The Ruricolist is now available in print.

Perpetual Peace

[From I. Bickerstaff, The Endower Institute History of the 21st Century, pp. 55-60 ff. Hoboken: Endower Institute Press, 2207.]

In 2045 the Endower Institute organized the GSPW (Group for the Study of the Phenomenon of War) to conduct an interdisciplinary study of game theory, war-gaming, and evolutionary psychology. An elaborate computer simulation had originally been planned, but finally the participants in the War Study were issued modified versions of off-the-shelf strategy board games. Over the next four months, playing these games became the jobs of the study participants in a literal sense, as they were paid based on their performance in the game. (Several nonetheless indulged in bizarre behavior, such as massing their forces in Madagascar.)

The curious first result was that players in versions of the game altered to penalize war-waging (by introducing a random element weighted towards the defeat of the aggressor), and to reward commerce and diplomacy, waged war more often than players in the unmodified games. Players in altered and unmodified versions were about equal in other sub-optimal behaviors to be expected in connection with war (refusal to recognize imminent defeat, underestimation of the enemy, refusal to compromise between strategic goals when they became incompatible).

But the usual irrationalities would not suffice to explain why an increase in the difficulty and uncertainty of war would result in an increase in the rate of war waged.

The hypothesis, which the Second War Study would confirm, was that human beings were, for sound evolutionary reasons, prejudiced to regard violence in general, including war, as open-ended. As Dr. Abraham “Abe” Saintpear, then Director of the Institute, later explained in his book The Cornered Instinct:

An animal which has been backed into the proverbial corner is more likely to die than an animal being chased in an open field. From a game theory point of view, the animal should, to secure the best long-term results, instinctively fight its hardest when it has the best chance for survival. Instead, we find the opposite. It’s the doomed animal, the cornered animal, that fights most fiercely. Similarly, the people we admire the most are the ones who exert themselves to the fullest degree at the last minute, or in an emergency, even to a degree which, under ordinary circumstances, would be considered absurd.

The conclusion reached by the GSPW was that these behaviors arose from a hypothetical “short-circuit” which might take place in the brains of mammals in violent situations. As Saintpear said in his 2058 lecture to the World Post War Society:

We realized that cornered behavior could not be a rational reaction at all. It must in some sense be evolutionary advantageous to be irrational in this respect. We had been studying a false dilemma. The survivability of the species required the sacrifice of the survivability of the individual in such a way that, in certain situations, the rational optimizer and the irrational gambler must be the same person.

Their insight came through a thought experiment involving two “characters.”

The first was known as the Rabbit. The Rabbit always acts in such a way as to maximize the probability of his own survival by minimizing (through avoidance) anything that threatens his survival.

The second was known as the Wolverine. The Wolverine’s maxim is always to spend higher quantities of any finite resource (energy, money, or so forth) as the probability of his survival decreases.

What should have been obvious (according to Saintpear’s memoir, My Project) but did not show up until the simulations were run, was that in most situations their behaviors would be the same; and that, while in some border cases the Wolverine lost his life unnecessarily, it was in fact the Wolverine, not the Rabbit, who stood the best chance of survival, given any nontrivial rate of dangerous situations which could not be avoided. Wrote Saintpear: “The best long-term strategy of survival, given unavoidable dangers, is in extreme probability of death to replace optimization according to probability with optimization according to possibility.” Later, he restated the principle as: “In a crazy situation, the sane thing is to go crazy.”

The solution to the problem of the high-warring gamers was then simple: “As the probability of victory decreased, so did the players’ attention to the probabilities.” As the odds turned against them, they ignored the odds.

The War Studies became the centerpiece of Saintpear’s monograph The Last Argument: The Instinct for War. In this book (an unexpected best-seller), Saintpear contended that it was human nature to regard war as open-ended, even when the conclusion was objectively foregone. Negotiations, he pointed out, are begun with some idea of the treaty likely to issue from them; trials (in the first instance), of the verdict; but everyone believes they can win a war. “Wars are not lost once victory becomes impossible for the losing side; wars are only lost once there is nothing, however pointless, left to try; once there is no hope left to cling to.” Rational forms of conflict resolution, in Saintpear’s view, could not substitute for war because they did not make the participants feel cornered. Not feeling cornered, they were not confident that victory must, eventually, be theirs; and therefore, they did not commit themselves fully. His position was that a bloodless means of conflict resolution would require a strong admixture of irrationality and open-endedness.

It was according to this theory that Saintpear formed, with his own profits from the book and the contributions of several philanthropists (including the Estate of Wildcard Endower), the Court of Circular Appeals, a body whose stated aim was to render only provisional decisions in conflicts of international law. “It is only by offering an inexhaustible, receding supply of false hope,” wrote Saintpear to a friend, “that we can create a bloodless activity which will be the psychological equivalent of war.”

Saintpear did not make the mistake of trying to recruit the first-world nations into his scheme directly. Instead, he began by traveling with the whole Court into the most unstable areas of the world, in order to render judgments in sub-national conflicts of tribes, cartels, and so on. Soon the entourage of the Court, innumerable advocates ceaselessly debating all the causes into which the Court had interposed itself, had reached such a scale that it could not continue to travel, and took up permanent headquarters in Switzerland.

Later, when Saintpear discovered that a pair of tribes had impoverished themselves to the point of starvation to pay their advocates at the Court, he caused a portion of the Court’s fees to be diverted to humanitarian organizations, to be used in alleviating whatever misery the Court might cause.

After its first decade the Court could no longer remain in Switzerland. The road systems of that tiny, mountainous country could not support the logistical needs of the advocate corps of the first-world nations. Offers of land were made from every quarter; but, to the world’s surprise, the offer Saintpear accepted was in Israel. “It is best,” he said shortly before his death, “that the Court remain as close as possible to what have been the most fought-over regions of the world.”

Today the traveler hears the shouting of the advocate corps engaged in ceaseless argument on the plains below even before they come into sight of the shining World Headquarters of the Court of Circular Appeals upon the hill of Megiddo.

Form and Formality

Stairs are different. Architects can re-invent every other part of a building; they can contort walls and roofs, or merge them together; they can re-shape or re-organize windows; they can create views or frustrate them. But every good staircase is like every other. The form can be adorned or hidden, but not overcome (except by banishment, through one-story buildings or substitution with elevators). There is a limited range of acceptable slopes for a staircase, to which all stairs must conform, or risk injuring their users. Each step must be predictable, and exactly like every other. Stair-climbing is an unconscious, algorithmic act. So is walking, so is typing, so is riding a bicycle; but climbing stairs belongs to a different class – along with driving a car – where error risks death. For a joke, you can trip, or fall off a bicycle; but not crash a car, or fall down the stairs. You have time to get to know a new car; but a new set of stairs should not require adjustment.

Consider music. Formality is obvious in classical music. The music, to be played well, must be considered as something to be reached; and the performer can always fall along the way, by insubordination to the conductor or infidelity to the composer. Audience members have every right to resent this, however the performer excuses it. Something that mars a performance hits the listener with a jerk – it is the performer who trips up, but the audience who falls.

Formality is less obvious, but equally important, in jazz. A sequence of improvisations is not a showcase of individual performers. It is not that every player is an orchestra, but that every player is a conductor. An arrogant classical player is a rebel in a monarchy; an arrogant jazz player, a demagogue in a democracy.

But songwriting is the most formal kind of music. It is because the blues is a rigid form that it can bear the distortions of strong emotion. People are never so still as when overwhelmed. If we can, we sit to cry. All popular music has strong formal structure; which makes it easy to gather with its kin into playlists, and makes it possible for the supply to be kept up.

It is by their formality – by how much alike they are in form – that songs are individualized. Any two pieces of classical music, each with a wildly different structure, sound at first much more alike than any two popular songs, each sharing the same chord progression, rhyme scheme, and instrumentation; just as, while trees are more different than people (count the limbs), we see the difference between two people more clearly than we see the difference between two trees.

The danger of too much formality is easy to see. Most of what is worth attaining in life is not repeatable, and is lessened when approached as if it could be repeated. Experiences which are had only once do not benefit by formality. Of the rest, some are recurring, but not meaningfully repeatable. They can happen more than once, but are less like climbing stairs than climbing a mountain – which does not, I imagine, improve by being done often. The rest is the repeatable. And repeatable experiences are no less valuable than singular ones. Old as I become, I would not trade music for youth.

The danger of informality is easy to fall into. Consider poets. Poets are rare for reasons that have nothing to do with poetry (most become songwriters now, who would once have been poets); but the poets that are, write less than the old poets. This is because of their informality. Free verse is dangerously therapeutic. A good poem in free verse is a unique victory – not the imprint of an emotion, but its draining, its defeat. Such poets fail when they approach something that is common to all, and so cannot be exhausted; they cannot make poetry, either of the everyday, or of the ideal.

But think of Petrarch; with the sonnet for his stair he could ascend to and return from the experience of the moment in which he saw (saw so that he therefore loved) his Laura; and as many times as he climbed up to and down from that moment, he never emptied it. Informality always stays on the ground floor; to rise, you must commit yourself to some form capable of bearing you up.

Fiction and Thinking

The mind is a lazy mapmaker. When it receives the survey data for a new place, it does not draw a new map. Instead, it writes the new names on an old map. Sometimes, it tapes two old maps together to make a new one; rarely, it cuts several old maps into pieces, then pastes the pieces together tile-wise. The maps from fiction are most useful to it. They are simple, at low resolution, and have few identifying features to ink over or rub out. An analogy from philosophy, history, or science does not spread generally until it has found fictional embodiment – in parable, fable, romance, epic, or tale. Think of Plato’s cave, think of the spacefaring twin and the earthbound.

