One way of establishing the kairos (what, and perhaps when) is divination. I read an interesting piece some time back in the LRB about pre-battle prognostications in the Ancient Near East: ritual sacrifice was held to guarantee success, as well as determine propitious tactics. If you won, that proved the effectiveness of the priests; if you lost, then they must have done something wrong. It was a perfect self-validating system that created order out of chaos, giving princes control over their military fortunes; rather as the ducking-stool was an effective way of dealing with the witch problem.

I thought I’d written about his here before, but I can’t find it. The I Ching, an old friend once said to me, works as long as you believe in it. This ancient text has acquired accretions like the Talmud, but at its core, relates a military campaign. This means it’s full of ‘kairetic’ questions: whether to cross the river, or wait; whether to humour your enemy, or attack; and so on. One consults the oracle by choosing a question, a matter of doubt; surely the habit of so doing encourages doubt itself, which it might or might not be a good thing to countenance more often. Then with yarrow stalks or coins, a hexagram is chosen, with adjunct passages brought into play by “moving lines”. Then you puzzle out how it might be relevant to the thing at hand, and what the upshot might be.

But this works without attributing heuristic potency to the oracle itself: the process of consulting it is a device to help see round corners. It might be that the fact of considering a possibility you shrink from serves either to close it off, or open it up; and the gnomic words of the hexagram allow either interpretation, according to what one is prepared to contemplate. Or it might be they suggest a course of action or inaction that never would have occurred to you, but which lay silent in the mind.

There’s also an attitude implicit especially in the accretions: a spiritual reticence, that might rub off on a person who lets it in. For those who can’t read ancient Chinese, there’s the difficulty of translation as well, with its tendency to learn only the lessons it chooses from what is an alien world. But the same problem exists for native speakers, perhaps pushed back centuries or millenia into the past, when at one time or another, the text acquired its patina.

I was going to mention this in the last post but one, which had far too many things in it. This is, I suppose, an example (or two examples) of how the kairos doesn’t actually exist in the world, till we make it, whether that means making the best of what might be seen as adversity, possibly of our own making, possibly thrust upon us by others; or trying our best to procure a better outcome, by judicious reflection, or consulting heart as well as head, or heart before head; or whatever is needful.

But on the whole, such a practice probably isn’t going to change a person’s course. The Assyrians and the Hittites will sooner or later come to blows. Thinking of getting a new job, having an affair, getting a bicycle? You probably will in the end.


Pascal’s wager — you might as well choose faith, because if you are wrong, you are no worse off — probably deserves deeper consideration within its time and within the Pensées. I mention it here merely to note that it’s commonly regarded as a bit feeble. Perhaps Pascal intended it as an overture to the sceptical reader, and felt no need himself of such an inducement. The whole way of thinking the question implies is one in which the battle is already lost.

The God of the theologians has many faces, and that inconsistency is both disingenuous and fatal. God cannot be at once a person with whom we engage (inviting theodicy) and a cosmic principle. [The concept of “person” has forensic roots.] But at some point, as is still the case in most of the world today, the existence of God seemed obvious, without whom the whole moral and cosmic order would come tumbling down. Atheism was a position both barely conceivable, and intolerable. The atheist would stand outside society as an amoral predator. In Deism, this idea was watered down to the extent that religion was necessary to maintain social order — a poor remnant of the sense of immanent and sustaining divinity, in which the moral principle that the godhead embodies holds up our hearts and the world.

The Greeks divided things up across the pantheon, a cosmology displaced for the thinking man by the quietist philosophies of the Hellenistic period (when life was to be endured, enjoyed, or mocked, now it could no longer be engaged in as politics by a free citizenry — according to the choice of Stoicism, Epicureanism, or Cynicism). We should not dismiss the Olympian way of thinking so lightly. The gods symbolised the dimensions and parameters of life, and their combination to wreak havoc as history’s Muse dictated. Here is Euripides on Eros (no Greek this time):

Eros, god of love, distilling liquid desire down upon the eyes, bringing sweet pleasure to the souls of those against whom you make war, never to me may you show yourself to my hurt nor ever come but in due measure and harmony. For the shafts neither of fire nor of the stars exceed the shaft of Aphrodite, which Eros, Zeus’s son, hurls forth from his hand. ‘Tis folly, folly, that the land of Greece makes great the slaughter of cattle by the banks of the Alpheus and in the Pythian house of Apollo if we pay no honor to Eros, mankind’s despot, who holds the keys to the sweet chambers of Aphrodite! He ruins mortals and sets them upon all manner of disaster when he visits them.

Euripides Hipp. 525 ff, translation by David Kovacs

Plato, too, notes that Eros deserves more attention among the gods than he gets (Symposium, 177a; 189c). Between florid paganism, the Greek faible for personification, and a pressing awareness of the same facts of life with which we too in our rational age contend, nothing could make more sense, and it is anachronistic to insist that it’s merely figurative, a manner of speaking. These are the present forces of life, be it eros, stormy seas, nice compunction, hunting or agriculture.

That brings me to my point that we do just the same in our own way. We would like to find “meaning” in life, and just as for the Greeks after Alexander, that seems to call for an inward turn, and an openness to wishful thinking. Life will not bear the burden. Materialism and fanaticism are stronger than the bonds of kindness. Parents and children betray one another. The best is squeezed out of us in — almost always — deforming, demeaning work. There is no fairness. War continually returns as the map is redrawn. homo homini lupus. The Fates spin the thread of our lives, measure it out and cut it off, before we go down to the shades.

And yet, our cultural imaginarium is populated by ideals we may put on for a while like a garment, before we must pass it on, notions of the worthwhile, such as the virtues (steadfastness, reasonableness, fairness, forethought); or art; or the family or community; truth, reason; love, faith, friendship. They are not ours to own, but we may inhabit them. Are these not our gods?

