There is a line in the text of the Dies Irae about being dragged before the throne of judgement, something like “reus cogor ante thronum”. The Latin word means both the accused, and guilty, with no distinction. We are inclined to think the whole of justice lies in the difference; and even the ducking-stool purported to reveal the truth. In English law, mens rea is one of the elements required to establish guilt (along with the corpus delicti, as it were the smoking gun). It immediately occurs to me to wonder, what about manslaughter as opposed to murder; you’d better not hire me as a lawyer. In most times and places, once the wheels of justice start to grind, they are likely to turn you to mincemeat. There’s no smoke without fire. Mud sticks. Even in these enlightened times, to a considerable extent, it’s still the case. Once you start to dig, something unsavoury will turn up. Perhaps the best mark of a more civilised approach to justice is a presumption in favour of leaving people alone, unless there are pressing grounds to begin turning over stones, looking for worms. If you look at it like this, judicial torture starts to seem more comprehensible. The thumbscrew and the rack are like instruments of exorcism.

So much by way of preamble. We speak of someone ‘living a lie’: perhaps they’re in the closet, or a secret agent. The truth lives just beneath the deceiving surface. Once the question has been raised, the disguise is likely to become leaky, like the false skin of the alien Body Snatchers. The whole trick of leading a double life is to avoid suspicion. But what if they’re falsely accused, and the lie is slander? The more you protest, the more you sound as though you protest too much, impaled on the forensic steel of someone else’s question. And after all, in some accounts, Joseph found Potiphar’s wife comely.

More broadly, I mean to suggest that every situation, every life, exists on the cusp between different lights in which it may be seen. Such ambiguity is the cutting edge of fiction — there has to be an open question, else it’ll be a mere morality tale — as can be seen more crudely in the cinematographic cliché of the murder mystery, where the same events are presented several times, according to competing accounts. In life, the abyss on either side of the path we tread only comes to conscious awareness when something has gone wrong, but we subsist in a balanced tension. It is on the way we take that we will be judged, and that is the foundational humanistic premise of fiction, that it matters, and we can choose. Punishment and reward need not be in the hereafter. We hold our life in our hands, with every breath.

The nineteenth-century poet William Johnson Cory is remembered chiefly for this translation from Callimachus, which I include for anyone not familiar with it:

 They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
 They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
 I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
 Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

 And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
 A handful of grey ashes, long long ago at rest,
 Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
 For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

That must surely count as one of the great poems of the English language. I stumbled on Cory at a tangent while reading on the lawn. Here is another by him, not so fine, but with a similar elegiac zest for life, if I may be allowed the oxymoron:

     Mimnermus in Church

     You promise heavens free from strife,
     Pure truth, and perfect change of will;
     But sweet, sweet is this human life,
     So sweet, I fain would breathe it still;
     Your chilly stars I can forego,
     This warm kind world is all I know.

     You say there is no substance here,
     One great reality above:
     Back from that void I shrink in fear,
     And child-like hide myself in love:
     Show me what angels feel. Till then,
     I cling, a mere weak man, to men.

     You bid me lift my mean desires
     From faltering lips and fitful veins
     To sexless souls, ideal quires,
     Unwearied voices, wordless strains:
     My mind with fonder welcome owns
     One dear dead friend's remembered tones.

     Forsooth the present we must give
     To that which cannot pass away;
     All beauteous things for which we live
     By laws of time and space decay.
     But oh, the very reason why
     I clasp them, is because they die.

Mimnermus, I did not know, is an early Greek poet whose work is almost completely lost. But there is this:

τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσῆς Ἀφροδίτης;
τεθναίην, ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα μέλοι,
κρυπταδίη φιλότης καὶ μείλιχα δῶρα καὶ εὐνή·
οἷ’ ἥβης ἄνθεα γίγνεται ἁρπαλέα
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξίν· ἐπεὶ δ’ ὀδυνηρὸν ἐπέλθῃ
γῆρας, ὅ τ’ αἰσχρὸν ὁμῶς καὶ καλὸν ἄνδρα τιθεῖ,
αἰεί μιν φρένας ἀμφὶ κακαὶ τείρουσι μέριμναι,
οὐδ’ αὐγὰς προσορῶν τέρπεται ἠελίου,
ἀλλ’ ἐχθρὸς μὲν παισίν, ἀτίμαστος δὲ γυναιξίν·
οὕτως ἀργαλέον γῆρας ἔθηκε θεός.

The following version, lacking Cory’s grace, gives the sense, more or less; found on Wikipedia:

What is life, what is sweet, if it is missing golden Aphrodite?
Death would be better by far than to live with no time for
Amorous assignations and the gift of tenderness and bedrooms,
All of those things that give youth all of its coveted bloom,
Both for men and for women. But when there arrives the vexatiousness
Of old age, even good looks alter to unsightliness
And the heart wears away under the endlessness of its anxieties:
There is no joy anymore then in the light of the sun;
In children there is found hate and in women there is found no respect.
So difficult has old age been made for us all by God!

The translation of the penultimate line is euphemistic, or ignorant of Greek ways; and the more literal sense of ‘even good looks’ is that age, the leveller, reduces the ugly and the handsome man to the same state.

For good measure, here are some fine words by Cory on the purpose of education:

At school you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness.


There must be nearly as many Kants as there are serious readers of the philosopher. I belong to the katechoumenoi: I am a convert, and I believe there are not many such. Kant, especially in the first Critique, offers a system, and I think he says that the whole edifice must fall if any fault be found in it. In English-speaking countries where the analytical tradition dominates, it is customary to raid those crumbling, though perhaps still imposing ruins for their masonry; that is, the arguments stand on their merits, which are suspect, and have value iff they are sound. ‘Kantians’ are like the followers of Freud, each to his own school and improved system. Kleist famously shot himself because of the despair provoked by reading the Critique of Pure Reason, but (it is generally accepted) he got it wrong. It’s a difficult book.