Analogies do not solve problems by themselves, but they are indispensable because they show the right kind of solution – whether force, persuasion, invention, discovery, endurance, or sacrifice. What we look for is what we know in advance to look for; the more we know to look for, the more we find. The more we know can happen, the less we are overwhelmed. The more we recognize folly, the less time we waste on it.

Film does more of this than literature, though less powerfully. The wrath of Achilles is perhaps less lethal, but more frightening, than the wrath of Rambo; neither Leviathan nor Godzilla shall be drawn out with a hook, but Leviathan would not be troubled by an oxygen destroyer. I must recover from even a weak horror story, but (as an adult) a movie has never scared me; the best the medium can do is disgust or disquiet. Film is, at best, flat, distant, dreamy, intangible, and abstract; and though a wordless medium, it must still tell – with dialogue, with rovings of the camera, with caricature, with background music – things like weather, smells, the taste of air, everything that dreams lack, but writing can show. But film is more efficient and more accessible. It can give more analogies faster, and over a broader range.

A multitude of analogies leads to a multitude of ideas – some of them bad ideas. The stocked imagination is like black earth: anything will grow in it. Thin soils grow less, but can absorb less labor. Thick soil is hard to manage at first, when weeds take their chance; but it grows a much larger harvest. Which is to say: because it is hard to overcome bad ideas, there is something to be said for a slash-and-burn farming of the mind, which, producing few ideas, does not disturb the good-enough ideas it has received; but good ideas can be arrived at only by having many ideas, most bad – and hoeing the bad ones down.

All this is clearest for people. People are inexhaustibly unique; without the analogies which fiction from folk tale to epic provides, we could get no traction at all in thinking about one another. Fiction is what allows us to know stranger from enemy.

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.

One day a small songbird with the sun behind him did not see the sheen of the spider’s silk or the shine of the flies and beetles wound in it. He felt a brushing at his wingtips, weight against his face, then something soft and resistlessly strong folding him on every side. He tried to pull free; but he could not even pull his wings in to his sides, for the silk held them away. He stilled and stayed himself, and hoped that he would not be noticed.

She knew that he was there. She had felt the shiver of his contact, and the ripples of his struggle when they traveled through her web and into the tips of her legs. Now she felt the subtle rumble of his tensed muscles as he held them still, and the rushing, bounding flutter of his heart; and she came for him.

When he saw her coming, he gave up hiding. He thrashed and shrieked and fought. He struggled, tossed, twisted. But she was closer now, and he was still in her web. When he felt the first strands of fresh silk fall over him, he gave up fighting.

He was lost, and he knew his defeat. So he sang it, low and low, high and quick, turning and rising and falling in circles through lungs ceaselessly propelling the whistlings and cryings of his song. His song was in him, and in the air, and among the trees, and in the web – and through the web into the tips of the legs of the spider who scuttled away into a tree as her singing web betrayed her.

When his song was finished and he was ready to die, the bird found that he was alone. The web kept some of him, his feathers and blood; and he kept some of the web, strands that trailed from him even after he had worked himself free.

Moral: Sing, Muse.


The difference between writing on loose paper and writing in a notebook is the relationship of the writer and the thing written. Unless you pledge to care for them, you may expect to outlive your loose papers. They will be lost, be thrown out, or wear out – age and die. But barring catastrophe, you may expect that your notebooks will outlive you. And a notebook has a kind of life, if only because it is hard to kill: the things which could destroy it – fire and flood – are the same as the things which could destroy you.

This is true even of cheap notebooks. Cheap paper is perishable; shouldn’t notebooks made of the same paper age at the same rate? But a closed book of whatever kind defies time. From my own slight library I have before me now, as I write, a book from 1944 containing a a pressed carnation as a messenger of the sunlight of 60 years ago; and a book from 1906 wherein is interleaved a sheet of cheap ruled paper (which has turned the brown of a paper grocery bag) with someone’s homework in Roman history. It is probably a decade or two less than a 100 years old; but it is safe to suppose that the man is long dead whom the boy became who wrote: “The Romans who were mostly peasants by working hard on their farms acquired the strength of will which made them the best soldiers of the world.” Perhaps his children are dead, and his grandchildren know little more of him than his name. But kept by covers, the cheap paper can still be unfolded and re-folded after a near-century of Louisiana summers.

To start a notebook, even while young, is to feel the reality of futurity and posterity. Decades on, your friends, your place, your name, the world may have changed; your frame and figure, your face, will have changed. What you will be, you would not now recognize. But you may still have, you may still read, you may still use that same notebook.

Or after a hundred years? Lost to accident and inconsideration; burned up or drowned; or moldering deep in some distant garbage dump, like a message in a bottle which never sees the shore? Or browsed by curious descendants of an unimagined generation, who would otherwise know you only as a few garbled stories, a fading or grotesquely discolored photograph, a few characteristic gestures and a bad joke on film? Or annexed to some unborn historian’s or anthropologist’s collection, as a lens through which that age to come, with its own preoccupations, may enter into sympathy with the past and gain perspective on itself? Or displayed in a museum, as a curious time capsule – or as the monument of a departed mind? Under the sky we know, or under a new sky in a city yet to be named?

We, dead, will not decide. But our notebooks are like the trees an old man plants – given, not to anyone, but for the sake of giving.

Writing on the Computer

A writer who writes on the computer must have the resistance to temptation of a desert saint. Computers make every approach to writing well – through revision, research, or rhetoric – so smooth that you can spend as long as you please approaching, without ever writing anything. Worse, a writer may attempt to mix them with writing.

1​. Revising while writing seems innocent, even wise – what is wrong with writing one perfect paragraph after another? Nothing, for each paragraph; but something for the whole, when each paragraph is disconnected from the next and might be as good if re-shuffled.

2​. Research while writing has the same effect as enlisting a Panel of Experts to stare over your shoulder as you write. This kind of writing is like driving the interstates – you need never be lost, and you need never discover anything. You may travel forever and never go anywhere.

3​. Thinking about writing, and listening to what other writers have to say about it, are good. But rules are proved in use, not in argument; you learn them to break them, and break them to prove them by the exception. If you must stop in mid-sentence to check a rule, either you do not understand it, or you do not need it – probably the latter. On the computer, you must both resist the temptation, and ignore harassment. Spelling is important enough to check later, but not important enough to stop for; and it is no better for a computer to interrupt you, to object to your spelling or grammar, than for a stranger to look over your shoulder and do the same.

Computers are either too convenient or too inconvenient. The keyboard, with practice, can be used without thinking. It then becomes the sluice through which a flood of raw language is carried onto the screen, mixed with whatever debris or waste happens to have collected on the mind. But first – and something else always comes first on the computer. Turn it on, wait, log on, wait, start the word processor, wait, open your file, wait, write – no, wait. Choose a template, a font – what format did they need this in again – no, the margins are wrong – save it, write – no, wait. It crashed. Start over.

These waits are more than wasteful. Handwriting has its interruptions – running out of ink, blunting the lead – but the computer sets its own pace, of impetus and urgency. Often in what is written on the computer you find a uniform rhythm formed by log-ons, command lines, queries, entries, games, chats, clicks and double-clicks.

The computer is most dangerous to those most experienced with computers. Those who start young on computers have a rapport with them, not because they can keep up with them, but because they reflexively slow down to match them; those who come to computers in adulthood are impatient with them, not because they are stiff and brittle-minded with age, but because they lack this ability to synchronize themselves with the computer.

At the computer we all have a way of doing what is easy at the computer. It is a wise habit of some designers to draft on paper so they can make the computer meet their ideas, instead of making their ideas meet the computer. Writers who would experience inspiration should beware computers. Even writers of prose, aiming to avoid the poetical, should aspire to be poets in the sense which is above meter or line breaks. And poets and computers make conspicuously bad couples – poets are from Xanadu; computers are from Porlock.

Computer files suffer a natural attrition which backups alone may not solve. A file may easily be forgotten, or confused with another. The document format becomes obsolete; the backup software becomes obsolete; even the backup hardware becomes obsolete. The price you pay for the weightlessness of computer files is that nothing holds them down; unless you hold on to them continuously, they drift away from you unnoticed.

I do write some things on computers – less than paragraphs which I see close enough to entirely in my head that what method I use to get it down does not matter; and things that I want to sound dictated. But as a rule of thumb, I never trust a computer with anything that I might possibly need more than five years from now.

I admit that none of these reasons are proofs. Each is only circumstantial evidence. I cannot call witnesses, because I cannot write the same thing twice to compare. I could only re-write what I had written before. You can never start over; what you have done, even when forgotten, shapes what you may do.

However problematic, writing well on the computer is certainly possible. I do not think that someone who writes on the computer must be a bad writer. And if some can find the self-discipline to write well on the computer, what excuse do I have not to do the same? How dare I admit to (let alone argue for) such eccentricity and self-indulgence? But I have a last plea.

What I write first on paper is all my own. Notes that I write by hand I rarely have to look at again: the act of writing so reinforces the memory that the written words are only a backup. Reading over an essay written by hand, I remember what I was thinking at each step; reading over a work of fiction, I remember the feeling I began with and how every line relates to it. This is true even of looking at a typed copy.

But what I write first on the computer is not my own. I know that I wrote it only because I recognize my style. I have no connection to it. It is through but not of me; it is mine but not my own. I do not mean that it is received through inspiration. Rather, reading it is like reading something in a dream – there because of me, but not mine.

Postscript 2018

I rarely write by hand. This has nothing to do with progress. We have new devices, but with them new distractions – the endless hailstorm of notifications. When I write, I write in my head. How I transcribe it doesn’t matter. Writing by hand was the discipline that made writing possible for me – but I outgrew it.


Some people feel a certain nameless pleasure, sharp-edged and sexually tinged, in stripping others of their individuality, in shoving them back down into the uniformed background. Their principles are their expectations: what they do not expect insults them. They love the rough squaring of the round peg. This goes with Schadenfreude, but something is left over. Could it be the subconscious version of an eye for health, where aberration implies sickness? But their pleasure is not a healer’s.

