Violent snow

When I heard that snow was in the forecast here, I sneered. Something called snow has been seen here: early in the morning, dusted like frost on the fields, collected by shallow puddle-basins into white blots.

Nature has instructed my disdain.

I woke to look out on a white world, a white weird and awful as the white hand of Moses. Snow lay thick on the roof, thick on branches, thick on evergreen leaves. Snow had inverted the forest: straight-trunked trees that reach branches up to the sun, instead lay them down along their sides, like fronds of Christmas trees; titan limbs of spreading live oaks that float twenty feet in the air, strong as iron and thick as pillars, curved under the weight of the snow loading their leaves until they arched against the ground.

And the snow was still falling: wet, heavy snow, good snow for snowmen and snowballs, falling so fast and thick that I could hear it. I cannot compare the sound. And faintly, from deep in the woods, came another sound like war guns or holiday fireworks—the first cracks of breaking branches.

Snow on trees.

My last snowfall fell ten years ago: weeks of etherealizing snow on the Pine Barrens, a slow, thin, steady fall like the gradual deposition of a pearl, and still the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

So I put on a helmet, grabbed a camera, and walked out, listening for the warning sounds of snapping branches; stepping over branches I knew only from beneath, over ranks of hedges that lay prone as sleepers after long days.

Snow on path.

Along the way, in the shelter of the Quonset hut, I looked back into the woods and saw—too fast to watch—a 60 foot tree (it must have been dead) simply slide three lengths past one another and disappear like a closing telescope.

Snow on Quonset hut.
Beyond the Quonset hut, the field.

Snow on field.
From the field, back to the house, where disaster had arrived. I lost the stomach for pictures. Each casualty was the same: first, the fatal shot; then, as if in shame of defeat, the slough that sends up a white lace veil; last, so many tons of wood swing or plummet almost silently into the muffling snow.

It went on for hours, snow piling impossibly on the green leaves. It was indeed good snow for snowmen: the snow made its own snowmen over the leaves, half-formed homuncular snowmen without faces.

Hour after hour I watched a day's snowfall work so much destruction that perhaps a human lifetime will not see it all repaired. As after hurricanes, the debris will go, and the summer's growth of leaves will hide the rest. They hide much. The forest grows; wind and now snow destroy; and though I live here, I do not know anymore which is winning.

Three days later, it was warm enough to breed mosquitoes. Ten days later, winter was declared.


The only virtue worth instilling in a child is to acknowledge mistakes without shame and to correct them without perversity. If a vice is worth avoiding because it is dangerous, then in time it must manifest itself as a mistake; so all that is worth teaching is that if a mistake is shown to you, you should take it as a favor; and that there is no shame in a mistake, except loyalty to it.

To acknowledge a mistake is not the same as to reflect on it. Sometimes, when you have taken on a serious responsibility and made a mistake with irreparable harm, then indeed you should be asked, and should ask yourself, just what is wrong with you. But, for most mistakes, to reflect on the mistake is to compound it. Inevitably, if you do many things, you will make some mistakes: the only way to avoid all mistakes would be to do nothing—which is a mistake of life.

Capricious punishment is the most demoralizing condition possible: there is more cruelty in mild punishment for no reason, than in the harshest punishment for clear reason. Such punishment, if sustained, is too horrible even to rouse the will to die; it puzzles the will altogether.

To search out secret sins to blame for the statistically inevitable is to punish yourself with such random cruelty. And even when a mistake does follow on a medicable fault, self-reflection is the worst way to discover it. Reflection is so hard that, after the difficulty of the inquiry, only a dramatic answer seems plausible; so you end blaming depravity for what is due to indigestion.

The virtue must be instilled, because it is difficult to acquire. It slows the development of a sense of identity; for the contempt for the corrections you receive from certain kinds of people is how you distinguish yourself from them. It is probably impossible for an unpracticed adult to acquire, since to do so would be to have to bear to think that what seemed the limits made by nature were only the perimeter set by prideful error.

This virtue is so rare, and so unreliable even in those who sometimes have it, that you may ask if it is worth having at all. I cannot assert that it is. Can it really be good—if it is right, is it wise—to be without shame among those who blame you? And though this virtue removes self-set limits, it may thereby only cost you more time making slow progress where your talents do not lie, than if you have, at the difficult outset, simply chosen pride in your incompetence.

Yet I believe it is a virtue; the more so because, like all virtues, it can be immoderate. A little uncertainty about your nature saves you from overspecialization and obsolescence; and a little time wasted in spreading your roots, saves you from exhausting the soil.

Nondefinition #29

Eer. A bodiless, malevolent supernatural being. Eers must not be confused with ghosts: a ghost is a remnant of a human being; an eer never was alive. Formerly, cities were inhabited weirdly by ghosts; but since the beginnings of urban sprawl—deprived of their natural habitats in wastes, wilds, and deserts—eers have become common in cities, where their prolific breeding displaces the native population of ghosts. Many young people today have never experienced a real ghostly whisper or flicker in the corner of the eye; sadly, they take it for granted that all silence and dimness is eerie.

A memory of infancy

I believe that anything can be said: that there are always words, though not always the strength to find and use them. Anything that can be experienced can be communicated. Communication from one mind to another cannot be perfect; but it can match the imperfect communication by way of memory between yourself then and yourself now.

This is a test case. I have what seems to be a memory of infancy. I do not not insist that it is true; it could be a neurological glitch. Nonetheless, it is an interesting problem of expression.

I call it a memory, yet I cannot remember it directly: I must remember being 11 remembering being 6 remembering. Eventually this chain must slip away from me; that it another reason to write this.

Again, I call it a memory because I have access to it by remembering; yet it is unlike other memories. It is smooth, hard, incapable of subdivision. It contains no data. In itself it is more of a feeling than a memory—as if at that stage the faculty of feeling supports not broad, generic emotions, but discrete pegs of experience. When I remember, the memory is not retrieved; it comes over me, I feel it as if I were feeling an emotion.

The senses are not distinct. They do not blend; there is no cacophony or synesthesia; instead, the senses are one—one unitary sensation that is not processed as sight or hearing or touch or smell, but absorbed as emotion. This one sense subordinates not only the familiar five, but also proprioception, one's awareness of one's own body. There is a quality to the memory like marshmallowiness—an association, not a translation—that I think is the best my adult brain can do in rendering an experience recorded by such an alien scheme of proportions and powers.

Something happens—something unpleasant. My best guess is that I am receiving an injection. The memory somewhat resembles that strange nauseating feeling of a needle under the skin, but magnified until—fleetingly—it becomes my entire experience of the world and myself.

World and self are not distinct. Because no such concept as control yet exists, I have no way to tell what I can control—myself—from what I cannot control—world. I do not experience the world as part of myself; I do not experience self; I just experience. Note that though this is an unpleasant memory, the distinction in an adult between something bad that happens to one (with anger, indignation, or fear) and something bad that one does without meaning to (with embarrassment, shame, regret and uncertainty)—this distinction is absent. The simple unpleasantness of something bad happening here compasses both—though, without future, I am without fear or uncertainty.

In this alien being that I was, I recognize only one thing.

Imagine that you have just taken up something very interesting, but which you know nothing about. You throw yourself into it. You learn fast, getting your bearings, absorbing the terms of art, feeling out the areas of concern. It is like hunger—better, it is like a stomach: a void with agency, to assert its need or satiety.

This, infinitely amplified, is what I recognize: the absolute ravenous void where words would be.

Nondefinition #28

Guitar. The occult instrument: not played, but addressed with secret hand-signs, transient hieroglyphs of a Mystery whose hieratic rites are carried out before audiences; one hand for Apollo, quiet, smooth, rapid, precise; and one hand for Dionysus, simple, restless, free and frantic; and the whole portable, companionable as a familiar, the conjurer's circle wherein the shade of the ideal orchestra is called up and given voice to tell its secret.

Three Short Poems

[Nondefinitions should resume next week.]


In summertime I cannot dream of winter;
In wintertime I cannot trust in summer.
On swaddled days when sunlight blasts to wither
And waxen thoughts run free in melted measure—
A knife against my skin lets me remember
How cold and sharp and clean and cruel is winter.
By canvas skies, in forest bare of shelter
When buried growing things are gone forever
A traitor sweat makes fever out of labor
And poison salt is all I know of summer.

The Sun in the Sea.

A lamp is behind each dream.
It burns like the sun in the sea
That shining from beneath
Through every sea-changed thing
(And every sea-born thing
That spreading rises from
Abyssal memory)
Stains the surface with shadows.
The endless dropping rain
Of the microscopic dead—
The easy dives of whales,
The gliding course of squids,
The straining submarines—
The billowing rise of steam,
The building rise of lava—
Are sketched inside the waves
In symbols, shapes and shadows
Cast by the lamp of dreams.

Ballad Meter.

You think that you have won today
   You hold your banner high;
Your smile, your dance and shouts all say,
   “My glory cannot die”;
But the sun is poised on the point of day
   To fall on the evening sky.

Music and meaning

Is there meaning in music? Certainly, any meaning whatsoever can be found in music—one piece of music and the businessman hears home, the lover hears the beloved, the believer hears God—but can a piece of music bear a single meaning, as a act of communication?

