Category Archives: Reading and writing

Goethe’s third tendency

Our wishes are presentiments of capabilities that lie within us, harbingers of what we shall be able to accomplish.  The things we can and would like to do are presented to us by our imagination as being beyond us and in the future; and we feel a longing for something already latent in us.  Thus our passionate reaching out in advance transforms a true possibility into an imaginary reality.  If a particular tendency is definitely in our nature, then a part of our early wish will be fulfilled at every step of our development, in a straight line if circumstances are favorable, and if they are unfavorable, then in a roundabout way from which we constantly turn back to the right one.  So people are seen attaining to earthly goods through their perseverance; they surround themselves with riches, magnificence, and outward honor.  Even more surely, others strive for spiritual advantages; they acquire a clear overview of things, peace of mind, and security for the present and future.

However, there is also a third tendency, which as a mixture of the other two must be the one surest of success.  If, that is to say, a person’s youth coincides with a pregnant epoch, one in which productivity predominates over destruction, and his presentiments about the demands and promises of such a time awaken early, then, urged on by outward incentives to participate actively, he will reach out in all directions, and the wish will stir in him to be effective in a variety of endeavors.  Now, in addition to his human limitations, so many incidental hindrances will arise that either a project begun does not progress, or something grasped falls out of his hand, and one wish after the other disintegrates.  However, if his wishes have issued from a pure heart and meet the requirements of the time, then he may calmly let things lie as they fall, right and left, in full confidence that they will not only be discovered and picked up again, but that many related matters, not touched on or even thought of, will also come to light.  If, during the course of our life, we see others accomplish what we ourselves earlier felt it was our calling to do, but had to abandon along with much else, then we get the beautiful feeling that mankind in combination is the only true human being, and that the individual can be glad and happy only when he has the courage to feel himself part of the whole.

Goethe, From My Life:  Poetry and Truth, Book 9

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Caravaggio revisited

From my Roman journal, 12 November 2012:

Caravaggio’s Conversione di San Paolo astounds (in the event, I couldn’t spare more than a second or two for his S. Pietro).  A priest at Santa Maria del Popolo was kind enough to flip on the light, having witnessed my doubtful expression before the darkened chapel.  The painting exploded in my field of vision, as a totality and in detail.  I sorted out the respective limbs – Paul’s, the servant’s, the horse’s – in wonderment.  Then I gazed for ages at the painter’s rendering of the bit, of the horse’s placid demeanor (its expression by far the most compelling of the three, to my mind).  Paul, it turns out, labours under more and heavier harness than his equine partner.

It is no doubt an image of the immediate aftermath of a fall.  To a pair of eyes innocent (or wittingly forgetful) of church history, art history, might it not allow for a multiplicity of possible readings?  As an initiation into horse worship, for example?

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Kicking it

WHAT TO DO

March 5 [1838].  But what does all this scribbling amount to?  What is now scribbled in the heat of the moment one can contemplate with somewhat of satisfaction, but alas! to-morrow — aye, to-day — it is stale, flat and unprofitable — in fine, is not, only its shell remains, like some red parboiled lobster-shell which, kicked aside never so often, still stares at you in the path.

Thoreau, Gleanings

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“on the matter of Washington language”

In a CIA review of various attempts between 1960 and 1963 to assassinate Fidel Castro…an internal report prepared in 1967 by the Inspector General of the CIA and declassified in 1978 for release to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, there appears, on the matter of Washington language, this instructive reflection:

… There is a third point, which was not directly made by any of those we interviewed, but which emerges clearly from the interviews and from reviews of files.  The point is that of frequent resort to synecdoche – the mention of a part when the whole is to be understood, or vice versa.  Thus, we encounter repeated references to phrases such as “disposing of Castro,” which may be read in the narrow, literal sense of assassinating him, when it is intended that it be read in the broader, figurative sense of dislodging the Castro regime.  Reversing the coin, we find people speaking vaguely of “doing something about Castro” when it is clear that what they have specifically in mind is killing him.  In a situation wherein those speaking may not have actually meant what they seemed to say or may not have said what they actually meant, they should not be surprised if their oral shorthand is interpreted differently than was intended.

Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live, 472-3

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A recipe for durable sentences

It is the fault of some excellent writers – De Quincey’s first impressions on seeing London suggest it to me – that they express themselves with too great fullness and detail.  They give the most faithful, natural, and lifelike account of their sensations, mental and physical, but they lack moderation and sententiousness….they say all they mean.  Their sentences are not concentrated and nutty.  Sentences which suggest far more than they say, which have an atmosphere about them, which do not merely report an old, but make a new, impression; sentences which suggest as many things and are as durable as a Roman aqueduct; to frame these, that is the art of writing.  Sentences which are expensive, towards which so many volumes, so much life, went; which lie like boulders on the page, up and down or across; which contain the seed of other sentences, not mere repetition but creation.  If De Quincey had suggested each of his pages in a sentence and passed on, it would have been far more excellent writing.

Thoreau recorded this entry in his journal on August 22, 1851.

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“xxx,” Joan Didion

“What we need here is a montage, music over.  How she:  talked to her father and xxxx and xxxxx–

“xx,” he said.

“xxx,” she said.

How she:

“How she did this and why she did that and what the music was when they did x and x and xxx–

How he, and also she–”

The above are notes I made in 1995 for a novel I published in 1996, The Last Thing He Wanted.  I offer them as a representation of how comfortable I used to be when I wrote, how easily I did it, how little thought I gave to what I was saying until I had already said it.  In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all:  I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what I was saying.  Many of the marks I set down on the page were no more than “xxx,” or “xxxx,” symbols that meant “copy tk,” or “copy to come,” but do notice:  such symbols were arranged in specific groupings.  A single “x” differed from a double “xx,” “xxx” from “xxxx.”  The number of such symbols had a meaning.  The arrangement was the meaning.

—  Joan Didion, Blue Nights, 103-4

 

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Clerks of the last word

Transcribed below is part of a text – a journal of sorts – that was written twenty four years ago, in the context of a certain crisis.  When read attentively, it speaks volumes to our own historical juncture.  Here I would only underscore (twice, emphatically, on a hard copy) what it has to say about journals and newspapers, diarists and journalists, which proves (before the “fact”) to hold true for blogs and bloggers — whether micro- or macro- — as well.

December 12, 1987

The journal is not a form of the fragmentary.  Comparable in this only to the aphorism, it is the form of literary perfection under the threat of fragmentation.  It registers the completeness of one, and yet another, and still another day gone by, a day that for this individual diarist might find no repetition and renewal in a next day.  The diarist is in the situation of the skeptic who is no longer absolutely sure that the sun will rise again in the morning; and the habit of expecting it to do so has become just as doubtful to him as the certainty that the truths of today will still be valid tomorrow.  The entry of one day stands for no other.  Each is written from the perspective of the absolute disaster – that it cannot be continued, revised, renewed, or outdone.  The diarist’s every word could be his last.  Thus in the form of the diary – and in every related form, from the aphorism to the newspaper article – the absolute skepticism about the durability of the written word and its meaning is intertwined with an astonishing optimism that demonstrates itself more in the compactness and conciseness of its linguistic expression than in its contents:  since each entry could be the last, everything that comes together in it must appear under the aspect of its perfection, that is, of closure and finality.  The world and language of the journal are finished.  Its words are no longer intended for someone else, not even for the writer – thus the diary’s appearance of empty interiority, thus the newspaper’s merely formal, abstract public aspect, thus the pathos of the obsessively detailed realism of both.  The diarist and the journalist write less as clerks of their own interior life, or of political history and its ideological overlay, than as clerks of the last word that can be pronounced on their experiences and their world.  Where they appear as psychologists, anecdote collectors, critics or propagandists, they do so in order to signal an extreme danger – the danger of their own end.  Journalists and diarists are prophets of their deadline.  Their metier is catastrophes – preferably those affecting their audience and themselves.  They are the realists of the last days, notorious prophets of the apocalypse….  The journalist, in his function as critic, or the diarist, who notes the last word on the occurrences of the day, defines the danger, wards off the threat of indefinite events, and installs himself and his word as the last sovereign of his short epoch.

Werner Hamacher, “Journals, Politics” in Responses:  On Paul de Man’s Wartime Journalism, 1989, 438-9.

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