Consider soldiers’ short hair and uniforms. The scheme of military alchemy which produces a soldier is to break down and build up. It is the difference between the warrior, who fights alone with his own strength, and the soldier, who fights as part of a hierarchy of units, each with the aggregate strength of its members. One of the few clear lessons of history is that soldiers beat warriors, one to hundreds: think of the British warriors under Boudica slaughtered by Roman soldiers, the British soldiers at Rorke’s Drift slaughtering Zulu warriors.

But why are businessmen short-haired? Why the uniform of the suit? Certainly, business organization is borrowed from military hierarchy, and the idea of the businesslike descends from the armed worldview of the period of universal conscription. But while it is a given, these days, that it is not the company man who creates the future of the company, the easiest way forward in life is still through the barber and the tailor. As for politicians, we are seriously considering in this country that a black man, or a woman, could now become President; but who can imagine another president with a beard?

The soldier and the careerist are both told to feel liberated in being shorn. Certainly, things are easiest for those of us who are easily categorized. That much is true of bohemianism and conformism, of tattoos and ties. But the majority mark themselves with the absence of marks. It is left to the minority to assert themselves by signs (clothes, symbols) and performances (slang, gesture).

To be human, even human, only human, is to be complex, to be distractible, to be various and try many things; to have, to keep, to pile up, to hoard. To declutter is more than just organizing and sorting out. It requires the discarding, not of what you cannot justify to yourself, but of what you cannot justify to another – to someone who takes money for this kind of work – someone who finds their nameless pleasure in taking things away from you.

The moralistic disapproval of possessions is only one blade of the declutterer’s scissors. The other side is the idea that what is to be valued in life are not things, but experiences. “I value experiences,” they say, “because I want to be able to look back on them in old age.”

There is no debate here. On the one side are people who assert the superiority of experiences over things; on the other side are people who stubbornly keep having things. There is of course a dark side, which is class. People for whom contingency is credit value experiences; “I can always buy another.” People for whom possessions are contingencies value them; “What if I need it later?” But there is a great deal of room in the middle.

For the young, to be distracted, or to be cluttered, is to be open to surprise. The act of decluttering declares that the season for hope is over; that the last contraction of possibilities has taken place; that the path is chosen and mapped to its end. Since your future is known, you should keep only what the future will call for. You will hear that these are just things – which they are, if you can replace them. But if you cannot replace them, then these seemingly useless things are more than things: these are chances that you are throwing away. Only tomorrow, or whenever it is too late, will you discover what you could have done with them.

The days of old age are long. Time murders sleep. There are so many hours, they are so hard to fill. Once you have finished with the hours you set aside for reminiscence – then what? In old age the memories we formed in youth become distant and alienated. Who was that? I am not that person. But our things, being with us, are never distant, and having taken the same road, are never strangers.

The things we have, the things we have inherited, are the things we want to pass on. They link us into a chain, and in that way give us meaning and perspective that a solipsistic horde of memories cannot.

For the old, who live beyond hope, who know that it is only the inertia of their routine that carries them forward, it is only their possessions that let them claim some connection with a human race without further use or patience for them. As the memory grows porous and ghostly, everything that triggers and proves it becomes precious.

I do not have to be old to see that the nursing home or the Florida house is haunted with more than loneliness, regret, and despair. When the day comes that yours is just one more failing body among other bodies in a room among rooms in a building among buildings; when your thoughts begin to twist on themselves, skip like a scratched record, jump like disordered movie reels; when all your thoughts are not your own and even your doubt is uncertain – you do not have to be dead to be a ghost.

Postscript 2011

My father hated having things. He loved to throw them out or, better yet, give them away. Anything he did not need he got rid of: not always his own. The rooms he lived in looked unfinished. Once they were empty, there was nothing to suggest they had ever been lived in. But somehow I carried out box after box. There was so much of it, and every item meant another decision: what to keep, what to sell, what to give away, what to throw away. I am still making those decisions.

I have become uneasy with my own possessions. For me the fear of not being able to get what I need when I need it has always outweighed the inconvenience of leaving room for what I do not need today. But now in the back of my mind I feel my heirs, and dread the burden of decision I am preparing for them. Getting rid of things used to be hard for me. Now it is easy; it brings relief. I wrote an essay a few years ago against decluttering. I still recognize a pathological form of declutterer whose practice is among the insidiously moralistic cruelties. But I cannot condemn declutterers any longer; the truth is that I have become one.


I have tried, and failed, to disbelieve in progress. My question is not whether, but how. The twentieth century – and let us only say of it that every worst thing that has ever happened, happened in the twentieth century – killed the metaphysical notion of provident inevitability, of Progress as the slope down which History flows. But the worth of a faith in progress is proved not in society, but in the individual.

You may more or less share the sensibility of your age; you may find it unsympathetic, or unapproachably alien. You may fly to the remnants and inheritance of another age for the company of like minds. But however alone you are in it, there is something unworthy and childish in abandoning your own time for the past. Only a coward would volunteer for such an amputation as to hide from the latest developments, discoveries, creations, thoughts. Only a coward would turn from the unknown, could live out their life happily within some foreknown and mapped-out stretch of time.

We rightly abhor those who would burn old books; but hiding from new books and their authors is the same error. To suppress any part of human experience is to darken the whole.

Progress is not by ascent, but by accumulation. We find that every age, every generation, every city, every circle and school and subculture has its characterizing contribution, it work and its problems. What does not meet them is either addressed to the past, which cannot answer; or to the future, which cannot reward. But only to share the work of others is to be held back by them. Whatever work you propose to do, if you do not mean to keep it only to yourself and God – or to contribute only a footnote to your age – you must allow for progress as a tactical consideration.

In science there is much which seems valuelessly obsolete: etheric vortices, caloric fluid, absolute time. But these retain their place as links in a genealogy of ideas: they were mistakes, but not terminal ones. And what were wrong turns for those who made them become signs and stories of warning for the rest of science against naive materialism, against the applicability throughout the cosmos of the experience of Earth, against the applicability throughout the eons of Earth of the experience of mankind.

Even crank theories have relevance – at the edges, in work which bears that appearance, but is not taken from that well, like Ramanujan or Dalton; and in how ready power is to champion them, like Lysenkoism.

There are eddies, where in the pursuit of a strange end, a familiar thought rings out ahead of its time – Bruno’s inhabited cosmos, Boscovitch’s grains of energy; and there are tragedies, where science take the wrong path so long that it cannot find its way back, and a good idea must be re-invented, like the nebular hypothesis. Under the appearance of successions of obsolescence, science proceeds by accumulation. It even has heroes, like Archimedes who, millennia dead, can make the front cover of a physics journal.

Worked-out systems of ideas have an imperishability and a transposability which can deposit them far from their original purpose: how the Hippocratic system of humors, intended to explain disease, has become the model for analysis of personality.

We are told that art is inextricable from the class, the sex, the generation that created it; that our distant appreciation must be inferior – at best, second-hand. Art, certainly cannot mean to you what it meant to those who made it, and those it was made for. You cannot catch all the puns and allusions, or interpret all the symbols. In the age of photography, you cannot recapture the sense of the miraculous in the meticulous realism of the Dutch Masters. But the notion that your circumstances fully determine the reach of your meaningful reaction to art is an injury to individuality. To any given artwork, you will not react like a person of another generation; nor would another person of that same generation have reacted in the same way as the first; nor would another person of your own generation react as you do. Art that is not valent between individuals does not endure. And the change is not all lessening. We may without regret say that after Walter Pater, the Mona Lisa means more to us than it did to Leonardo, or to Lisa Gherardini, or to her husband – as long as we remember that it meant something different to each of them. We do not only make progress by accumulating works of arts, or by widening the range of subjects and sensibilities that art can address, but also as every work and every milieu acquires an ever-lengthening wake of associations.

Progress is real gain; but change in the world is less by replacement, than by different emphasis. Each age is marked off by the kinds of human nature it gives scope to; but all the varieties of human nature are always with us. On the street, you may pass or meet a man whose gravitas would have fitted him to be a senator of Rome; another, hard and hungry, fit to pillage with Huns; another, patient and subtle, a born Schoolman; another, willing and pitiless, a wild-west gunslinger. They will likely be undistinguished, for in any one era, only a few kinds of people have room to unfold themselves; only a few can have or find a place of their own in the world. But they are all always with us as the armory of mankind against the uncertainty of a future as unknowable as (it is to be hoped) very long. The lesson of history is less of cause and effect, than it is a promise and threat which are the same: that whatever we are, some have been before; that whatever we have been, at worst or best, we may yet be again.

The Fifth Proposition; or, The Bridge of Asses. A Love Story by Euclid.

“I glanced over it,” said he. “Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.”

The Sign of the Four.

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.

I say that the agony of ABC is equal to the agony of ACB, and the anticipation of CBD to the anticipation of BCE.

Let a point F be made at random against BD; from AE the greater let AG be cut off at AF the lesser’s level; and let the straight lines FC, GB be joined at cross-purposes.

Then, since AF is no better than AG and AB than AC, the two sides FA, AC are just as bad as the two sides GA, AB, respectively.

Therefore the base FC is as committed as the base GB, and the triangle AFC is a lot like the triangle AGB, and the remaining answers will sound just like the remaining excuses and explanations, namely those which are all alike; that is, the angle ACF sounds just like the angle ABG, and the angle AFC acts like the angle AGB, and since the whole AF is just a whole other AG, and in this AB can be hard to tell from AC, the prospects of BF are the same as the prospects of CG.

