Monthly Archives: November 2022

Well, I just broke my rule against Wikipedia, but it saved me from a strange mistake. The “sorites paradox” is the fallacy of the heap: if you remove one grain of sand at a time from a heap, at what point does it cease to be a heap? On the other hand, how many hairs may a man have, before he ceases to be bald? Thersites is a bald man; or at least, partly bald (Wikipedia again).

There is a connection with the question of “things” versus “stuff”: a heap is a discrete entity. Consider the example of dog turds: quantity is not important. If the dog does it all in one go, you have one turd; if he moves in the middle, you have two. Or bottles (or indeed, glasses) of wine, which contain “stuff”, and can be counted. What about clouds, though? Is the difference between two clouds the clear blue sky that separates them? We know that they are formed of droplets of water vapour, and clouds are the result of an interaction between humidity and air temperature, leading to condensation; but one drop does not make a cloud.

Considering this set of puzzles within the history of philosophy, there is an affinity with the paradoxes of the Eleatics, too; and Parmenides. Aristotle’s solution to the problem of how you can have things that both persist and change, and also, how things can come to be and cease to be, is the thoroughly weird concept of “substance”. Kant turns it round and makes things an artifact of how they must of necessity be perceived. That is so oversimplified it can hardly be correct, but let it stand as an indication that there is a broader context within the forward motion of intellectual history. Some time in a library is needed.

The connection I hoped to make when I jotted “Thersites”, and a familiar name, in my journal was with my post here recently about the excluded middle. Seeing things in black and white is about how one draws a line through a continuum. One example where we don’t seem to feel the general need to do so is height. There are, to be sure, tall people and short people, but most people are neither particularly short nor particularly tall. We can easily determine that one person is taller or shorter than another, but most of us are in the middle. When I was at school, my mother once took me to task for saying a boy in my class was short, because how could I tell, given we were all still growing? Surely it makes no difference, though, because we were still a cohort showing variation that would probably have made a nice bell curve. A class of schoolchildren is a living, breathing exemplar of standard deviation. As a question of psychology or perception, it might be the case that either short or tall people have to diverge more from the mean in order to be perceived as such, but that is not salient, and would be quite hard to study. Maybe tall or short people are more inclined to perceive height in a skewed way, too; but I couldn’t guess which way round that might work.

Yet it seems to be very difficult to transfer this intuitive understanding to other domains, as for example with risk. We would like both risk and uncertainty about it to be zero, and that translates pretty directly into a cluster of unreasonable beliefs. It is, indeed, to ask the impossible.


The question at the back of my mind (or which ought to have been there) is where these pithy bulletins fit in. The NYRB piece I mentioned gives a sampling of stylistic tics, such as Woolf’s “ecstatic tendency to set off adverbs in pairs” and Elizabeth Hardwick’s “love of trebling adjectives, and sometimes hitching an adverb to the last one, so that her prose appears to increase in precision exponentially in the short space of a sentence”. I’m not sure whether she minds because rhetoric is dishonest, persuasive beyond the merits of the thought it clothes, or if it is just that she thinks these are badly done. The conclusion of her essay though is that the “skillful cultivation of style” is a more apt device than “spectacular personhood”.

I don’t think my writing here plays the game of teasing self-revelation. Clearly, I have some sort of life of my own, and there are things in it that trouble me, but I don’t think the uninformed reader would get far trying to anatomise my actual person. And there are oodles of style, though it is not engaging. The purpose it serves is to build a bridge between my personal outrage, which is of no broader interest, and something that corresponds to it in the wider world, while avoiding Scylla and Charybdis: the confessional mode, and fogeyish pontification.

Poetry walks a similar tightrope. The words are a mask, but there is a “subject” behind them, that speaks to the readerly subject, whovever she may be, of things the muses can transmute into something held in common.

This morning, I read Berryman’s Dream Song 8 (q.v.) and couldn’t help but think of the unravelling of the senescent mind; but the language is portable, and must have had some other occasion in the poet’s own world. Knowing what it was probably wouldn’t in this case be particularly illuminating.

