Ideas are Embedded in a Man’s Tools

…In every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself. It has been pointed out, for example, that the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century not only made it possible to improve defective vision but suggested the idea that human beings need not accept as final either the endowments of nature or the ravages of time. Eyeglasses refuted the belief that anatomy is destiny by putting forward the idea that our bodies as well as our minds are improvable. I do not think it goes too far to say that there is a link between the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century and gene-splitting research in the twentieth.

~ Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (p. 14)

A Man Does Not Reason, He Insinuates

One cannot destroy Pascal, certainly; but of all authors Montaigne is one of the least destructible. You could as well dissipate a fog by flinging hand-grenades into it. For Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and influences; or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince you by his argument.

~ T. S. Eliot on Montaigne, from Eliot’s introduction to Pascal’s Pensées

A Man Refuses to Settle for Anything Less

A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
Q: Grabbed aholt?
A: A Louisiana expression.

From Walker Percy’s interview with himself, published partially here.

I did a DuckDuckGo image search (yeah, yeah…) of Percy to go with this quote, and a picture of this guy popped up.

jj-percy-walker-1024

I thought, Is Zeljko Ivanek playing Walker Percy in a biopic? How’d I not know about this? No such luck. The picture is from an episode of Big Love where Ivanek plays a character named J. J. Percy Walker. I can see why the algorithm got confused.

If anyone were going to play Walker Percy, though, Ivanek would be a good choice. There’s no small resemblance between the two. See?

Walker Percy

A Man is a Shining Psychedelic Optimist

I’ve been interested in Walter Kirn since I found out he spoke at Wordsmithy in Moscow. Stumbled across his blog recently and got a kick out of his bio. Writing a bio that’s actually fun to read is one of my ambitions in life. Like this one.

I live in Montana and California but go to NYC a lot. That big picture is my wife. The little one is me when I was her age. I have kids. I grew up in a town of 500 where a noon siren sounded every day so people who worked outside knew what time it was. The town of 7,000 where I live now is pretty bombed out from the recession. The movie Up in the Air is based on my novel. George Clooney played me. He could have stolen my girlfriend and showed signs that he knew it, but he didn’t. I think that indicates class. In both of them. The movie Thumbsucker is based on my novel. Of all the H’wood people I’ve met, my favorite is R.Downey Jr., a shining psychedelic optimist. I saw Samuel Beckett on the street once in Edinburgh wearing a long navy blue wool coat. It was like seeing a great British sailed frigate from the Empire days come knifing up a little river, that shocking, that beautiful. I also met, unexpectedly, Jorge Luis Borges once, long after I thought he was dead. It was 1985. It was like meeting Kafka. He recited a speech from King Lear (in English) and then explained how it might be improved.

A Man Hates Tweet-Threads So Much He Copied This One Into a Blog Post Where It Can Actually Do Some Good in the World (pace E. J. Hutchinson)

I changed the formatting slightly to make it fit here, all credit to Professor Hutchinson. (And hat-tip to David H., who brought it to my attention.)

In 1941-42, W. H. Auden taught two courses at the University of Michigan. His final in one and his research project for the other are both pedagogically astute. A student reports, first about his fall course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature”: “When he finished this, he explained what we should expect in the way of a final exam, four or five weeks down the road, after Christmas vacation. Pens, pencils, papers for the first time in the semester suddenly materialized and flashed into view. [He had forbidden note-taking on the first day of class — ed.] It would be a three-hour written exam. We would write from memory seven cantos of The Divine Comedy, in the Carlyle/Wicksteed prose version — ‘the one used by Eliot in The Waste Land,’ he confided — beginning with Inferno III, and V, then certain Purgatorio cantos (e.g. XXVIII) and finishing with Paradiso XXXIII. The consternation of the class on hearing this was what one might expect: frozen silence. In a few minutes grumblings began to be heard, mutterings. A group of students, forming themselves into a ‘committee,’ declared the exam impossible and inhumane. Auden, surprised, replied that he did not think it was either, but offered to reduce the number of cantos from seven to five. Resistance, nevertheless, continued. ‘Very well. I am going to be driving to California over the Christmas vacation. If I find I can’t memorize these five cantos by the time I reach Los Angeles, I’ll phone your representative and cancel the assignment.’ It was a deal–rather a reluctant one, on both sides. The ‘phone call never came, so the Dante exam was on.”

