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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.

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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.

I’ve spent an hour or two in the afternoons loafing in the Bodleian, which is to say, I’ve read thirty or forty lines of Theocritus, with middling confidence I know roughly what it means; by the way, that’s why you should never use translations: confidence will be higher, but that’s all. There is no substitute for the schoolboy method, not because it has a sobering and salutary effect on confidence, but because it is the thorny path to a richer sense of understanding as hard-won; strait is the gate. Loafing, because that’s a sluggard’s portion, and I have of course spent most of the time skimming through books on Hellenistic poetry — not a frivolous distraction, though I may be putting the cart before the horse, because it makes all the difference how you take things; or rather, the ultimate purpose of this immersion, should I pursue it, is not to extract the sense from the text by torturing it with a dictionary, but to arrive at some feeling of its “effect”. I wrote the other day that the poetry of the period is “highly literary” or some such nonsense; that question may be summed up in the remark of one critic that while the scholars of the past (till some date in the C19th, presumably) had praised Theocritus for his fetching portrait of authentic rusticity, it was only the poet’s consummate skill that made such a reading possible. Where a pre-war Australian commentator took the fine feelings of certain erotic passages as proof of the poet’s high morals, now they are recognised as pastiche of archaic originals, the important question being how much they add, to earn their keep in the canon. Some time in the sixties, it became fashionable to understand the rough country ways of bucolic in tension with Epicurean high-mindedness — whether to undercut it, or as its foil. And lately, scholars feel the crushing weight of what has been lost, both contemporary verse that may have been less highly wrought, and archaic models whose looming presence can just about be discerned, hovering over the shoulders of the text like an iceberg on a foggy night, making it impossible to come to any firm understanding of what the authors of the Hellenistic period were up to, beyond the assertion that it was something. The thought that this scholarly culture, materially expressed in the technology of the library at Alexandria, only came into existence because the descendants of Alexander’s generals thought patronising the arts would improve their thuggish image, explains the resonance of the literature of the period in the time of Augustus, who also faced a problem of legitimacy, to which his answer was Maecenas.

I am being a little unkind; these are not unreasonable things to bring to bear on texts that have surely lost some of their ability to speak for themselves. But I am reminded of something said to me recently by a friend in a gallery: maybe it is better to just look at the paintings, and as it were sink or swim. That isn’t a philistine attitude; at least, not necessarily. And it is increasingly apparent to me (with age) how much curation (perhaps, then, criticism too) simply brings to bear the passing preoccupations of the time on work that one imagines casting them off with an Olympian shrug of the shoulders.

There is, perhaps, another danger too (meting out a further turn of the screw of philological despair). There are good grounds for attributing certain preoccupations or ideas to their Zeitgeist, as with Epicureanism and Stoicism. In much the same way, when we try to think about certain questions that provoke musing and pontification, we naturally reach for what is in the air, with a satisfying feeling of having been rational and cerebral, when in fact in every age and time, that gesture, that little upward stretch, that simian flourish, is a nostrum for stilling thought, with its attendant discomfort.

The question of Epicureanism and eros is pertinent to Theocritus; my flippant survey above of the literature is meant to provoke at least a provisional tolerance of not taking any particular view. There is something unsatisfactory to the modern mind in the rumination of the period on reducing suffering. We might perhaps say that one who is not prepared to risk, and even entertain suffering will not really live. In a quotation I can’t now find, Lucretius counselled as a cure for love emptying one’s seed with “any old” (quaeque) partner — presumably, a prostitute; get it out of your system, as it were. Memory or understanding may not serve, but my point is the exasperation provoked by that sort of stuff. (I will go back to the library, and look it up, and cite chapter and verse in a comment below). If we now reach out into the air from our armchair, the word “relationship” is likely to be conjured up, the advance guard to a host of prim platitudes about how love should properly flourish. If I can roll my eyes at them, why not the Greeks, at the self-help of their day?

C.S. Lewis, in his book The Discarded Image, provides a literary history of the cosmological furniture of the middle ages, richly present still in Shakespeare and Milton — those celestial spheres. Anyone disposed to expatiate on the constitution of the universe had ready to hand a richly-stocked imaginarium, and people were probably on the whole content to believe that something on those lines was roughly right. But as Lewis says, great men such as Michelangelo were the exception; they knew it was just flimmery, because they really thought about “the nature of things”. We can’t all be Michelangelo, but God equipped us with shoulders that we might shrug them.