That was the title of the last post but one, till I realised it risked becoming intractable. The question remains whether it would have been better to synthesize the disparate material, or separate it; there is value in marrying ideas that seem ready to fly apart. The natural break is that it’s possible to consider the idea of the kairos (again, with a certain regret, or even distaste, transliterated) without placing it in the context of a particular Greek play: it is established that it can mean the right thing, not necessarily the right time.

The marriage, or leap, I want to make is between this idea and the process of writing, with reference especially to this writing. I used to keep — still keep — a journal, in which on the whole I don’t write about my actual life, something I lost interest in doing in my twenties. But I think I don’t write so much, or in so articulate a way, about ideas; that has been displaced to this blog, which in turn stands in the place of other forms of writing, that could be called literature. There is no public for Apipucos, but the very idea of having readers makes me try harder to bring these musings into focus; nonetheless, they don’t arrive anywhere. One could take that as a virtue: if I felt the need to establish incremental conclusions, I would just be writing some undergraduate essay, and worse, those who actually know about classics or epistemology or whatever it might be would probably tell me to go back to the library and get my facts straight. Most blogs, I think, really exist as an act of self-promotion, to ponder and advertise some other activity; to put it another way, their essential raison d’être is as a form of ephemeral engagement.

Contrast the Zibaldone of Giacomo Leopardi, with its thousands of pages of careful argument. The existential hesitation I propose is whether I would do better to tauten my journal, and archive this public face? Or undertake some public project with more traction on the world?

Ten years ago, when the florid viciousness of the internet today was a mere peachy bloom on the silicon, I caught the tail of a controversy about creative writing and the MFA, and made a snarky comment about something someone said about it, not knowing that she would get an alert as a result, as I realised when my post received a silent visit from across the water. (I believe this is called a “pingback”.) Thinking about what the blogosphere is actually for brought my misdeed to mind, and I returned for a look and saw not only that I had been unfair (for which I sincerely apologise) but what good sense and rich reflections on the writing life lay below in the same post by Sonya Chung . Here is the corpus delicti:

I will begin with some thoughts about kairos to prepare the way for the parallel with Chung on good (or perhaps rather, better) writing. Granted the possibility of making mistakes, through dithering or hubris or (thinking of Phaedra) misplaced compunction — whatever it may be — how do you tell? Even in hindsight, that may not be as easy as it might seem; “the road not taken” is one we probably won’t return to as “way leads on to way”. Given a choice, one should try to do the right or best thing (rarely though in practice is there a choice, constrained as we are by our commitments, habits, prejudices); but afterwards, isn’t what makes the difference, rather than the rightness of the choice, following it through with conviction? If for example a talented graduate decides to seek fortune in the new world, or remain in the old country, consequential as the choice is, either way, the chances of success probably lie not in one way being right and the other wrong, but subsequent application and good fortune? Hindsight will then approve the choice, whichever it was; within reason, in the fullest sense, that is, an intemperate, imprudent or unjust choice risks landing so badly it is beyond salvation.

In that post, Chung says that “the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty” — because success is so uncertain, both literary glory and the achievement on which it is supposed to rest (but public taste is fickle). She gives some examples, and then comes this marvellous metaphor:

As when you learn to drive a stick shift, there is a kind of “friction zone,” where your inner imperative to write and your tolerance for uncertainty cross each other, and the energy balance of that intersection either sets you off into motion, or you stall. I have seen many talented would-be writers stall (especially on steep inclines). Some find their way to restarting; others give up for good, they trade in for an automatic. As a teacher, I try to exemplify and nurture a deep love of reading and of sentence-and-story-making—one’s only stay against doubt and the feeling of non-existence that will inevitably creep in. I try to give student writers enough “gas” to help them manage and master the friction zone, so that they come to know that feeling of ignition, of takeoff, both bumpy and smooth, and develop a liking for it, an abiding passion, even an addiction.

If we just knew what “good writing” was, it could be turned out by the yard. All we can do is “keep writing; which by the way is the only way to write better.”

I feel like a suppliant at the temple of the Muses, not admitted as it rains for forty days and forty nights. What keeps me in vigil at the door is the abiding belief in the importance of true language, callida junctura, the mot juste, the aperçu. This can be seen too in the philologist’s pursuit of the truth of the text: both the true reading, and the true tone and sense; though none of these may be entirely recoverable, with judicious enquiry, perhaps they may come closer. For example, are the nurse’s words εἴ τοι δοκεῖ σοι at line 507 of the Hippolytus, to a reluctant, but crumbling Phaedra: “Well if that’s what you think, (then you shouldn’t have done it, but here we are) …” (giving easier sense) or “Very well then, (you shouldn’t have done it, but here we are) …” (reflecting — perhaps — idiomatic speech)? The colour of this moment — whether Phaedra is cajoled or enticed over the hump — is accordingly quite different, and the whole tone of the play also, by the accumulation of similar tough choices.

I have just discovered something rather marvellous. It is well known that the Greeks had several terms for love; C.S. Lewis wrote a book on the “four loves”, namely Christian love or love from charity (agape); eros or sexual love; philia, the love of friendship; and storge, familial love, especially between parents and children — less commonly of spouses, since after all, blood is thicker than water. Each has its cognate verb, in the case of the latter, stergo. But it has (broadly) two senses, the second of which is to endure evils, or as we might perhaps say, bear with them. One can, for instance, stergein a tyrant, or one’s fate, or one’s ills.

It’s easy to read too much into this sort of thing, and to do the observation justice, I’d need to delve; but at first sight, it appears illuminating.

The commitment to one’s family is not subject to evaluation. They are just there, part of the furniture; it is horrifying when parents abandon their wayward offspring, or vice versa. I’m also reminded of something a friend said to me which I may have mentioned here: in the end, you don’t love someone despite their faults, but because of their faults. The mid point might be: with their faults.

