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Fable of the Hawk and the Handsaw

[After a certain line in Hamlet, II.2. The moral, I think, fits the context.]


See an old man, a great lord. For as long as any other man living could then remember, that man had been mighty and magnificent and accustomed to exercise his hawks every morning. But long ago, when he was young, when he was poor and obscure, when the deeds that would raise him were still ahead of him, he was accustomed to take his axe and his handsaw to the woodlot every morning, and exercise himself.

He had won many victories, and lived a temperate life, and lived long—and now he had to pay for it. His mind and its confident enterprises were slipping into confusion—so that, for example, on a certain morning, he mixed his customs, and took his hawk to the manor woodlot.

He knelt before a tree already felled, though his old joints resisted his efforts to set his knees firmly. His confusion was only partial. He did not try to hew or cut the wood with the hawk. Rather, he removed its hood, and set it on the log as he would set it on its prey.

The hawk, misunderstanding what was wanted, caught sight of a bird passing above, and rose up after it.

This left the lord with neither hawk nor handsaw, kneeling in the dirt before a log, wet dirt soaking his leggings and chilling his blood—while the old man wondered what his father would do to him, how could he tell his father that the handsaw had flown away?

Above, where the hawk hunted, the wind was changing. A gentle north wind was replaced by a blowing chill from the south, which drove the hawk and his prey apart. With the wind came cold rain, stinging rain which the mortified old man could not feel, rain that chilled his blood further, till he toppled and sprawled over the log before him.

The hawk, returning, found its master limp, cold, gasping. It rose again, flew through the cold rain, harried the heads of a party of men setting out from the manor. They followed the hawk by easy stages, and found their stricken lord. They wrapped him with their mantles and bore him back gently. But the hawk they forgot. Cold, wet, exhausted, it died beside the woodsman's handsaw, which he had foolishly left out in the rain.

In the hall that evening when the rescuers of the lord were telling the story to all the lord's company, a lady there asked what had become of the hawk. Whereupon the company all became silent. So they stayed through the night and into morning, when the news came of their lord's death.

They found the hawk where he had died, and buried him in the lord's grave, with the lord, and with his sword which he had wielded in manhood, and with an old handsaw which he had wielded in youth.

Moral: Devotion is often wrongly through its own Reward—though of all Things it should be best and oftenest rewarded.

Approval or enjoyment

[In admiration of (or under the influence of) Democritus Junior.]

I.

It is a weak mind which approves of only what it enjoys; it is as weak a mind which enjoys only what it approves of—if only because it is fainthearted to require something new to be explained and defended to you before you can decide whether you enjoy it.

To approve of something is to commit yourself to it, at least to vote in its favor. It is a conscious and conscientious act of judgment. To enjoy is only to find something agreeable—to be pleasantly delighted, distracted, diverted, entertained, beguiled; or to find something bracing—the pleasantness of sometimes being no more than confused, shocked, startled, uncertain, lost, speechless.

I do not mean the kind of distinction, where you approve of the outcome without enjoying the means. In that sense, everyone approves of having things clean; few enjoy cleaning. By approved I mean defended, in means and outcome, as proper and worthwhile.

II. What is propriety?

Propriety varies by company, place, and hour. Yet it is not relative, since it has conforming force on individuals; nor is it abstract, as it is attached to context. Fashion, as (partly) the propriety of clothing, shows that propriety is a kind of language, declaring the extent and degree of one's group membership, and its ratio to an individuality.

But a person is not acompanied by a flat list of proprieties and approvals. Insofar as there is a list, it is a graph with many dimensions and axes. Propriety answers to a rule and a precept. There is the precept in Rome do as the Romans do; tempered by the rule, that what is done in Rome (all roads leading there) or elsewhere, does not stay there.

