Education is a process that does not regress. One may forget details and facts, but the breadth and depth of all learned processes must leave traces in the mind. Only actual physical damage can blot the effects of education on the mind; other circumstances will themselves be aspects of education and its traces. Once I have read widely in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for example, the information may fade in specific, but in general, that reading will affect all subsequent reading that I do, forever. Similarly, though I may not recall each specific datum in Isaiah Berlin’s The Proper Study of Mankind, its central theses, even imperfectly remembered as they are, will color all my life and thought.
Precision works differently in life and conversation than in text; it means different things. In conversation, to be precise mostly means to be clear, and strict, verifiable accuracy is of less importance than general clarity. In a text, precision involves clarity, but also very plainly requires accuracy, since one may check and recheck facts without interrupting the circumstances of life that often govern even technical conversations.
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Reading Madame Bovary, I find that I no longer take for granted my ability to read properly. This recognition started earlier, usually in connection with more sophisticated literature, especially fiction, but Bovary is the sharpest instance of it so far.
In the first chapter of After Babel, George Steiner described some of the knowledge needed to understand a passage from Cymbeline then showed an extent of underlying substance in a passage from Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and gave context for a section from a play by Noel Coward. Each series of examples ranged widely enough to daunt any serious reader, if considered thoroughly, yet all seem required in order to understand properly the works at hand, as he described them. His specific and deeply critical analyses embody a method of reading that I cannot—out of ignorance—manage and cannot—since it seems to me absolutely correct—disregard.
Knowledge of convention and knowledge of allusion are central to Steiner’s method of reading and I lack these sorts of knowledge in dire, gross ways. My awareness of this lack stems from comparison to writers like George Steiner, Margaret Anne Doody, Edmund Wilson, Ellen Moers, Erich Auerbach, Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, William McNeill, Rebecca West, John Clute, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, Susan Sontag, Peter Gay, Elias Canetti, Isaiah Berlin, Bernard Knox, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jacques Barzun, and Guy Davenport.
Somewhere I wrote that to understand the nineteenth or eighteenth century while living in the late twentieth and twenty-first was impossible, but it might be possible to do if one lived as if in the nineteenth or eighteenth or even the early twentieth. George Steiner argues in In Bluebeard’s Castle that a common heritage of Western European cultural continuity from Greek and Roman antiquity through the early twentieth century was broken sometime around the First World War, broken in ways that cannot be mended, and can only be described. He tries to leave no room for useless nostalgia, but his personal intimacy with the continuity he insists is broken must—for it is so much of himself that is lost—sound mournful in tone, as though it were a parent who had died and orphaned him. Steiner, though born in 1929, somehow contrived to live a gentleman’s life, with a gentleman’s education that might have come straight from the nineteenth-century European Continent, in strict accord with the European classical tradition. That tradition was built on a widely recognized Latin and Greek canon combined with a profound awareness of Christian cultural dogma, defined in English largely by the Book of Common Prayer and King James Bible, and in Western Europe by schisms in Catholicism and the Protestant denominations, with dozens of clearly drawn lines that, if inspected, blurred into borders, and dissolved into a morass of real and deeply imaginary conflicts. Western unity could be found by comparison with its construction of a monolithic East, where mysteries were thought to breathe in a serene Oriental haze, free from the scrutiny and detail of fact that choked the West’s own divided nations and states. The West could define itself as Christendom—as the Kingdom of God—against the infidel Moors and Turks, the empire of Islam, which might blend at times into the Orient that included China and Japan, through Western ignorance and projection: all were alike in their failure to be Christians.
Does standard materialism as a doctrine break down when faced with phenomena such as consciousness? Daniel Dennett supposes not. He believes the material interaction of very large numbers of nonconscious elements can and does give rise to the experiences and phenomena we call consciousness. A proof of his belief could be found in Alan Turing’s thought-experiment now known as a “Turing test”. Turing’s test ignores theories of consciousness in favor of empirical evaluation.