For once, I’ve transliterated Greek — fair enough I think, as I’m not discussing texts.

Plutarch’s comment on Phaedra’s tricky words about αἰδώς should not really be taken as an interpretation; he quotes the snatch of Euripides as an adornment and exemplum of his own argument, which as far as I can make it out goes something like this: when we are guided by an emotion in concert with reason, all is well, but if the emotion stands alone, it tends to lead us astray. Nonetheless — this is the matter that interests him — the emotion itself is of the same nature, rather than being a separate animal. Now Euripides actually says that there are “two kinds” of αἰδώς, and they are distinguished by the καιρός, if only that were clear. I’m not sure either author’s point would change in substance by taking the question the other way, and it may be a distinction without a difference. Here is Barrett again on the bad αἰδώς:

αἰδώς, which inhibits a man from self-assertion in the face of the claims of others, is properly a virtue; but it can turn easily into a diffidence or indecisiveness which prevents him from taking a firm line at all, and that done it becomes a vice — he αἰδεῖται, cannot bring himself, to do even what he knows to be right … [Phaedra] knows that this indecisiveness, this lack of resolution, is her besetting fault, and she names and dwells on it here because it prevents her from fighting down her love as she knows she should … We can see this same lack of resolution hampering her and leading her astray at every turn: by keeping her from the swift execution of the suicide on which she thinks she is determined, by allowing the Nurse to worm out of her the secret she had meant to keep secret; in a moment, at the very turning-point of her fate, we shall see it immobilizing her when she suspects the Nurse of betrayal and yet has not the strength to hold her back.

p. 230

If the καιρός were clear, there would not be “two kinds” of αἰδώς; so she says. It is not, and how then are we to recognise it? Yet if we spare the sickle in Diana’s sacred grove, the garden will flourish, just as parents might spare the rod, even though believing that to do so is to spoil the child; today we would praise their humanity. The dewy meadow, ungrazed and unshorn, cries out for economic rationalisation, but we will be richer for “not quite liking” that.

I see an example of the meaning Barrett finds in Phaedra’s speech in my own life. There is something I know I must do — really, it is not in doubt, though I could come at it various ways, the hesitation between them alters nothing of substance — but I just can’t bring myself to put it into effect; dither too long though, and I will rue it. One might consider this to be “acratic αἰδώς”, and it feels so different from the caring hand of the gardener. Perhaps what the two forms have in common is that they represent a kind of inertia that goes some way to stop us talking ourselves into things we might come to regret, but which may also prevent us from doing what is necessary. Nor need virtue coincide with right action: for example, we may hesitate to put our parents out to pasture in a “home”, and though the right time might have been sooner, the delay shows the very reverence that is at the heart of αἰδώς.

It might tentatively be said that αἰδώς is always a kind of discomfort, but if it is the virtuous kind, it passes when we renounce the thing it made us shrink from.

These moral concepts are alien to our way of thinking, but the strangeness is only skin deep: if we can recognise how they feel when we try them on for size, then they must match our own experience too. Specifically, though we do not teach it and might not know how to name it, I think the scruple that makes us hold back is naturally recognised as a virtue, just as “assertiveness” arouses distaste; the latter’s prospects of joining the canonical seven are surely low. The result is a conservative tendency in our lives and outlook, namely, in microcosm and macrocosm, from the hearth to the forum. Rather than being ground, the proper place of an axe is by the woodpile, in repose.

One starstruck commentator on Euripides’ Hippolytus describes the following passage as “one of the most exquisite in all Greek poetry”. Hippolytus has plucked a garland from Artemis’s sacred grove, with which he crowns her statue (73 ff):

σοὶ τόνδε πλεκτὸν στέφανον ἐξ ἀκηράτου
λειμῶνος, ὦ δέσποινα, κοσμήσας φέρω,
ἔνθ᾽ οὔτε ποιμὴν ἀξιοῖ φέρβειν βοτὰ
οὔτ᾽ ἦλθέ πω σίδηρος, ἀλλ᾽ ἀκήρατον
μέλισσα λειμῶν᾽ ἠρινὴ διέρχεται,
Αἰδὼς δὲ ποταμίαισι κηπεύει δρόσοις,
ὅσοις διδακτὸν μηδὲν ἀλλ᾽ ἐν τῇ φύσει
τὸ σωφρονεῖν εἴληχεν ἐς τὰ πάντ᾽ ἀεί,
τούτοις δρέπεσθαι, τοῖς κακοῖσι δ᾽ οὐ θέμις.
ἀλλ᾽, ὦ φίλη δέσποινα, χρυσέας κόμης
ἀνάδημα δέξαι χειρὸς εὐσεβοῦς ἄπο.
μόνῳ γάρ ἐστι τοῦτ᾽ ἐμοὶ γέρας βροτῶν:
σοὶ καὶ ξύνειμι καὶ λόγοις ἀμείβομαι,
κλύων μὲν αὐδῆς, ὄμμα δ᾽ οὐχ ὁρῶν τὸ σόν.
τέλος δὲ κάμψαιμ᾽ ὥσπερ ἠρξάμην βίου.

For you, lady, I bring this plaited garland I have made, gathered from an inviolate meadow, a place where the shepherd does not dare to pasture his flocks, where the iron scythe has never come: no, it is inviolate, and the bee makes its way through it in the spring-time. Shamefast Awe tends this garden with streams of river-water, for those to pluck who have acquired nothing by teaching but rather in whose very nature chastity [I prefer: temperance] in all things has ever won its place: the base may not pluck. But, dear lady, take this coronal for your golden hair from a worshipful hand. For I alone of mortals have this privilege: I spend my days with you and speak with you, I hear your voice but never see your face. May I end my life just as I have begun it!