Keys and intervals are often treated of as ideas in themselves. The tritone threatens, A flat weeps, E flat creeps through every nerve; D major had a dying fall. Generally, that major keys are happy, and minor keys sad, stands agreed. But that can be proved only for a simplicity of examples. A composer can make any key serve any occasion; a performer can make any composer serve any occassion. And if we hear a familiar piece in an unfamiliar key—say, when an aging singer changes the key of a song to ease his voice—it troubles us at first; but we get used to it, and after a few hearings all our original associations pass over to it intact.

Time and use have made certain pieces of music the bearers of specific meanings; but if we listen naively, the meanings disappear. The motive of Beethoven's 5th has come to represent strength, right, V for victory; but if we say that Beethoven put all that into four notes, then we must say that Samuel Morse put it into three dots and a dash.

Yet it is absurd to say that music is empty of meaning—that it is mere play, that it is surface—that what we see in it are only reflections on its polish. Music comes to you without message or meaning; but once you have supplied a message, there should be no room for others. A piece of music should work on its message like a table of derivations works on a root in a Semitic language. We are not told what the deed is; we we are told: here is the doer, here is the manner, the means, here is the beginning of it, the end, the reasoning, the result, the place the thing was done, who it was done to. (A strange metaphor, yes; but consider the sometimes almost musical ambiguity of the ancient Semitic languages.)

No human being can experience every emotion equally; yet any competent musician can play a piece of music with any emotion, even one that that musician has never experienced. The lack of experience can even make for a better performance, if it keeps the performer out of the way. How, then, can we call playing music the expression of emotion? Rather, it is a means of experience. The same can be true for listeners. A sad song can sadden you without matching your own experiences. The sadness you feel from sad music may keep completely separate from your own sadnesses—an assumed, alien sadness that covers your own.

Music is not the only means of emotional education and exercise, but it is the most effective, being the most efficient and the most accessible. Music is thus in advance of the other arts: the others reach the mind later, and rely on the capacities that music has formed. And I suspect that among the arts, music serves to absorb the extreme of estheticism. In the unmusical estheticism can become immoderate and paralyzing, as if they do not know where to stop in their attempt to imitate or rival musical sophistication, even to the injury of what is particularly the art's own. Note that as music became easier to hear, all the arts adopted simplicity as their goal: as if the human desire for the satisfactions of sophistication were independent, and as it finds satisfaction in music, it loses its force in other arts.

Consider music in movies. I do not know how much I am ruled by habit in finding it natural. Perhaps in a hundred years a scene ending in swelling music while lovers kiss will seem as artificial as a scene ending with a rhyming couplet and a falling curtain. But it seems to me that the movie depends more on the music than the music depends on the movie. Silent film, of course, was never silent, only voiceless. Music videos are watchable without plot or character. Many movies—especially where they propose to represent real life—have plots that would, told over a dinner table, only provoke laughter; characters whom, were they real, we would prefer not to have heard of. Far from being ennobled by screen stature, it is by the reinforcement of music that such stories gain watchable significance. As literature, movies are less flexible than narrative: the stories of superheroes and salesmen must be told alike by one camera at a time in one place at a time following one act at a time in a box of the same size over the same amount of time. Music smooths out the absurd disparities when a salesman fills the screen like a superhero and a superhero jabbers like a salesman.

Information theory defines the unit of communication as a single decision: a bit of information is exactly enough to decide one Yes or No. In this sense, music is meaningless. It contains no information except itself. Yet it has something very close to meaning: it cannot tell you how to answer, but it can force you to come to an answer. The screen tells you the man is a villain; the music makes you hate him. The song tells you how he did her wrong; the music puts you on her side. Judgment can be withheld only in silence; music decides nothing, but it forces the decision.

Nondefinition #27

Wallet. "In the time of the first Pax Americana,"—saith the chronicler, but who believes the old stories?—"every man of age was required to carry at all times a scrap of cow-leather in a fold in the cloth of his garments; and except that he showed this Wallet on demand, no merchant would sell to him, and a judge might throw him in jail only because he was without his Wallet. The word comes from the old wall, for the sides of a room; and this because each Wallet was like a key to the Wall, wherein law-abiders dwell."


It is as difficult to say what guesswork is as to say what the mind is, for guessing is not the action of any faculty of the mind; it is an action of the whole mind. Guesswork cannot be trained by exercises or studies; the quality of the guess, if not taken in utter ignorance (the educated guess), is always the quality of the mind as a whole. Guesswork has no abstract objects to practice on—indeed, in any formal test, the answers on which your mind is most used are those you guess at. Only in your guesses do you transcend the test, having in mind not only the subject matter but also the context of the test, weighing the character and reconstructing the thoughts of its makers, estimating your limits, knowing yourself and knowing the ways of the world.

A good guess is sibling to a good idea. Both trade risk for reward, certainty for power. To guess is often the only way to know something that others do not. A bad guess is always wrong; but that one guess is better than another also good is no reason to prefer it. Reality is recalcitrant and perverse. Reality has punished for laziness, and punished for effort; punished for absurdity, and punished for plausibility; punished for optimism, and punished for pessimism—and, of course, rewarded each at times. It leaves us no rules for guessing: we cannot guess with less than all our strength.

Nondefinition #26

Alchemists. To alchemists, fools and frauds, we owe the glorious and world-changing science of chemistry. No one could have invented chemistry on purpose; the wonders we expect from it daily were never unattainable, only unthinkable--except at the miraculous hands of the saints. It had to be stumbled on; men had to overreach to measure their grasp. We are proud of our sciences, and rightly so; but if there are sciences we have not yet imagined, they will not be born in the laboratories and institutes; look, rather, to California, to the workshops and retreats, the lectures, the hyphenated works; look to where the fools and frauds are steadily conceiving new ambitions.

Verbal thinking

Surely there can be language without thought. Why not thought without language? Where is the division between them?

For example: in the process by which one word recalls others of similar meaning or sound, it is not necessary for the triggering word to occur consciously. Often things I see and do bring to my mind thoughts of other things which sound like the names of these sight or actions, or which occur together with those names—even in contexts where the name of the thing is equivocal and means something else.

This could, of course, be explained as an instance in which words function as things within a thought in itself nonverbal. That is not so strange a phenomenon; it must happen in writing poetry. But if we adopt this explanation, where do we stop? We could do away with the notion of specifically verbal thinking altogether; which is absurd. We know that many things are true about things of which we have no other experience other than hearing their names. If we dismiss these as thoughts about reports, we must explain how our knowledge holds when we come to experience them.

There are forms of thinking prior to language—clearly, the thoughts of animals—and there are forms of human thought in which language is not only unnecessary, but a hindrance. Efficient mental calculation requires the omission of intervening words, even such as times and equals, instead hearing only numbers and rendering a result by a process that feels less like reckoning than recognition. You draw best what you cannot name, or whose name you have forgotten for the purpose. In any game, or any system of rules yielding winners and losers, though words are of use beforehand in study and planning, they distract when you come to it—not because they are slow or awkward, but because they involve too much. Words, by which we compass the world, always drag the world in; but to play the game well, you must enworld yourself in it. To play with words in your head keeps the rules from sinking in, keeps your thoughts off the rails. You think of the game itself, its origin, use, nature; of the wordings of the rules, of the form of the strategies—how they resemble strategems of nature or of the strategems of other games.

This kind of thinking canot help you win by rule: the only use of words in games is in cheating. And this is good. Intelligence is for cheating. We cannot win any of nature's games by nature's rules. We are not strong enough, or fast enough. We are too big to hide and too small to shake off attack. But we can change the rules: levers for strength; shoes, boats, tame horses for speed; blinds and camouflauge for hiding; walls and armor for bulk. All invention is cheating; and cheating is made possible by language.

Some animals, of course, can do what may be called cheating—chimpanzees, dolphins, ravens, &c.—the list is long and growing. Some of these can be discounted—complex acts, yes, but only very complex moves within the rules. Yet some are cheaters for sure; do they have language, then?

There may be a kind of thinking in between nonverbal thought and language which is not (in the old phrase) sub-vocalized speech, but rather sub-verbal language; or, if you prefer, language may be able to exist without words.

Language is the means of stepping outside of the rules, of recognizing rules as being only rules and to be broken. All this requires is a faculty of association. In human beings this faculty is untyped, consistent, and social. By "untyped" I mean that we can associate things without logical connection: when we say the sky is angry, we do not mean sky:?::person:anger nor that the change in the appearance of the sky is isomorphic to the change in the appearance of a person becoming angry. We are simply associating the ideas sky and angry.

Intelligent animals are intelligent because they too are capable of untyped association. I would say that a chimpanzee that fishes for ants with a stick has an association between ant and stick. I do not think that the chimpanzee has any thought in this process corresponding to tool. Having an association between ant and stick, he tries to keep them both in mind, to direct his attention to both at once—which means, for a forgetful animal, first that he picks up the stick and stays near the anthill; then that he touches them together; &c. The stick and the anthill each have only so many degrees of freedom; the chimpanzee need only iterate the act of holding the association in mind to have a stick covered with delicious ants.

Untyped associations are illogical; so if untyped association is a necessity of thought, then so is illogic. We retain a naive habit of thinking of logic as a function of intelligence; but living the age of the computer, we have no excuse for this mistake. Logic is embedded in nature: transistors and electrons, chutes and marbles, can reason. Illogic, consequently, is never real; but it takes the highest complexity to pretend to it.