But very young people do carry around flat lists—the more precocious, the stiffer the list. The young zealot has a strict list of the proprieties of religion—attentively ticking off the signs and showpieces of religiosity. The young artist likewise proves his sensibility and genius by uncompromising bohemianism. Youth is its own context, and for the young perhaps there can be only one context. The young therefore cannot be divided into wise or foolish, cowardly or courageous. Those who never think for themselves what is proper age but do not grow up; nor do those for whom the hardened discipline of youth becomes the cage of snarling, pacing adulthood. It is the softening of youthful affectation—sometimes gradually by ripening, sometimes by resistless, kneading shocks—that leaves you able to function independently as a human being; neither thoughtlessly obedient, nor vainly defiant.

III. What is worthwhileness?

There are separate avocational and vocational standards for what is worthwhile.

Time passes however employed, and human beings benefit exponentially by each directly or indirectly participated experience; so to be worthwhile, something need only neither demand an impracticable commitment, nor wile the time of mortal beings profligately and profitlessly. But vocations must be few; avocations should be many.

What is avocationally worthwhile always lies between what taxes laziness, and what imposes boredom. But the less lazy and the less passive in boredom the person, the more what is done and undergone is worthwhile; and the lazier and more easily bored the person, the less of what is done and undergone can be worthwhile, even if the two persons do and undergo the same things.

This is where avocation is concerned. Vocation properly commits itself to more than a lifetime can accomplish, and properly accepts responsibility for the concomitant minutiae and trivialities. The standard of the vocationally worthwhile is only profitability—not necessarily (though allowably) monetary, but yielding something, realizing something; either somehow defensible as being somehow useful, or somehow self-justifying. It is curious, that a vocation long and well practiced, comes with time to resemble an avocation—not that laziness or the indulgence of boredom ever become forgivable; nor that preoccupation works an alchemy whereby chores become signs suffused with the sweetness of the achievement they lead too (they generally remain chores); rather, the perception of time changes, time put to use is prolonged, time merely spent is hastened, and mindfulness & attention, increasingly belong to the most worthwhile.

IV. What is enjoyment?

Enjoyment is not primarily the wild pleasure that attends succumbing and is paid for in regret, nor is to find worthwhile is the same as to enjoy. Indeed, our capacity for enjoyment belies our mortality. The idea of heaven is pure enjoyment. It would be irrelevant to the idea of heaven to call it right or worthy, as if there were some vantage of purpose from which is could be judged.

Enjoyment is no a single emotion. The shades and comminglings of emotion which enjoyment entrains are distinctive of the individual: a peculiar compound, unique as fingerprints, of happiness, joy, delight, contentment, satisfaction, satiety, pleasure, wonder, transport, ecstasy; with an equally unique shape of associations formed as the experience twists and compresses to find breathing space, straitened by bad memories, capricious distastes, and painful worries.

Nor is enjoyment a judgment. Even an individual varies in what is found enjoyable, and even these variations are variable. Some people in love find everything enjoyable; their worlds are illuminated by their passion—they cannot fail or fall—they are strengthened, purified. Other people in love find nothing enjoyable, they long, they pine, they worry, they regret, they pace, they walk in circles, they are without hope, bereft, now burned by desire, now crushed by resistless loneliness. Some people lately triumphant swell and float, crowds of strangers part for them, their worth is proven, their existence justified, their glory planted and growing, they are the strongest, fastest, smartest, coolest, their friends hang on their words, strangers seek their advice, they need only want to have, their future is full and short, they will blaze and burn out for all to see. Other victors are finished, their lives are over, their purpose served, they are obsolete, worn out by training, practice, and struggle, too old for further victories, the setting sun, past its zenith, nothing but an already passing name; losers in truth by so many sacrifices and so many overlong deferrals that became unwitting sacrifices, and what is left only a long, empty future, chewing over memories of victory until they have lost their savor, while the hard use they have put body or mind to in youth haunt and make torture of old age. Nothing is certain to be enjoyed, there are in fact no standards or criteria, not even for an individual. A single person may be at one time exalted, at another time wracked, by love or victory or anything else—by prosperity, progeny, power, wisdom, renewed health; or even now in enjoyment, now in agony, now in indifference, from day to day, hour to hour; or, in some commodious souls, all at once.

