Monthly Archives: July 2022

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.