Translation by David Kovacs, from Perseus

Only the pure [by nature, not instruction] may pluck; all others refrain, from the feeling of Αἰδώς. As a result, the meadow luxuriates, as it were tended by the personified “reverence” that holds off the sharp iron, and waters the verdant green. It is according to W. S. Barrett’s commentary that which “prevents a man from breaking the taboo — αἰδώς, the feeling of ‘not quite liking’ which inhibits his natural self-assertion or self-seeking in face of the requirements of morality and the like …”

So much by way of introduction to a passage from the speech later in the play in which Phaedra, who has fallen in love with her stepson Hippolytus, explains the principles that underpin her decision to commit suicide. I will pick out a few lines that have puzzled the heads of commentators, not to join their conversation, though inevitably I take a certain view of the question, if only as with the duck-rabbit, which one cannot see both ways simultaneously; but rather, to unpick the notion of moral responsibility that has αἰδώς at its heart, and the cognate verb αἰδοῦμαι. Phaedra says she came to what is her settled view by mulling it over νυκτὸς ἐν μακρῷ χρόνῳ, while lying awake at night. She doesn’t think men come to ruin and evil through natural moral infirmity (κατὰ γνώμης φύσιν / πράσσειν κάκιονa); rather, she believes most of us understand and recognise what is right, but sometimes still don’t do it (in contrast to Plato’s view that no one intentionally errs) whether out of indolence, or putting pleasure before virtue. Life holds many pleasures, and (384 ff)

μακραί τε λέσχαι καὶ σχολή, τερπνὸν κακόν,
αἰδώς τε. δισσαὶ δ᾽ εἰσίν, ἡ μὲν οὐ κακή,
ἡ δ᾽ ἄχθος οἴκων. εἰ δ᾽ ὁ καιρὸς ἦν σαφής,
οὐκ ἂν δύ᾽ ἤστην ταὔτ᾽ ἔχοντε γράμματα.

… long chats and leisure, a pleasant evil — and αἰδώς, which has two kinds, one not bad, the other a weight [to crush] houses. If the καιρός were clear, there would not be two of them made up of the same letters. This is her view of the matter, she goes on to say, and there is no way I will change my mind.

Plutarch, discussing how emotion may go hand in hand with reason, or war with it, quoted the passage and remarked: ἆρ᾽οὐ δῆλός ἐστι συνῃσθημένος; ἐν ἑαυτῷ τοῦτο τὸ πάθος πολλάκις μὲν ἀκολουθοῦν τῷ λόγῳ καὶ συγκατακοσμούμενον, πολλάκις δὲ παρὰ τὸν λόγον ὄκνοις καὶ μελλήσεσι καιροὺς καὶ πράγματα λυμαινόμενον; [Euripides] had evidently observed this feeling in his own breast, often going the same way as reason and helping it to set things in order, but often going against reason and producing delays and hesitations that played havoc with his behaviour (De virtute morali 448f, Barrett’s translation)

The passage is an important one that lies at the heart of Phaedra’s understanding of her dilemma and her resolve to end it; the rest of her speech describes how she first tried to keep her love silent, then to master it by self-restraint, turning finally to the plan of suicide, to protect her good name and that of her children: she reviles adultery, which would be the shameful ruin of them all. But it has caused commentators to scratch their heads, and made me scratch mine too. The list of pleasures is rather narrow, even if it is to include virtue (τὸ καλόν); and what are the two senses of αἰδώς? One editor cuts several lines, another suggests there may be one or two missing.

αἰδώς both overlaps and contrasts with the normal Greek word for shame, αἰσχύνομαι, but as Barrett says in his commentary (p. 206f, on 244 of the play), it’s “properly an inhibitory emotion — not the retrospective shame of a guilty conscience, but the shame that restrains one and keeps one’s conscience clear”. It’s what leads the shepherd to respect the sanctuary and graze his flock elsewhere. A nice example from the play itself of the difference in usage is the moment Phaedra is induced to reveal her secret to the nurse, by the suppliant posture she adopts, clasping her mistress’s hand and knees: δώσω· σέβας γὰρ χειρὸς αἰδοῦμαι τὸ σόν (I relent, out of reverence for your hand, 335); contrast 244: αἰδούμεθα γὰρ τὰ λελεγμένα μοι (I wish I could take back what I said). The distinction is blurred, but can still be felt. One example that comes to mind is the reluctance many feel to leave food uneaten on their plate, with its origin a generation or two back in the time of rationing: it’s not (in my case) shame, but simply a sense of impropriety.

The good αἰδώς can be distinguished from the bad according to the καιρός. We may think of it as the right time or due season, but in the fifth century, the word had the broader sense of what is opportune or in keeping, hitting the mark rather than falling short. One thinks of Socrates’ δαίμων warning him at times against a certain course of action. It is, then, a salutary reticence. Its bad form is shying away from action that is necessary: dithering, lack of moral resolve, letting things slide, letting things go. Phaedra sees such a weakness in herself, and her solution is the most decisive action of all.

αἰδώς is not a virtue in much favour in our shrill twilight; all too easily dismissed as feeble, or enfeebling, scruple. Differently from this reading of Euripides (which is basically Barrett’s), I see in it the quiet potential to be our saving grace, where received opinion and specious strident voices carry the day.

One example of αἰδώς in the domain of classical scholarship is the reluctance to emend the textus receptus (notorious in the case of Housman). This passage reflects the tendency for difficulty in construing the words, and uncertainty as to what they should properly be, to coincide with beauty of language and literary or intellectual interest. Whatever is being said here is part hidden behind a gauzy veil, but it may even have been so when the poet first put stylus to scroll. The best we can do is read with the sensitivity, attention to detail and temperance we can muster, adducing textual and lexical parallels, recognising the fragility of the most judicious understanding at which we provisionally arrive.