That does not eliminate the phenomenon of judgment from the phenomenon of enjoyment. Enjoyment is an act, and stands in the same relation to the judgment preceding as does any other act. Like other acts, enjoyment is best undertaken by plan, next best by chance, and worst by force. What you pay to enjoy you plan to enjoy; and though it is less potent than what is spontaneous, you cannot live in the expectation of the accidental and unpredictable. As food must be had every day to the substenance of the body, so something must be enjoyed or the capacity shrivels and turns; all creatures are creatures of habit.

Those who live by whim and happenstance are at once discontented and trusting. Discontent needs no excuse. Nothing is more absurd than to require the justification of discontent—as much as of hunger. Trust is either from security, real or imagined, or from real folly. (Folly being distinct from imaginarity security in that willful folly manifestly spurns thought, while imaginary security—a pitiable rather than contemptible condition—takes thought, but proves too weak to bear it.) The really secure, as far as life allows, are not so few: the wealthy, the healthy, the likeable, the liking, the lucky. They haunt history as patrons, spectators, commentators, about town or on tour. Everyone else wishes to be them, while they wish to be narrower spirits of genius—and only by keeping company with those are they ever remembered, hanging onto those lights that are the beacons of the otherwise unnavigable accumulation of history.

Forcible enjoyment is a necessary skill. What moves us most, what becomes most precious to us among our experiences, is usually what we have at first doubted, or had, at first, to force ourselves to enjoy. This has two dangers.

1. To force enjoyment of everything—or just of too much—ends in a kind of mirror or complement to despair. When tragedy and comedy become indistinguishable, life loses form, and the mind becomes confused and powerless—whether comedy becomes tragedy, which we call despair, or tragedy becomes comedy, which we have no name for, but should fear as much.

2. To allow too many others—especially strangers; friends have the right to insist on introducing you to new things—to force you to enjoy, ultimately enfeebles your capacity for enjoyment; not only in the atrophied will, but in the abuse of the faculty. Enjoyment needs rest: not to close, slacken, and sleep like eye or arm, but intervals to digest, variety sufficient to keep up the appetite, like the stomach. No one, I suspect, enjoys food as a well-raised child, the set mealtime, the plate to be cleaned, the woeful specters of starving Armenians. Gourmandise is a privilege of adulthood, and is only obtainable to an individual through the swings and jumps of whim and fancy.

V. Disapproval with enjoyment.

Gourmands are quick to enjoy and slow to approve—unlike critics, (of food or generally), who commonly are quick to approve (if they hear the shibboleth), and slow—torpid—to enjoy. Creative individuals, in their spheres, are always ready to enjoy—even resolute to do so where they lack the confidence to criticize. It is only zealotry which—without the necessity of relativist approval—does not enjoy another faith's holidays or ritual spectacles. Not only religions, but cultures, regions, peoples, are usually provided with distinct atmospheres, the diverse lights of different countries, the moods of their arts. You may enjoy the Aztec temples without approving their rituals, as some enjoy Nazi regalia without approving Nazism—no stranger than enjoying Wagner, without approving his anti-Semitism. The educated must approach spectacle entertainments with disapproval, as (bread &) circuses, as opiates, as tribal rites. But if you end up in the stands, it is vain to be sullen, not to do your best to enjoy. And where music is in order, it should always be enjoyed as part of the occasion, even if you cannot stand it. Food and company on journeys can and should be enjoyed—however opposed to what you eat and keep at home—without influencing your habits when you return.

VI. Disapproval without enjoyment.

Those who will not dare to enjoy what they do not approve are not directly lessened thereby. Neither our sense of the world nor the orbit of our sympathies, comes from the diversity of our experiences. The world is too large, the human race too near infinite in numbers and kinds. Not one life, nor a dozen, could compass it. The understanding either receives an inherited or borrowed perspective from few others; or obtains perspective, through reading, from the distilled experience of many others. No matter how much you see; no matter how many countries you stand in; the world and the human race you know are not reflections from experience, but taken either from tradition or philosophy.

Nonetheless, such people are lessened, as anyone is lessed by cowardice: they lose their sense of self. We do not get to know the world by experience, but it is how we get to know ourselves. The science of self is an empirical one. We proceed by an experimental variation of conditions, and in the comparison of each contrast we discover the laws of the individual microcosm.