Possible readings can perhaps be divided into three regions (like Gaul): empiricist, rationalist, and idealist, in other words, they cover the entire terrain of philosophy. I’m not well-versed in the reception of Kant after the eighteenth century, but idealist reworkings of Kant seem to cover most of the nineteenth century in Germany. I’m in the empiricist camp, seeing his entire purpose as having been to close the door on such speculations; and I find the building imposing, unmoved by any cracks or gaps. But when I think of ‘Kantianism’ today, it’s figures like Chomsky and Stephen Pinker that come to mind. They would perhaps not claim to be followers of Kant, but the influence is clear though with a different emphasis from the original.

I am no philosopher, and my original encounter with Kant was as an intellectual historian. It’s got to be illuminating to place any thinker against his context, see what he was reacting to, and how he understood his own contribution. The Preface to the first Critique, with its metaphor of the ‘Wohnhaus’, or humble abode of reason, is actually pretty clear. We can kill idle speculation dead by keeping our feet on the ground. If what we know comes from the evidence of our senses, we can’t say either way how the universe began or whether there is a God. (Such questions were still dynamite, so had to be skirted around). The problem with this was Hume, who had argued that you couldn’t make much sense of the world, in particular, it was not possible to establish causation. Surely it should be possible to explain a bit more than that, without letting the mediaeval fancies back in? Kant’s innovation was to argue that experience of anything at all is only possible if it is structured in various ways (most notably through causation): otherwise nothing makes sense. That explanation would probably attract red ink in an undergraduate essay, but it is not my aim to offer a lucid summary; there is no substitute for reading Kant at first hand. The argument has the same structure as that of the second Critique: if experience is possible at all it must have this shape; if there is morality it must be internally consistent, else it would not be morality, therefore it must unfold to contain justice, equality and so on, with a certain cut of the sails that is distinctively Kantian.

Kant was thinking of human beings, but I think his argument applies to Martians, and spiders, too: this is what experience as such must be like. The contemporary rationalists believe that our modes of thought are hardwired, and therefore species-specific. Clearly, our sense organs have certain limitations (a range of wavelengths for both sound and vision, for instance) and there is some flesh-and-blood plumbing in there to make sense of it all. But I would like to believe the Martians must do very much the same thing by other means, unknown to us.

And so finally I come to my point, just a speculative trifle. All this favours the sense of sight. On the whole, the other senses are much blunter instruments. The sense of touch (divided perhaps into proprioception, pain, temperature, sexual sensation, etc) tells more about our own body, and only indirectly anything external; and maybe taste and smell are a bit like this too. But what about hearing? I don’t mean that we can hear, say, certain sounds that speak of the burn rushing through the glen, though it is immediately interesting that what those sounds convey naturally falls into visual shape. Through our ears comes language, and with it a set of beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, and social capacities we can no more shake off than the urge to duck when a cricket ball comes at us.

There is a body of theological argument that we imbibe faith with the mother’s milk of human kindness. I bristle and can feel my readers bristling at the very thought, because of the obvious problems of relativism and authority. But what if there were a Kantian bootstrapping argument, that there must be — what? Some form of social order? Some sense of ‘self’ and ‘other’ and a mode of communication between them, or at least recognition? Some body of shared beliefs, perhaps amounting to ‘culture’? It being possible for these to be more or less elaborate, with perhaps a canonical minimum case (the mating behaviour of the praying mantis)? Just as there must be things, perhaps, there must be social objects, which in turn must satisfy some criteria to be capable of functioning as such? Like: continuity of identity through time despite change? A presumption of trustworthiness? Having an opaque ‘inside’ that must be mediated to the world through deliberate utterance? The mantis would never copulate if it were unable to conceal its final intentions.

It certainly seems to be the case that Robinson Crusoe can’t exist without Friday. A man on a desert island, without language or intercourse, in some sense ceases to exist as a human being. A more mundane but frequent example is lonely old people driven mad by isolation. Perhaps this is something that is a matter of degree: social exclusion, due to class (McJobs), or a stigmatised identity (ex-cons), diminishes and brutalises the individual.

Here is what looks like a good account of the central ‘move’ on Kant’s part:

I was convinced despair was one of the seven, but the internet, on the whole, disagrees. That’ll teach me to break my rule here against Wikipedia. We can’t in any case readily inhabit the outlook of a truly religious age, with only God’s shadow left to us. There is a difference between despair and depression, for example; but what to make of it is up for grabs. The latter term undermines the attitude by casting it as a sickness — indeed, an affect rather than an attitude. My topic then (whatever Aquinas would have thought) is a considered view of the world, not a mere feeling about it, and how this might be morally wrong, in much the same way that I hold stupidity to be a moral failing, not sustainable as a concept except on those terms, that is, as being a choice.

To see this moral dimension, it may help to consider that an aspect of despair is misanthropy. If we abandon faith in human goodness, we are actually breaking faith with our more hopeful fellow men. The difficulty here is that what is supposed to save us from such despair is faith in God, who alone possesses the transcendent goodness to raise us up out of the mire. That thought is not enough to conjure the absent deity into existence.

Contemplating the world, from its most intimate manifestation in the life shared in common with those dear to us to its mendacious Zeitgeist, the grand stage of war, pestilence and tyranny — in microcosm and macrocosm — I see no light. And I see that as a personal failing, though I can do nothing for it. If that seems unreasonably harsh, it may help to recast the failure as a collective one, since macrocosm and microcosm are of a piece.

I have remembered the third kind of tree: the stemma of a manuscript tradition. Apart from odd scraps of papyrus preserved in their many thousands at a rubbish dump in Oxyrhinchus and other Egyptian sites, all of classical literature has come down to us in copies of copies. The mediaeval scribes made mistakes — slips of the pen — which cumulatively made the text unintelligible in places; they then might hazard a guess as to the true reading (conjecture). Humanist scholars made a science of trying to reconstruct the Urtext by constructing a family tree of manuscripts. The tension between fidelity to the reading and trying to make sense of it is just as much present in these more rigorous approaches. Later scholars had the advantage of access to manuscripts preserved throughout Europe, whereas a monastic scribe could at best correct a poor text against a better one. As with the search for the Ursprache behind its descendent languages, the prize was to regain past glories since marred by decay and corruption. The Bible itself was a text with a tradition, and therein lay a can of worms that wreaked havoc in the end.