But FC also proved as reliable as GB; therefore the two sides BF, FC, give nothing to choose between with the two sides CG, GB respectively; and the corner BFC is as close as the corner CGB; while at BC they all want the same thing; therefore the triangle BFC is also as acceptable as the triangle CGB, and the remaining anxieties will be equal to the remaining uncertainties respectively, namely those which the equal sides inspire; therefore FBC angles the same way as GCB, and BCF’s angle is the same as CBG’s.

Accordingly, since the whole angle ABG was proved as equivocal as the angle ACF, and in this the angle CBG is as confining as the angle BCF, the remaining angle ABG is the same from all angles as ACB; and they are, at base, still the triangle ABC.

But the angle FBC was proved at cross-purposes with angle CGB; and they are both asses.

Therefore: no to both.



It is doubtful to call anything human instinctual. Drives are not instincts; drives compel thought, but instinct supplants it. Instinct is something in the individual that is not of the individual. We can see real instinct in our pets: when the dog swings a toy high into the air as if to snap its neck, or when the cat, after the instinctive pounce or chase, sits in front of the crippled mouse or overturned cockroach in a confusion obvious even across species (we are all mammals here).

We must distinguish drive from instinct. Sexual behavior is the most obvious hold that evolution has on us. With secondhand guilt, even the irreligious talk of this hold as if, because we are animals at all, we are only animals. But what we consider an overthrowing storm would be judged, by other animals, gripped by estrus, to be no more than a gentle, steering breeze. In the way of nature what could be sillier than an animal which, when strength and spring are come, must be taught how to reproduce? For human beings instinct is unequal even to the original operation of life.

There is of course some instinctual flotsam on the unconscious: hitting with the heel of the hand, for example, or not rolling over a pet, or a baby, in your sleep. But we are too willing to consider behaviors instinctual which are only unavoidable; territoriality, for example. It is a necessity in all modes of life, one which if not learned from instinct is still enforced later as a hard lesson. Boundaries will always be encroached on, even the skin; and those whose only boundaries are for their vitals and victuals will find their lives and livelihoods in constant danger. Artificial boundaries remove the fight from the vulnerable center, as clothing wears or tears in place of skin.

We are animals, made of the same stuff as other animals; but we are not like other animals. Even without assuming a creator, we can see that the changes we make in raw materials by way of art or technology, to make them speak or show or do, are the same kind of changes that made animals into human beings. There is no line in us with instinct to one side and self on the other. What we do is what we are. Human consciousness is not a kind of animal nature; it is map and image and story of that nature.

Eating School

I came without a journey to an ideal city. It had been built, I observed, during the Renaissance; but time and romantic patination and eruptive modernity had softened its rigid geometries. Still every path through that city was like a strain of music; a harmony of architecture, geomancy, statuary, mural, ironwork and garden.

After some time wandering and admiring, I found on sitting that I was tired and hungry; so I went in search in food. In the first restaurant I came to, I saw people sitting, each alone, eating from bowls of porridge, pablum, and gruel, with glasses of a gray drink at their elbows. Health food, I thought, and looked farther; but all the restaurants were like that one.

I resolved to do as the people of the ideal city did. I sat and ordered, with an encompassing gesture, “Whatever they’re having.” Sitting among them, I could see from their hunched postures and pinched faces that they took no pleasure in their food.

The porridge had the consistency of diluted cottage cheese, and tasted of dish soap. The gray drink tasted of chalk. I asked the man at the next table: “Where can I find some real food? Maybe a hamburger?”

He laughed at me. He whispered something to the next table. I looked away, but I could still see them in reflection: they were laughing at me. A third, with his head thrown back and nose in the air, aped the act of cutting meat, reducing the others to near-hysteria.

I swept my food from the table, laid down paper in payment, and left the restaurant. Someone ran up behind me and tapped me on the back. When I turned, there stood a well-suited man with a bright chain of office around his neck. “I am the Mayor,” he said. “I want to apologize to you. I know that our city has a food problem. We’ve made attempts at establishing serious restaurants, but we can’t seem to keep up the patronage. But I don’t want foreigners to take home the impression that nothing is being done. In fact, we’ve just completed a major renovation of the Eating School. Would you permit me to give you a tour of the new facilities, and tell you about our programs?”

“Of course. I would be honored.”

The city was so sensibly laid out I was not sure that we had left before we arrived. There was a long wall, and a broad gate, over which appeared in lettering worthy of Trajan’s column:


“Why is it behind a gate?” I asked.

“People pay for their children to come here and have their palates trained,” said the Mayor. “How could the Eating School support itself if anyone could wander in and eat there?”

“They could pay for what they ate,” I said.

“Don’t be silly,” said the Mayor. “Good food is wasted on those not trained to appreciate it. And if we made it available to everyone, they would use up the supply. There’d be nothing left for real eaters. The Eating School is for those who live to eat, not those who eat to live.”

By this time we had been heard, and the gate was open for us. We entered onto an long avenue, where gracious brick buildings ran to either side of us, and we and they alike were shaded by the trees. Young people, from children to late teenagers, milled or ambled, or sat and talked on the spacious grass.

“I don’t see anyone eating,” I said, “or smell any food.”

“Eat outside!” The Mayor shook his head. “Where any passing smell could distort the olfactory experience? Or let the smells of food just drift around to clash with each other? You’re joking, sir.”

“The smell of food raises the appetite.”

“Now I see,” said the Mayor. “You think that just because we’re out of the way, we’re yokels. I’ll have you know that we begin training in appetite suppression on the very first day of school. We may not be New York or London or Paris, I grant you that, but that doesn’t mean we just gorge ourselves whenever our stomachs start rumbling. Just look over there. That’s our graduate cafeteria – the largest in the world. The chefs there can re-constitute samples of any dish known to man, from the cuisine of any country or ethnicity. Or look over there! That’s world’s largest walk-in freezer. Frozen samples of every fruit, vegetable, livestock meat, game meat, fish, grain – anything you could get anywhere from hunting, fishing, gathering, agriculture or aquaculture. I did my doctoral research there on calamari.”

“You like calamari?” I asked.

“Like!” He laughed. “As if I made a meal of a squid. I’ll have you know, sir, that I’ve sampled calamari on four separate occasions, under controlled conditions and with fully provenanced ingredients. I’ve written twelve research papers on calamari. I have, in fact, conclusively proven that it tastes nothing like chicken.”

“I believe you.”

“And look over there. There is our finest accomplishment – the Adult Eating School. Classes day and night. In a year, sir, only a year, we can take a common hardtongue – forgive my language – and teach him to distinguish at first taste between seven different grains, twelve different spices, and six kinds of meat. We hope to be able to offer sour training by the end of the year – it’s a question of keeping up the lemon supply.”

“Where do they eat? The adults you train? Your graduates?”

“Many of our finest eaters return as instructors. We also have a certain number of positions open for visiting eaters – and there are fellowships in the Eating Institute. Institute fellows are entitled to three meals a day with no charge and no teaching duties. And we have outreach programs, which make high-quality sandwiches available from roving kitchens.”

“I would like to eat something. Is there somewhere here I can get real food?”

“Of course. Here, come with me, we’ll register you.” We walked into a low building full of computers and unsmiling people, all behind a counter. The Mayor leaned meaningfully on the counter and talked to one of them in a soft voice. He returned smiling. “I threw my weight around. I can get you in for the faculty gumbo.”

“Can you show me the way?”

“I’ll send someone to show you on Tuesday.”

“That’s three days from now!”

The Mayor nodded. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get you in this month.”

I told the flabbergasted Mayor that I had lost my appetite, and took the short walk out of the ideal city.

Young and Old

Even on common ground, even when there is much to be said, when the old and the young talk together it is always somehow unsatisfactory. It is not that the young ask stupid questions; not that the old are preoccupied; not that the young are clever, but the old are knowledgeable; not that the young are forward, but the old are wary. These are only obstacles, and obstacles can be overcome. But as one is young and the other is old, each wants from the other what they cannot have.

The young want the wisdom of the old without understanding what they ask for. Death is coming – even the young know this. Even the young are broken to the awareness of death when first something they love dies. What the old know that the young are free of is how short and how wasteful life is before death: that no matter how narrow the range of your possibilities, even in the longest life there is not enough time to fulfill them. You must choose. You must live by glimpses and intimations and barren plans. The old are generally kind enough not to pass on this poison wisdom before its time; and if they said what they knew they would not be believed.

The young do not get what they want from the old; the old do not get what they want from the young. They want to get to know a person while they are new, while they are strong and armored with laughter; but their efforts are frustrated.

What the old forget is what it is like not to know who or what you are. To be young is only to be indignant that, not having asked to be born, so much is expected of you in return. Who you are, who you will be, is arrived at, not received from nature or from nurture, for then like causes would yield like people – but viewed exactly and patiently, no two people are really alike. You cannot win the hope of a place in the world to pursue, or the having of a place to defend. They must in some sense be given to you. Until then, the self remains unsettled.

You must know yourself before others can know you. All we know of one another is what we sympathize with; and what is obvious enough in another to share in, is only what they have first distinguished for themselves. It is not that you can pass on your self-knowledge; as your face is different to the mirror, to the camera, and to the world, it is different to everyone in the world. But only stupidity is unselfconscious. You must know yourself: if you do not know yourself rightly, you have a false idea of yourself. If you then try to be understood – or even to be recognized – you seem either a fool, or a mass of affectations; and if you do not try, you confuse or mislead. This ends badly: at best in disappointment, at worst in unintended betrayal.

Age is a double tragedy. Age not only ruins us, it isolates us. We reflect – “If I knew then what I know now…” But we cannot even teach what we have learned to the present, let alone the past. And youth is a double farce: we do not know what we are doing; we do not even know who is doing it.

And in between – what is in between? Who can mediate? Nothing is in between. There are no mediators. Youth bears us up until the moment it lets us fall. Age descends the moment youth departs. One evening we go to sleep not yet knowing who we are; the next morning we wake up strangers to ourselves.