Animals belong to the environment they are in; human beings belong all at once to all the environments they have ever been in, and every construction they can put upon, every perspective they can take on them. As we gain in this capacity, as where we are becomes everywhere we have been and whatever we need, we gain in humanity. We do not need gallivanting Wanderjahren or grand tours. Inattentive minds cannot be force-fed what they need; but attentive minds can get by on very little. A garden, for example, or any spot of growing earth, is no one place, but many: multiplied by seasons, by the generations of plants, by visitors human or animal present or clinging to it in memory, by in what state and to what end you view it—to savor, to work upon, to hide in.

There is no meaning to the approval of those who never disapprove. Relativism is the privilege of irresponsibility. To act is to choose; to choose is to judge. What we only enjoy, we mourn for, having passed; what we approve of, we fight for. It is not hypocrisy to say: I enjoy things I could not do; nor that I enjoy things that I would not do. The least thing you approve of should be more important to you than the greatest things you enjoy without approving.

VII. Approval without enjoyment.

There are two ways to approve without enjoying: to approve, but choose not enjoy; or to approve, but be unable to enjoy.

To approve of victory, but to choose not to gloat; of accomplishment, but to choose not to celebrate and trumpet; of an afterlife, or some abstract immortality by posterity or participation, but to choose grief; are wise choices. Taste and compassion often banish enjoyment from things which, viewed in themselves, ought to be enjoyed. Enjoyment belongs to what we do for ourselves; in what we do for others, enjoyment often becomes condescension, mockery, or even cruelty.

Where there is much to be forgiven, one can approve of forgiveness but not enjoy extending it; the more you compassionate the needy, the harder giving becomes, because it brings you nearer their state. But most of what is approved without enjoyment is simply become bored with. Every passion fades alike by degrees. First there is unmixed enjoyment, love, satisfaction, delight; but however fascinating, we must look from it from time to time to other things. So from steady fire we only flare when we return. Then we only plan to flare; fire becomes a capacity, not a practice. The capacity untried atrophies; and we are left approving with our whole being, but unable to enjoy. There is nothing steady in life which is not subject to this failing; but it is not inevitable. Passive boredom is not a phenomenon, but a vice—one whose indulgence inevitably poisons every experience, dulls every edge, empties every life.

VIII. Approval with enjoyment.

There is a difference between boredom and insensible habit. The former is an absence of enjoyment; the latter is an absence of the awareness of enjoyment, an awareness which returns sharply in deprivation. This is the fate of everything approved of and enjoyed: whether continuous or periodic, occasional or unique, it is unresistingly assimilated, until it acquires the indispensible invisibility of the foundation of a house or the smooth working of internal organs.

We see well what we approve of and do not enjoy; we see what we enjoy without approving of; but we do not see at all what we approve and enjoy. It is therefore conditional to the philosopher, the poet, the mystic, the penitent, the flâneur, the ruricolist; to anyone creative or sensitive, who would see what others do not; to be able to withhold or supply enjoyment as needed, separately from approval. Together they conceal; separately, they can illuminate any experience.

(Anniversary)

Today is the anniversary of the first two posts of the Ruricolist. The observation of an anniversary is a calendrical superstition, but it has two uses. It excuses saying things worth saying, but which, savoring a little of boasting or cant, would otherwise go unsaid. And, as gathering sand grains makes a sandhill, by gathering inconsequential and insubstantial expressions, it gives them substance and moment. So I will take this chance to expatiate on a few things that have pleased me, and on my intentions.

I am pleased that without any overall plan or object, the Ruricolist has found themes and concerns, and a unity of its own.

I am pleased that, by this effort, I have become a better writer. My vices as a writer have always been density and impatience; and though all the pieces here are sound, in the later ones I have learned when to open the windows and let a little air in.

I am pleased that in writing these essays, I have not merely expressed opinions; but I have also discovered new ones—even important ones—and I have changed my mind where the necessity of clear exposition has shown me that an old opinion was lazy, hasty, or presumptuous.