In the case of Darwin’s tree of life, the ideological pull, which those with any sense resist, is to favour the leaves rather than the root of the tree.

I have been trying to read Lao Zi through the dark mirror of translations. The gnomic original is apparently very obscure, even by the standards of classical Chinese. I don’t know the subject well enough to comment on the manuscript tradition, but my impression is there is not really scope to construct stemmata. There are a lot of woolly and fanciful versions that barely deserve to be called translations, and it’s hard to choose. I have been using two, Ursula LeGuin’s version, which is a distillation of many others, and Arther Waley’s, which is less readable, but takes a philological approach reassuring to any classicist. In particular, he sees Lao Zi engaging with philosophical debates of his time, and will enclose a line or phrase in quotation marks; what follows is the comment. Here is a snatch of XX:

The saying 'what others avoid I too must avoid'
How false and superficial it is!

And here is LeGuin’s version:

What the people fear
Must be feared
Oh desolation!
Not yet, not yet has it reached its limit!

Waley explains the maxim as a sort of “when in Rome” principle, that the Taoist cannot go along with. This seems illuminating — it gives one something to hold on to, trying to make sense of the text; though he does point out that “the sense of these lines is very doubtful”.

However, there is a twist. Between the publication of the two versions, a very old text (‘Ma Wang Tui’) of the Tao Te Ching was discovered. This is perhaps as remarkable a discovery as if Heraclitus’s book were to turn up at Oxyrhinchus. It is older, but that doesn’t mean it is the ancestor of today’s text; it must be an uncle rather than a parent. The Ma Wang Tui’s reading here is “A person whom everyone fears ought to be feared”; and this tells against Waley’s interpretation.

Just as with cruxes in classical texts, there’s a strange dance between the feeling of not having got to the bottom of the matter, and the riddling nature of the original, whatever it said, that each reader must puzzle out. Nonetheless, you feel you know the text better for grappling with it.

Without further ado:

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry's ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of.  Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late.  This is not for tears;

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

John Berryman

Dream Song 29

As people say in Brazil: sem comentários.

There’s a book I love which I twice stumbled on in the library, decades apart. It draws an analogy between the Darwinian “tree of life”, and the family tree of Indo-European languages; perhaps there was even a third example. I can’t remember what was proposed as the commonality (something in the Zeitgeist, presumably). What fascinated me was the presence of the same pattern in foreign domains.

I have recently posted about the psychology of misdeeds, or interpersonal dysfunction, or something like that (I am torn between the clarity of bygone times and a cumbrous attempt not to prejudge, and it is those poles that are at stake). The word “misdeed” points towards the most general form of the question, namely the problem of evil. Isn’t “evil” just a label for the failure to think through someone’s motivation, perhaps because to do so is unbearable? That is, maybe evil exists in literature, and theology, and (God help us) the internet, but not in the muddle of real life. Plato untranslatably said, οὐδείς ἑκών ἁμαρτάνει, no one intentionally sins (but the connotations of that word are out of time). There is no evil cackle, and the Devil wears no horns when he visits us; to borrow the imagery of the fairy tale, he has no giveaway long teeth. A friend suggested to me that a line is crossed when we knowingly harm others for our own ends, but the devil is in the detail: even in extreme cases that are at first glance open and shut, there is usually some sense of parity or entitlement, or perhaps a grievance against the world itself, where the victim is just unlucky to be there. But in such psychological “close reading” motive and action form a chaotic blur, like the Kantian manifold before the synthesis. Terms such as “manipulative” feel as though they serve a useful organising purpose, even though they fall short in miscasting mental processes as cold that in the wild are almost always hot: it’s their panting incoherence that enables the person on the knife-edge of taking the better course to turn away from it.

The analogy that I want to draw is with language. Its claim to be illuminating is that the domain of language is better understood than (for want of a better term) moral psychology; and the aptness of Kant’s bridge between empiricism and idealism readily apparent. Language inheres in a succession of idealisations. For example, every language (or strictly speaking, instance of language, such as ideolect, though even that is an abstraction from different registers that may be used; but all that is irrelevant for present purposes) has a phonology structured according to oppositions such as voicing, nasality, aspiration, length; but the actual sounds we utter only cluster around their ideal centre, and may come perilously close to indeterminacy. Phonology is an abstraction, but it is a meaningful one and language depends on the process of abstraction. It is in this sense that Chomsky is commonly said to be a Kantian (though of his own flavour).

In the same way (with a relation akin to that between the two or three kinds of family tree), moral thinking exists within a tension between idealised forms such as “intention” and “motive”, or at a further remove, moral schemas such as the Categorical Imperative, or utilitarianism; and the messy state of befuddlement, the feverish velocity, the self-deception that probably underlies almost all wrongdoing, and a high enough proportion of those times when we were lucky enough to make the better call. But still we want to be able to say: that was wrong, not mainly in order to condemn (what, generally, is the use in that?) but in order to cultivate the clarity in moral reasoning that will guide our own choices. We cannot afford to let ourselves get away with succumbing to — shall we call it irrationality? — though it lies within us all. But the main reason it happens is because it is insidious. The elision of complexity and chaos and diabolical charm on which those moral concepts rest makes it seem as though badness would be easy to spot, even in others, but especially in ourselves. It may even come closest to declaring itself in the intoxicating sensation of being in the right.

