[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.


I noticed recently, with some discomfort, that I have no good hardcopy of the Ruricolist. There are masses of marked-up drafts, but nothing legible, and nothing worth organizing. I considered printing it out myself; then it occured to me that it would be more economical (and easier to store) simply to make a PDF and send it off to Lulu to print as a paperback. I seized on the excuse:

The Ruricolist: Essays and Caprices: Year One

I have ordered my own; anyone else who wants a copy may order one until November, when I will take it down.

I am changing nothing here. I am doing this for my peace of mind; to have something to show people who don't know blogging from flogging, or are allergic to reading more than a screenful at a time; for the pleasures of amateur typography; and for vanity—if it be vanity to want to have my work as a thing with weight.

The text is that of the Ruricolist as it stands. I want to make improvements, but this is not the time for them.

To turn a blog into a book, even without expectations for it, is to incur suspicion: is the blog an imposture? A mere advertisement for what the blogger had in mind all along?

To doubts I can only answer that if the Ruricolist were not a blog, it would not exist. I have made just over 100 posts here. Perhaps a half-dozen were not originally written for the Ruricolist; perhaps a dozen more were ideas I had in advance. Without this blog, the rest would not exist at all. The Ruricolist has no resemblance to anything I would ever have thought of beforehand as a good idea for a book.

The PDF is free to download. I like how it looks. You can read it onscreen; you can print it yourself; you can spend nine dollars and fifty cents (plus shipping) at Lulu and give me .97 cents in royalties.

P. S. The name Argiope Press is after a beautiful species of spider that appears here too infrequently, Argiope aurantia, known sometimes as the writing spider for the patterns it weaves into its web for camoflauge. The cover image is a photo I took here on an unseasonably warm day of last December, with an interesting quality of light.

P. P. S. As of November 1st, as stated, I have taken the book down—retired it, in Lulu's language. If you want a copy of the PDF, write me directly.

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.

(After Gustav)

Gustav is gone and I am alive and well.

There is no more beautiful sound than the snick-sigh-buzz-beep of a house coming back to life.

How considerate of the cable company to put me back online in time to post on schedule.