I am pleased that I have found readers. I did not aim to find them only because I thought that, unless undertaken for itself, this effort would not be sustainable. But I am not indifferent to it.

Here I must pause to thank publically Armand Frasco of Notebookism, and Litlove of Best New Writing on the Web, for having presented esssays from the Ruricolist under their approval.

Why did these two essays—"Notebooks" and "Writing on the computer"—go over so well? I revised them from notes that I had written for myself to understand why, without being averse to technology as such, I find it more agreeable and practical, to write by hand than on the computer; and particularly, to write in notebooks, instead of on loose paper. I must suppose that I am not the only one who has found this, and that others in the same situation have found these two essays helpful.

I intend to continue the Ruricolist for at least another year. Beyond that, I would have to decide afresh; but, for now, I doubt that the Ruricolist is even half-finished.

I intend, if possible, to move to posting twice a week. That is not now possible, and may not ever be; but once a week, even consistently managed, is perhaps too infrequent for a blog.

I intend, as I have done, to attempt now and then new species of writing, which fit in with the rest of the Ruricolist. What these might be, I do not yet know; but I am always looking to try something new, and I do not find what is here diverse enough.

For anyone who wishes to look over the previous 54 entries, without meddling with archives, I have assembled the following index of first lines.


  1. (Notice). I find writing its own reward, but something cowardly in spending time amassing what is not to be shared.

  2. On essays. An essay cannot be usefully defined.

  3. A house in the country. City people's country houses are always easy to recognize—not just by the signs of wealth.

  4. After the tawdriness of psychoanalysis, evolutionary psychology is an inspiring project

  5. You are an entrepreneur and the inventor of an all-around innovative product called the better mousetrap.

  6. New Worlds. The survival of humanity through cosmic timescales will not be secured unless we venture into the cosmos; but the extinction of humanity is assured if we resign ourselves to chasing the perfection of the species down the dialectical spiral of reform and nostalgia.

  7. A little learning. All learning is dangerous.

  8. Victorian hypocrisy. The hypocrisy of the Victorians is the spittoon of critics: everyone feels entitled to take a passing shot at it, whether writing about actual Victorians, or recognizing in a contemporary a whiff of of wool, velvet, dust, or Macassar oil, of the confined and confining spaces of that age.

  9. Beauty is a philosophically well-tilled field.

  10. Fanfiction is a modern, at least a twentieth century, idea and practice.

  11. History of Thankyouism. It is agreed by all, even those of other faiths, that Mother Thanks (research has revealed her birth name and background, but here we may acknowledge her belief that her old name and life were irrelevant to the work she was called to do) was a great woman, a living saint in her own time, and one of the great spiritual leaders of the XXth century.

  12. The sleep of reason. Introspection is always an delusion.

  13. Urban exploration. Somewhere, sometime, people made all the machines that made all the artifacts and buildings that make up all cities.

  14. The society of trees. It is hard to imagine some immemorial hominid first leaving the trees for the plains.

  15. Bacon and Montaigne. Suppose yourself a child, and that two old men live near you.

  16. The Fable of the Old Man and the Ravens. There was once an old man, a farmer, who every day drove his cart to the market, and every day stopped to throw seed to the ravens.

  17. Jacques Cadillac, the author of The Book of Mismatched Lists, was born in 1645, in Rouen, the illegitimate son of the favorite mistress of George Blanc, the Abbé de Lamothe.

  18. There are many dead languages in the world; most are aboriginal, but many are civilized.

  19. So many books. There is but one royal and straight road to the habit and power of thinking: reading.

  20. The rich and the healthy misunderstand poverty and sickness.

  21. The Fable of the Whale and the Dolphin. It happened in a cold sea that a dolphin and a whale became friends.

  22. Philosophy. Stare hard enough at any one thing, and it becomes transparent; pull long enough, and any one thread unravels the world.

  23. Not all curiosities are of scientific use or value; not all anomalies are indicative; but the habit of collecting curiosities, the gothic fascination which they cast, is the same as, or rises from the same disposition as, the scientific temperament.