Acupuncture is based on a pre-scientific model of the body, reminiscent of Hellenistic medicine. My landlady many years ago was training to be an acupuncturist, and when she qualified, I had to move to make room for her treatment room. She was a borderline pass because she couldn’t detect the various “pulses” there are supposed to be — six or twelve of them, alongside the one we know — used to diagnose imbalances in the flow of qi. Perhaps she was eventually able to discern them; it’s amazing what people can talk themselves into. I was briefly her patient, I don’t remember what for, but perhaps the usual non-specific malaise or gloom. It’s too long ago for me to remember the thought process that got me onto her couch, but I recall it as a striking fact (which may or may not actually be true) that acupuncture has been used in China for surgical anaesthesia. Just as with the tangible benefits of meditation, this provides a way in to believing there must be something to it. Once you embark on acupuncture, there are the needles, and also, it’s a holistic practice. I must have felt cared for, and also, I was doing something to take care of myself, and spending actual money on it too. I don’t recall a firm sense of it having “worked”, but it was a positive experience, and I certainly didn’t feel cheated. I’ve just remembered that on one occasion, Mary rang up her supervisor to ask the treatment for opium poisoning. I dare say it would have gone away on its own.

A word is in order about relativism. It would be foolish to maintain that our current worldview has got all bases covered. But that doesn’t mean we might just as well go back or sideways. I doubt there are actual “meridians” (though perhaps, some of the standard needling points tap something not yet known inside the body). What we do have to learn from this and other traditions of healing is the holistic approach. That means both the role of the mind in physical illness, and the importance of things like diet, exercise, or sleep. There is also the relationship between healer and patient, the value of listening, and time.

An afterthought: the meaning of such practices depends in part on their cultural context. Let us say for the sake of argument that acupuncture arose as a medical form in a context where there was little to be done about most serious illness. In the end, though, that’s just as true when the technology that is medicine in the modern world runs out of solutions. Those who do not survive need to be cared for too, and perhaps holistic medicine does that better. The thought is hardly new, but here, it may serve to insulate us from the thought that non-Western traditions are simply foolish. I think I’d take needles over leaches, too.

I have been an inconsistent and skeptical practitioner of meditation for decades. I suppose I believe it helps me focus; but could that just be the placebo effect? Whether out of laziness, empirical disquiet, or unease at anything so in tune with the spirit of the times, I have rarely kept it up for long. But I am also drawn back again and again, as I am to the idea of not smoking, or learning Chinese. Meditation has its origin in Eastern traditions with what it is surely fair to characterise as spiritual aims, but was packaged for Western consumption as a practice with empirically verifiable benefits for health and productivity. This is one strand of what I have discovered is termed “healthism”. Searching suggests the locus classicus is this much-cited article from 1980:

Healthism represents a particular way of viewing the health problem, and is characteristic of the new health consciousness and movements. It can best be understood as a form of medicalization, meaning that it still retains key medical notions. Like medicine, healthism situates the problem of health and disease at the level of the individual. Solutions are formulated at that level as well. To the extent that healthism shapes popular beliefs, we will continue to have a non-political, and therefore, ultimately ineffective conception and strategy of health promotion. Further, by elevating health to a super value, a metaphor for all that is good in life, healthism reinforces the privatization of the struggle for generalized well-being.

Robert Crawford, International Journal of Health Services, 1980;10(3); abstract

I first encountered mindfulness through a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, recommended to me by a friend sent on a course by his doctor or work. The book (several hundred pages long and full of diagrams and data) strongly emphasises the hard science credentials of the practice, but its spiritual antecedents are smuggled in in the form of maxims describing the correct attitude to bring to bear. This is a rhetorically potent combination. If there is hard evidence of effectiveness, then there must be something “real” to it; and someone who might see no reason to entertain the spiritual aspects might warm to them with use. Those are attitudes at war with one another. “Effectiveness”, for most of us, means productivity in the stressful modern workplace — in somebody else’s interest. The Taoist and Buddhist roots of this ancient tradition envisage a quite different source of value; but that should stand on its merits — we choose to believe, or follow, or we do not — and not based on a criterion of benefit extraneous to both individual aims, and the collective good.

Nonetheless, there is a possible affinity between the rejection of market materialism and some kind of spirituality. Crawford seems to be writing from a Marxist perspective (I have only read the abstract of his article, so it’s hard to tell). Maybe he would see such an inward turn as complicit with the external order that makes it consoling. I remain torn between a woolly interest, eased by the absence of metaphysical commitments (especially in Taoism), and the feeling which I do not altogether trust that it really does make me a bit sharper. It’s not much to justify an inchoate religious commitment. (“Inchoate” is one of my least favourite English words, not least because no one seems to know either how to pronounce it or exactly what it means; so perhaps its use here is doubly apposite.) On the other hand, I doubt that the place of meditation in most Western lives comes anywhere close to that. For one thing, religion generally appears to require a community in order to “take”, with mechanisms of social reinforcement, carrot or stick.

I’m not coming to any sort of conclusion or pregnant final thought, so I’ll leave it at that.

The devil is in the detail. I’ve always loved Propertius, but from a distance; I’m not a good enough classicist to appreciate him fully. But Colin Burrow is — a man of many parts! For my recent post about Stanley Cavell, I looked up Burrow’s piece in the LRB online, not having the magazine itself to hand, and so I flicked through his recent appearances there. It’s to Burrow that one friend of mine owes the raunchy Catullus translation I gave him a year or two ago, and then, well, there was Propertius. I:3 is a particular personal favourite. The poet returns to Cynthia, late in the night, and puts his wreath from the party in her hair, and rolls apples (perhaps they are apples) from the banquet down her sleeping form; these drunken impertinences don’t wake her, but as the moon with its soft rays works its way round the windows to Cynthia’s eyes, she is roused, and tells him off for his carousing. Here is the central stretch of the poem, about the apples and the moonlight (translations are abundant, online and in print, though always problematic):

sed sic intentis haerebam fixus ocellis,
Argus ut ignotis cornibus Inachidos:
et modo soluebam nostro de fronte corollas
ponebamque tuis, Cynthia, temporibus;
et modo gaudebam lapsos formare capillos,
nunc furtiva cavis poma dabam manibus;
omniaque ingrato largibar munera somno,
munera de prono saepe voluta sinu.