That is one out of three for animals. The other two—consistency and sociality—are only ours. Any idea is an act of differentiation of the chaos of experience. When I say stick I isolate a segment of a continuum that runs from splinter and sliver through branch to tree and forest. And sticks are always stick to me. So when I say that a monkey picks up a stick, I impute to the chimpanzee's thought a quality of my own thought—the stability of stickness. But the chimpanzee's thought may in this instance be closer to tree, and the stick he ends up with the limit of what his strength and dexterity could manage. Or he might have been thinking closer to branch, and again been defeated; or to splinter, and been unable to break the wood; or just of wood, and picked up the stick off the forest floor. On each occasion that I observe him with a stick his thought of what he carries may be anywhere on that continuum.

If his association has no stability, he cannot teach another monkey what a stick is, because he cannot, as we can, associate two consistent ideas—one that must be named (stick), and one that names itself (the sound stick)—so that another can imitate the association. Thus his associations are not transferable—they may be imitated in a broad sense, but the ideas associated to the same result may not match up at all.

Some of the above is probably reinvention. And certainly all of this could be formulated more precisely in the terms of neurology, semiotics, linguistics, &c. I take the risk because I know of no work on the continuity of human and animal thought but arguments about whether it could be—never about what that continuity might be.

Nondefinition #25

Relativity. Time (said some fool) is nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once. Relativity, to the contrary, demonstrates that for anything to happen, there must be a perspective from which everything happens at once; and, conversely, that no two things actually happen at the same time, except as they happen to someone or something. If something has happened, then everything has already happened, and nothing has happened yet. If that confuses you, wait: it will make sense in time. It already has.

On a Television Advertisement for the City of Dubai

[Monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, iambic pentameter, iambic hexameter, trochaic octameter, dactylic hexameter, dactylic "dodecameter" (elegiac couplets), & vice versa.

Seen on Bloomberg. I can't find the ad in question; it may have been for a different emirate.]

Only build.
Build higher and farther.
Build wilder and larger.
Build where never built before
Build with ruins under floor.
The city cannot wait, the roads are true
Their word runs everywhere, they run for you.
Where have you seen the spot where buildings cannot dwell?
The domes are in the mountains, the divers ride the bell.
Build while strength is left for building, build while time is left to build
Built atop the sunken city, build atop the land you filled.
Cities are everywhere rising, a fable instructive for anthills
Builders by summer and winter in sunshine or darkness our light fills.
See by the shores of the desert how cities are built by a gesture,
   Cities of pliable steel, cities that open like eyes,
Pillarless cities that spill out shaken like billowing carpets
   Sudden as breaker or dune, clouds of an overturned sky.
Too many cities have slow-grown only to perish in torment
Overturned cities, their names told counting the promise of judgment.
Cast up cities thin as cloth or canvas, anchored for the day
Sheathe your towers under glass as sails to set you underway.
No city wakes in silence when city never sleeps;
No harvest fails the city where city never reaps.
Who builds anew and never looks behind
Keeps safe from all that's out of sight and mind.
To find the way we build it first.
The water follows on our thirst.
We build to trap the day;
The night we wall away.
Build stronger and taller
Build nearer and smaller.
Only build.

Three Horror Stories


"Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"Sounded like somebody down there calling for help."

"There's nobody down there. The dogs went through last week. They sealed the tunnels after that."

"Yeah, but this seal's not tight. The storm worked it loose. It was cold last night. Somebody could have slipped in."

"I don't hear a damn thing. It's just wind getting in somewhere. The seals are loose, like you said. If you want to keep your job, just get over there and press the damn button. We're running a day late already. We've got to get these tunnels filled in."


"Did you find it, daddy?"

"Find what, little one?"

"Did you find the monster in the basement?"

"Of course. I was looking for the monster. There's no such thing as monsters, little one."

"But I saw it daddy, I know I did! Why are you standing out there, daddy? Come in here where I can see you."


"Thanks for coming so quickly."

"No problem. Somebody told me you were, like, doing medical experiments or something for cash? So, I mean, what's that like?"

"Well. Pain, humiliation, sometimes I could hardly get out of bed for weeks, sometimes I thought I'd go crazy. A lot like the office, actually, except I didn't have to bend over for the boss."

"So how much did you make?"

"I went in for something off the books. Set me up for life."

"What'd they do you? I mean, you even kinda look different."

"Oh, nothing much. Did some funny things to my appetite."

"So where are we going? I'm hungry. We going out?"

"I just ordered in."

Nondefinition #24

Lighthouse. They built the lighthouse where no ships came. Later, they lied to their children—told them that the ships had come first. They chose not to think about how sometimes the spices from the ships needed names, the hides needed scaling, the dolls needed pruning. So they prospered in their lie, until a storm broke the lighthouse. Only its coiled iron stairs remained. The warehouses emptied, and still the ships did not come. So the old men told the young men, who had been children, how they had lied. Some fled; some stayed, and helped rebuild. The sea has long since moved away. In the tower, where once was a lamp, now are bells. But whether the god came first, or the bells, no worshiper now remembers.


Forests have personalities, different as their different attitudes toward human beings. I feel now the weary indifference of the Great Piney Woods; I remember well the young daring malevolence of the Pine Barrens. City Park of New Orleans (the largest live-oak grove in the world), like its city and people drives thick deep roots into unfaithful soil. I adduce these three as forests I know very well. I could talk of other forests, but I defer to those who know them better.

By personality I do not mean the mood that a forest induces. The personality of a forest is not an embodied or predictable quality, yet it can be correlated with the forest that has it—as the personality of a building can be correlated with its architecture, through plans cannot foretell it and architects cannot make it to order.

Trees make up a forest, and a forest conceals its trees; so a forest is constituted by concealment. And a forest conceals more than trees. The forest is full of things that jump and climb, squirrels and woodrats, and claws and teeth to hunt them. The forest provides for things which must hide at times: a hole for the bear's hibernation, noon twilight for the owl's delicate, instrumental eyes. We name forests for the kinds of trees which conceal them; we know forests by what they can (and what they have) concealed. Tall, straight firs that keep their needles about their trunks hide little, have little to hide, are friendly. (The TV studios of British Columbia should learn that there is no dread to be found in their forests.) All the forests of the American South are full of the memories of ambuscades and bushwackers. What could tell of the forests of Europe, better than that their field neighbors could believe whole covens to hold there unheard? That in imagination wolves moved their not in packs, but in armies? The Pine Barrens conceal ghost towns well, and what night visitors leave there better. And it is easy to believe the report of Goodman Brown (or Lovecraft) of the forests of New England.

Since a forest is known by its kind of secrets, it is not easy to get to know a forest. They are all very skilled in dissembling with pryers. They must be courted, with unconscious attention and curious patience. What is there by way of personality is not perceptible to all; but though it cannot be pointed to, yet it not fancy or sentiment. Secrecy is a kind of negative language; who keeps secrets speaks in silence. In this shadow of language forests speak, teaching by omission.

Nondefinition #23

These days. These days, in our culture, it is generally agreed that (in most cases) in our society, for us today, we can certainly say that, from a modern perspective—as studies have shown—everyone knows, as a matter of common sense—even the other side must see it by now—that anyone who has looked into the problem (and this is well-known) has grasped the obvious. It's a matter of record. Also note that polls have shown that most people, across all backgrounds, know very well (whatever they may say) that it's as plain as day. If you can believe that, what's next? I hate to be alarmist, but the sad fact is that, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, at this moment, facing a crisis (somebody has to say it) we need to understand what we're up against. The fact of the matter, and I hate to have to say this, is that what is comes down to, in our culture, is that in the end that's what we have to learn to live with in our society these days.

The Twentieth Century

[Not an essay.]

What was that? What just happened?

I appeal to the oldest and most common kind of understanding.

Let us imagine an idol, which shall be called the Twentieth Century. Let it be made of steel. Let it be vast, too vast to be seen all at once. Above all, let it have been built quickly—quickly, and unasked. It would be best if the dwellers wherever it was to be built, had no warning that it would or could be. They only woke one morning, and found it over them, and the sun rising behind it.

Let it have no face: no mouth to explain, no ears to heed, no nostrils to stink in, and no eyes to witness.

And let it have two hands: a hand of bright steel, and a hand of dull steel.

In the bright hand of the idol is a key. And all around the bright hand are the tokens of pilgrims who leave what the power of the idol has opened at their prayers: which are locks, fetters, chains, bars, doors, and gates.

In the dull hand of the idol—what is in the dull hand of the idol? For the dull hand of the idol is tight shut. Around the dull hand and closed fist are the tokens of penitents willing and unwilling: which are empty things (for the dull hand only takes): bottles, boxes, chairs, beds, shoes.

And let the worshipers of the idol tell stories of it.

Let them say how the idol came from afar. Everywhere, it came from afar. It came from afar with two hands. It came loudly, without fear and without shame, and it touched everything.

What it touched with its bright hand that holds a key, was opened. The bright hand opened the bonds older gods left as they fled before the steel god. The bright hand opened the cell of night; opened the house of sickness; opened the prison of birth; opened the pit of ignorance; opened the veil of lies.

What it touched with its dull hand that is closed, was taken away. It touched the cleanness of the height and the quiet of the deep; it touched the peace of the valley and the pride of the peak; it touched the hope of the beggar and the pity of the rich man. It touched the dreams of dreamers, and the pride of makers. And lastly it touched cities, and countries, and peoples.

Then it sat where it now sits, and touched only what was brought to it.

This god has two hands—a bright hand that opens and a dull hand that takes away; but this god, who is blind, deaf, and dumb, does not know which hand is which.