I shudder whenever I hear of a new method in education. In the hands of a good teacher, who understands and shares its aims and principles, any method can succeed. In the hands of the rest, the shape and color of the prod do not matter: they will find a way to draw blood with it.

In the classroom of Procrustes there are standards. Those who are below the line may hope to be lifted up to it; those who are above the line must expect to be trimmed down even with it.

(Provided that it is peaceful and prosperous, I suspect that a country in which many minds fall below the line, will have unusually many minds above the line. This has been one of the reasons for America’s success. But unless the majority of people are close to the line, a country shall be neither peaceful nor prosperous.)

Sometimes a new method dredges the silt of habit. Sometimes it solves a problem; sometimes it shows up a problem in need of solving. But all methods try to reduce the teacher to catechist or technician. It is beyond reformers of education to acknowledge that good teachers are good, because they have good instincts. They have use for any method only if they can, when necessary, set it aside. When governments or school administrations enforce a particular method, they waste the best and excuse the worst.

The most basic question of method is whether to teach knowledge or critical thinking. But not even this question makes sense. I once read the difference analogized in the terms of computer programming – whether program or data is more important? It is a good analogy only because it shows how misguided the question is. The distinction of data and program is not essential or fixed. In the most sophisticated computer languages what is now data may become program, and what is now program may become data.

There is no skill of critical thinking, no capacity to learn, distinct from knowledge. You cannot learn to think, or learn to learn, without actually learning. Classroom critical thinking, when it is the ritual abuse of carefully stuffed straw men or the circling of out-of-reach questions, can only stop at inverting every statement into a question or cavil. That is the opposite of understanding; it is active ignorance.

Nor is knowledge absorbed directly. Words are symbols, and what symbols represent symbols cannot be. You learn not by absorbing thoughts from another mind, but by private analogy. Beginning with what you already know or have experienced, you recombine by aggregation and dissection until you meet what is shown to you. You build outward and inward, year by year, from the experience of the cradle – to the soul and the stars. But minds are not as different as their differentiating experiences. The building and building up of analogies, beginning in the isolation of the individual, converges on what is shared, what can be communicated – that is sanity.

Because it cannot be made into procedures, we neglect the basic truth: all education is self-education. Teaching cannot be brainwashing or downloading. No regulation and no method can do more than bring the teacher to the halfway where they must meet the student. No stake on any test and no drug can do more than bring the student to the halfway point where the teacher should meet them.

The mind is a fire, not an attic. You cannot burn anything without fuel, and you cannot fuel what is not burning. It takes a good teacher and a good student to set the fire; and it is the sign of good teachers to understand that whatever method does not serve the burning mind will smother it.

Modern Letters

The idea of serious writing is increasingly a paradox, because what is considered serious in modern letters is what it is impossible to disagree with and take seriously. What we read from the best modern essayists and critics, and in the best modern venues, is assembled from parting and passing shots, from the revelations of the esprit d’escalier. Everything shows the guerrilla spirit of political pamphleteering; and if we view each camp from its opposite, the world seems made up of monsters and fools.

The pamphleteer is certainly among us, but it is not the spirit of the pamphleteer which haunts modern letters; it is the spirit of the missionary. In place of lessons from religion, our secular sermonists preach the historical revelation – some moving catastrophe which (like a sacred book) delimits the permissible range of serious controversy. Beyond lies irrelevance (or heresy).

WWI was such a revelation for Europe – a message of horror and futility Europe found more powerful than the Gospel. That revelation has been superseded for them by the Holocaust. Even of a Christian, one may ask which is the more meaningful image: the Man of Sorrows, or the men of Dachau? Until 9/11 the principle revelation of American history was Vietnam – either as a betrayal of the people by an overreaching government, or the betrayal of victory by a weak people.

Where religion has disappeared from state liturgy and private conscience, it has been replaced with the cults and rites of infamy. The world of letters, and the world at large, is divided into factions, each with some central atrocity for which it works to broaden the basis of outrage. Religious fanaticisms, nationalisms, and secular ideologies are secondary. It is faction which drives events. It is impossible to explain the world today in terms of beliefs and loyalties. Everyone sees the strange alliances behind the forces of our time; it is common outrage which brings and ties them together.

The religious can, in principle, extend tolerance and decent behavior to members of other religions. Worship, where it does not become fanaticism, leaves room in the mind for other feelings. But outrage is an uncontainable passion. It subordinates every other feeling, warps every observation, breaks every chain of thought. These factions are as mutually deaf and mute as the most extreme fanaticisms of religion.

Outrage drives out justice. The blindfolded statue of justice puzzles us; our goddess of punishment has her eyes taped open. Factions cannot weigh the crime, the violation, and the loss, to calculate justice; they must parade grief and trauma, talk of closure or taking action as if these were answers. But grief is a wound that does not close, and action leaves us where we started: there is no satiety in extracting satisfaction, no revenge sweet enough to mask the bitterness.

The factions of outrage cannot be satisfied with finite goals. Outrage substitutes for religion as drugs substitute for achievement; outrage beguiles uncertainty as a hit or a high beguiles boredom or frustration. Both being poor substitutes, both tend to subvert and consume. As drugs subvert and consume one’s life, outrage subverts and consumes one’s voice.

History contains no revelations. History has no pivots, no keys and no locks. The only lesson of history is human weakness, human folly, and human fragility. Religion can embrace history; but history can be made to yield only perishable religions – their saints, made only once, all die in time and cannot be renewed. Looking at the Somme or Cu Chi, at Auschwitz or Ground Zero, some of us are driven to invent an analogy to Providence. We find a meaning to equal the loss; we find inspiration because we cannot bear despair. But history is only truth, not myth; and things happen because of what went before them, not in order to change the world afterward. No one can speak for the dead, nor do the dead speak.

Our serious writing is reducible to the devotional and the penitential. What does one learn from our periodicals? How is one illuminated by them? No distinctions are introduced, no arguments are undertaken; we are expected to bow to the alternations of authoritative pronouncement and sly derision, or be dazzled by a handful of shiny statistics. The actual reading is redundant; from the venue and the subtitle you can usually deduce the contents of the article or essay in advance. You could write it yourself.

I cannot believe that our descendants will read our literature. Will even their scholars delve it comfortably? A hundred years from now, our literature will feel to our descendants as an old book of earnest and censorious sermons feels to us: claustrophobic and inhuman.


Not all curiosities are of scientific use or value; but the habit of collecting curiosities, their gothic fascination, grows from the same ground as the scientific temperament. The philosopher may reject the aberrant as the spoiled ideal; but to the scientist, as to the poet, all things out of the ordinary – everything curious, bizarre, monstrous, abstruse, singular, marvelous – whatever it proves to be on examination, in the first instance and encounter it seems the token and promise of a new world.

It was not in their first reaction, but only in their later scrutiny, that scientist and magus diverged: the scientist applied Occam’s razor, to find the place of the thing in the known world; the magus tried to find new worlds in the thing. Of course sometimes the scientist is wrong. It was difficult for scientists to accept the notion of meteors; now they journey to cold white wastes to find the iron traces of the occult commerce, not just of earth with sky, but of planet with planet.

What is vast inspires our wonder. The mountain! The sky! But there is equal inspiration in the glamour of the small and strange: in the jests of nature, in the freakish, inexplicable, puzzling, or inscrutable, even in the foreign banal exoticized by lack of context. (We are all foreigners to someone.) If explanation cannot dim the wonder of the vast, it should not dim the glamour of the curious.

Fable of the Whale and the Dolphin

It happened in a cold sea that a dolphin and a whale became friends. In the shallows they would breach and rise into sunlight together; and the whale would admire the dolphin’s burnished, piercing swiftness, and regret his fell bulk. In the deep they would talk of deep things together; and the dolphin would admire the plangent voice of the whale and the patient subtlety of whale-speech, and regret the flightiness of the skipping, glittering speech of dolphins.

Now, once when both were near the surface, there rose a great storm, and each had to flee to his own shelter – the whale to his deep and the dolphin to his cove – without the chance to appoint another meeting. After the storm had passed, the whale sang a summoning song that carried in resonant echoes of sound deep through every sea to the ends of the world; and the dolphin appointed to all his dolphin-fellows to search the whole surface of the sea. But the dolphin did not hear the whale, and news of the whale did not reach the dolphin. So after a time, when the dolphin grew annoyed with the sleepless restlessness of his kind and the whale impatient with the memorious melancholy of his kind, they set out in search of one another.

The dolphin stretched his lungs as far as he could and dove straight down to seek the utter deep where the whales slide and the water rings forever with the thunder of their voices. He had sought that deep before, with his friend the whale. He had learned from the whale how to fill his lungs farther than he had thought possible, how to brace himself to bear the pressure of mountains on his every side. These terrors of the deep he knew; but he had never known how his great friend’s nearness, how the heat of his blood, had sheltered him from the last terror of the deep – from its cold. Cold pierced him from every side; first he was full of needles, then hollow. Realizing his mistake, he tried to turn and rise, but the cold had locked his muscles. He floated for a time until his air was spent, then drifted down dead through the substance of darkness to the snaky floor of the deep.

The whale sought out the cove where he knew his friend would hide. There were no dolphins in it he could see from without, but he thought that his friend might be waiting for him within. The dolphin had warned him against the cove, but the whale saw that there was plenty of water. He entered the cove and searched and searched it, examining every crevice with great eyes which were not used to such prolonged brightness. Then he turned to go, but found that now the cove was cut off from the sea. This was the tide he had been warned against and forgotten – but he did not fear, even as his slick heaving side was dried out by the declining sun, for he knew the tide would come back.

But the moon was waning, and the tides were low. Through weeks the whale lay on his side heaving for breath, feeling the ungracious carrion birds that would not wait for his death. Hope became courage, courage gave way to despair, and the great heart, defeated without and within, burst and stilled.