et quotiens raro duxit suspiria motu,
obstupui vano credulus auspicio,
ne qua tibi insolitos portarent visa timores,
neve quis invitam cogeret esse suam:
donec diversas praecurrens luna fenestras,
luna moraturis sedula luminibus,
compositos levibus radiis patefecit ocellos.

ll. 19-33

Propertius is difficult because his writing is subtle and ambiguous; the problem is naturally compounded by the poor state of the text. The impulse to emend the reading to make more sense runs at cross purposes with that subtlety; a third problem is we don’t enjoy a native feel for the resonances of words, which must be argued for by examples of usage, in other texts. Between these tensions, actual literary appreciation easily gets lost, but Burrow knows how to hang on to the thread. He discusses a conjecture for line 26 (just before the line break I have inserted, following the text of Hodge and Buttimore’s edition): to replace the awkward repetition of ‘munera’ with ‘malaque’. Here is Burrow:

Heyworth emends the suspiciously repeated word for ‘gifts’, munera, to malaque (‘and apples’), and that one change shifts the entire focus of the scene. It makes the breast (sinus can refer to the fold in the toga used as a pocket or to the breast itself) from which the apples roll clearly Cynthia’s, and so that must have been where Propertius put them. That means it must have been his, not her, curved hands that held them. It’s wonderfully clear.

But editors are sober beings. Propertius here is so far from sober that he can barely stand. Isn’t it possible that part of the poetic point of the unamended text is that he’s not really sure whose hand is whose or where the apples are or who the gifts are rolling off, or whether the gifts are the apples or the bouquet or other stuff he has put in either his or her sinus or bosom? Clarity in a translation or in an edited text of a poem isn’t always simply a virtue. The hardest kind of text to translate is one like Propertius’, where you’re not only not quite sure what it means but where you might have a slight suspicion that being not quite sure what it means is part of its point.

The second hardest kind of text to translate is one where you simply can’t fix the tone of voice. And that’s Propertius too. He likes to do big voices and generate gravity, and then erotically twinkle around the gravity.

LRB, vol. 41:5, 7.iii.2019

‘Poma’ are just fruit, while ‘mala’ are specifically apples — that’s a repetition too, though one that sharpens the focus. It may count against the emendation that a few lines below, Propertius also repeats ‘luna’ (the moon), which unlike the purloined peaches or whatever they were, wakes Cynthia up; Propertius’s manner tolerates the repetition, which by occurring twice, perhaps even affords an echo . That’s the passage that struck me as so beautiful when I first read this poem as a teenager. It too is variously interpreted (is it other people’s windows the moon hastens past in its eagerness to reach Cynthia, or does it come in at different windows in the bedroom), but the contrast between that friskiness and the assiduous lingering touch that stirs her — gently! not like her lover — is pure poetry. Burrow is an optimist about the possibilities of making sense of these poems. It’s that leap from the difficulty to the idea that that’s the point. In this passage, it provides a fruitful reading of what the poet is saying about sex. Isn’t the whole point that it is not terribly clear which bits are whose?

Colin Burrow seems to be an English literature specialist, but he is no slouch when it comes to the apparently drier terrain of philosophy. The landscape is interesting because its stony eminence matters in the moister glens below this bare mountain that overlooks them, where sheep and people dwell. To put it less colourfully, he has a nose for what is at stake in the material:

Wittgenstein suggested that we could only say someone had grasped the rules of chess when they could offer a ‘criterion’ of having done so, by being able to make the right moves. In lectures I heard that claim developed into an argument to the effect that there were no mute inglorious Miltons out there, because the only criterion of having a beautifully complex thought was the ability to write in a beautiful and complex way. This great denial that the inarticulate could occupy the same world of experience as the articulate struck me as a pernicious falsehood, though it took me some time to realise that if one restricted the concept of a ‘criterion’ of having an emotion to a verbal expression that was the kind of nasty knot in which one might well end up.

Burrow, LRB 44:11,

In philosophy, one cannot cut the cloth of argument to suit qualms such as these; assuming that is that the discipline of philosophy is one whose claims to reflect and sustain ontological truths about how the world works are taken seriously, and not relativised as a mere ideological superstructure; nonetheless the point is telling, and it seems counterintuitive as well as rebarbative that cultivation should change the essence of a person. This can perhaps be seen more clearly by reflecting on one’s own childhood, and children one may know, as an adult.

Nonetheless, there is an elective affinity between intellectual confusion and moral failure, and the latter may be corrected by reason; the view Burrow mentions, and rejects, is a case in point.

Coming then to the question of the redemptive possibility of mutual knowledge, or what might impede it, here is Cavell, from the Lear essay:

If the failure to recognise others is a failure to let others recognise you, a fear of what is revealed to them, an avoidance of their eyes, then it is exactly shame which is the cause of [Lear’s] withholding of recognition.


This is spot on, both as a reading of Shakespeare’s play, and in an emblematic sense, as typical of the failure of mutual knowledge, at times, to fulfil Burrow’s own more optimistic promise:

What I miss from his descriptions of human encounters is the most surprising but best feature of human beings: that in some respects we can know more about another than they know about themselves. […] when teaching you rapidly learn that someone can have a skill or a charm that they don’t know they had, and the main pleasure of talking to others in the key of instruction (when it works), or indeed in the key of friendship or affection, is gently persuading someone else to recognise in themselves what you can see in them: the good, hidden things, the skills denied or the resources suppressed. In this respect, teaching is similar to being in love, when people are often able to see more in the object of love than they can see in themselves, and in a long-term process of understanding another a lover or a beloved can come to see or recognise in themselves the things that initially only the other could see.