Of what shall become of the steel idol, stories do not agree. Some say that it is already dead; that it is already rusting within, and someday it will fall in on itself, and its shadow will no longer fall; that the power that draws pilgrims and penitents is but an ember in ash. Some say that it is resting; that someday it will rise to blunder and touch and end the world—but they do not agree whether it will end the world with the opening touch of its bright hand, or the taking touch of its dull hand. Some say that it has already sown the end of the world, and awaits a harvest. Some say that it is old and ashamed, so before it dies it will join hands and restore all it has taken; and some say that it is old and ashamed, so before it dies it will join hands and close all it has opened. Some say that it is lonely, and awaits another of its kind.

And some few even whisper that it shall not die: that beneath it, it is driving roots; that behind the stains on its steel skin, the vines are working.

Nondefinition #22

Shoehorns. A small strip of metal used to force feet into too-small shoes. Here is a device whose near-ubiquity tells you something basic and easy to overlook about the past. Look at old pictures and the looks on people's faces and think: shoehorns. Look at old news and the things people said and did and voted for and think: shoehorns. The next time something about the 20th century perplexes you, ask yourself: if I had to start every day of my life by levering my feet into stiff, hard-soled shoes, might I be as crazy?


Stevenson, somewhere, warns an aspiring writer to consider the insignificance of literature—particularly how little the world would change, had Shakespeare never lived. But this is preposterous. Certainly, I can name no great historical force that Shakespeare impelled or deflected. If you can be convinced that history is a script, a set of roles to be filled—then you must admit Stevenson's doubt.

But if any individual can have an effect on history—however subtle—then Shakespeare's influence is inescapable. For if we knock out Shakespeare, then, five centuries later, we have a different human race. Restore the life of every soldier whom Harry's speech inspired to heroism; take back every life the soldier saved. Take back the child of every pair of lovers brought together when the love suicides at Verona made a young man seek his Juliet, a young lady her Romeo. Take back every life that stayed to make the choice to be or not to be.

Go on with the rest of literature. All those soldiers of Greece who fell to fall like Achilles, all those poets who died to die like Werther; all who wandering like Kerouac found strange mothers for their children; even whom a shared fandom offered friendship and friendship became love. Go back to the beginning, back to folk tales and fireside legends; repeal poetry altogether and see how each woman's love, with no better occasion than strength or success, breeds brutal children whose loves and lives are yet more brutal, and so on all the way down.

That literature occupies mostly idle time does not make choice in literature vain choice: we get only measures of time, and whatever changes how we use any of that time, changes what we leave. Our work is in and for the present, and the present's always delusive future. The true future grows in our leisure.

This is literature's unique power, which other arts only employ. It is not the player that they fall for, but the literary characters Music, and the Musician; not the flag that they die for, but the Flag, the Nation, that someone once defined in telling.

If we could know the minds that went with the names, we would see that genealogy is a transcription of literature; and that the human race we know has not merely happened, but has bred itself by a prolonged act of literary criticism.

Nondefinition #21

Acronyms. Once: a proud technical civilization with an awkwardly written language, which solved the problem by resort to acronyms and abbreviations. Near the end, did some sage warn how many the acronyms had become? How they were combining to breed new acronyms? Even as they prepared for their greatest triumph, their language had become utterly confused. None were found now who knew all the acronyms of another. They scattered abroad, forming peoples who shared just enough acronyms to begin to form a basic common vocabulary. Abandoned and untended, Atlantis fell. Some of these groups are known to us: Proto-Indo-Europeans, for example, or Hamito-Semites, or Sino-Tibetans.

Fable of the Mayor

The island was no island: it had been a hill in the park before the flood. Now it was so small and brambly that the man there could not even pace. He loosened his tie and stared over the floating wreckage, searching for a boat or a helicopter. Surely someone was coming. He had picked this spot as the safest in the city on the very day he vetoed the appropriation for a new floodwall.

He was free, now. All the evidence was gone: no paper trail for the prosecutor, no assets in his name for his wife's lawyers to seize. He was like Noah on Ararat: when he came down from the mountain, all his problems would be gone.

He leaned back against the tangled branches, dry and creaking, thick and restful as a cradle here. He lit a cigarette, dragged, and threw the match onto the water. It landed with a hiss.

There was perhaps just enough time, before pain erased all thought, for him to notice that one of the things which had risen from the drowned city to float around his little island, was an oil slick.

Moral: A betrayer can never relax.

Nondefinition #20

Ball bearings. What is the power in perfection? A perfect day, not much better than a good day, justifies a life; a perfect face, not much better than a good face, launches 1000 ships; and a perfect little metal sphere, not much rounder than a toy marble, allows us to remake the world. If we can but learn to make a perfect sphere of hydrogen, rounder than round by an invisible increment, we can have our power from tame stars. Sometimes striving for perfection is foolish, the enemy of the good; but perfection itself should not be despised – when the key fits, doors open.


[Nondefinition tomorrow.]

The acute and pseudonymous Conrad H. Roth of Varieties of Unreligious Experience has written a post on my essay Questions on greatness, partly as a response to it, and partly, it seeems, to use it as a case study.

He says of me that my "best reflections"—let us pass over the rest—"excite the possibility of conversation." Certainly this is very complimentary. The most nearly useful of the many useless definitions of an essay is a one-sided conversation. There would be no such thing as an an essay had Montaigne had La Boétie to talk with. This is, to me, much of the appeal of writing essays for the Internet—how the possibility of a second side closes the circle of the form.

Since Conrad (I follow his familiarity) has described himself as an anti-Romantic, one would think that in repeatedly describing me as a Romantic he meant a deprecation; but in those aspects he writes about, he seems mostly to agree with the answers I essayed to the titulary questions—at least and more importantly, that these questions are worth asking.

Conversationally, of course, his disagreements are the interesting part.

He says of the notion that to be great is to start something:
How tempting is this view! How the Romantic in us longs to be a Shakespeare, a Picasso!
To be a Shakespeare and to be a Picasso are not like things. Picasso knew he was Picasso; Shakespeare never even saw fit to have his plays properly printed. If I may be excused its unseriousness, there is a poem that always comes to mind when I think about Shakespeare as a man and a writer, pete the parrot and shakespeare:

here i am ben says bill
nothing but a lousy playwright
and with anything like luck
in the breaks i might have been
a fairly decent sonnet writer
i might have been a poet
if i had kept away from the theatre

I find this just plausible enough to be disturbing; I could believe that Shakespeare would rather not have been a playwright. I read somewhere in this line that Shakespeare demonstrates that true greatness requires a certain offhandedness and lack of seriousness. This does not hold as a principle, but as far as it holds for Shakespeare, it makes him and Picasso opposite types of greatness. Having to choose between them, I would rather not be Shakespeare. I would even rather not be great than be Shakespeare. I would not buy greatness at the cost of indifference.

Conrad says of me:
He is self-assured enough—easy for a pollos, more difficult for an intellectual—still to valorize Leonardo, Beethoven and Homer. (And, oddly, Archimedes.)
As for Archimedes: there is a kind of literary penumbra to mathematics which elevates Archimedes, Newton, and Gauss (and sometimes Euler) as the distinctively great mathematicians. Gauss and Euler are easy to understand—mathematicians literally work in their terms. Newton is Newton. But Archimedes is harder to justify—his highest achievement in the eyes of modern mathematicians, The Method in Mechanical Problems, was not discovered until after its ideas had been re-invented. He is thus of interest as someone outside of the arts who is valorized in a way analogous to the way that artists are.

As for the rest, I find no difficulty in valorizing them at all. Possibly I am not an intellectual (I don't know the induction procedure well enough to know if I qualify), only an intellectualizing unit of the polloi.

He proposes to distinguish the great and the lauded, and says of the notion of accepting greatness by repute:
Here I disagree: greatness should never be humoured, always denied for as long as denial is possible, and only then accepted.
I don't want to disagree with this. Greatness ought to be too important for hearsay. But (showing my pollos) I find this position inviable on logistical grounds. There are always spoilsports, always characters that revel in contrariness. With the Internet at their disposal they even form communities. Voltaire was cleverer than I am; Voltaire despised Shakespeare; certainly on those grounds I could deny Shakespeare's greatness—but then we might as well retire the name of greatness.

He advances this moving idea:
Again, our faith that Heraclitus is fragmentary only by chance, by the whim of history—and the consequent necessity of accepting his words half on trust, with a 'promissory note of greatness'—are intrinsic to the peculiar nature of that greatness.
I concede that this is how we must think while reading Heraclitus. But my mind (perhaps due to my Romanticism) cannot desist from counterfactuals and speculations. There is, as I alluded, at least one unexcavated classical library full of Greek texts, in Herculaneum. The rest of Heraclitus could be in there. Heraclitus has already disappointed me once: his "The best light is a dry soul" seems to me inferior to Bacon's creative mistranslation (Bacon, abounding in these, is best read without footnotes), "The best soul is a dry light."

In the West Florida Republic it is cloudless, bright, and green, and for much of the day the air is full of two-headed flies (conjugally paired end-to-end), euphemistically called lovebugs. Odd, yes, but not very evocative. Louisiana is an unsubtle place.

Blink comparator

In the days before computers, when the possibility of intellectual accomplishment presupposed infinite tolerance for drudgery, the blink comparator was a device used in astronomy. It worked as follows: two photographic plates—negative images of separate telescopic views of the same region of space—were inserted into a machine.