I took it into my head the other day to dip my toe in Theocritus’ spring, with a view then to tackling Virgil’s Eclogues. Hellinistic poetry is very self-consciously literary — so it would not be like reading Homer as a precursor to the Aeneid. Theocritus’ eclectic use of dialect creates a very different texture from what those who learned Greek at school may be used to, and it looks like a tough nut to crack. Here are the opening lines of Idyll I:

῾Αδύ τι τὸ ψιθύρισμα καὶ ἁ πίτυς αἰπόλε τήνα,
ἃ ποτὶ ταῖς παγαῖσι μελίσδεται, ἁδὺ δὲ καὶ τὺ
συρίσδες: μετὰ Πᾶνα τὸ δεύτερον ἆθλον ἀποισῇ.
αἴ κα τῆνος ἕλῃ κεραὸν τράγον, αἶγα τὺ λαψῇ.
αἴ κα δ᾽ αἶγα λάβῃ τῆνος γέρας, ἐς τὲ καταρρεῖ
ἁ χίμαρος: χιμάρῳ δὲ καλὸν κρέας, ἕστέ κ᾽ ἀμέλξῃς.

This isn’t quite the same text I was reading yesterday in the library, for example, what looks like a dative in line 6 turns into a Doric genitive, without its iota subscript. More importantly, the comma in line two might be omitted or placed one word earlier — all punctuation is the editor’s. For the reader whose Greek may be rustier still than my own, it may help to consider that almost any alpha, if long (which scanning the hexameters will reveal) might be an eta in Attic; the first word is an example. And then, the second person pronoun has tau, like Latin, for Attic sigma. I think the second word is the dative of that, but the internet translates “something sweet”, and the internet may be right; but it is less vivid.

I suppose at this point I should attempt translation:

That’s a sweet whispering music, shepherd, from the pine over there by the lochans, and you, too, play sweetly on the pipes; you will take the second prize after Pan. If (αἴ κα) he chooses the horned he-goat, you will take the female, or if he takes her as his prize, you will get the kid; her flesh is fine, till you milk (cognate!) her.

Less recent editions put the comma in line 2 after the verb, and understand a relative clause with the pine as the subject; but then we need a verb for ψιθύρισμα, whispering. The reader can supply an implied συρίσδει, echoing the verb at the beginning of line 3, which coalesces with μελίσδεται, also third person singular and with the same effective sense, or a sense of “musical whispering” that partakes of both: turning a clumsy repetition into elegant balance, at the cost of grammatical difficulty that would puzzle the head of any schoolboy.

More recent editions remove or displace the comma to create an apposition, allowing the verb to take whispering as its subject: “the pine tree, that one by the water” (the alpha is then printed without an accent). The whole thing is a bit … looser, and at the same time, less complicated.

But then … ah, the pleasure of browsing in a decent library, with ten different commentaries to compare … the wheel turns a little further, and someone sums up the whole matter as a case of “syntactic ambiguity”. Yes, I thought, that’s right! Just as the Greeks knew all those words for different goats (with sheep to follow, in the shepherd’s reply starting in line 7) they understood their own language without parsing it. It’s a good heuristic for the schoolboy: first find the subject, then the verb, and then the rest “should fall into place”. But only as a first approximation.

This is an off-topic post, for my own benefit as an aide-memoire, but also anybody else who might find it useful.

Flashcards such as Anki, and many others, employ spaced repetition to learn information such as vocabulary. The basic idea is the more you get an item right, the less frequently it is reviewed. Computers are obviously well-suited to doing this, and the technology recorded here is more or less out of date. I am learning Gregg shorthand (in fits and starts, I’m afraid) and it’s a bit of a faff to get the glyphs into the virtual ecosystem. So for this purpose, I have created some hand-made cards. Archie Barnes created VOLATS for his students of Chinese at Durham. Those learning that language face a herculean labour of memorisation. Here without further ado is the handout he made to describe the system, itself salvaged and recorded for posterity by the author of the site www.earthcallingdavid.com, which has in turn vanished; but today I came across a reference to it on a Chinese learning forum, with a link to the Wayback Machine.