It’s the difficult bits that can be both the most frustrating, and the most rewarding. Here the nurse in Euripides’ Hippolytus (surely an ancestor of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet) has been complaining about how hard life is, when suddenly, she waxes woolly and philosophical, as Euripides is wont to do. Barrett, in his commentary, suspects the passage is interpolated, because it is not easy to make good dramatic sense of it. I am not sure he is right. Perhaps it is partly that the attitude expressed shows a somewhat “later” religious sensibility, that smacks of mystery religions, and is a bit fluffy. The bit I like states the other side of that feeling; the passage as a whole falls short of endorsing our fancies about what lies concealed in the clouds. The passage is 189 ff (with the inclusion two lines from the preceding strophe for context); a rough translation follows.

πᾶς δ᾽ ὀδυνηρὸς βίος ἀνθρώπων
  κοὐκ ἔστι πόνων ἀνάπαυσις.
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ τι τοῦ ζῆν φίλτερον ἄλλο
σκότος ἀμπίσχων κρύπτει νεφέλαις.
δυσέρωτες δὴ φαινόμεθ᾽ ὄντες
τοῦδ᾽ ὅ τι τοῦτο στίλβει κατὰ γῆν
δι᾽ ἀπειροσύνην ἄλλου βιότου
κοὐκ ἀπόδειξιν τῶν ὑπὸ γαίας,
  μύθοις δ᾽ ἄλλως φερόμεσθα.

All man’s life is painful, and there is no end to our toils. Whatever other thing [there is] that is dearer than life is concealed with clouds in the surrounding dark. We seem to be in anguished love (δυσέρωτες δὴ φαινόμεθ᾽ ὄντες) with this “this” that shines (τοῦδ᾽ ὅ τι τοῦτο στίλβει: a very strange expression, but I feel I understand it exactly) here on earth; because of lack of experience of another life, and the non-revelation of what lies beneath this world, we are vainly (ἄλλως) carried along by myths (or perhaps better, “tales”).

The word for “shine” (στίλβειν) is used for example by Theocritus of the bare chests of athletes that carry an erotic charge: it’s an earthly radiance, not an ethereal glow, sunlight, perhaps, rather than the moon. But this is no easy delight, as it were of the Mediterranean holidaymaker. δύσερως adds to love the dys- of dysfunctional or dysplasia. Remembering that this passage answers the utterance of a banal pessimism worthy of Ecclesiastes, or the Life of Brian, and also that the play is about Phaedra’s lovesickness unto death for Hippolytus, this love is surely more bitter than sweet, and far indeed from being reasonable or easy. Spring comes, the sap rises, and there may be no true comfort in it, but we cannot help but desire the light.

Greek, in common with other languages such as Finnish or German, is endowed with a class of words known as “particles” which lend something like a tone of voice to utterance. They’re hard to pin down, and in reading, one tends to just think “oh, that’s a particle” and rely on the context. In addition, any one particle may be used with different shades of meaning. The problem is addressed for classical Attic prose by the magisterial Greek Particles by Denniston, without which no classics library would be complete: he gives lots and lots of examples culled from his canonical authors.

One such particle is γε μήν. I think the sense roughly corresponds to something like the English sentence “It’s not warm out, but it is sunny” with an emphasis on the “is”. One might equally say “at least it’s sunny”, but that does suggest something a little different.

Theocritus Id. III concerns a lovesick goatherd serenading the unreceptive Amaryllis outside the cave where she lives, curtained with fern and ivy (the erotic resonance is all too tempting, after Freud). At one point he threatens to throw himself off a cliff. The textus receptus (the manuscript tradition) says “And if I don’t die, but you will be pleased”, where “but” translates the particle. There are two apparent problems — γε μήν can’t be used in a conditional sentence like that, and wouldn’t it make more sense without the “not”? Many editions print δή (another particle, perhaps “indeed”) in place of μή (not), and Denniston himself in this passage proposed changing γε μήν to γε μέν, meaning something like “at least”; and it can be used grammatically in a conditional sentence. One subsequent commentator gets the meaning of the particles the wrong way round (relying perhaps on library notes that became misleading somewhere between library and study), another says γε μήν is here used in “one of the senses” of γε μέν, which at least saves altering the text by conjecture. Or you can keep γε μήν in its native use, by supposing an anguished break in the sense between protasis and apodosis (more exactly, there would be no apodosis, if without then followed by an independent exclamation); this works with either μή or δή. It seems both the manuscripts and Greek authors themselves muddled up their particles, especially by the Hellenistic period. They are, after all, subtle!

One commentator mentions that Sappho threw herself off a cliff for love, and subsequent unrequited lovers used the same spot as a drastic remedy: if they survived, they would be cured of their love; which in our case, would doubtless please the beloved. Is that too neat and tidy?

I’m not competent to judge the question, but had I been reading Theocritus without the privilege of a well-stocked library, I would most likely never have encountered the admittedly interesting possibility that the text says the less obvious thing (difficilior lectio), relying instead on the judiciousness of commentators in making the sensible choice. And even if you have the library, it takes time to take stock of such questions. So perhaps the tortoise wins the race after all.

I have been making very, very slow progress with Theocritus. Ken Dover’s edition, with glossary, professes to enable the curious and less scholarly reader to discover at least “what the Greek means” (an ambition that bears comparison with Ranke’s as a historian to ascertain “wie es eigentlich gewesen sei”, what it was really like), but I don’t think I could have done so without recourse to the comprehensive and magisterial edition of Gow, from half a century ago. And even then … The trouble is, Dover is often silent on the really tricky points (and his glossary also). Perhaps he assumes the help of a teacher. There is a tension between working out roughly “what it means” and ruthlessly chasing down all those foxes; behind that lies the tension between taking the word of the notes in whichever edition you use (if they even say anything to illuminate whatever remains opaque), and making one’s own judgment. Something like this occurs when children learn an instrument, and assimilate a musical tradition, before eventually forming their own performance style and personal musicianship: the journey to Mündigkeit.