  24. What is considered serious in modern letters is what it is impossible to disagree with and take seriously.

  25. In My Day. The old man rocked in his chair, puffed on his pipe, and began: ¶ "You kids today never really see the Internet. . . ."

  26. Educational methods. The more so as it is the more strictly standardized, lower education is a line to be held.

  27. Young and old. Even on common ground, even where much is said with profit and pleasure for each, when the old and the young talk together there is always something unsatisfactory.

  28. Eating School. I came without a journey to an ideal city.

  29. Instinct. It is doubtful to call anything human instinctual.

  30. The Fifth Proposition; or, the Bridge of Asses. A Love Story by Euclid. Let ABC be a love triangle having the side AB equally strong as the side AC; and let the unlived lives BD, CE be prolonged in a straight line with AB, AC.

  31. I have tried, and failed, to disbelieve in progress.

  32. Decluttering. Some feel a nameless, sharp-edged, sexually tinged pleasure in seeing someone else deprived of their individuality and stepping into the uniformed background.

  33. Writing on the computer. A writer using the computer must have the resistance to temptation of a desert saint.

  34. Notebooks. The difference between writing on loose paper and writing in a notebook is in the relationship of the writer and the thing written.

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

  36. Fiction and thinking. The mind is a lazy mapmaker.

  37. Esperanto. English is the farthest-spread auxiliary language in use; but it is not the only one, nor is it the most used.

  38. Formality. Architects can play with every other part of a building.

  39. Perpetual Peace. In 2045 the Endower Institute organized the GSPW (Group for the Study of the Phenomenon of War) to conduct an indisciplinary study of game theory, war-gaming, and evolutionary psychology.

  40. The sound of ticking is passing out of the world—at least out of the public spaces, and out of most private lives.

  41. Arts and science. Science is different from older ways of using reason to understand the world because of its connection with the arts, in the sense of mimesis.

  42. The White City. In the beginning, world was garden.

  43. Programming, though not itself a humanity, can serve as one in the same practical role that Latin did.

  44. Humanism. We are uneasy in this world, half because it is cruel, and half because it is boring.

  45. Gauss's Nightmare. "I know not, of course, whether you are right about the appearance of our own Earth from the Moon."

  46. The beach is as different from ocean and from land, as land and ocean are different from one another.

  47. Fable of the Hyena and the Comedian. A spotted hyena, having escaped the zoo, walked the streets that night terrified and disconsolate.

  48. Happiness is restful joy.

  49. Debunking is to science as criticism is to art—not useless, but not the thing itself, and often requiring a cast of mind opposite to what it tries to protect.

  50. Fable of the Whale and the Squid. A whale once determined to settle between himself and the greatest of squids which was the more terrible, and thereby master of the ocean.

  51. Internet or library. Research on the Internet is a meal made of cake and caviar—you may enjoy it, but you cannot live on it.

  52. Constructed languages. In life, we are the servants of language.

  53. Blue Devils. This was a few years before Katrina, when I was still in college and had time to do things like go to New Orleans to track down an immortal bluesman.

  54. Brevity. It is the lesson of poetry that more can be said briefly than can be said at any length.

  55. (Anniversary).Today is the anniversary of the first two posts of the Ruricolist.

Brevity

It is the lesson of poetry that more can be said briefly than can be said at any length. Brevity is wit itself. All comebacks are laconic. All attacks should be surprises. Quotations and proverbs contract with time. The short version on the lips, not the rambling original in books, gives the author credit and fame. Repetition for rhetorical effect may be eloquence; variation may be illumination; but most repetition is redundancy, and most variation is timidity or vanity. Something is always sacrificed to padded page or word counts, or to the smearing thin of thick, subtle concepts to lubricate the passage of a dromedary audience through the needle's-eye of understanding. Eloquence that must be dug out is eloquence buried alive. What the mind retains of prose is its flensed, poetic skeleton. Digressions may be ends in themselves; but illustrations and examples are passed over or forgotten, if not burnt in as metaphors. If you write to instruct, ineloquence is inevitable. Prose is not poetry; but even in prose you must have a poet's discipline, and a poet's commitment: better lost than found for the wrong reason.