Perhaps Cavell would agree it is sometimes possible. I can’t quite decide whether the idea of hostile mutual knowledge is incoherent (as Burrow almost suggests, with all his examples underpinned by good faith) or just morally wrong: that is, is a kindly attitude inherent in the idea of mutual acknowledgement or recognition, and is that the merit of those terms as against “knowledge”, which for Cavell remains behind the veil? That limitation of vision — like the limitation imposed by the materiality of language — would then be a constitutively salutary feature of our human (and humane) intercourse. Sometimes students lack ability or application, children are tiresome, and our friends let us down; but then these would just be situations that need to be got back on track, dysfunctions rather than perversions of mutual human regard. I would like to think so.

Colin Burrow has written a persuasive piece in the LRB on Cavell, probably reviewing the same book that led me to him a couple of months ago; this inspired me to have another go. Burrow mentions Cavell’s Must we mean what we say? which includes an essay on King Lear. What is so engaging about Cavell — but also can make him hard to follow, especially on less familiar ground — is the subtlety with which he refuses to take sides, feeling his way to more interesting questions. The Lear essay opens with a discussion of the shift in emphasis, perhaps after the war, in Shakespeare criticism from character to language; so it is commonly asserted, but of course that makes no sense, because one cannot attend to either in isolation from the other; most especially in a play. And yet, clearly there has been a shift … and so he goes on, clearing the ground for his own approach to the work. I’m looking forward to following his argument further. Lear‘s themes of sight, blindness, recognition, acknowledgement, and so on, have an obvious resonance with my recent preoccupation with mutual knowledge. Burrow himself offers what appears to be a more optimistic account of the possibilities there. Perhaps it’s a separate post, but I will just say now that what struck me is that all the examples he gives of deep knowledge of others are positive. Doesn’t this relate to the themes from Lear? Such insight is granted, allowed, not taken unawares or unwilling. Its place is the hearth, not the forum. I was reminded of the end of this post:

Mind is material, not in the sense of a reduction to grey matter, but because it can only travel when embodied acoustically in molecules vibrating in space and time — or of course markings inked on paper or gouged out of stone. From the necessity of embodiment follows the public nature of the tokens as well as the need to play out their exchange in real time, in the flesh. For ethological reasons, that generally feels most comfortable in gatherings small enough to fit round a table; the very fact that it takes a certain amount of time to walk out of the room affects the tenor of the conversation.

Were I writing that today, I might well add that this goes a long way to explaining the fractious tone of the internet, where however beastly you are, there is no risk of a punch on the nose. The relevance of the thought here is that it is with friends that we are intimate, because we trust them to be charitable. Those to whom we are disinclined to be charitable, because they are not our friends, will be encountered in public, not in private, in a context where one is more guarded, and the rules of engagement rest on civility rather than love.

Relations between children and parents may be an exception. The child in adolescence moves from adoration of his parents to a lively sense of their flaws, tempered in the end by the recognition that weakness is part of the human condition.

A quarter of a century ago, at a tumultuous time in my life, I used to listen every night on the World Service to Laurent Kabila’s inexorable advance on the capital of Zaire; my girlfriend couldn’t sleep without it being on. Before that came the shipping forecast. I didn’t have much time for reading, but during this time, I read Amos Oz’s novel Black Box. I think the plot concerns events after the death of the central character, in the lives he touched. I really should look it up on Wikipedia, but I’m not going to. The point being, he was a “complex” character, as they say, destructive, lacking in insight into himself, broken without knowing. There was a metaphorical plane crash.

The book made a deep impression on me, but it was only a couple of months ago I picked up another in Leakey’s bookshop in Inverness (“the largest in Scotland”, and a local institution, with its log fire, and shelves upon shelves of books on single malts or tartans) for the train south: To Know a Woman. Not such a good title, is it? Perhaps it sounds better in Hebrew. The structure is an inversion of Black Box: rather than seeing the protagonist from many views, this novel looks out, the view of a man who, like all of us, has many blind spots, as he adjusts to a catastrophic change in his life, and perhaps, softens a little. These are not morality tales, and would be dull fictions if they were. There is no judgment. You don’t get the view from outside (or in the former case, inside; but it is so long since I read it I don’t remember the effect of this, only that it made an impression). This makes a refreshing contrast to much contemporary American fiction, where the characters must learn their lessons and grow.

An old friend said to me once: people don’t change. I found it harsh at the time. If we can’t learn to do better, what hope is there for us? Yet that is often the view from outside. Many of us might think of their parents. Do we ever know what someone is like? I may or may not have posted here the thought that knowledge of oneself is entirely different in kind from knowledge of others, each kind of knowledge frustratingly imperfect. It’s that difficulty, the problem of knowing one another at all, in the most intimate and even lifelong relationships, that seems to be Oz’s subject in both books.

He also has a wonderful thing with leitmotifs. Some sensory detail is mentioned, a detail in the pattern of the wallpaper in a hotel, or it may be, a thought about a person or situation; and fifty pages later it recurs in what might be the ipsissima verba, but probably subtly changed, to bring home an echo perhaps (someone must have written a thesis on Oz’s use of this device), but it feels to me, much more to bring home this aspect of human experience, that we experience a sense of deja vu, which may even be false, at moments that somehow deserve to be underlined; as if our Guardian Angel were tapping us on the shoulder, hoping we take notice. And perhaps these are the moments when we have the opportunity to change, though usually not taken.