I have a tentative idea for a project to provide a bit more help to other lapsed classicists to ease the way; apart from anything else, few have access to sufficiently equipped libraries to go it alone (or rather, not alone). That might consist of two parts: an introduction offering general hints on such matters as how to cope with the “hyperdoricism”; and a series of short disquisitions on the really tricky bits, where there is genuine uncertainty about how a line should be taken or a word parsed. Or on the other hand, certain intriguing oddities of thought: I have one in mind about a slipperiness between thought and word and perception that suggests a different relationship than ours to the “inner voice”. Needless to say, one must tread carefully, just as with Whorfian speculations about exotic languages such as Hopi embodying a different way of thinking; but it’s something I think readers should think about, rather than being glossed over. Really that one takes me beyond the idea of the sporadic commentary, as it leads straight to such questions as, but is that just a parody of Homer? Certainly beyond my competence. Many German scholars of the nineteenth century wrote fat volumes speculating about the contours of ‘archaic thought’, and the territory is treacherous.

For now — having read just two Idylls — I’m turning to a diversion. In March I mean to see a play on the Phaedra myth, and I thought it would be fun to read the classical texts (by Euripides, Seneca and Racine). I dipped into the first (Hippolytus) and the Greek is so easy by contrast with tricksy Theocritus! It’s a lot to read in a few weeks, and I’ll have to be more hare than tortoise, or fail.

Before I do that, though, I would like to try the experiment of reading the third Idyll in just a few days. There is another tension which is that of confidence: if you doubt everything, you can make no more progress than Achilles, faced with the lumbering tortoise always just ahead of him. It’s a test of how much osmosis has occurred through this immersion. Or how much fire is in my Grecian mind.

It’s a tic in the intellectual style of analytic philosophy to circle round one’s problem and come out with the answer insistently. Look, this is simple, they seem to say: given all that complicated stuff I said against the received view, it is now obvious that X! Saul Kripke does it about rigid designators, John Searle does it about the Chinese room. There is even a certain tone of voice in the seminar: I can conjure to my mind’s ear the voice of a philosopher I know saying that something or other “just IS” something else, with an inflection just so. That moment must be the point of action, or fruition, of the analytic in “analytic philosophy”.

So it is with Wittgenstein on skepticism of other minds. We can just tell when someone is in pain, he keeps saying. Well, I think so too; but isn’t skepticism just a thought experiment? And couldn’t the person with a sore look just be a very good method actor, Richard Burton, say? No, because it is someone we know, whose habits we know — on the whole, we are much less likely to notice someone in pain in a public setting, not least because decorum then requires one to keep a lid on it.

The limitation of this venue for “musings” is that it might be better to head off to the library at this point and find out a bit more about it. From such engagement might come something more substantial. But the layman’s insight I’m trying to catch by the tail (having written in my journal this morning, following on from yesterday’s reflections: so maybe Wittgenstein was wrong about other minds) is a pragmatic one. I agree that actual skepticism about other minds, like pretty much all skepticism, is false; though there may well be a conversation to be had (it will not do just to say, like the philistine father of someone I once knew, with a dreamier and more Bohemian cast of mind, that “a bus stop is a bus stop is a bus stop”). The thrust of it is actually to shore up some commonsensical view of everyday reality. We have an ethological propensity to read one another wordlessly, but in rather limited ways. Just as there are optical illusions, or adverse conditions (driving at night in the rain, with an old man’s eyes) we can get it wrong, but on the whole, it works; and there is probably some well-worn philosophical argument waiting to be brought to bear at this point, along the lines that it must work at least most of the time, or else we wouldn’t be able to know anything at all, even about ourselves, pace Descartes.

But that is not the same as saying that we directly intuit the other’s pain, or love, or irritation, or whatever it may be, even though it generally feels very much like that; any more than we can perceive Kant’s things in themselves. We see the signs we instinctively know (or we may learn them as a foreign language, as for instance that when a cat stares at you and blinks, that is sign of affection; this goes both ways, as for instance dogs may learn to hold hands with their humans). We know the meaning of the signs, and can feel their echo in our own bodies, by a natural empathy, that must have been in us before we learnt language. This can even occur below awareness; and we might speak of the mood in the room. That fits together with contextual information, knowledge of what happened before (a gale of laughter, an accident with a hammer — or both, perhaps) and how and who the people there are, demonstrative, loquacious, worried about something, and so on, the argument yesterday, the ends not being met, the elephant in the room, all seamlessly bound together, so we may feel as though we directly intuit quite complex things about other minds, and the social situation as a whole. To assert that this is not a true picture is not to deny our facility for mutual understanding of this kind.

And it breaks down all the time. Such failures are far more common than with vision, for example, though there are optical illusions. In both cases, the failure doesn’t feel representative of how it works when it’s working; but that doesn’t mean it “just works” and will hold the full weight of our lives, like the ice on a Finnish lake in February, much as we might like to think so. The complexity of this “sixth sense” is much greater, with a different order of possible points of failure. Cross purposes are a daily fact of life.

Then there is language, of course, with the advantage of its public tokens (Wittgenstein again). But that advantage is bought at the cost of their plainness. Like money: each coin of that denomination is the same. It is washed clean of the subjective.

I may have posted about this before. It is now a trope of the internet, but I discovered it in a Polish author decades ago. There is, or so the story claims, a method of trapping monkeys by putting a piece of something tasty inside a coconut attached to something fixed, such as a tree. The monkey’s fist is too tight to pass the hole, but it could escape by letting go of the treat. Monkeys, or if this is true, probably one particular species, can’t get their heads round this dilemma, and end up in the stewpot or laboratory. Closer to home, sometimes we can work out what our domestic familiars must be thinking, a corner our minds can see round, but they can’t. Before we get too complacent about our conceptual prowess, I am pretty sure the reverse is true also.