An astronomer would sit before the machine, watching carefully—watching with inhuman attention—while the machine flicked back and forth between the two images. The rapid flashing of a sequence images, like movie stills gave any change the appearance of motion. This was much easier than looking back and forth; but still, it must have been very hard. Perhaps no one, not the fussiest and most fanatical director who ever worked, has ever watched a moment of film so intently as did those astronomers who once upon a time watched a pair of patterns of dots and blots cycle in a blink comparator.

It was by this means that Pluto was discovered. The demotion of Pluto makes the workings of the blink comparator less historically important; yet it makes them more wonderful. In the last decade we have found that Pluto is only one among many dwarf planets circling the periphery of the solar system. Again, we have learned this in the last decade. But it was almost 80 years ago, in 1930, that Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at a blink comparator—a discovery made 80 years ahead of its time by the surpassingly skillful use of a surpassingly difficult instrument.

Obsolete instruments often live on in metaphors. (Only amateur astronomers put eye to telescope.) The blink comparator deserves such a metaphorical legacy. What does the mind lack more than this faculty? In reaching for memory we lose perception; in attending to perception we let go of memory—though each is useless, except when set in contrast. We must plod to present comparisons to our judgment—we can concentrate on one alternative only by neglecting another; and in recovering the first, we lose the second.

But the blink comparator is not only a metaphor of aspiration. There are moments in life that come as if through such a device: moments when the past somehow overlays the present, when you are at once who you are, and who you were, and some third who sees both at once to weigh them; moments when the present is weaker and less believable than the past—as in mourning, when you are at once still the person you were before the loss, and the person you must become now, and some third who sees and guides the change.

These the moments when the sense of mystery in life is strongest: when something new and nameless is seen to move, and in the dark of the room the astronomer knows the poet's wild surmise.

Nondefinition #19

Scarecrows. Surely scarecrows should have a larger place in psychology. At times they have been the most common and accessible form of sculpture, a distinct branch of folk artistry. Besides their origin, consider their purpose: they are mankind's most honest self-portrait, being made not for human eyes with intention to influence or impress, but for animal eyes with intention to seem human as they judge what that is. Is this really what we think of ourselves? Slouched, awkward, attired in rags and tatters (changing our posture and dress from time to time to keep our enemies from getting used to us), always on the point of falling apart, alone, silent, exposed to sun and rain; yet still standing, still guard something worth guarding.

Eclecticism 4/4


We who live are the best posterity that time has ever found. We gather everything that the past has left us, and we keep it alive. We are the heirs of the great decipherments; what was silent to shepherds who sheltered and pilgrims who wondered, speaks to us. We have the rites of Egypt and the liturgies of Babylon in Dover editions. Ours is the shore where all the bottled messages wash up.

We are the restorers, the would-be resurrectors. We set aside whole towns as temples to the past. What workman, caring for his tools, has ever thought that 100 years on someone might want to use them for pleasure's sake; that a 1000 years on, someone might copy them, to do his work just as he did it, save not in labor? Yet in Williamsburg or Guédelon this has come to pass. How little has been lost! There are among us who can knap flints, write Latin poetry, command cavalry, duel, dress a dandy, build a steam engine. Old sleeping gods have found new life in new worshipers; and the names of lost nations return after parturition as the names of states. What was painted in cramped cave dark before man had dominion rises on billboards over cities of steel and unsetting day.

But the past cannot thank us.

Our time has its stuff from the past, yet it has no past; it has its justification from the future, yet it has no future.

It has no past because it has too many pasts. Our scholarship is so deep, our science is so subtle, our archives are so long, that we can have the past without history. We can understand an age, not through its successors, but as it understood itself.

But that secondary understanding is neither noise to filter nor hearsay to disregard. When one age arrives, it defines itself by how it understands its predecessor. By understanding each age directly, we lose the meaning of that understanding. We can meaningfully regard the Middle Ages as a fog of superstition and hair-splitting that the light of the Renaissance lifted; we can meaningfully regard the Renaissance as an access of vandalism that tore down the edifice built up by Augustine and Aquinas, which like its architecture though it seemed dark from without, within was all light. But we cannot meaningfully accept that both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance incarnated reason. To do so would empty meaning from the idea of reason.

With the computer, technology has known irony. The screen, which seemed once the very promise and sign of the future, has turned out to look only into the past and present. The screen transcends distance: it brings the past to the present, and it brings the far of the present near. But it cannot span the distance of the future. We must either rely on ourselves to see the future, or forget that it is to come.

Observe the decline of science fiction. I say decline reluctantly; much is still being written that satisfies both in quality of storytelling and audacity of imagination. But excepting some outcroppings of cyberpunk, mainstream visions of the future are recombinations of ideas older than the people who make them. Forty years of technological development have principally influenced science fiction by providing it with better special effects. The excuse is a bad one. "Technology is moving too fast, our predictions will seem silly." The risk of silliness is the entry fee to thinking about the future. What has changed it that this fear of a misstep has become paralyzing; that we have become so disused to thinking about a future that the only future we can imagine is one in which the human race fails or is transcended. This is not speculation at all; it is old-fashioned doomsaying, which in retrospect seems not only silly, but possibly evil—it discourages and confuses.

Eclecticism thinks little of the future; yet in becoming eclectics we have accepted a unique responsibility to the future. In our museums, our archives, our libraries, we have concentrated the whole physical heritage of the human race; and in our global culture we are doing the same for its intellectual and spiritual heritage. We have done this out of need and desire; but after what we have done we have lost the right to give up. Our culture cannot be allowed to die. Our civilization cannot be allowed to decline. Our world cannot be allowed to fall. We have gathered everything to ourselves; and if we go, then everything goes.

Eclecticism 3/4


Eclecticism is the nightmare of modernism. Eclecticism is, of course, modern in the sense of contemporary; but it is the utter opposite of any movement which can be called modern or modernist.

Modernism postulates that every age has its own needs, which only it can only answer for itself. For a century and more the avant-garde of modernism has been on a continual charge against the retreating remnants of a past that somehow, even in defeat, obstructs the way to an art and esthetic and language and lifestyle belonging entirely and spontaneously to the living. This vanguard has chased the past off the field and into the hills and all the way down to the bottom of the box canyon. . . .

Are they sure that was a retreat?

But modernism need not despise the past. Its principle is only to believe that for each age must deal with its own needs on its own, perhaps with the past's advice, but never under its authority.

The history of modernism parallels the history of fashion; thus the decline of fashion parallels the decline of modernism. What was fashion but a message that went out from somewhere?—from London, from Paris, from New York, from Los Angeles. Above all, to be fashionable was to show that you had received the message; to show, by how soon you got it, how close you were to the center. But now the Internet brings all messages to everyone, and now fashion is the center of nothing but itself. We dress not to show that we get the message, but to show which message we get. This model, with the same centers, ruled most arts in the twentieth century. And though the informal workings of culture have abandoned the model, the institutions of education and career in the arts and humanities still presume it. They are thus left in the worst kind of obsolescence: looking backward for the future that was to be, forlorn as Communists in a Moscow McDonald's.

In retrospect modernism seems less a movement than a quest. The Grail Quest—as Mallory tells it—disbanded the Round Table and killed off most of its knights. The quest of modernism, though less successful, was no less costly. Its cost—but who counted while all those strong young questers were falling in private experiment or public revolution? How they searched: outward among the tribesmen, among the workers, among the priests and prophets, among the scientists; inward in analyzed dreams, in redeemed madness, behind all the doors of perception. And for what grail?

For the myth, the truth, that would given them place and purpose in the world, that would give the world place and purpose for them.

But after all their efforts, we have our truths from the study of the week; and our myths, not from the frenzies and blacklights of Bohemia, but from the library quiet of Tolkien's Oxford, the narrow windows of Lovecraft's Providence, the sketched concepts of Lucas's California. We have our places where we renovate, and we set our purposes with mission statements.

Their efforts brought returns, but never the desired return. One after another they threw their work, their ideas, their methods, their insights, their movements, their visions at the world. And the world simply took them in, one after another. They hoped to recreate and revolutionize; but all they did was add. To add is good; it is in truth as much as we can ask or hope for who work; but it was not what they meant—not what any of it was for.

They discovered a new pain. What they carved with acid honesty and discipline and insistence from the bedrock of their own true natures, they watched become the affectation or the property of those who could not have made it, who could not understand it, who could not even have recognized it on their own. But what is this pain? They called it loss, defeat, violation. The eclectic must answer, rather, that it is the pain of undeception: of the discovery that there is no bedrock to a nature, only slow sand under fast sand, only common affectations concealing uncommon ones. Thus for the true eclectic, the only possible affectation is the despisal of affectation.

Eclecticism 2/4


Eclecticism must be distinguished from romanticism. They are easy to mistake for each other; they are interested in the same things. But the congruence is superficial. For though they share interests, their attitudes are inverse.

Before I contrast, let me define. By romanticism I mean a disposition which values experience over event—or, better put, values events only by the experiences they entrain; and I mean a permanently possible human temperament, not a certain edifice of German philosophers and English poets, nor whatever that defect of character may be that magazine writers allude to when they expect the appellation romantic to vanquish their enemies.

Eclecticism instead values the experience by the event. This is partly the result of technological advance. So many events are within our power that we must discriminate among them with a high-handedness that our forebears would have condemned in a king. Consider Chinese art. A Westerner can still find something strange and exotic in it—a speaking though untranslated mystery in those steep island-mountains in fog or forest sea—but though there is still an experience there, it is not one that we can do with or make of, because the matching event has become a common one: China is the third side of the airplane door.