Moral: The Wise and the Happy mix at mutual Peril.

The Rich and the Healthy

The rich and the healthy misunderstand poverty and sickness. They see only a line to be crossed between too little and enough, between sickness and health. But there is poverty without imminent starvation, and sickness not prey for cancer or infection. The fear of death is easy to sympathize with; but the rich and the healthy never understand what it means to have to choose.

Torture is not about pain; it is about humiliation and violation. Those who succumb to torture do not succumb because of the pain, but because of the horror, because such things can really happen. Your mother never taught you that someday you might be given over naked and helpless into the hands of your enemies and left to their devices. Subject to torture, you cannot believe what is happening to you. It is never your will that breaks; it is always your mind.

Poverty also warps the mind. The lives of the rich and healthy branch out like trees or deltas. The world lies before them like a menu, where they choose not just what to do, but who to be. They are free to indulge or abstain. The poor and sick run on rails, along routes chosen by others. Where they are going depends on nothing but where they came from.

The old company store model is the extreme. But what is better about wages so low that you can survive only by shopping for food that destroys your health as it prolongs your life? To be poor, if not starving, is still to have to make such unbelievable choices: food or health, a safe home or crushing debts, enough hours for a decent wage or knowing your children on sight; and when you go to a doctor, or the hospital, or to beg from your insurer – your money or your life.

There is a syndrome of poverty that results from walking such mazes, like the inanition of an animal punished repeatedly and capriciously. Hope is the leavening every mind requires to imagine, to try, to dare, to build; but it does not take very much poverty to crush hope out of a person. This living with eyes taped open, in vigilance as unsleeping as it is certain to be unavailing, in awaiting the disaster you know is coming but cannot stop, is known in the poor as laziness.

The poor must make do, when they can get them, with damaged or dying machines: old cars that fume and guzzle, a dishwasher that uses so much electricity you can only run it once a week, a chainsaw that spits chips and stutters, but whose blade you cannot afford to replace or have sharpened.

The same is true of their bodies. Even in the most enlightened societies it is the right of the poor, not to be healthy, but to be healthy enough for work, or at least not to draw attention. Even when medicine can do nothing for them, the rich and the sick may enjoy an excusing diagnosis, even if just a syndrome without treatment; they have idiopathic as a marker for the diseases we recognize but do not understand. But for the poor, what the first test does not show, does not exist. There are no follow-ups, no referrals. They cannot fight. It is in the autopsies of the rich and vocal in their sufferings that new diseases are discovered; it is therefore strange, but likely true, to think that there are afflictions only of the poor stemming from malnutrition, stress, or hard labor, which have never been and never will be named, for they silence their victims.

This is the way of the world; the alternatives known so far are worse. The disappearance of visible poverty from parts of the first world is partly the result of fitted blinders (not just a cowardly unwillingness to see the problem – the visibility of the poor only discourages investment, and worsens their plight), and partly the result of globalization, which segregates classes in their own countries.

My interest here is sociological, because all civilizations have the poor in common, and the poor of all civilizations are alike. Details of costume, language, and climate aside, all hovels are really one hovel, and all unskilled labor is really one vast project, now building a pyramid, now digging a canal; now sewing shirtwaists, now sewing jeans. In thinly populated hunter-gatherer societies, or in civilizations with money to hand, there is room for culture, room to work out what it means to be human; but the poor are always and everywhere worn down to the same nub: what we all are in the end, at the last, at the core.

So Many Books

We remember what we learn more by the incidents of its acquisition than by its place in a scheme of knowledge. The voice of your teacher, the table where you studied, the stage of your life when you learned them – these are the things that make memories stick. (We learn best when we are young, not just because the mind is plastic, but because those are the years – the years of our firsts – we will always remember.) A book, as an artifact, is full of such adhesive incidents: binding, paper, cover and fonts; the author’s style and voice; its weight on or in your hand; how you marked it or took pains not to mark or mar it; who gave to you; where you bought it or took it out; who recommended it to you; how old it is – new, secondhand, antique.

A book is as mnemonically individual as a teacher and has the advantages of cheapness, reliable supply, permanence, and retainability – you cannot put a teacher on a shelf. Precisely because it is fixed and set, a book is not just a medium through which an item of data crosses from mind to mind; it is a thing in itself, fraught and sensuous, whose circumstances receive and bind, like spiders’ silk, gossamer and flighty thought.

The ancients, who had only fragile scrolls, and the scholars and schoolmen of the Middle Ages, who owned few books, built dream palaces in their memories, labyrinthine, full of niches and ramifying halls and galleries mortared from shards of remembered or imagined buildings. These palaces were miscellaneous as pattern books, like the strange buildings which haunt Renaissance backgrounds, Dürer’s rambling castles or the scenes where Poliphilo wandered; and which came as ruins to dominate Romantic landscapes, senseless conjunctions of towers and walls and columns; Piranesi’s prisons of invention, Death’s city in Poe, resembling nothing which is ours. These palaces housed only commodious niches, ranged along hall walls or between arcade columns, or grouped behind doors: and in each niche lived a vision, or a nightmare. Here is a fox-headed lady standing for a name beginning with V (vulpus); here is the goat with swollen testicles who was Cicero’s testator.

Why did the memory palace go out of fashion? Because of the library. Not because the sudden plenty of books made memory obsolete; but because the true palace of memory is the library, with wings of shelves, corridors of volumes, pages as niches where memory is bound.

So many counted light-years will not suffice to hold universe enough to justify, let alone satiate, the appetites and powers of the human mind; but books brought together do not add, but multiply; to be among books you know well is to be lifted out of mortal span and reach.

Dead Languages

Linguistics fascinates me, but there is something about it that makes me uncomfortable: something that embarrasses me when linguists try to act as public intellectuals. It is the fence that linguistics draws around what count as linguistic phenomena. It seems to me that the distinction between descriptivism and prescriptivism is untenable; prescription too is a phenomenon of language, and one of the things that any honest description must describe.

As a corollary, the distinction between natural and artificial languages is untenable. Literate languages are part natural and part artificial, in varying proportions. Latin has become more artificial than natural, but it is not a dead language; its artificiality sustains it. Sumerian is all natural and all dead; no one reads it except to translate from it. No one writes in Sumerian – and what you wrote in Sumerian, if you had that whim, would be philological caprice, not real Sumerian. But with diligence anyone can learn to write Latin; and what they write is real Latin, because Latin has been immortalized by the prescriptions of its grammarians, who cut free their language from the Tiber by making it answerable only to written, explicit, portable, unowned rules.

The Latin model is not ideal for English. (It is not even ideal for Latin, whose grammar is modeled after Greek.) But our Latinate grammar is not a cage; it is a trellis. It supports the whole structure of English literature. It is not a limit on English, not a smothering weight. It is, itself, the English language. It has not prevented English from fracturing into dialects, but it has preserved over and above those dialects a true, nuclear English. I dare call it true because English as we know it is not the product of any natural development. English too is an artificial language; a consciously and self-consciously made hybrid of Englisc, French, and Latin. The great writers and translators into our English, Mallory, Browne, Bacon, Burton, Florio, North, Urquhart, Sidney, Spencer, Shakespeare, did not use the English they found: they created the English we know. I do not believe that anyone in their time, even they, spoke as they write. But we speak their language, not a descendant of the argot-pidgin-creole-cant-jargon-lingoes (likely closer to Chaucer) that would have been heard in the London of their time.

How can a language be both artificial and natural? There is an English-language literature, not several streams of British and American and Commonwealth literature, and English is fit to be the universal auxiliary language of commerce and science, only because of its rules and its models. The English language is still vital, and thus changeful on the tongue, particularly in its vocabulary; but most new words will die, becoming quaint or obsolete. While they live, they may serve probation to become part of the language; but likelier, they will never be cut free from their contexts, and if they come to be written at all it will be only for color.

Here is one way that linguists make themselves obnoxious – when they condescendingly insist that vogue words, obviously destined for rapid obsolescence, halfway to quaint even before they are current, represent the future of the language. The fact that linguistics has no such category as fad is one of its deficiencies. The successions of fashion are unlike the forces determining national costume or native dress; likewise, the changes of a written language belong not to the order of cultural change, but to the order of revolutions and discoveries – of change in worldview, where prescription is the necessary basis for consensus.

Dialects, whatever the charm they have to linguists, cannot be entered into by outsiders. They presume and enforce a shared background, a particular geographic, racial, cultural, and economic set of coordinates. Our dialects are all the seeds of potential languages, as the proto-Romance accents were to Latin. But they will not last. There will always be a new crop of dialects and jargons, a new harvest of what they have to offer English. But, once harvested, they wither to make way for the next crop.

Because English is immortal and universal as it is captured in books, English literature is being fed into by countries with nothing else but English in common, and by the best minds of these countries, who know that what they write in their mother languages is only for their brothers and sisters; but what they write in English is for the world and forever.

Latinizing missionaries who stretched native languages on the rack were able to give them Bibles in their own languages. Linguists produce accurate descriptive grammars which make beautiful epitaphs to those languages. Bahasa Indonesia has preserved Indonesian language at the cost of Indonesian languages; the French created France out of the possessions of the Bourbons by suppressing regional dialects; the Arabic world is a world only by its devotion to the language of the Koran.

All rules seem arbitrary until they are gone without; all systems of rules suffer rot, once useful provisions becoming shibboleths; but a language without rules is a house on fire. Fire is a kind of life, breathing and eating; but it is too much life, and it leaves only ashes. A language is not safe, not hospitable to literature, until it has been settled prescriptively, not by itself but by learning from the grammarians of, and translators from, older languages.

