Monthly Archives: December 2022

My Gregg shorthand book consists mostly of passages for reading and dictation; that is, it’s mostly squiggles. The system is introduced gradually, meaning certain sounds are excluded till you reach the relevant chapter. Inevitably, the early texts have a somewhat stilted character; that clashes with the learning process, which depends on cues from context. There’s one about Cinderella, which went down a treat. You know there must be a slipper and it is a glass one, which might trip up … someone from Mars. But “the past is a foreign country”. I was particularly frustrated recently by the sorry tale of Bob and Archie, two boys on the baseball team. There is a suggestion, which really doesn’t make sense, that Bob owes his captain’s feathers to his prowess at schoolwork. Dark looks are exchanged. Honour requires that Bob sit the match out, but then Archie takes a tumble, and he is called onto the field. Consider that this is a course designed for secretaries. It feels to me as though the culture of English public schools a century ago has somehow been grafted onto the American context, which I have always imagined as rather more rough-and-tumble and pragmatic, with less fuss about fine feelings. Here is the grand conclusion:

At the end of the game the honour went to Archie and Bob for making the scores and it was with a glad heart that he could feel that everyone liked him better for not making the mere desire for playing get the better of his former habits of telling the truth and not being a cheater in work or play.

Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method, Louis A. Leslie, vol 1 p. 234

What a hothouse! I leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out which sounds have yet to come. Notice also the preponderance of words ending in ‘r’, or more exactly, vowels preceding an ‘r’; you don’t actually write the ‘r’, but the vowel is turned round the other way.

I presume that, at least in Leslie’s intent, this tosh made more sense at the time, even allowing for a little Oulipian muddle. We still have the idea that it’s not decent to be a swot, which is a bit of a contortion in what is supposed to be an educational environment, but nonetheless a feeling I can get behind. I wonder if it is still the same, forty years later, in these more utilitarian times? You would have to ask a schoolboy.

I am reading a novel by Sándor Márai, the Hungarian whose active writing life straddled WWII. That puts him in the generation after Thomas Mann, but he could easily be his contemporary. His characters breathe a language of the heart and soul that has quite passed out of contemporary usage. They are fastidious, passionate, and high-minded. They are jealous, not manipulative, steadfast, not stubborn, honourable, not narcissistic. I am not characterising the difference of tone as precisely as I would, under the rubric of literary analysis, since my point is simply to note the gulf that has opened up. Hungary is in any case not part of the main current of European fiction, simply because those eddies flowed out of sight, allowing a different style to flourish, which one perhaps only begins to feel more acutely at those points where the translation falters. Wikipedia tells me he made an early decision to write in his native language rather than German.

Noting this gulf pulls in two directions. One is to wonder whether such a discourse of feeling, the ways of apprehending human relationships and interiority that it permits, is a better or more generous fit for our actual lives than today’s sparer, mid-Atlantic style. The other is to consider that it in its time was just as much “superstructure” as the received ideas of our own, like the perverse torments of Archie and Bob. Taking these thoughts together, we might conclude that generosity is more important than tight fit: the world of the arts opens a reflexive space that gives us room to breathe. The vocabulary of that inner geography can be mean, prescriptive, narrow, and hectoring, or it can lend us wings.


As a footnote to the previous post, I’d like to consider the attempt to provide an objective basis for variation in personality. The locus classicus is Theophrastus’s Characters, which might perhaps be better titled Caricatures. It’s like a catalogue of comic types, or patterns of comportment to avoid. This fits in with the idea that we tend to enumerate the qualities of others mostly to lay blame. Astrology, at least these days, is mostly used as a tool of self-understanding, rather than to predict future events. Its causal model draws on a superseded cosmology, so it is obviously false, yet its popularity endures. We hunger for an objective foundation for “what we are like”; astrology is sufficiently complex to support a rich self-understanding, because the twelve basic types can be modulated at will by secondary aspects, Ares with the moon in Pisces, or whatever. This way of thinking sometimes has a real value, allowing the articulation of a positive and rich sense of self.