Though it is just what a deprecator would expect, eclecticism does not prize local color—that is, the accumulation of differences. We have such a range of events available to us that we never lack for the pleasures of dislocation; we do not need to exaggerate them. Eclecticism, in practice, believes that all strangeness, once rightly understood, is bridgeable and sympathetic; that there is always, in back of any strangeness, a reachable banality or predictability. Strangeness, though it thrills the mind, is, in the end, safe. It cannot really balk, or challenge, or humble you. The adventure of an eclectic traveler is not in a new self, but in carrying the old one to a new and striking setting. The most brilliant gestures of an eclectic art are not those that create a way into a strangeness, but those that assimilate a strangeness to the everyday. Thus, to an eclectic sensibility, the familiar becomes the convex mirror of the world. The city must be a microcosm. They have in many cases already attained a culture completeness: at the beginning of the twenty-first century the residents of any great city may expect that all worth seeing, doing, or knowing in the world will come to them. This same phenomenon repeats itself at lessers scales: in symbolically synoptic curiosity cabinet—apartments; and in lives accompanied by a practice of logging (blogging, even)—wherein the whole age is reflected in miniature by every life within it.

Thomas De Quincey gave Romanticism its written constitution when he distinguished the literature of power from the literature of knowledge. This distinction is, of course, exceeds our sense of bounds of the literary. The literature of knowledge is simply the instrumental and obsolescive part of human achievement; the literature of power is the harvest of human achievement—the right that a stranger may have to our attention without being of use to us, the right that the dead have to the audience of the living. This distinction, note, is not one of subject, but of method. Grote and Herodotus both wrote on Greek history. Grote is part of the literature of knowledge; Heraclitus of the literature of power. Newton and Goethe both made theories of optics. For us, Newton's theory is of knowledge; Goethe's is of power.

It could suffice for an operational definition of eclecticism that it denies this distinction. Eclecticism belongs to an age of materialism and relativism. It is absurd to speak of permanence or universality for the productions of a race without claim on a heritage or prospect of eternity, without essence to be returned to. If an eclectic finds certain works more strongly affecting or influencing than others, the distinction cannot be of kind; it must be of degree. If all lights must in time go out, then no single light can be so great but that an accumulation of lesser lights can equal it.

There is also the expectation that an honest criticism must discover the instrumental purpose of every work, thereby anticipating the manner of its obsolescence. This gives us the spectacle of critics who can elegantly explain away everything about greatness except why they chose to spent time their time on it. Knowledge is expected to provide power; power is expected to answer to knowledge; and unromantically, the prepared appreciation is always preferred to the spontaneous.

Eclecticism 1/4

[As an experiment, I have set the remaining three parts of this essay to run over the next three days. If any reader prefers this to posting long essays of several parts at once; or prefers the other way; let me know.]


Eclecticism is becoming one of those words—like empiricism or enthusiasm—that it is difficult to remember could ever have been insults. The popular use of the word now subsumes encyclopedic and unpredictable; and its vogue use comes close to subsuming interesting and attentionworthy.

From about the 1830s through the 1970s, the centers of gravity of Western intellectual life were social movements, with subcultures for their satellites. To belong to more than one was possible only by following a freakish, solitary orbit peripheral to all. Eclecticism then seemed antisocial: a bourgeois trait, the miscellaneous knickknacks on the parlor mantle that the Revolution would sweep clean or the Reaction would tastefully make over.

But this net is made of niches (and Dr. Johnson might be pleased to find that there are interstices at all the intersections). Even the smallest—the least consequential subculture, the most obscure fandom—can give full intellectual absorption. The centrifugal pressure on thinking life is thus intense and constant. Now eclecticism, as the counterpoise of narrowness and thus the condition of social participation, has become a virtue. (I think it always was—the eclecticism of intellectuals being a quality like the courage of women that has always existed, though not always had room to show.)

Eclecticism is our atmosphere, not because anyone appoints or promotes it, but because no more particular worldview or theory of human nature can find a competitive advantage while the ease of forming societies between the likeminded via the Internet, lets off the pressure to reform society in general.

Even as public thought has declined into modes of the thought-like performance, every subculture—from the largest divisions, of religions and races, down through sexual identities, professions, and hobbies to scenes and fandoms—has developed its own body of remarkably sophisticated thought. The underlying debates and discussions have since moved behind various kinds of variably surmountable walls, but they may been witnessed taking place out in the open in the archives of Usenet.

The only division of society that has not been brought together by the Internet is class. Why so? Why should that very line of organizational least resistance before the Internet, become the only basis for association which the Internet does not touch at all? Indeed, in those little bodies of thought, we find everything brought under discussion except their role in society—that is, they may have more or less conservative or progressive affiliation; but however highly organized, unless conceived for politics, they have, as organizations, no political significance. What earlier generations took for granted is almost unthinkable to us—that all meeting was a political act; that your circle could or should be the type of a future society; even that your club might meet the Mayor, and march in the parade. The most sophisticated and energetic controversies take place within these subcultures without brushing up against anything outside. (Subcultures continuous with older and politically active groups only seem to confirm this—nothing is commoner than to hear how the young no longer join, no longer care, how they take for granted.)

All of this, though not often said, is still however somehow familiar. Though we live it without codifying it, it is not hidden from us by some false theory. Yet I think there is some good in writing it out. To criticize or analyze something in society or culture is usually preparatory to proposing some alternative; but my purpose is only to answer for myself: if ours is an age of eclecticism, what are we getting into? I want also to escape what I take for a common assumption: that eclecticism is the outcome of history, the sea where all rivers run out. I want to look at it as something in and part of history, and follow its course as far as I can by my own resources.

Nondefinition #18

Yarn. A miniature sacred grove of Ouroboros; an anagogical prefiguration of the Eternal Return; a mystery beyond mathematics, what had once end and beginning yet traps endlessness and eternity in its folds; a kind of life, defying entropy, growing neater and tighter the more energy is spent in its unraveling.

Questions on greatness


Do masterworks tend to occur at the beginning of an art form only because they are easiest then? Certainly, there are advantages in being first. The best of the earliest set the standard for all the rest; but the earliest are forgiven much that is beside their best. Shakespeare had freedoms we can only envy; we indulge Homer's nods.. Shouldn't it diminish our estimation of their gold that they were not put to the trouble of smelting it? And we who walk a narrower path—why should we revere where we are forbidden to compete? But there is a misunderstanding here. More freedom does not make work easier. We follow simple orders with clear objectives: write a novel, write a drama, write an essay. The first followed another order: make a work of genius; and that is always a reconaissance in force.

Then is it enough to be great to be early? Do we always owe the name of greatness to whomever makes way for the rest? Patently, no—in the history of painting, for example, for any virtue we can name the greatest are not the earliest; not even in primitive vigor, where the twentieth century trumps prehistory.

The great are not great by being first or earliest in something; rather, by being great, they start something. And even where greatness exhausts the form, still it draws imitators. More verse drama has been written after Shakespeare than was written before him; more paintings have been painted since Leonardo than existed before him. Even if we only ask what is left to do in the detective story after Agatha Christie, or what is left to do in rock and roll after the Beatles, we can find no answer except that people keep writing and recording and show no signs of stopping.


What is the difference, in any art, between what is great and what is good? They are not degrees of skill. Sargent was the most skillful of portraitists, but the best portraits are not his. Those who are the greatest in their art are not always the most skilled; and even if they are, they may, in the works which earned their glory, have set aside or moderated such skill for whatever quality makes for their greatness: Bach wrote music more complex than the Chaconne.

Many hold that no such independent quality exists—that the true past masters of any art can be known only to other masters; that if certain figures attract more attention from without, that is only because of the vagaries of vulgar taste. This is an attitude common in the young: prominence is with them a sin, when every circle of up-and-comers has its darling obscurity: some inaccessible poet, musician, painter who is the true hero of the art, the pure answer to today's needs.

Sometimes they are right. Their heroes, despite their rebarbicans of adamantine obscurity, deserve and find recognition and prominence. But more often this crack-seeking smoke of devotion is a symptom, and as hot blood cools with age we see, with a kind of vertigo, how much our impetuosity took for granted. There is an artist's journey not unlike that of Campbell's hero: how both in the end return with wisdom where they started; and a lifetime spent in the avant-garde in the end may bring you back to a shocked appreciation of just how much there really is, behind the hype, in Leonardo, in Beethoven, in Homer, in Archimedes. Not, I think, that such come to despise themselves for snobs; but they come to see that behind the hateful function (escape it if you can) of, say, the Mona Lisa as a symbol for Painting, there is a painting which earned its place.


Are the great only the most prominent because they are the most distinctive? If I say "Leonardo" do I mean his whole artistry, or a certain preternatural perfection of faces, a certain technique of smooth color-joints? If I say Beethoven, do I mean a certain skirting of anarchy? In short: something peculiar, easily recognized, perhaps freakish—something the popular taste can recognize when it is told that it should like this or that?

That is: is the phenomenon of greatness only a manifestation of the familiar public taste for the bizarre—as simple deaf Beethoven, fatuous (the playwright says) Mozart, visionary (joined into a mantra with Escher and Gödel!) Bach. We must say, "Of course": at least, it helps. To try so to dispel greatness as an artifact of diseased taste would require us to believe that people are told what to like; but they do not have to be told. People in far countries who do not know them from Adam (or of Adam) thrill when they hear.

