Blink Comparator

In the days before computers, when the possibility of intellectual achievement presupposed infinite tolerance for drudgery, the blink comparator was a machine used in astronomy.

Two photographic plates – negative images of successive telescopic views of the same region of space – were inserted into the machine.

An astronomer would sit before the machine, watching carefully – watching with absolute attention – while the machine flicked back and forth between the two images. The rapid alternation of the images, like frames in a movie, gave any change the appearance of motion. This was much easier than looking back and forth; but still, it must have been very hard. 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 the dots and blots cycle in a blink comparator.

It was by use of the blink comparator 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 in 1930 that Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto with 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 device? 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 with the other. We must plod to present choices to our judgment – we concentrate on one choice only by neglecting the other; in reconsidering 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; moments when the present is weaker and less believable than the past. Such a moment is mourning, when you are at once still the person you were before your 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, had 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 only seemed dark from without, but 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 what is to come that the only future we can imagine is one in which the human race fails or is transcended – that is, no future.

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 not modernism; 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 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 each age must answer its own needs on its own terms – with or without 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 questing, 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 concept art 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.

What they carved with acid honesty and discipline and integrity from the granite of their own true natures, they had to watch 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.

They called it loss, defeat, violation. The eclectic must answer, instead, that their pain was the pain of revelation: the pain of the discovery that there is no bedrock to our nature, only slow sand under fast sand, only common affectations concealing uncommon ones. For the true eclectic, the only real affectation is authenticity.

Eclecticism 2/4

Eclecticism is not romanticism. They are easy to mistake for each other, because they are interested in the same things, but the resemblance is superficial: they share the same interests, but their attitudes are opposite.

By romanticism I mean a disposition which values experience over event, one which 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 do I mean 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 technology. 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 build on, because the matching event has become a common one: China is the third side of the airplane door.

Surprisingly, 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 postulates that all strangeness, once rightly understood, is bridgeable and sympathetic; that there is always, behind any strangeness, something banal and predictable. 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 – temporarily – striking setting. The most brilliant gestures of an eclectic art are not those that create a way into strangeness, but those that assimilate strangeness to the everyday.

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 cultural 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 lesser 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, of course, exceeds our sense of the 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 attention of the living.

De Quincey’s distinction is not one of subject, but of method. Grote and Herodotus both wrote on Greek history. Grote is part of the literature of knowledge; Herodotus is part 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.

Eclecticism denies this distinction, and this denial might suffice to define it. Eclecticism belongs to the age of materialism and relativism. It is absurd to speak of permanence or universality for the productions of a race without an essence to return to, without claim on a heritage or a prospect of eternity. If an eclectic finds certain works more strongly affecting or influencing than others, the difference cannot be a distinction of kind; it can only be a distinction 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, and thereby anticipate 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 altogether unromantically, the prepared appreciation is always preferred to the spontaneous.

Eclecticism 1/4

Eclecticism is becoming one of those words – like empiricism or enthusiasm – that it is difficult to remember could ever have been insults. The word now subsumes encyclopedic and unpredictable; it 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. Even the smallest niche – 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 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 thought-shaped performances, every subculture – from the largest divisions, of religions and races, down through sexual identities and professions to hobbies, 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 politicial 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 more common than to hear how the young no longer join, no longer care, how they take for granted.)

All of this, though not often said, remains 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 down. To examine society or culture is usually in preparation to propose some alternative; but my purpose is only to answer, for myself, a question. If ours is an age of eclecticism, what are we getting into?

I also want 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 masterpieces tend to occur at the beginning of the history of an art form only because they are easiest then? Certainly, there are advantages in being first. The best of the first set the standard for the rest; but the first are also forgiven much. Shakespeare had freedoms we can only envy; we indulge Homer’s nods. Shouldn’t it diminish our estimation of their gold that they did not have to smelt 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: do something new; and that is always a reconnaissance in force.

Is it enough to be first to be great? Do we always owe the name of greatness to whoever makes way for the rest? Obviously not; in the history of painting, for example, in 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; by being great, they start something. And even where greatness exhausts the possibilities of the form, still it draws imitators. More verse drama has been written after Shakespeare than was written before him; more paintings have been painted after Leonardo than were painted before him. If we ask what is left to do in the detective story after Agatha Christie, if we ask what is left to do in rock and roll after the Beatles, we can find no answer except that people keep writing, keep 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. The greatest are not always the most skilled; and even if they are, they may, in their greatest works, have set aside or moderated such skill for whatever quality makes for greatness: Bach wrote music more complex than the Chaconne.

Some hold 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 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 universal 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. (Mathematicians have their heroes, too.) Not that we come to despise ourselves as snobs; but that we 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 still the unembarrassed Gioconda.


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 smoky color-joints? If I say Beethoven, do I mean a certain skirting of anarchy? In short: something peculiar, easily recognized, even freakish – something 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 as 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.

Chroniclers (not quite historians) tell tales of kings who undertook the forbidden experiment, who tried to discover the true, original, and spontaneous language of the human race by isolating children from all human contact. To measure the effect of pecularity on greatness would require another such experiment, where instead of isolating a child from language, we isolate them from art. But the kings did not bother, and we are long past kings.

What can we say? Communal traditions of music are the least portable kind: they must be accepted or rejected as wholes, for every piece tries to do everything it can do. Everybody gets their solo. But even in communal contexts, the utterly individual character of greatness forces a response that is individuating instead of 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 spoil 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? Does the road to greatness lie through honesty? On the contrary, we know that the great are usually either dishonest or stupid. Their false modesty proves it; and it would be worse to think them stupid than dishonest.

So we must distinguish simulation from dissimulation, the white lie from the black. 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 beloved does not make another love them, that does not disprove your love; if the picture of your home does not make another long, that does not disprove your longing. Maps lie, for being mappable is what all places have in common: maps falsely deny that places are different.

I will call a representation of a place honest when it gives me what I could never learn from maps or satellite photos, but know with a minute of its sunlight; 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, the more important kind, is the kind found in greatness.


Can greatness be wasted? 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 a subset of what happens to survive? Can we be right to hang so much on what comes to us by so narrow a thread?

(I would blame much of the turmoil of culture in the twentieth century on the certainty that most of its luminaries died on its battlefields before they gave any light at all.)

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

How much greatness has been lost? That I cannot say. I don’t know how to weight the greatness we know against the greatness that was, yet goes unknown, the greatness that was, yet was lost, the greatness that should have been, but wasn’t, the greatness that wasn’t, but could have been – there is no end to it. It is no thought for mortals.


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

Of course, two people can always disagree about an 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 on the meaning of what they both felt. Indeed, where greatness is concerned, we often must rely on judgments we trust without any evidence of our own. Why, then, 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. If someday Herculaneum yields up a complete Heraclitus or Sappho, if we find that what survive are but diamonds from rust, what we have would lose its shine and value. Yet I trust that there was better than what 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. That is the best we have.

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.