The great puzzle of linguistics – why are the oldest languages the most complex? Greek is more complex than Latin; Sanskrit is more complex than Greek. The great puzzle of prehistory – what were people doing in the millennia between the arrival of Homo sapiens and the dawn of civilization? If they had all the same impulses we do, for creation and invention, what did they create? What did they invent? These puzzles may be the same puzzle. Their inventions, their creations, were their languages, refined and restricted with the same joy in the possibilities of form that would later diversify poetry.

The Book of Mismatched Lists

[Preface to the Edition of 1984]

Jacques Bourges, the author of what is known as The Book of Mismatched Lists, was born in 1645, the illegitimate son of the favorite mistress of George Blanc, the Abbé de Lamothe. The Abbé was a wealthy man, of diverse interests, but with a particular passion for philosophical languages which would later extend to the preparation of Essai vers une Langue Philosophique, printed in Rouen in 1688, a translation of Wilkins’s Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language.

In 1655, the Abbé visited England along with his favorite mistress and his favorite bastard. During this time the Abbé, browsing (inattentively, as most do) a copy of Thomas Urquhart’s Logopandecteision, discovered Urquhart’s boast that his philosophical language could be taught to a boy of ten years in three months. Since the Abbé intended a long stay in England, he wrote to Urquhart to offer him a large sum of money to undertake that very task. The Abbé’s own words (from his Correspondence 1630–1687 – the Abbé employed several secretaries in the maintenance of folio letter-books) are worth repeating:

It is my fondest wish and dearest hope that you, the illustrious author of this most wonderful plan for a fully developed philosophical language, would undertake the education of my son in your wonderful language of languages, Logopandecteision. My son is but ten years of age; if you will only come to us, we shall be pleased to receive you during those three months of invaluable instruction.

Urquhart, ready for comfort after his confinement to the Tower and hounded by his creditors, took the offer. Urquhart’s stay lasted, in fact, only two months, until the Abbé discovered that this Urquhart was the same as the translator of Rabelais into English – to the Abbé, who wore his tonsure lightly, but took his faith seriously, the whole of Europe had never held anyone else half so despicable as that scoffer Rabelais.

No immediate change in young Jacques was observed, and the Abbé concluded that the lessons Urquhart had offered had been a fraud. This opinion changed quickly after their return to France. Jacques’s restoration to his former tutors was only to their embarrassment; he had only (the Abbé gathered, from the accounts of the thinly enlightened tutors, who had resorted to accusations of sorcery) to work out the names of subjects and their leading ideas in a language unknown to any of those tutors – unknown, but singularly beautiful and fascinating, “more sung than spoken” (as the Abbé wrote, relating the events) – to be able to evince, with but minutes of reflection, a total mastery of the discipline, from its principles to its most arcane and abstruse results. This facility was not only intellectual; he could play any instrument as soon as handle it. He ruined the reputation of his fencing master by repeatedly disarming him before his students in his own sallé.

The Abbé wrote to Urquhart in the most grovelling terms, begging him to come to France (this letter, not collected with the rest of the Abbé’s correspondence, belongs to the British Museum), but Urquhart had left Britain, vanishing into the Continent. The Abbé soon realized that the intellectual facility which the language Logopandecteision gave his son – the Abbé decided to call it Adamic, considering it the rediscovery of the language of Eden – was not altogether a good. Try as he might, the Abbé could not get Jacques to attempt to teach another the language – the boy claimed to have no systematic knowledge of the grammar, as that would have been the burden of the third month of Urquhart’s instruction – or to explain or write out any of the marvelous discoveries the language had allowed him to reach. “He says that while anything that may be said or written in any other language may be said in Adamic,” wrote the Abbé, “very little of what may be said in Adamic can be translated into the languages stemming from the confusion of Babel.”

Young Jacques spent nearly all his time in the composition of poetry – “A sonnet of Adamic, he tells me, contains more than all the treatises of Aristotle and the Schoolmen” – and in one-sided conversation with animals and plants. The Abbé found one incident startling enough to record and send on:

I went down to the orchard, which had fallen barren in my grandfather’s time; those old trees, it seemed to me, would never fruit again. I discovered that without my knowledge, my son had preceded me, and was haranguing the trees in Adamic. I say haranguing, from the loudness of his voice; but his tones were those of a seducer. It was already autumn then. In the depth of that winter, I was riding through the village in my carriage, when an apple was thrown through my window. Astonished at seeing a fresh apple in winter in this remote place, far from the sea, I examined it by what light there was; and it seemed to me that something was familiar in its color. I bit into it; at first taste it was superbly sweet; but the sweetness grew on my tongue, until surpassing sweetness, the taste became painful and bitter, like Spanish licorice. I returned swiftly to my home, and walked through deep snow to the old orchard, where I found the withered trees with their branches obscured with apples, which frost had turned white. I ordered the apples distilled to a cider, to preserve their strange quality. This spring, the trees have all died.

The profit the Abbé made from selling that extraordinary cider to eagerly curious correspondents convinced him that here was a miracle of practical consequence; so he ordered the construction of a greenhouse. The extraordinary flowers which grew there under Jacques’s persuasion – roses which required two hands to hold; orchids which could be worn, properly prepared, like hats – were harvested several times a year and transported to Paris and Versailles to adorn the ladies of fashion. But yet more profitable were certain plants of medicinal virtue which could not otherwise be grown in France, and for which apothecaries were willing to pay more than their weight in gold. The clever Abbé, looking to diversify, had several racing horses brought to his son; each of these won the first race it was entered in by an extraordinary margin, but thereafter could hardly walk. The Abbé entered a few undistinguished horses every year, whose remarkable victories made them, though useless for racing, valuable studs.

In 1669, Jacques fell from a horse and broke his leg. The leg would never heal properly, and Jacques was nearly dumb with fear and exhaustion for some months. The Abbé, alarmed at the prospect of an end to the marvel of Adamic, and optimistic that the language could be systematized along the lines of Wilkins’s new work, again attempted to convince Jacques to try to teach him Adamic. Jacques again professed his inability. The Abbé resolved on an indirect tactic – to create a dictionary of Adamic. Jacques demurred that no writing system available was sufficient to record the subtle accents of Adamic; however, he agreed to begin writing out definitions, pledging to create a writing system later.

The Abbé left with Jacques his manuscript translation of Wilkins, and embarked on a prolonged absence to visit his nominal benefice. During this time, Jacques wrote out in Latin, in a series of octavo notebooks, nearly five thousand definitions. When the Abbé returned, he wished to see them; but they seemed to him only to be gibberish, so he grew angry with Jacques, whom he accused first to trying to trick him; then, in anger, of traffic with the devil.

The Abbé indignantly quoted certain of these gibberish definitions in his letters; to his surprise, his correspondents begged to hear more of them – even correspondents who had never returned his letters before. The Abbé realized that nonsense might still have much of poetry. Jacques, wounded by the Abbé’s first reaction, refused to write any more definitions; but the Abbé took the existing notebooks and had them transcribed by his secretaries, then published as Liber Nominandarum (Rouen, 1670). The Abbé took charge of the whole stock, and shipped copies to his correspondents, keeping careful records of each. Of the original notebooks, history provides no further mention. The printer attempted another printing for sale, printed in Rouen but marked as if printed in Paris; these books, along with the transcription and possibly the notebooks, the Abbé had destroyed.

In 1672, the Abbé died. Jacques closed the greenhouse, gave his fortune into the hands of a firm of Rouen factors, and lived in seclusion until his own death in 1720. His only contact with the outside world was that necessary to secure publication of the Abbé’s correspondence, and of his translation of Wilkins. After Jacques’s death, his and his father’s papers were confiscated by the Intendant; Jacques himself was posthumously convicted of witchcraft; and royal order commanded the utter destruction of the Liber Nominandarum.

The Abbé’s careful records enabled the tracing of every copy; none survive. Three partial manuscript translations into French, and what the Abbé himself quoted in his letters, are all that remain. Between them, they number 612 distinct appositions, as each entry is known. One of these French manuscripts was in 1730 made the basis for an English translation, containing 285 appositions and published in London The Complete Wonderfull Book of Mis-Matched Lists of the Abbot of Lamothy – the printer apparently being confused as to its authorship. From the English edition, all the many other direct and indirect manuscript copies have been made – for the catalog, see Appendix A.

The influence of the Book, in France and England, is difficult to ascertain, as it was almost never quoted directly. The recipients of the Abbé’s copies included nearly every significant figure of the period in French literature and philosophy – one copy, taken from the royal library, was burned in the presence of Louis XV. The French never named the book itself before the burning, because, everyone knowing it, they never had to; after the burning, they were afraid to; and the English, having learned from the French example, kept their copies uncatalogued and out of sight.

Nonetheless, it would be difficult to find an author of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries who did not show, in some degree, the influence of the Book. Some of the appositions have even influenced popular language and sayings. Most notably, Ap. 128 (using the enumeration of Reicher’s definitive 1870 edition): “Devils, the color blue, the deep sea, violins, vinegar, salt, fruits red within.” One appears to be the basis of a common non sequitur: (Ap. 40) “Ravens, batons [or walking sticks], escritoires, night clouds, steeples, old songs.” Some appear to derive from mythology: (Ap. 26), “A woman, an old man, a cane, a lion, a lord, a loss, graves.” Some – and it should be remembered that they precede even Champollion – seem to allude to Egyptian mythology: (Ap. 23) “A heart, a feather, a butcher, a son, a river, scales,” or Babylonian: “The sea, storms, a dragon, water under the earth, the river mouth, mountaintops.” They vary in length, from the shortest (Ap. 7), “Wine, worms,” to the longest (Ap. 90), “A king, a home, a bushel, a mirror, a knife, a god, long [finger]nails, steam, a labyrinth [or the Labyrinth], sand, marble, foreigners, comers, a door, madness, old crimes, hills, a tower, a whale, grass, memory, broken strings [musical], a pit, a torch, the green sea, a stylus, boards, rings, plaster, maps, lamps, a tiger, a plate, a height, a fall.” Snatches of sense in these and other appositions (a king’s home being a palace, knife and mirror both being reflective, and a height preceding a fall) have inspired interpretative efforts which have yet to succeed in making much more sense than the original. There were, it seems, some efforts at organization in the original; compare, for example, appositions 5 and 6, each with eight terms: (5) “Gold, sand, spit, a scythe, a [split] rail, a key, a flock, a [nun’s] habit,” and (6) “Silver, rain, blood, a staff, a post, a lock, a crook, skin.” But each translator felt it worth their time to record only one member of each pair; such pairs as we do have come each from different manuscripts.