Is the scientific study of personality any better? Phrenology in the nineteenth century was used to pathologise the individual, and justify the harsh treatment of criminal “types”, whether capital punishment or their permanent removal from society. The putative causal model was far thinner than that of astrology, and it seems incredible it could have been accepted so recently. Nowadays, the same result is achieved through statistics, populating the mind with notional black boxes: if a way of measuring it can be found which produces consistent, significant results, then there must be something real “in there”; and this accords with the everyday sense that people are different, for example, introversion versus extraversion. The purposes to which these tools are put are not much different either; for example, by human resources. But they also have a large following as a parlour game. Psychology is much more of a popular science than sociology, and it’s easy enough to play it at its own game and speculate on the reasons why. Because it locates the cause within the individual, rather than in social relations, it gives a sense of “ownership”, while at the same time eliding political questions that might be raised, or the pursuit of remedies on the collective level. For instance, I dare say it’s uncontroversial that people of lower socioeconomic status tend to be more socially conservative, something that colours the whole of our politics.

Let us return to the question of character in personal life. Are we not like onions? Don’t we show different faces to different audiences, family, work, friends, lovers? To one’s parents, and to one’s peers? From one day or decade to the next? Clearly — for the sake of argument — I am “introverted”, or “garrulous”, but to what question is that the answer? The fact the answer can seem so surprisingly right doesn’t tell us what to do with it.

It seem obvious to me that knowledge of oneself (such as it is) is entirely different in kind from knowledge of others (such as it is). We naturally presume that in general, other people have insides much like our own in their general proportions, though the furniture may be quite different. Perhaps a cross-species analogy may make this clearer. Some dogs prefer chasing birds, others gather sticks, but all have some hankering of that kind, with perhaps an obsessive quality. That is furniture. Some breeds hanker more — collies are the intellectuals of the canine world, with a neurotic edge; terriers or greyhounds simply cannot abide the sight of their prey animals, and are born with a mission to kill and dismember. But poodles and spaniels are scatterbrains. These might be differences in “general proportions”, or the internal architecture of what is still probably much the same mental space, breed being a construct perhaps more than skin deep, but still, only tens of generations deep. But we can’t see inside. If I try to come up with a self-description, probably it is abstracted from the history of my interactions with others, and my own thumbnail sketch of my character might be as surprising to them as my sense of what those interactions were like. That has little to do with what it feels like to be me — rather, it is an accounting I might give of myself, perhaps to a hostile audience. By contrast, if I try to name the qualities of others deeply known, as it feels they are (we must mean something when we say we know someone well or less well), the list may depend what side of bed I got out of this morning, or how frank I am inclined to be. Other people are intractable. Our sense of who they are is often not analytical; but when the enumeration begins, it is almost always to blame, occasionally to praise. The esteem we owe our familiars is a feeling situated within a shared story; or it is just a wordless intimacy: there you are. I think I have written here before about the fierce joy of sitting at your desk, and after some time, hearing a breathy sigh from below. Your dog belongs at your side, and he appears there like a ghost, without any words at all, in his rightful estate.When I was married, I never saw the point of talking about “the relationship”; and no good ever came of doing so. This is an attitude so typical of Brazilian men that the women of Apipucos have abbreviated the dreaded activity to its initials: DR: discutir a relação. By convention, marriage is considered our most intimate relationship, but it is surely impossible to survive living at such close quarters for so long without veils. The terms in which such conversations are commonly held are like a thousandfold impoverished version of the literary examination of human interiors, so the question of how those spaces truly are constituted, and what we can discern in them (by triangulation perhaps, as from Plato’s cave) becomes all the more acute. If your model is drawn from magazines and agony aunts, the dice are loaded. I have been spending a lot of time recently with my mother, which is what prompted these rough thoughts. In one sense, we know one another better than anyone; but also, not at all. What is knowledge? Is asking that like Pilate asking what is truth? Maybe what is needful is not knowledge, but simply love.