The student found that with each successive canto the memorization got easier, until he could memorize an entire one in one afternoon. He later said, “This was possibly the most valuable thing I learned from W. H. Auden, and I have never ceased to be grateful for it.”

In the second semester [Auden] taught a class on the analysis of poetry. Here was the project he assigned: “…Auden gave the class its research project for the semester, which was to compile a list, drawn from the O.E.D., of all the variant meanings, including the etymologies, of each word in Milton’s ‘Lycidas,’ from the earliest recorded usages down to those that were current in the year Milton wrote it.”

This is particularly brilliant. It’s the kind of assignment I never considered giving, but, now that I see that someone else did it, I’m struck by the patent obviousness of what a valuable exercise this would be. The former student comments, “Not being enrolled in the class, I never did the assignment; but one of the students who did once said to me that ‘Lycidas’ was the only poem in the English language he really felt he knew very much about.”

~ E. J. Hutchinson on Twitter

Tweet-threads are the worst.

To the Dung Heap with a Man’s Ideas

I do not think Shakespeare wrote a single line to express “his” ideas. What some call his philosophy, he would have called common knowledge.

~ CS Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama

A Man is Skeptical of the Innovation Gospel

Peter Thiel on startup culture:

There’s a pessimistic read on the startup culture where you could say that people, it’s not really a typical thing to start something new. That, the large institutions should have far more resources, longer time horizons and so you only need to start something new when none of the existing institutions work. Maybe the fact there’s so much stress on starting new things is the positive tip of the iceberg but the much larger, negative part of the iceberg is that the large, existing institutions are incredibly broken.

To me, this attitude (which Thiel doesn’t necessarily hold) speaks of the belief that tomorrow will be better, must be better. (I wrote about this a few months ago.) Part of what’s going on in this kind of thinking is a denial of history. You have to contort yourself into some really wild intellectual knots to believe that the past was just a bulldozer of scientific, social, and political progress. Rather than face facts, people invent new things.

Josh Gibbs says something similar in his book How to be Unlucky:

The modern man wants every ancient proverb qualified with words like “usually,” “typically,” “generally,” “often,” and “sometimes.” He does not believe there is a way things are. He does not even believe there is a way things tend to be. Rather, he views the world as a series of accidents and arbitrary events. Every thing and every person in the world is atomized, isolated in its being, sequestered off from the habits of existence. Reality has no contours; being has no grooves. The modern man does not believe women are a certain way. He does not believe men are a certain way. He does believe children or kings, farmers or prostitutes are a certain way. He believes that every human being alive is at war with the past, at war with tradition, and thus the modern man believes every farmer is reinventing farming, every kind reinventing dominion, every woman reinventing femininity. Because every farmer is reinventing farming and every woman is reinventing femininity, the terms “woman” and “farmer” are empty. We should not expect the zeitgeist to be content until every weighty word in the dictionary has been gutted. (p. 91)

A Man Keeps These in Mind When Using the Internet

Errol Morris’s 8 principles of photography:

  1. All photographs are posed.
  2. The intentions of the photographer are not recorded in a photographic image. (You can imagine what they are, but it’s pure speculation.)
  3. Photographs are neither true nor false. (They have no truth-value.)
  4. False beliefs adhere to photographs like flies to flypaper.
  5. There is a causal connection between a photograph and what it is a photograph of. (Even photoshopped images.)
  6. Uncovering the relationship between a photograph and reality is no easy matter.
  7. Most people don’t care about this and prefer to speculate about what they beleive about a photograph.
  8. The more famous a photograph is, the more likely it is that people will claim it has been posed or faked.

via Austin Kleon, whose blog is mucho worthwhile