Departments

(At VUNEX)

[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.