Reason traps us in much the same way, as the self-help of the internet will explain. Where I read about the coconut, the punchline was the question: what general advice would you give the monkey? So, “just let go” is not allowed. I am not at all sure there is anything you could usefully say to help the monkey get unstuck.

I have expressed considerable pessimism here of late about reason as our helpmeet. Sweet reason ought to serve us, but she has lately turned shrewish and strident. The thought is that reason has fallen. The last thing I want to do is let go of that better memory, with bitter barely a phoneme away. We can talk ourselves into anything, and burn witches. I’m sure I have posted about that too: we laugh at the barbarism of the ducking stool and the pyre, but the judges at witchcraft trials were not fools, and they believed they were defending rationality and progress against atavistic herbal pagan remnants. There’s a strange sleight of hand between the idea of those simple remedies (the willow bark) as dangerous superstition, and diabolical truth.

There’s a relativistic can of worms lying around near here that I will not open. Perhaps that’s where the intellectual interest lies, but my focus is desperately practical. Granted we are at loggerheads, all around; my pessimism is an aporia. Either reason is fallen, irremediably corrupted, and we have no recourse; or we should hold as tight as that monkey to the ideal of reason that we remember from just a few short years ago, before the world went mad. But what if the mistake is not that we have swapped that sweet helpmeet for Luther’s harlot, but that we turn to reason when it cannot illuminate? Each believes he holds the truth, but all are trapped. Reason, perverted, is a blinker, not a glass; but the fault is ours for pressing it too hard.

The warning sign is too much theory, what I have called here the “superstructure”. For instance, various political positions are commonly defended by a sort of folk economics, which to unpick would require far more subtlety; and economics isn’t even a real science — indeed, to be useful it must be modest in much the same way I am trying to work out. There is a famous sociology book by Thomas Merton in which he advocates the development of “mid-range” theories, that is, sociology as a discipline becomes ineffective when it tries to explain how everything fits together, but the pieces with which that might be attempted can be quite robust. He may be agnostic about whether more comprehensive progress could come later, but I dare say by the time that might become possible, sociology as a discipline will have turned into something else altogether.

I was thinking this morning about my mother. Like all mothers, she is difficult; that is the tragedy of motherhood. After all these years, I think I understand her quite well, which is to say I have a theory of my mother which she would be unlikely to find congenial or convincing, which I (inevitably) nonetheless believe is broadly correct. And I really do believe it, I can’t summon any false humility, though I understand in the abstract that my view is partial. But it doesn’t help. She won’t change. It would be cruel to say any of it. It just makes me sorry for her pain, a sorrow not softened by the view that we all suffer in similar ways, each in our own private cave.

What is left, after reason, but kindness?

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.

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.

The law of the excluded middle may be succinctly stated as

A v -A

that is, either A or not A, where ‘A’ stands for some proposition such as ‘Socrates is mortal’. That should be in a nice chunky font with the correct symbols. The devil is in the ‘or’, and the one logicians usually mean is the exclusive or: you can’t have it both ways. Socrates took the hemlock, and died. QED.

Beginning students of logic commonly find this hard to digest. It is a poor representation of the way we usually think and argue. When it comes to mortal questions (to borrow from Thomas Nagel’s title), we tend to see in black and white. Either something is wrong or it is right; a person is a man or a woman; a person is black or white. Our world is made up of structural oppositions: the raw and the cooked. The black that excludes every shade of grey doesn’t even exist. It doesn’t help to say that it emits no photons. For the Chinese, this is a calligraphic axiom, or aphorism: black writing on white paper.

I have recently encountered my own philistine impatience with the dry preoccupations of analytic philosophy anew in Oswald Wiener, whose vituperative and obscene novel, with an English translation in the works, takes aim at Wittgenstein, both early and late. Perhaps the nub of the frustration is the sense that philosophy has become scholastic, turning away from all important problems. I’m no philosopher, but the other way to see this is that philosophy north of the English Channel, starting with Kant, is deflationary. That’s a term with a specific epistemological Sitz im Leben, but I take it as emblematic of a certain humility, expressed in Kant’s metaphor of the Wohnhaus, reason’s homely abode (I can’t remember whether this comes in the Preface or the Introduction to the first Critique). It’s no good answering those large questions if the foundations are unsound. That being recognised, there is an obligation to avoid pronouncing on them. There was nothing humble, though, about the tone of voice in which that was first asserted at Oxford a century ago.

Much of the basis on which we lead our lives is false, but we require those fictions to live at all, just as Hume said he needed faith to drink a glass of water. How, for example, can we ever trust another person? To do so relies on a presumption of good faith, or perhaps simply goodness, that invites refutation by experience, and calls for the blind eye. The world is grey, but we must pretend it is black and white to make it intelligible.

The origin of the idea of structural oppositions lies with Saussure: phonology is the logic of the sounds in a language according to the distinctions it deems to be salient, in order that man may speak intelligibly. This is especially clear when it comes to vowels, which are formed by positioning tongue and jaw across a continuum of available space. A is not A in proportion as it matches certain criteria (for example, if the tongue is a certain number of millimetres from the palate) but by virtue of not being E. The line between them is an indistinct border region that is in fact unfenced. The native speaker (barring interference from surrounding consonants, always present, but we must avert our gaze from it) aims for the middle of the correct region, but achieves idiomatic fluency not by hitting one spot, but by staying as far away from the edges as may be. This is different from playing the violin, but it feels the same: it’s very hard as a foreigner to get it right, but effortless for those born to it. The temptation (to take a different example) is to fudge the distinction between long and short by aiming at the border, but you must articulate it with conviction (as in Italian, or Finnish, or for that matter, Latin); this is hidden from English speakers because distinctions of length generally coexist with differences of quality.