The obscurity of so influential a book is a problem of literature without a literary solution; but the human answer is as obvious as the existence of the book is repulsive. It invalidates at least all literature since it was created, and possibly all literature. A Jung could look for a collective unconscious in the mind; but in the Book we have one of paper, a shared universe of dreams which has been the artificial unconsciousness of the whole of romanticism and modernism, a false nature which has beguiled the world alike from classical worldliness and medieval religiosity. But the Book is more than a practical repudiation of the value of criticism and authorship. It debases the value of imagination, to find that all that can be imagined yields to interpretation by this single key, that every myth and story and work of art and piece of music is but a failed evocation and adumbration of a single word of the only true and perfect language. It blasphemes the idea of mystery, that there should ever have existed a Book such as this, in which all mysteries are potentially present. The Book is a rebuke to the intellect of humanity, to our provisional and grasping efforts, to what in the Book’s light we can only mistake for creativity. The Book is a fragment of Divine design – incomprehensible as a fragment of a machine’s design would be if we have but the plan of a valve or a seal; an echo of the confident and fearless thoughts of angels. The Book is as cruel as our vision and understanding is limited; it is as foul as the fact that we built our tower at Babel, and it fell. They were wise who tried to destroy it; and we are fools who have forever bound ourselves to it, by its study, and by this reprinting.

Fable of the Old Man and the Ravens

Once there was an old man, a farmer. Every day he drove his cart to market, and every day he stopped to throw seed to the ravens. Now, the old man did not load the cart, but paid his young nephew to do it. The old man, who had little use for words, had never spoken to him, except to hire him, and to promise that he would inherit the farm.

When the old man was late to rise one morning, the young man left in anger; and the ravens sent one of their number to check on the old man. Through the window, the chosen raven saw that the old man was dead. When he told the other ravens, they became fearful, for they had grown in numbers and depended on the old man for food.

“I have a plan,” said the chosen raven. The ravens came in numbers to the deserted farm. They broke in a window with their beaks and gathered up the farmer’s clothes: his hat, his gloves, his coat, his boots. They brought the farmer’s old scarecrow, and dressed him in the farmer’s garments. They tied the farmer’s fishing line to the hands and feet and head of the scarecrow.

When the young man arrived the next day, he saw the ravens overhead and said to the old man, who was waiting for him: “Aren’t they here a little early?” The farmer shrugged. “Guess they’re hungry,” continued the young man. The farmer nodded and climbed stiffly into the cart. “That fall chill bothering your joints already?” The farmer nodded, picked up and tugged the reins, and the cart rolled on.

Once the cart was out of sight, the ravens let the scarecrow fall and ate everything on the cart. In this way, day by day over months, the ravens grew many and fat.

One day his nephew said to the farmer: “Your fields are getting scraggly. You want me to handle it this year? This place’ll be mine someday, and I might as well start getting to know it.” The farmer nodded rhythmically. “Those ravens sure do follow you around.” The uncle nodded sharply and climbed onto his cart.

It was so for years, the young man doing the farm work and loading up the cart for the market. Fortunately for the ravens, the old man, who had prospered in his last years, had become a miser. Whenever the young man needed money they only had to dig up coins where they had seen the farmer bury them.

One day the young man said: “It’s time I leave here and go see the world. I’ve stored plenty of food for you, you’ll be fine for a few years until I come back. I know you’ll still be here. People keep saying you’re bound to kick off, but you won’t give them the pleasure, will you?”

What could the farmer do, but raise his arms and shrug?

What would feed an old man for years would last the many ravens only months. They became afraid and lamented; but the chosen raven, now the king of the unkindness, said: “I have a plan.” At his order, many ravens came together and lifted the scarecrow high into the air, searching for the young man’s night camp. When dark had come, while the young man tied his horse and lit his fire, there came much squawking of ravens out of the dark woods. “Damn ravens are everywhere these days.”

The young man saw the farmer come slowly out of the wood. “Is – is that you? It can’t be. How…” The farmer rose into the air unsupported, his arms waving. “Oh, no! You’re dead. You’re a ghost!” A raven lighted on the ground before the fire. The old man pointed to it. “The raven? The ravens. You want me to keep feeding the ravens. Of course I will. Don’t worry about it. I’ll keep feeding them. As many as show up.”

The ghost rose up over the young man, arms outspread. “I swear I will!” At that, the ghost sank, lowered his arms, and drifted back into the forest and the dark.

The young man returned to the farm, only to find that his uncle’s house had burned down – with him in it. The young man had only his dear uncle’s bones to bury.

The young man soon regretted his oath, as ravens appeared in incredible numbers; but when he came out of his tent to feed them, they led him, leading him from before and behind, to where his his uncle had buried his wealth. With that money, the young man was able to build a new house, and he found a wife to keep it.

So as the young man became an old man, keeping his vow, he often told how the ravens, to whom his uncle had always been so kind, had shown their simple gratitude; and he always laughed at any who called ravens cunning.

Moral: Silence is not Evidence of Wisdom.

Bacon and Montaigne

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

One is Montaigne. He is delighted by your visits, stuffs you with cookies, asks after your interests, takes it graciously in stride when you tell him (being a child) that they have changed, offers up anecdotes and friendly advice that he will not be offended if you disregard.

The other is Bacon. When you visit, he sits you down, offers you wine – they do that where he comes from – and takes everything you say seriously. You have opinions; he treats them like theories. You have observations; he treats them like theses. You have tastes; he treats them like positions. You finish bewildered and afraid. Montaigne makes you feel grown up; Bacon lets you know that you are not even as grown up as you thought.

The Essais of Montaigne sum to an autobiography in topical cross-sections; the Essayes of Bacon are ventured as Counsels Civill and Morall. Montaigne was the first essayist, the inventor of the essay; he is the standard. There will never be a better essayist than Montaigne, because trying to write an essay is trying to write like Montaigne.

But I should not have to argue that Bacon’s was the greater mind (though the two were more alike than goes acknowledged). Montaigne conceded to the world and posterity, “What do I know?”; Bacon, troubled that he knew nothing, determined to find something out. Read the Apology for Raymond Sebond; count how often Bacon’s method has discovered what Montaigne thought we could never know.

Bacon’s essays, and Bacon himself, have lost their once universal regard. Bacon has been expelled from the history of science. The very idea that an individual might be responsible for the project and phenomenon of science, and a philosopher at that, offends mathematicians who find a debt to the condemned practice of thinking in mere words distasteful, and would prefer an ancestry direct from Galileo to Newton. And it offends historians who conclude that, because science was supported by economic forces, science was therefore predestined by them – the role of individuals, and certainly of an instorer, being redundant; and any claim of originality or responsibility, naive.

Even as Bacon’s achievement increases in importance, he and his age sink ever farther from us into the costumed past. His glory as the founder of science, already lost, is irrecoverable.

But Bacon’s essays should not be forgotten. They are the model of strength in writing: swift, direct, and final. If Shakespeare’s position in society had allowed writing essays, they would read like Bacon’s – only natural in two contemporaneous, equipollent minds meeting the same challenge in Montaigne. They have that life in themselves, and that closeness to life as it is lived; lived not in passing, but in success or failure. Bacon’s language is free from the texture and balance which batten Addison’s meaning; free of Macaulay’s fireworking showmanship; free of the diffidence (or, worse, the confidence) of the twentieth century essay.

Analogy is the proof of a writer’s skill and character. Bacon and Shakespeare were both immune to the absurdity by which office workers pushing keys and paper under fluorescent lights make hay while the sun shines. Bacon’s Idols (not in his essays, but still his) deserve a place in the analogical equipment of every mind besides Shakespeare’s stage of life; or the winding stair, beside time and tide; or death and the dark, beside what dreams may come.

Still, I expect no literary renascence or restoration for Bacon. We still read Montaigne because he, himself, appeals to us; because his observations, centered on and conditioned by himself, are easy even for our suspicious sympathies to enter into.

But Bacon is a counselor; an adviser. We do not like to take advice at all; and the advice that is not accompanied by an exemplary life we not merely reject, but oppose unheard. Bacon’s counsels are stern, harsh distillations. He was not a pitying man; he would not even pity himself. He knew his failure, and he measured it as clearly as he would any other’s.

Bacon had a destination in mind for science, a New Atlantis, and sought the royal road to it. When geometry denied him, he denied geometry. Having found the right course, he took the easy way; as he did in politics, where he certainly practiced flattery (with the ease and excess of the arrogant and disingenuous) with his superiors, and was probably corrupt to his inferiors. These are the vices of politics, inescapable; but Bacon did not merely allow them, he perfected them – the easy way to power, and from power, he must have thought, to what we would call reforms, but he called instoration.

Bacon set himself apart from the world and from mankind so he could inspect them, make experiments on them, and recognize in and learn from them the accidental experiments conducted by nature. In this way, his two great failures – his failure to see the value of mathematics in science, and his failure to – I will not say, practice as he preached (for his essays are not secular sermons), but to act with patience or discretion – are the same failure. He sought, not (as some have) to know God’s thoughts, but to have God’s view. As his aim was too high, his fall was certain.