If someone at a computer console interacts with somebody else by means of text displayed on a screen, neither person is likely to suspect the other of being anything except human and conscious. Turing’s test would use this normative trust as a way to determine whether nonhuman creatures might be taken to have similarly “unexceptionable” consciousness.
Something about Shakespeare in Steiner’s work: something about a phrase, a Sprächshopfer?, what Steiner calls a “word-smith”, à la Joyce’s and Lear’s portmanteau constructions, but also in analogy to astrophysics a “singularity” and thereby an absolute enigma. Consummate Shakespeare. “Shakespeare and no end.” Was that Goethe?
Consider the origins—the historical sites—of classical music. Consider the nature of that classicism.
He gave up playing the flute because it stimulated his imagination to indulge in sentimental reveries – for every middle-class young man thinks, some time or other, in the heat of adolescence, if only for a day, if only for a minute, that he is cut out for the rôle of lover or of hero. —from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; tr. Gerard Hopkins)
Cf. Neal Stephenson’s description of “bad motherfuckerdom” in Snow Crash.
Diurnalis — Spring, 2000
(000319, 23:35 PST— 000620, 17:48 PST)
All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877; 1961 tr. David Magarshack)
Is this statement true or merely lyrical?
Fictional figures as currency, as a medium of exchange used in common between writers, readers, and other cultural members. Imaginary economy.
Another thing: In Holy Fire, someone at a party offers Mia water from the moon, which had been ice and would be thawed to serve; this is in a time when people preserve their health fiercely, because their places in society depend heavily on their state of health, and also because the possibility of greatly extended life exists and is widely realized. As an incident, this is quite “dense” with imaginary effort—a great deal needs to be known in order to make the situation sensible. I don’t remember George Steiner’s (was it Steiner?) term for the background material needed to understand a passage of fiction, but it applies in force with science fiction.
In Jacques Barzun’s essay “In Search of Roots” he says something about 25,000 volumes having been got under one’s belt in the course of forty or fifty years of reading, numbers which apply to himself and his friends Auden and Trilling—does he say “under one’s belt”?—and J.A. Cuddon comments in his Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory that he has read “many thousands” of volumes in his lifetime. Kenneth Rexroth’s two little books, Classics Revisited and More Classics Revisited, are more concise accounts, noting only world-class literature and not the whole of his reading; still, he notes hundreds of books in their short compass. Margaret Anne Doody read for ten years through the whole of world literature to write The True Story of the Novel: she probably read more in those years than most professors do in their whole lives. Clifton Fadiman, as a reviewer, had read some few hundreds of books and manuscripts each year for many years in his youth, and I doubt whether he slowed much if at all as he grew older.
The limits of human efforts at reading are manifest and absolute: selection is necessary: one must choose one’s way. I know this. I know also that the overlap between Doody’s reading and, say, Peter Gay’s, would be great, though Doody is a literary critic whose focus is the traditions of the novel and Gay a historian mainly of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe. It is unlikely that either of them would be totally unfamiliar with the work of Proust, or Tolstoy, or Goethe, or Shakespeare, or Augustine, or Aeschylus. It is more likely, actually, that both of them have read essentially all of every one of these writers’ works, and a swath through the secondary and in many cases further literatures related to them. Their knowledge of Homer and the Bible would not match a serious scholar’s, but would very much outmatch any average professor of literature.
The thing for me though is that both of them got their broad education in the course of another project—in Doody’s case, her history of the novel as it developed based on ancient models and including the romance as a species of novel; in Gay’s, first an interpretation of the European Enlightenment as a newly vital effort of the pagan world-view of antiquity, and then the comprehensive history of the European bourgeoisie seen in the light of modern psychology. (Gay is the more productive of them but this probably has more to do with a difference in work habits than with any major difference in their actual knowledge bases.) To earn a comparable education, I need to establish for myself a project that will demand an intellectually comparable course.
Found a unit called a “dalton” after John Dalton (1766-1844), defined in Dorland’s as “an arbitrary unit of mass, being 1/12 the mass of the nuclide of carbon-12, equivalent to 1.657 × 10-24 g. Symbol D or Da. Called also atomic mass unit.” Used to measure the mass of molecules?