Communal traditions of music are the least portable kind: they must be accepted or rejected as wholes, for every piece tries to comprise everything that that kind of music can do—everyone gets their solo. But even in cultures where the idea of individual greatness lacks meaning, the utterly individual character of great music forces a response that is individuating rather than communally subsuming: as, even in the West, a great composer's setting of the Mass is rarely performed in a religious context, where that individuating reaction would counteract the communing imperative of the ritual. This seems to be the effect of at least one kind of greatness on all human beings, prior to acculturation.


Are the great honest? Is there some special honesty in their work? Or does the road to greatness lie through honesty? We know, at least, that the great are generally either dishonest or stupid. Their persistent false modesty proves it; and it is more terrible to think them stupid than dishonest.

So we must distinguish (Bacon-like) between simulation and dissimulation—how your portrait may look more like you than you do, but it may not look like someone else. In all greatness there is a kind of honesty; but it is not the honesty of the camera or the map. The camera always lies—pictures sit still while everything flows and nothing abides. If the picture of your lover does not make another love, that does not disprove the love; if the picture of your home does not make another long, that does not disprove the longing. Maps lie, for mappability is what all places have in common: maps deny that places are different.

I will call a depiction of a place honest if it gives me what I could never learn from maps or satellite photos, but know with a minute of its sunlight; the form of a person, what I could never learn from imaging or lab reports or databases, but know with a minute of their conversation. That kind of honesty is the kind found in greatness, even at the cost of the other.


Can greatness be missed? Are the great we look to but a subset of the great that were—the subset that critics happen to have picked out—and that only subset of what survives? Beowulf comes to us through a single copy, the narrow survivor of a fire. I suspect that the rise of its reputation has been slowed by a certain nervousness on the part of critics—wondering, "Can we be right to hang so much on what comes to us by so narrow a thread?" And I would blame much of the cheapening of culture in the twentieth century on an unspoken awareness of the mathematical certainty that most of its luminaries died on its battlefields before they gave any light at all.

We know greatness and may languish and die obscurely—Van Gogh committed or Poe in Baltimore. If greatness so unsubtle—if the ubiquity and recognizability of that sunflower or night sky, of that raven or sea-side kingdom, may have been saved from oblivion by so thin a rope, how much greatness has been lost?

That I cannot say. I don't know how to divide between greatness that was, yet is unknown, and greatness that was, yet is lost, and greatness that should have been, but wasn't, and greatness that wasn't, but could have been—there is no end to it. It is a more than mortal thought.


Can one be sure of recognizing greatness? Is there a degree of cultivation and sensibility to which greatness is always apparent?

Of course, two can always disagree about any instance of greatness. But do they disagree because, feeling the same thing, they disagree on its significance; or because they feel different things? Generally it is the latter: if the doubter could feel what the urger feels, or the urger the doubter, they would agree in either. Indeed, where greatness is concerned, we often must accomodate the opinions of those whose judgments we otherwise trust without any evidence of our own: and thus we shouldn't be hesitate to name greatness when we think we have found it.

Let us have a thought experiment. Consider those ancients whose works survive to us only in fragments—say, Heraclitus or Sappho. Here is greatness we sense and know, yet cannot prove—a promissory note of greatness that we accept only on the word of writers of good credit. For I'm sure that I could extract from Tupper enough strange sentence to make him seem an oracle; from Mrs. Sigourney, enough strong lines to make her seem wild and passionate. Certainly, if decades from now Herculaneum yields up a complete Heraclitus or Sappho, and if we find that what survives are but diamonds from rust, what we have would lose its shine and value. Yet I trust that there was better than survives; and I can believe this rationally, yet without real proof, in the same way that I believe in any event in history: I have some reason to believe it and no reason to doubt it.

And that must be enough.

Nondefinition #17

Sticks and stones. An island in the South Pacific; an adventurous anthropologist; and recorded in his journals (found decades later in the proverbial Hongkong stall) his preliminary observations of a tribe of bone-eaters who never wielded stick or stone—who, prizing even the hyoid, used no violence at all—only tied their victim out in the square and taunted him to death.

The Moon Garden

[A moon garden is a garden planted with white flowers and pale plants to reflect moonlight.]

I saw your costly garden, then I asked:
“What kind of garden is this? All gray and blank
Flowers of bleach and bone. The leaves are gray
Like tarnished coins. And then you paint the walls?
The white of stinking fish? I know you well.
I know your taste is sound. So tell me why
You made a place like this?”

You said: “I know it’s ugly now, but wait.
Remember this, look like a lens, and keep
The shot; call it before. The after comes
Tonight, without the sun.”

You know the way it was beneath the moon:
And ever since I have profaned these eyes
With sunsets, paintings, women, jewels and dreams.

That garden ran to weeds, its cuts ran red,
The red of roses. I tried to pluck them out
But nothing grows. The stems snap dry and brown.

I go to see you now, in the towered city
The crowded city, thick with breath and sweat.
For haze of smoke not even clouds are white.
The buildings here are gray as dirt with dirt.
I saw the moon reflected here, I saw
Its face in every puddle on the unlit street.
It brought no change. I thought I knew you well,
I thought I knew your taste. I’m begging you
Tell me what moon can touch this place, what night
Can make this city worth the light of day?
I hope you can.

Fable of the Mouse and the Johnny Rooks

[The striated caracara, is, as the Internet says, endangered, and a very beautiful bird. It is also, as the Internet generally omits, a very hard bird to like: its group behavior reproduces that of human bullies with a fidelity that makes it difficult not to imagine them consciously vicious.]

On a small, rocky island, a gang of Johnny Rooks found by the water a little half-drowned creature. It was small, furry, and gray, with a thin, naked tail.

"What is it?" one Johnny Rook asked another.

That bird nudged it. "It's little, weak, mousy—it's a mouse!"

"Are you a mouse?" The bird pecked it. "A mouse, a little mousy mouse?" He pecked it again, harder, drawing blood. It half-woke as it curled up.

"A mouse, a mousy mouse!" chattered the rest of the birds as one of their number lifted it off the ground to let it drop. It landed hard, rose quick and scuttled. But there was nowhere for it to hide among the smooth rocks of the shore.

"Mousy mouse!" was the call as the birds lifted and carried to drop and peck. It staggered beaten, on broken toes, half-blind and bleeding. But the birds had carried it far from the shore: and with a dash it found shelter in a crevice of the rough rock of the island's summit.

The Johnny Rooks, entertained enough, forgot the little creature. Meanwhile, among the crevices, the little creature grew—not longer—fatter with the weight of her children. She did not long survive their delivery, and hers was the first stuff her little ones grew on. How they grew—they grew long and sleek—they grew black and hungry—they grew fast and silent.

They grew until they were rats. They ate all the birds' eggs, and the day hunters never caught them; they ate all the bird's eggs, and the island was theirs.

Moral: Cruelty breeds enemies.

Nondefinition #16

Magnolia. A fragrant, flowering tree. A lying tree, frequently found conspiring with moonlight. In combination with sultry summers may bring on political Reaction, with acute fervor.

Financial Innovation

[Hedge funds, of course, do not advertise; and if they did, they would not do so in the following manner of a fly-by-night brokerage. But this is only parody; cast it as you will, with people or personifications.]

He asks the cold caller: "Why on earth would I want to put any more money in a hedge fund now?"

"Qwant isn't just any hedge fun. We've been working with MontéBank to solve the credit crisis."

"How are you going to do that?"

"We've had a team of top minds from the Endower Institute working on the problem for months. They've developed a completely new securitization model—the LBS. It's a complete drop-in replacement for the MBS. Nobody else know how to do this yet—this is opportunity knocking."

"An MBS, that's a—"

"Mortgage-backed security. The LBS is completely different—it's a whole new way of thinking about the problem. None of the dangers of the MBS."

"No risk of homeowners defaulting, you mean?"

"None at all—returns are guaranteed with volume. This has nothing to do with homeowners or mortgages. It's a sure thing."

"So there's no debt involved?"

"Oh, well, yeah, sure it's a securitized debt—but there's no risk of default."

"How does that work?"

"Well, I don't want to get into the mathematics, but you can trust me on this one. Some very smart people put this together."

"But just how does it work?"

"Well, sure, I could give you a lecture, but I've got a lot of calls to make, so are you in or out?"

"What's your name?"


"Well, Ben, I just have a few qustions. LBS—that's a something-backed security, right?"


"So what's the L stand for?"

"You want me to put it in a nutshell for you?"


"It's like a microloan."

"So it's for developing nations?"

"No, no. This is all domestic."

"So then what are the microloans for?"

"OK." Cough. "These micro-loans are made to eligible parties throughout the country in order to purchase diverse kinds of government debt instruments."

"You mean Treasuries?"

"No—Treasuries are no way to get rich."

"What kind of bond then?"

"No. Bonds are old hat. We're breaking new ground here."

"Can't you just explain it to me?"

"OK." Cough. "We deploy advanced computer modelling on complex statistical datasets to ensure a high overall rate of return."

"Statistical? What kind of government debt is statistical?"

"Well, there's always ratios of risk and return to be calculated for any investment."

"So . . . this is some kind of investment with a good—what's it called—beta?"

"Oh yeah. Almost completely uncorrelated with the stock market."

"So it follows interest rates."

"No correlation there either. This is a total market-beater."

"It's not interest-bearing?"

"This is independent of the Fed."

"So what the hell is it?"

"It's the future, and you've got the chance to get in on the ground floor. Now I think I've explained this to you pretty thoroughly. I'm going to need your decision or I'll have to move on."

"So. Government debt . . . no interest . . . statistical . . . microloans—no, you can't be—"

"Don't be small-minded, sir. The numbers are good. There's always a payout, and we always get our cut."

"I don't care about the math. I'm not putting money into that."

"Look, sir, don't be afraid of a name. Sure, I could say 'lottery-backed security,' but what matters—"


Laugh at the devil

To laugh at others can do them good. All minds have a well of strange notions which it is the use of laughter to filter. For beings as imaginative and perverse as we, laughter is a prerequisite of communication: sometimes the shock of being laughed at, always the fear of being laughed at, keep our private languages and worldviews mutually sychronized. To be laughed at now and then is the discipline of sanity.

But any tool with an edge is also a weapon; thus it is a commonplace that to choose always to laugh at a tyrant or would-be tyrant is to defeat him by inches. And in a common saying laugh replaces resist as the cause of the devil's flight in Scripture. Is this true? Can good men and women simply laugh down the devil?

Sometime between The Great Dictator and Der Führer's Face, the Allied propagandists made Hitler the most laughed-at man in history. That was good for the Allies; laughing at him brought them together and gave them courage. But it did not hurt Hitler; he had been laughed at his whole career. Making him laughable was an easy task—that sweaty, lank-haired, squirming, spastic, little tantrum of a man with a mustache pinned on the middle of his face like a punch line. But we were not the first to laugh at him; and before, being laughed at had given him strength—had bought him time.

We laughed at Hitler and the Reich, not Germans; but while we laughed at Tojo we also (see any poster) laughed at his nation of yellow monkey-men. That also helped bring us together, once our population of that kind was out of the way. But do we want more of that kind of help?

The history of humor has brilliant moments when wit has shown up the folly and vanity of tyranny. But, measured honestly, the preponderance of that history comprises the worst of human nature. Laughter can be a means for change; but it has more often been the immune system of complacency. Here humor helped keep blacks in chains, keep immigrants disposable. And though tyrants are easy to laugh at, they are even easier to laugh with. No one laughs harder, or with harder laughter, than the ignorant and the cruel when their ignorance is reasurred by the humiliation of the thoughtful—mocked as effete, despised as misled (seduced by vanity away from pure and pliable simplicity), cursed as seducers of helpless youth—and when their cruelty is indulged and whetted by the public abuse and punishment of anyone who dares insult them by defying their expectation or deserving their notice.

To pick up any weapon is to be reborn as one of the armed, and in this rebirth we are often as senseless and heedless as children. If you pick up a weapon to do good with it, remember that instinct is not to be trusted, for more evil has been done by arms than good—though were it not for that little good, that greater evil would be far greater. You who would laugh at the devil, remember that the devil also laughs, and that one who is always armed with laughter begins laughing as a human being, but ends laughing as a devil.

Nondefinition #14

Think tanks. The distinctive institutions that make modern life modern; the jewels in the watch case—all-important, but self-contained. Most of your rhetorical questions, the ones you let slide with a sigh, staring out the window—"How did we get here?" or "What were we thinking?" or "Whose bright idea was that?"—do, in fact, have an answer: think tanks. Thinks tanks are to secret societies as airplanes are to railroads—smaller, with less tonnage; faster and entirely out of reach.


Too much respect for suffering discourages compassion. It is weak to say, "I can't imagine"; it is foolish to say, "You can't imagine"—for if I cannot imagine, then I have no reason to care, no basis for compassion; and if you cannot imagine, then my suffering is redoubled, because I am alone in it.

Suffering is not holiness; to have suffered is not enlightenment. To have suffered is to be trapped in the moment of suffering, for there is no escape from memory, and ever after all joy has some quality of Dostoyevsky's victim of torture by hope—let loose only until the moment he begins to believe he may be free, then thrown back into his cell. Wisdom sounds cheap except when bought with suffering; but there is no new wisdom, and if you listen you will hear that the wisdom taught by suffering sounds no different than the wisdom written in books. Wisdom for suffering is a real exchange, but no bargain. By trying to probe wounds for wisdom, we only keep them open. The wisdom of the wound is the warning of the wound: see what can happen? Don't let this happen to you. Don't let this happen again. Suffering does not teach; suffering does not ennoble; for what selves are made of does not grow back.

There can be no compassion without imagination; but I cannot say that there can be no virtue without compassion. Selfishness can be made the basis of any virtue, where society is properly arranged to treat us as we treat others. Society, however, is not always properly arranged. The most startling realization of adulthood—the one that really ends childhood—is how much freedom we have to do evil—how much we can get away with.

This descent is familiar. It is so easy to be cruel, and people just take it. It is so easy to break the rules, and people don't complain. It is so easy to twist the rules for your side, and people don't cry out. How disgusting the weak are—how unworthy of life—so pathetic that they won't stand up for themselves: you have the right to use them as you please. How little trust it takes before you can abuse it and keep it. How little seeming to respect the rules before you can break them. And if no one will stop you—then they deserve it.

Conscience is just habit. The pangs of conscience are easier to ignore than a nicotine craving. It is compassion which is the basis our moral restraint. (Those who would say that we have no moral restraint are simply those without the imagination to see how much worse things could be.) And the basis for compassion is imagination. By imagination, I do not mean "I will be good to this person, because I may be in that situation someday"; I mean, "I will be good to this person, because I might have been in that situation." Few people are able, unassisted by some personification, to see how little their lives have been guided by their own choices: and if religion did no other good, this aid alone might be enough to justify it.

Minor sufferings—annoyances, irritations, frustrations—are unique and self-contained; they come, (sometimes) they go, and we are not remade by them. But major sufferings—tragedies, horrors, defeats—are, in a way, alike; within one life, each recalls and involves all the others. It is not mockery for you to use the worst thing that has happened to you as the basis for understanding something much worse that has happened to someone else. There are only so many slots in the human mind. A person who has only narrowly overcome the temptation of suicide over some idle-youth tragedy has not found their limit on some absolute scale of mettle, to be broken by their first real tragedy; rather, that person has proved the strength not to be broken by the worst; though what the worst really is, they must yet learn.

Compassion is easy to mock. There is even something satisfying in seeing it rebuked. An exchange like this could appear in a comedy:

"My girlfriend left me, I don't know how I can go on."

"Don't whine at me. My wife died in a car crash."

Imagine the reaction shot.

But this is inhumane. There is always some third whose sufferings could shut them both up. We fragile and unassured creatures only worsen our state when we try to compare and rate the various ways in which our worlds fall apart. What is broken is broken; what is in pieces is in pieces; and if one person's world has only broken in half, and another's has been ground to powder, they are both still naked to the same wind.

Nondefinition #13

Socks. Here is one way the world could end. Not too long from now, when video cameras and wireless transmitters have become so cheap as to be effectively disposable, so tiny as to be unnoticeable, some clever young fellow will get the idea to discover where his socks vanish to, and clip tiny camera-transmitters to each one. Once a few have disappeared he will sit down at his computer, pick up his slice of pizza, click the video feed open, and see—

The Blues Country

[I tried once to write an essay about the blues, and ended up with a story; I tried twice and ended up with a poem.]

I followed the old dirt road on down
Into the blues country, where the trees
Grow thick, and the rivers are many and thin.
On the map in my pocket they spread out like fingers,
Grasping and squeezing the overcast country.
Each river was crossed by many bridges,
And none of the bridges were lonely. For each
An old man is in charge, whose job
Is giving directions: the maps from the highway
Are drawn with the rivers, never the roads.

The old man at the first bridge sat,
Watching me while I walked to him.
He said to me: “Walk on, young man,
Don’t sit or rest, just keep on walking,
Don’t look behind you, that shadow ain’t yours,
I know this country, I was born in the town,
Trust me and walk on, don’t linger or rest.”
The sun was so faint that I took off my hat
And threw it down to float on the river,
Hoping that I might meet it again.

I came to the second bridge and heard:
“Now sit a spell, it’ll do you good,
I see you’re tired, your legs must ache.
Sit down and talk, don’t walk in vain.
Stay here and take it easy a while.
I was born in this country, don’t bother to hurry,
There’s plenty of time, just stay and talk.”
But I saw my hat was floating by,
So I said that I had to follow it on.
He only nodded, and sighed when I passed.

Before I saw him up ahead
I heard the old man was shouting,
But his voice was too hoarse to understand.
Once I was close enough he said:
“I told you already to turn on back.
You can see there’s no more road from here,
Don’t walk in the woods, there’s no way on,
I was born near here, I love this place,
I tell you now, take it from me,
There’s no way out but the way you came.”
But before I could turn, my hat went past
And I had to go on after it.
He said: “Go on, I’ll cry for you.”

At the fourth bridge my old hat was waiting.
It was stuck in the rushes. I squeezed it dry,
Then beat off the dirt, then covered my face
While I sat and slept, till someone came
Walked up through the woods, all covered in scratches.
I said: “Now where do you think you’re going?
You have to find another way.
You’ve come the wrong way and I know,
Trust me, I know, I was born in this country.
I know all the ways, don’t cross my bridge,
Just double back, you still have time.
I warn you: find another way.”
But he said: “It’s late, I have to go.”
He crossed my bridge and I cursed his back,
Saying: “You stupid tourist, I said
I was born in this country, I know it well,
You ought to heed me, don’t go that way.”