It’s still technically in copyright, but I don’t think Archie Barnes would mind. He is the author of the marvellous book “Chinese through Poetry” which teaches classical Chinese from scratch, without assuming a knowledge of the contemporary language, briefly described here:

https://web.archive.org/web/20060614215124/http://www.archiebarnes.com/

With sporadic regularity, I read a poem early in the day, after recording my dreams; it’s the skeleton of a writer’s routine. My darling these months has been John Berryman. Berryman, so I was once told, used to write a draft first thing each morning, then put a sheet of glass over the paper. After half an hour or so he would decide if it was a keeper, or not; and perhaps scrawl some second thoughts on it; then he began drinking bourbon. That has the feel of an apocryphal story, that might have been invented by Suetonius to discredit one of the Twelve Caesars. Here is Dream Song 74:

Henry hates the world. What the world to Henry
did will not bear thought.
Feeling no pain,
Henry stabbed his arm and wrote a letter
explaining how bad it had been
in this world.

Old yellow, in a gown
might have made a difference, 'these lower beauties',
and chartreuse could have mattered

'Kyoto, Toledo,
Benares -- the holy cities --
and Cambridge shimmering do not make up
for, well, the horror of unlove,
nor south from Paris driving in the Spring
to Siena and on ...'

Pulling together Henry, somber Henry
woofed at things.
Spry disappointments of men
and vicing adorable children
miserable women, Henry mastered, Henry
tasting all the secret bits of life.

The poem will resonate in different ways for each reader: my Cambridge is not the same as his, but it does shimmer, and its winters are bitter, too. I can’t parse ‘old yellow’ — is it that kitschy film about a boy’s dog that the bad dad wants to shoot? — and a bit like Pound, beauteous pregnant pieces of finery are woven into the text like an embroidered section in a wedding dress (or ‘gown’), luminous amidst the plain white. This is different from the way I learned to read poetry, cutting my teeth on Horace: humanist philology pretends to arrive at stable meanings, delivering sense out of obscurity and, of course, textual corruption. It is like a crossword puzzle, if the crossword is a bad pun that makes you groan, and poetry breathes the esprit of the salons: there is that moment of illumination, the arrival of definitive understanding. I have read little poetry in proportion to prose, because the instability underfoot — as in this fine song — left me bristly and intolerant. Once, in Cambridge, we reflected on a talismanic graffito on a bridge over the Cam, with just that magical indeterminacy. Much the same goes for the jagged syntax (other passages bristle with it more), which makes us taste the words more richly, in a way that may be quite different for each reader. Traction begins to engage when you read your way into the poet’s voice; at least, so it has been for me, as certain tics become familiar, and affection displaces irritation. Rather than things falling into place, it’s like making a new friend.

Neil Gaiman first came to my attention as the author (with Terry Pratchett) of Good Omens, on which the television series of the same title is based (a second batch is on the way). That’s a Miltonic tale, and so is The Sandman, but it has more flounce and visual flair — a fantastical landscape where CGI brings the imaginative freedom of the comic strip to the small screen. There is also a talking crow.

Stories that take place on the plane of Gods break the narrative frame of fiction. If anything goes, outsize happenings are cheap. X-Men started a long run of bombastic cinema (though the ones with Patrick Stewart in are not bad). At this point might begin a disquisition on the roots of imaginative decline in cultural apocalypse, but the reader knows that’s not my style. Last night I watched episode five of Sandman, which besides its scarlet beauty encased a cameo of psychological realism to match anything in Hemingway or Chechov. A mortal has Morpheus’ ruby, which bestows on its keeper kindred morphological powers (I can’t grasp the backstory of the larger frame); with it he seeks to change the world by bringing truth to it. While he sits in a diner with the talisman glowing in his hand, the hidden truths of the couples who frequent it tear their relationships and lives apart. As the tenor of each situation hardens and the mask is torn off, the characters lurch into uncivil torment, like Yugoslavia.

This is not realist narrative; events don’t unfurl and crumble like that in the real world (though such a story could be framed, the tipping-point into divorce or adultery, perhaps); but the relationships, caught in the amber of the possibility of their undoing, are seen sharp and true.