Many years ago where I worked, we got some American interns, who sent “personal statements” in advance. One opened with the sentence “My favourite colour is green, and I don’t like tomatoes”. There is a piece in a recent NYRB by Merve Emre on the “personal essay”. One thinks, perhaps, of Jenny Diski, for whom I used to have a soft spot; but I’ve never really warmed to Joan Didion and the rest. Emre quotes Adorno in condemnation of “a form whose suspiciousness of false profundity does not protect it from turning into slick superficiality”. As ever, I would love to see that in German, no doubt without that jangling echo. Adorno, like Walter Benjamin, is all style; style, like poetry, is all but lost in translation. Emre turns to Benjamin to outline the familiar story of the invention of the bourgeois subject somewhere towards the middle of the C19th. For Benjamin, “the private individual, who in the office has to deal with reality, needs the domestic interior to sustain him in his illusions …” Emre sees the personal essay as the heir to those elegant interiors with their whimsically expressive objets, a flaunting of “personality” rather than character. Many aspects of the internet play a comparable role in curating a self-image, simulacra of authenticity; again, this is a well-worn thought, Facebook as mantelpiece. What I did not know is the origins of the American institution of the personal statement as part of the university admissions process: in other countries, it may be considered useful to mention briefly having been captain of the football team, or that you play the harp, but the whole aim there is to display a fully-fledged personality, of the right kind. It seems this requirement was introduced because of antisemitism, to favour WASPs who had been to the right schools, and so could strike the right pose. More than that, since the purpose of education is to serve capitalism, “learning how to game the system was only a sign of the system’s success at shaping applicants’ behaviour”. I can certainly remember at school being repulsed by the suggestion that the school should claim any insight or rights over my “character”, but that made me all the better a bourgeois individualist; in the States, that attitude might well have cost me my Ivy League place, if merited on academic performance alone. Another example is internet dating. Yes, I too once put my toe in that water … and what else is it about but striking the right attitude? Reliable without being dull … someone with depths that promise to resonate. How could that be anything other than a performance, abstracted into a hundred words?

Hostility — both heuristic, and aesthetic — to Innerlichkeit skates on thin ice. One thinks of the Romans, Pliny the Younger, for example, or Cicero: ‘O Romam fortunatam me consule natam’ — ! How can we imagine their inner lives? How is that combination of vanity and unintended self-revelation possible? Still, it was possible, must have been, it is recorded in manuscripts; it is temerarious to assert that they had no insides, just because we cannot enter them. Common sense says: people have always been much the same, underneath. Nonetheless, there was a shift; you see it, in music, with Mozart and Beethoven. It is music to fit the heroic melancholy of the bourgeois in his salon; and there is grandeur in it, that perhaps in future men may not understand as we do.

The question is acute and pressing for me, because over the past year and more, I have been unable to listen to such music. It is as though I had been cast out of the fine house, where the cognoscenti gather on Thursdays to hear quartets. The precious space is still there, but it burns me, as light drives out a vampire. In the same way, I cannot meditate, it is like taking a dip in boiling water. Meditation may well be another folly of the age, self-soothing quietism; be that as it may, the trick no longer works. The question is, have the scales fallen from my eyes, have I seen the light, or is this a kind of darkness?

Today though, I do not know why or how, I heard Beethoven’s quartet op. 18 no. 6 on the radio, and was just able to bear it. I don’t know what to make of the trope that subjectivity is a construct of the Zeitgeist, but what I am pretty sure of is that inner space can’t be fenced off from what’s going on in the street outside. Quietism doesn’t work. There is a terrible smugness in twitching the net curtains and peering out, and wryly shaking one’s head at the folly in the world. We are not immune, because we have net curtains. All are fools together. But does it follow that the singing soul of that music is a beguiling phantasm? I cannot help feeling, still, it is the most true thing there is.