I posted some time ago about “entitlement”:

In my previous post (on “being manipulative”) the two senses of entitlement are at war with one another. But entitlement (or rather, the sense of entitlement) need not even be misplaced to muddy the waters. As a not particularly attractive example, I will consider my own aversion to noise: it’s the grumpy old man within trying to get out (was it Cyril Connolly who coined the aphorism: ‘Inside every fat man there is a thin one struggling to get out’? I will not check the internet for it). There is the actual annoyance, which is real; for example, mobile phones on trains; the conversation need not even be interminable or loud, soon enough there will be another, and it sucks the attention away from a book or contemplation of the view outside the window. But added to that is the thought the person creating the noise is being thoughtless or inconsiderate, possibly amplified by reflections on the triviality and pointlessness of the conversation — it would be understandable if it were of any moment, dammit! — in other words, that I am entitled to be annoyed; and even less attractively, that my thoughts are more interesting than my neighbour’s; but there is nothing I can do, because after all, that’s just what I think (though I am sure I am not alone in remembering a time when trains were calmer spaces). The desire one has for something may be perfectly legitimate (it stands on its merits, or may be balanced against the countervailing desires of others, if it seems worth the trouble of going into it) but nothing useful is added by the sense of entitlement, which indeed may cause greater discomfort than whatever the thing was that provoked it. This is particularly clear with (ahem!) the trivial example I have given, but the same applies just as much when the stakes are far higher. It’s difficult to maintain a sense of proportion, but it’s much harder to meet in the middle if you don’t. The sense of entitlement is like the shadow cast by the matter in question, which if the sun is low in the sky, may dwarf it. I could give examples from my marriage, but that would be indecorous. In the end, entitlement is not just what you can work your way up into feeling it is, but must be negotiated; most commonly, we do so by letting things go. That is not always possible, and that grumpy old man will give himself an ulcer, if he doesn’t learn to save his energy for when it really matters.

There is a constellation of words to which I have developed an allergy, though they still exercise a gravitational pull. What they have in common is that they are a way of wrong-footing someone, by presupposing a view of matters they have not accepted. For example, there is the whole family of ‘-phobics’; there is considerable psychological plausibility in the interpretation they imply, but the word is a bludgeon. Equally, we have no right to tell someone they are being ‘neurotic’ or ‘defensive’. Human relations are indubitably riven with insincerity, but still, we have an obligation to take people at their word, as a matter of politeness and respect. That does not require us to be credulous. Insincerity is rarely a matter of cold calculation. As with method acting, the performance is more likely to carry conviction if you work yourself up into a state over whatever it may be. What then are we to do with the intuition that the other person is being disingenuous, if it is mixed up with a palpable feeling on their part that they are entitled to get their way? That, I think, is common to all such cases; and we are entitled to want things, and fight our corner. The distinction between being straight with one another, and its opposite, does not lie in conscious deceit — cold manipulation is the province of the psychopath. What matters is whether there is an underlying rational foundation for the feeling, and that is amenable to talk. Rather than being sucked in to foul play, we should rise above it. Anyone who has brought up a child knows this. Sometimes — even mostly — it is better to let things go. We need room to breathe.

Philip Pullman is not a writer in the same league as C.S. Lewis, with his lovely lion; but in the books that made him famous, before he became self-righteous and dull, there are some wonderful imaginative creations, not least the “daemon” that each person has, a companion familiar that is a sort of projection of character, that settles to a fixed form in adolescence. Something very like this must be true, but in this cosmology, we must make do with a nebulous and ineffable sense of the quiddity of a person, his smell and eye and presence in a room; just as Aslan cannot be seen, as a lion, by adults. The demon of Socrates sounds a bit like a conscience, the voice that only ever says “no”. Is it always wrong to ignore it? I think it speaks at moments that are a leap into the dark, decisions that seem likely to go wrong, and cannot be revoked, such as suicide, religious conversion, betrayal (“in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er”), adultery, or clicking Send. Mine has given good advice on the whole, but I don’t always listen. It is something more than the precautionary principle. But how can one tell the difference between the pangs of conscience, and a failure of nerve?

There’s an equivalent on the collective level. When electorates deliver perverse results, or the mob erupts, it has lost its compass (as someone said six years ago, “America has elected its id”). With hindsight, we may say it had to be — the ancien regime was rotten — but at the time of the rupture, all there is is the collapse of what went before. Discontent always murmurs, but when things are working, it cannot gather enough force to bring a new order into being. There is, rightly, a presumption in favour of stability, for all the imperfection of any system of government. For it to collapse, there has to be a critical mass. Weakness alone is not enough to bring down the tottering edifice. The perspective of hindsight distinguishes between “good” and necessary revolutions, and irruptions of barbarism; but the difference lies not in the character of the collapse, but whatever fresh virtues emerge as things settle again to a new status quo. At the time, there is just chaos. One example is the displacement of unsavoury but stable regimes in the Middle East “spring” (whether by revolution or foreign conquest). The defects of the old don’t inevitably lead to a superior replacement. Change is chaotic.

Early Christianity turned the demon on its head, as an imp tempting us from the one true path. But such inner voices don’t say no, don’t urge us to hold back, they seduce us into wrongdoing. Considering the question of “good” and “bad” upheavals, whether personal or political, does that mean we must do wrong if we are to change? That’s how adolescence is understood today, though it was not always so: a process of breaking free.

Some years ago I mentioned to an artist friend a curator’s comment on a delectable country scene by Corot, lightly disparaging it as a studio composition not drawn from nature. “Disparagement” may be too strong, as who would be so crass? My friend, in any case, took the view that what counted was the succession of real encounters with nature that lay behind the artist’s sensibility and vision. Even a painter working in the open air draws on things seen before as well as in that moment, which is the latest in a lifetime of looking. It’s not an artistic sin to have got your eye in.

Writing’s raw material is words themselves. The heart of the matter is redrafting: the words on the page must be panned for gold. Just as an artist must look very hard, a writer must listen, weigh, discard, extend, ponder. Fluent, natural expression is the opposite of the unvarnished. And yet, over time, first thoughts are likely to turn out better with practice; poise, instinct, and style become as if innate. As with any skill, a degree of mastery is probably necessary in order to be able to exercise it at all. The messy business of handling the raw clay of language begins before it is even there on the page. Such an ability is the residue of earlier, clumsier attempts. The words do just flow: cliche is stillborn, or brought to life by being made explicit as metaphor in the words and echoes that first surround it; rhyme and other sonic effects eschewed or turned up a notch; tricolon and binary contrast ordered according to balance or crescendo; chiasmus. But underlying all that is the primal encounter with the native potency of words, the life they have in them independently of what is already in our minds.

