the French example, kept their copies uncatalogued and out of sight.

Nonetheless, it would be difficult to find an author of the XVIIIth or XIXth centuries who did not show, in some degree, the influence of the Book. Some of the appositions have even influenced popular language and sayings. Most notably, Ap. 128 (using the enumeration of Reicher's definitive 1870 edition): "Blue devils, the deep sea, violins, vinegar, salt, fruits red within." One appears to be the basis of a common non sequitur: (Ap. 40) "Ravens, batons [or walking sticks], writing desks [escritoires], night clouds, steeples, old songs." Some appear to derive from mythology: (Ap. 26), "A woman, an old man, a cane, a lion, a lord, a loss, graves." Some—and it should be remembered that they preceed even Champollion—seem to allude to Egyptian mythology: (Ap. 23) "A heart, a feather, a butcher, a son, a river, scales," or Babylonian: "The sea, storms, a dragon, water under the earth, the river mouth, mountaintops." They vary in length, from the shortest (Ap. 7), "Wine, worms," to the longest (Ap. 90), "A king, a home, a bushel, a mirror, a knife, a god, long nails, steam, a labyrinth [or the Labyrinth], sand, marble, foreigners, comers, a door, madness, old crimes, hills, a tower, a whale, grass, memory, broken strings [musical], a pit, a torch, the green sea, a stylus, boards, rings, plaster, maps, lamps, a tiger, a plate, a height, a fall." Snatches of sense in these and other appositions (a king's home being a palace, knife and mirror both being reflective, and a height preceding a fall) have inspired interpretative efforts which have yet to succeed in making much more sense than the original. There were, it seems, some efforts at organization in the original; compare, for example, appositions 5 and 6, each with eight terms: (5) "Gold, sand, spit, a scythe, a [split] rail, a key, a flock, a [nun's] habit," and (6) "Silver, rain, blood, a staff, a post, a lock, a crook, skin." But each translator felt it worth their time to record only one member of each pair; such pairs as we do have come each from different manuscripts.

The obscurity of so influential a book is a problem of literature without a literary solution; but the human answer is as obvious as the existence of the book is repulsive. It invalidates at least all literature since it was created, and possibly all literature. A Jung could look for a collective unconscious in the mind; but in the Book we have one of paper, a shared universe of dreams which has been the artificial unconsciousness of the whole of romanticism and modernism, a false nature which has beguiled the world alike from classical worldliness and medieval religiosity. But the Book is more than a practical repudiation of the value of criticism and authorship. It debases the value of imagination, to find that all that can be imagined yields to interpretation by this single key, that every myth and story and work of art and piece of music is but a failed evocation and adumbration of a single word of the only true and perfect language. It blasphemes the idea of mystery, that there should ever have existed a Book such as this, in which all mysteries are potentially present. The Book is a rebuke to the intellect of humanity, to our provisional and grasping efforts, to what in the Book's light we can only mistake for creativity. The Book is a fragment of Divine design—incomprehensible as a fragment of a machine's design would be if we have but the plan of a valve or a seal; an echo of the confident and fearless thoughts of angels. The Book is as cruel as our vision and understanding is limited; it is as foul as the fact that we built our tower at Babel, and it fell. They were wise who tried to destroy it; and we are fools who have forever bound ourselves to it, by its study, and by this reprinting.

P. S. 2009-05-23 Engravings of some of the hats. The attribution is a few decades off, but the general idea is accurate.