Language spoken idiomatically gives an impression of well-tempered rightness, with everything in its place, like a familiar domestic setting. Moving to the higher level of (I suppose) syntax shows how much fiction is woven into that sense. If one attempts to accurately transcribe recorded speech, it disintegrates into a concatenation of false starts and mumbles. There is no single level of accurate transcription, as opposed to the tidied up version. When linguists make such transcriptions, the level of detail will depend on their purpose. Anyone who has tried it with a tape recorder knows just how hard that is.

A squirrel just raced across my lawn, and probably up a tree, a perfect sine wave rippling through it as its mode of locomotion in the horizontal plane. That is its nature, one thing visible to us that it knows superlatively well; as the spider weaves her web, and as we do the sort of thing I have been trying to write about. Dogs can see it too, and it commonly enrages them: that sinuosity cries out to be expunged, if only it could be caught before the tree. Sometimes when I am cycling I almost run over a squirrel, transfixed by frisky indecision.

But the world is not structured like a language; we are. There is blindness in that, and it cannot be cured by philosophy averting its gaze.

Early on, my doctoral supervisor returned a draft to me with a red line through an entire section, headed “Methodological considerations”. We didn’t discuss it, but I took him to mean: just do it, and cut out the huffing and puffing. In another institution I won’t name, I experienced the opposite, more usual approach. There is meant to be an Aristotelian inevitability to the marriage of theory, method and matter, rigorously demonstrated. The result is generally uncontroversial and pedestrian. Jim did give us his thoughts on creative method, though — a slightly different question. Some plan in outline, others write “generatively”, that is, they just start writing and knock it into shape as they go.

I have what should probably be called a journal, with its origins in the diary I kept as a young man. At some point I lost the sense that what I wrote about my own life was sufficiently honest or penetrating to be worth the trouble, but I have sporadically continued to write about things of the kind that also appear here. My only readers are accidental ones, but nonetheless, these thoughts are more lucidly expressed, and mean to be more engaging, than what I put down for my own eyes alone, which are losing their acuity. Certain preoccupations return, indeed, with roots in my own unremarkable life. An intellectual focus itself tends towards objectivity, or generality. If medicine “doesn’t work”, that isn’t a complaint about my own doctor.

But these posts are like light that catches one face of a crystal; they fall short of making up a whole. Recently I dipped into Leopardi’s notebook, the Zibaldone, meant for his own use alone, which is still quite discursive; and interesting for its detail. He believed, following Locke, that the mind’s capacity for talent is a unitary quality, no different in the mathematician or the poet; so one could with application become the other, and might just as well have turned out a musician. The key is the capacity to form habits. This may not be a fair account of his theory; but you don’t have to agree with it to delight in the fine observation and psychological persuasiveness of the examples he gives. Then on the next page, he is talking about Horace’s style, or the derivation of Italian dialect words.

What struck me is the examples are meant to support the theory, and yet they don’t have any power to unsettle it; it just sits on top, like a cut glass chandelier illuminating the furniture below. But Leopardi isn’t dogmatic, on the contrary, his mind sparkles with freshness and independence. This is both an example of my own theory, and perhaps of the dangers of theories. Our rational justifications for things such as social practices (slavery, democracy, witchcraft trials) just sit on top. It’s a commonplace that modern medicine works because of its sound empirical basis. We have thrown out leeches along with the four humours. Smoking, like masturbation, is bad for you (doctors used to recommend it, less than a century ago). I hardly need to spell it out.

The trouble is that I can’t. All this, put together into an argument, is not even original; though I dare say it puts me in company I wouldn’t gladly choose. All that remains is misanthropy: we are such stupid, cruel creatures. To put it another way, though hardly with more optimism: rationality may be rare to vanishing, but it is still our cardinal moral obligation.

Memory is the mother of the Muses. The ancient world bequeathed to the Middle Ages the legacy of mnemotechnic. These methods seem arid and laborious to us; it must have been the printing press that did for them. When you learn something by heart, you make it your own. But there are vestiges: times tables, amo amas amat. Music would be quite inconceivable without impregnating the fingers with memory. The Chinese must still learn characters by their thousands. On that base stands literature and civilisation.

The Person from Porlock interrupted — was it Coleridge? I can’t remember — writing about Kubla Khan, and by the time his tedious business was done, inspiration was banished. I think there’s a poem by Browning about it. Porlock is the evil twin of serendipity. The muse will not come out when bidden, but can be tamed with regularity, like a cat with saucers of milk. You must give her good store.

The Person from Porlock yesterday was a meteorogical interruption to regularity. Because of the rain yesterday afternoon, I did not go to the library and my books; therefore, I put off posting here till after lunch. And it was gone. It would have been good, I promise.

There is a silver lining, perhaps. If I can work those rough thoughts up into something, it may be more substantial. They are intriguing, like the fragments of Stesichorus. For example: “medicine — doesn’t work”. Indeed not, but I don’t think that was what I meant.

Showing my working: the spur of this post was in the notes on this bit of Theocritus:

... αἴ κά μοι τὺ φίλος τὸν ἐφίμερον ὕμνον ἀείσῃς.
κοὔτί τυ κερτομέω. πόταγ᾽ ὦγαθέ: τὰν γὰρ ἀοιδὰν
οὔτί πη εἰς ᾿Αίδαν γε τὸν ἐκλελάθοντα φυλαξεῖς.

The shepherd will give Thyrsis the fine cup he has just described, if (ai ka) he sings his fine song about Daphnis. Don’t mess me about, come on; you can’t take the song with you to Hades, who drives out memory. The loss of memory would be a particularly apt, or cruel, punishment for a singer or poet.