This bootstrapping process is analogous to Aristotle’s account of the formation of moral character through ‘habitus’. It’s no good adopting standards of right action on the authority of others. We must ourselves freely choose on the basis of values deduced through experience. Choices settle into dispositions (‘habit’ is a false friend) which together make up character. The raw material is simply life itself, but it does not blindly shape us in its spontaneity. We shape ourselves — not according to blind whim — both autonomous and objective.

To tease that thought out, I would need to consult my sources. But the point is the analogy between the truth of art, and the truth of the heart. In fact it is a commonality of substance: to be creative is to be virtuous.

Wittgenstein says somewhere — probably in the Philosophical Investigations — that the form of a philosophical problem is “ich kenne mich nicht aus”, I don’t know my way around, I have lost my bearings. Philosophy has two warring tendencies, which might write each other off as woolly, and arid. The problem clumsily described in my previous post leaves me, intellectually and in the most personal way, befogged and bemuddled. “Perhaps it is time to embrace that”, I wrote, and remembered that the one thing I think I know, the one thing worth holding on to, is clarity of language, precise expression that sloughs off cliche, like the morning crust around the eyes.

The clumsily described problem is that reason appears to have lost its purchase on our lives. This isn’t just a difficulty “out there” in public discourse, but nor is it merely a private matter; not that the personal is somehow less worthy of attention than the political. Six or seven months ago I came across a book on Hannah Arendt by a follower of the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, which offered the promise of saying something about this “purchase” — a way out of befuddlement. I will not provide chapter and verse (as the internet would so easily allow me to do) because the book just befuddled me even more. Some painters ill at ease with the classical tradition leave their working in, as it were — while painting in realist mode, they don’t erase the lines and marks used to keep the composition together. Again, I could read up on it and put it better, but the whole point is I am seeking a different mode from the prickly one I formerly cultivated here. I am going to show my working. A practising intellectual encounters new stimuli by the serendipity of the stacks, that is, working in the library, something you didn’t know you weren’t looking for turns up on the shelf next to what you are pursuing; Henry James, as it might be, instead of William, though that wouldn’t happen in an academic library. A dilettante such as myself reads the LRB.

Stanley Cavell is in the woolly camp, if you will. Here’s a reviewer in the NYRB, on Cavell on Lear:

… certainty of the kind that Lear, a mouthpiece for skepticism, asks of his daughters, or Othello of his wife, is not available in human affairs, and … demands for certainty lead inevitably to tragedy. As an alternative, Cavell offered what he called acknowledgment, our everyday, trusting substitute for certainty. He later summed up the distinction in an aphorism: “The eye teaches skepticism; the eyelid teaches faith.”

Christopher Benfrey, NYRB LXIX/8

“Skepticism”, for Cavell, is the wrong turning that leads away from human affairs to that arid place. I’m trying to give the lie of the land, but that’s too crude, even an example of the aporia of side-taking I’m trying to find my way out of — here’s Cavell again:

The misunderstanding of my attitude that most concerned me was to take my project as the application of some philosophically independent problematic of skepticism to a fragmentary parade of Shakespearian texts, impressing those texts into the service of illustrating philosophical conclusions known in advance.


I’ve always found the misunderstanding on which the plot of Lear hinges implausible, something to be swallowed as a donne, like the trial of Job. “Misunderstanding” is the wrong word, though; in Portuguese, it would be desencontro, a fateful encounter at cross purposes. It’s the same with Othello and sexual jealousy. Perhaps at the root of every tragedy, there is a moment of blindness in the sheep’s clothing of clairvoyance. These are real human problems, just as Job’s is; maladies of the heart, that express themselves as disorders of reason, but which reason alone cannot mend. There is no argument against grief.

If we consider for example the phenomenon of radical skepticism about government that is tearing the public mind of America apart fibre by fibre — an explosion of irrationality — it is not the case that looking harder would lead to a more reassuring and accurate view. The demand for certainty (the “rabbit hole”) is insatiable, and it is not reasonable to expect the unimpeachable absence of any flaw; if, that is, you look for trouble, you will surely find it, but that picture may still represent a hysterical failure to see the wood for the trees.

Cordelia’s “according to my bond, no more nor less” is wilful and stubborn; but should she respond like her sisters? Which is the better answer to Lear’s petulant enquiry?

I’m not sure if I have got Cavell’s “seeing with the eyelid” right. I’m reminded of Hamann’s much-quoted phrase, seeing “like a painter who steps back”. The painter has an involvement with both canvas and subject, and must move back and forth between brushwork, and looking to see what’s really there. But that does not mean objectivity, it means casting away preconceptions. What use is the subject at all, if it brings only something supposedly already known? “Stepping back” is a moment of judgment, whether the image is true, but that cannot imply objectivity. Representation exists within the relationship between the one seeing and the one being seen. What makes it art is the humility and humanity of that gaze.

My mode in these sporadic texts may seem opinionated, but it is the opposite: perverse. Give me an opinion, and I will disagree with it, because opinions are execrable. Every opinion is a little gravestone of the mind. How could we not rise against it? Thus sister has turned against brother; been turned — abused by history. How could it have come to this? We are consumed by froth, like the mermaid. Either take your side, and join the mêlée, or refuse, and leave the field to the barbarians.

We are all barbarians now. But this cannot be allowed to stand. We have it in us to do better.

What I would like to do is find a way to comment about these things without taking the “other” side, since to do so is no better. Jesus reportedly said, He that is not with me is against me (Matt. 12:30). In other words: join my cause, or get lost. Just a few years ago, bien-pensant liberals used to read the Guardian, and believe they were on the same side, within that broad church. Now we castigate one another for castigating one another with insufficient enthusiasm, over toilets, statues, or Hollywood transgressions. But that’s such a “culture wars” thing to say, isn’t it?

I refuse the choice between being an old fogey, and a righteous tribune. The only way between Scylla and Charybdis is to take refuge in the past, which is still all our birthright: that foreign country. That means reading between the lines.