I once began a fiction with the Devil as a character, but I didn’t see the trick of it, which is to allow the Miltonic cosmology without troubling with its underpinnings, and explore the human world it creates.

The devil, like Hume, plays billiards.

Mark Holloway, in his biography of Norman Douglas, makes the following observation:

It is a mark of Douglas’ lively intelligence (as distinct from his intellectual ability) that he seldom failed to learn the lessons that he felt were suited to his temperament …

As a young man, Douglas was a keen amateur naturalist. Just before leaving school he met the eminent zoologist Franz Leydig, who made just such a formative impression on him:

What I liked about his books and pamphlets was not so much his minute histological researches, clear-cut description, and the admirable drawings done by himself; it was something else; his a s i d e s, his footnotes to the text, his generalisations. He would indulge in an excursus of “historical and critical remarks” on some species and even go into details about those artists who have successfully reproduced its shape; he would open up unexpected vistas, citing copiously from authorities old and new. This extensive documentation testified not only to wide reading, but to a wide outlook. His suggestiveness is what attracted me to Leydig. He was no ordinary Professor; he was something more comprehensive, more human.

quoted in Holloway, p. 64

Holloway adds that

It was Leydig’s strong emphasis on individuality that impressed Norman most. He was interested in differences of character between animals of the same species, and observed them among his dogs and among his pet birds and reptiles. He thought individuality should be fostered and not repressed …

and counselled Douglas against university for that reason, though himself a professor.

As Holloway says, this “suggestiveness” is a hallmark of Douglas’s style, the broad outlook, the “quality of continual reference to the greater world beyond the immediate subject”. That is the individual cast of his mind, even when he turned to diverse subject-matter.

All this brought to mind my aperçu that stupidity is a moral failing. The aphorism loses its pointe by tedious explanation, but the distinction above is obviously pertinent. I would add that the salient characteristic of a lively intelligence, as it unfolds and flourishes over time and circumstance, is a sympathy for its own individuality. There is an affinity between those whose casts of mind are distinctive, which does not lie in mutual similarity, but distance from the herd. It can be recognised, and should be fostered, in children, who are apt to have it knocked or smothered out of them.

Alban Berg was the most lyrical of the serialists; so says the NYRB, and I thought of my real enjoyment in Wozzeck, even though “that sort of thing” is not generally my cup of tea. Berg seems to have understood dissonance as an ornament rather than a programme. He wrote that dissonances

give music and love, friendship and nature their true worth, and really everything that has any life — even sensuality itself.

Alban Berg, apud NYRB

When modernism is programmatic, its harshness and difficulty presumably have the ambition of being more honest, and more penetrating, in response to a world which, while probably no bleaker than any other age, wears its darkness on its sleeve. Such are the times and the individual artist cannot fight it: all our works are salted with the uncanny, whether liberally, or with discretion. Those pulls are tediously familiar (another “wrong question”), and Berg’s words (though I would like to see them in German) show a way to get away from them. I was reminded of the words of a friend, whose parents — especially an infuriating but kindly mother — died several years ago.

He proposed to me (or hit upon while speaking) a shift in perspective over the difficulty that inheres in all intimate relationships: rather than loving the person despite their flaws, in the end, perhaps you love them for their flaws. I had thought of it differently: that we are charitable, though not blindly so, to those we love, and overlook their faults, out of humility as well as devotion. That’s a maxim hard enough in itself. The better you know someone, the closer you are, the more chances for friction. Sartre is supposed to have said “Hell is other people”, though again, I would like to see it in French; the encroaching misanthropy I wrote about a few days ago perhaps drinks from the same poisoned well. When I think of my friend’s mother, whom I knew well — as an honorary member of the family — I desperately wanted her to put aside her compulsion to outdo Elizabeth David in the kitchen, and write, as she had been unable to since having her children. In the end, her need for someone to feed extended to the local seagulls and pigeons, a hypertrophy of the same generous disposition which led her to take me under her wing, decades before. There was no overlooking it. She cared about words and sentences, and she taught me to care about food, too; which at bottom is about caring for the comfort of others, with no English meanness. I raise my glass to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Mimnermus in Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia