Quote #3: Blaise Pascal

We think playing upon a man is like playing upon an ordinary organ. It is indeed an organ, but strange, shifting and changeable. Those who only know how to play an ordinary organ would never be in tune on this one.

passage 55 from Pensées (1670), published eight years after the Frenchman’s death.

Karloff and Causality

Halloween is on a Monday this year, so we’ve begun a very long weekend indeed. For instance, on the beach this morning, my youngest son – he’s one – walked with arms outstretched toward his mother and I had the thought however vaguely of Frankenstein. But of course Boris Karloff was acting like a one-year-old in his infamous portrayal of Mary Shelley’s monster in James Whale’s classic, so this brief observation of mine begs some kind of reflective inquiry. How is it that a cultural artifact influenced by a natural phenomenon begins to replace the recognition – and naming – of that primal phenomenon? My original observation (That baby does a pretty good Karloff) is historically inaccurate and culturally nonsensical: babies are always pulling off Frankensteins because that was the whole artistic idea in the first place. Yet this fact had to be thoroughly mulled over before it became readily apprehended. This is something akin to trying to remember the word for red because your brain had involuntarily replaced it with ketchup. It must be some kind of cognitive cross-wiring, but is it cultural or linguistic? Perhaps these two associations are so deeply embedded in my brain that their causal relation to one another has reversed, or been rendered irrelevant.

In the excellent book The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge, 1972), John Barrell looks at a similar causal confusion in the idea of the origin of landscape, even thinking about the difference between “a landscape” (a painting) and “the landscape” (the terrain or topology). Barrel writes:

The words ‘landscape’, ‘scene’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘prospect’ (which, as our definition from Johnson shows, could be used in a general, non-local sense) demanded, in short, that the land be thought of as itself composed into the formal patterns which previously a landscape-painter would have been thought of as himself imposing upon it (2-3).

In other words, landscape painting was so fashionable that both culturally and linguistically, rural society became a landscape and understood in terms of the values of landscape paintings, thus flipping the historical context for landscape-painting in the first place. The scholar sets the stage to examine how John Clare will be a poet of “disorder” against early Victorian ideologies of order, containment, rigid legalisms and mass industrialization which are so potent they even show up in the pastoral arts. From Barrel’s point of view (and Clare’s) to see a Karloff impersonation and not a baby is the same as not looking at all.

Come to think of it, isn’t this causal confusion/reversal evident also in the way we now call the monster of Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein, the title of the book naming the horrific “other” of the story and not, as originally written, the family name of the doctor whose whole aristocratic lifestyle becomes a flaming nightmare due to his late-night scientific experimentation?

The stage is set for the weekend.

Quote #2: John Clare (mid 1820s)

[…] the mind delights to indulge in the rambles—this is happiness—to lean on the rail of a wooden brig & mark the crinkles of the stream below & the little dancing beetles twharling & glancing their glossy coats to the summer sun—to bend over the old woods mossy rails & list the call of the hairey bumble bee playing with the ivy flowers till he has lost his way—& anon finds it by accident & wings out of the wood the the sunshine that lead him to his mossy nest lapt up in the long grass of some quite nook—such is happiness—


On Memory

When one speaks of memory, they more often than not mean one of two things. Memory refers mainly to 1) the ability of recalling to mind past experiences, knowledge, and even vague, seemly unformed ideas, like half-dreams, or illusory sense details; or else 2) the conscious, here-and-now presence of those exact thoughts upon the person. With this second meaning, memory is experienced as the opposite of an ability (like trying to remember the digits of π, or the trivial order of U.S. Presidents, etc.) and connotes instead a kind of involuntary mental flash, an unprovoked assault of emotions, remembrances that well up as though cast by a spell (or, as Proust attests, an olfactory spirit), thus triggering an unintentionally potent emotional consciousness, itself unpredictably recalled. Memory is a human enterprise as much as it is an alienating shock to the system. The question then arises as to whether this is a case of one word meaning two separate experiences – two unique phenomena – or whether these oppositional characteristics are both, paradoxically, essential features of this profound thing we call memory.

Evoking the concept of memory, Francis Bacon in The Advancement of Learning describes two categories of student assessment practiced in medieval universities (by way of being critical of their supposed distinction): verbatim and ex tempore. Verbatim (still in our colloquial) denotes the quoting in complete passages of existing discourse in order for students to buttress the persuasiveness of an argument or stake directional paths through logical conundrums. This oral feature of ancient societies is today often distained as rote, insulating a kind of automaton-like inhumanity, even though what has replaced the by-gone culture of oral memorializing is one that leaves all data collection and storage to an entirely externalized machine (more often than not, one branded Google). Humanity in effect is perhaps now nothing but the retrievers of answers; we are the dogs of microchips.

On the other hand, ex tempore (modified in the adjective/adverb form extemporaneous/ly) responds to prompts and academic quagmires through more personalized, off-the-cuff remarks designed to highlight either a learned mind or an ignorant one, a sharp philosopher or a stumped lollygag. Ex tempore refers to the impromptu – what Bacon calls “present” (anticipating Bergson’s vitality) – spontaneity essential to human culture that should not be overlooked by grand systems of organization, least not education.

In a surprisingly modern twist, Bacon goes onto the argue that poetry (“poesy”) is evidence that even the presence of blocked intellect (i.e. one who fails at both verbatim and ex tempore) does not prove the quality of mind:

Poesy is a part of learning in measure of words for the most part restrained, but in all other points extremely licensed, and doth truly refer to the Imagination; which, being not tied to the laws of matter, may at pleasure join that which nature hath severed, and sever that which nature hath joined, and so make unlawful matches and divorces of things.

In other words, the existence of poetry is proof that this complimentary duality of verbatim and ex tempore is in no way comprehensive of the human mind (or the so-called “domiciles” of Early Modern understanding: Memory, Rationality and Imagination). Herein, memory’s disputed territory is further obscured by its conceptual collision with Imagination, or invention: “unlawful matches” “not tied to the laws of matter”. This creative hybridity is something usually not associated with a memory, until of we realize that, in an age where reference to Rashomon is commonplace, this dynamic understanding of memory as not mere recall is hardly controversial. The concept of a “mnemonic device” is another classic example of how correlative data requires an element of fantasy in order to work with any consistency. The advent of clockworks and increasingly complex navigational tools during this period further lead to Bacon’s pre-Romantic notion that Nature was a machine – a kind of God-clock – of which human endeavors work to uncover little-by-little proof of its ingenious intricacies. No wonder then that Romantics (after Alexander von Humbodt) insist poetry (and the Arts in general) is essential for any scientific understanding.

Applied to the phenomena of memory, memories are analyzed not because they exist but because they are experienced. As much as the research sciences delve into the human mysteries of memory (through neuroscience, the psychological study of PTS and trauma, AI and cognitive robotics, etc.) there will still exist the profound need to creatively express our memories in words, in language, in songs, and in poems. The conundrum then of the contradictory definitions of memory is not located internally in their descriptions per se, but in their non-poetic state, in their failure to account for the creative imperative of memory.

Quote #1: Sir Thomas Browne (1635)

There is no man alone, because every man is a Microcosme, and carries the whole world about him;

Sloane 981, f.68

passage from Religio Medici (new Greenblatt edition available from NYRB); accompanying picture from the British Library collection of illuminated manuscripts: medical miscellany from the ‘book of Macharias on the eye called Salaracer or secret of secrets’ drawn in England, sometime the last quarter of the 14th or 1st quarter of the 15th century.

Can you teach counterintuitive-thinking?

I recently read a portion of Thomas Browne’s famous Religio Medici that had me thinking of Seinfeld. The mid-seventeenth century text contains the following passage:

[…] I feele not in me those sordid, and unchristian desires of my profession, I doe not secretly implore and wish for Plagues, rejoyce at Famines, revolve Ephemerides, and Almanacks, in expectation of malignant Aspects, fatall conjunctions, and Eclipses: I rejoyce not at unwholsome springs, nor unsea- sonable Winters; my prayer goes with the Husbandmans; I desire every thing in its proper season, that neither men nor the times bee out of temper. Let mee be sicke my selfe, if sometimes the malady of my patient bee not a disease unto me, I desire rather to cure his infirmities than my own necessities, where I doe him no good me thinkes it is scarce honest gaine, though I confesse ’tis but the worthy salary of our well-in- tended endeavours: I am not onely ashamed, but heartily sorry, that besides death, there are diseases incureable, yet not for my owne sake, or that they be be- yond my art, but for the generall cause & sake of humanity whose common cause I apprehend as mine own […]

Browne implies what a perfect society looks like: not one in which no one gets sick, but one in which those who get sick also happen to be doctors and people carrying expert knowledge about the exact symptoms they then experience. So doctor’s still pay house visits, only they can also stay in bed because they’re the ones sick.

This is a very deft bit of dialectical or counterintuitive thinking. Generally, utopian discourses are based on purgation and exclusion: sicknesses are banished, suffering takes a holiday, longevity reigns (as though the miseries of life would be solved if everyone simply lived longer; hence utopian fiction’s tendency to devolve into dystopian fiction, and visa versa). But here Browne collapses time and space and the cultural divide between doctor and patient to envision a perfect society: What if only lawyers got divorced? Toothaches plagued only those practicing dentistry? It’s still wishful thinking, but it avoids the obvious utopia of envisioning illness gone altogether, or heartbreak, or the sadness of toothaches. Society is not absurdly error-free, just hilariously efficient.

In a silly way, this is reminiscent on Seinfeld joke about opposites:

Waitress : Tuna on toast, coleslaw, cup of coffee.

George : Yeah. No, no, no, wait a minute, I always have tuna on toast. Nothing’s ever worked out for me with tuna on toast. I want the complete opposite of on toast. Chicken salad, on rye, untoasted … and a cup of tea.

Elaine : Well, there’s no telling what can happen from this.

Jerry : You know chicken salad is not the opposite of tuna, salmon is the opposite of tuna, ‘cos salmon swim against the current, and the tuna swim with it.

George : Good for the tuna.


Buried beneath the joke is the claim that there is no natural opposite; no official opposite (perhaps the “official” opposite reflected in illness/no-illness is what Hegel means by conventional wisdom, or meinung, in Phenomenology of Spirit). The notion of opposite presents the illusion of unity when in fact its construction is equally chaotic and arbitrary and tenuous. The opposite of tuna could be “a nut”, because of the conventions of American spelling; or the opposite of tuna could be a salad made from a rusty hook; or the opposite of tuna salad for lunch would be to skip the midday meal altogether and begin fasting in the hopes that this will alleviate your spiritual malaise (malaise, by the way, goes great on a tuna salad sandwich); on and on and on. The nonlinearity of these plausible opposites illustrate that behind every notion of “opposite” is a perspective, a point of view, a particular vantage point that constructs a supposed unity from the immense difference that we identify as opposition; all the while opposition as such is never a given, even if obvious, its truth is faulty. To my mind, opposition in this way shares an ontology with hypocrisy insofar as, qua themselves, neither concept actually exists (they operate as adjectives, all the while we want them to be nouns).

I am left wondering whether this sense of counterintuitive-thinking, or counter-intuition (I want to write: counterintuity) be taught? It can certainly be modeled, and if it can be modeled, then it can be posed as something important, imitatively valued. If as it seems this is a case where the practice – the thing in the doing of it – is what it is, rather than some produced sum, then emphasizing when writers and artists and thinkers practice their counterintuitive art seems to be important (meanwhile: What’s the relation between counter-intuition and invention?). So often the summative So what? in all the Humanities seems to homogenize across disciplines and dilute into the vagaries of platitudes and solipsistic sloganeering, like: “Find what it is for you,” or: “Discover your path,” (in an absolute butchering of Frost).

Instead, I think allowing students to live will best educational summations of all kinds. Education cannot incorporate lives without allowing for their being lived out, not in a potential sense but in an actual one, and for all students. This is the importance of stressing so-called critical thinking in pedagogical theory: it’s not that this thinking is more comprehensive, it’s that such skillsets encourage the whole life of the student to participate. Critical thinking is un-phone-in-able. In fact, critical thinking practiced habitually is not a even a skill but a social enterprise indistinguishable from “real world” (which so often is mistakenly suggested as the opposite of school).

Expensive books about poor people

It’s ironic that, given poet John Clare’s uncannily relatable biographical detail of nearly bankrupting (further) his family’s (mis)fortune because of his habit of buying books he could scarce afford [ecocritic Jonathan Bate writes that these “book-buying binges” (so: simultaneously dubious in quantity and quality) were the product of the “mania” side of Clare’s probable bipolar affliction (John Clare, 414)] his posthumous editors, Eric Robinson and David Powell, have nevertheless gone and bestowed the same fate on all inclined to study the poor bastard! Here’s but a sample of these suspiciously priced OUP unicorns:


I write this between pants of relief after finding simply one of these now decades-old volumes at a mere two figures (way to go https://thetracktor.com!). Just in the nick, as well: I’m slated to present work on the Northamtonshire Poet at this year’s MMLA conference in St. Louis (site: here) and should perhaps plan to know just what it is I’m talking about. I am excited for the gathering, and all the more so since, un-overpriced Clare volume under-arm, I will be joining one of the panels sponsored by ALSE, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment.

For more questions on the ethics of overpricing artifacts of impoverishment, perhaps Christie’s and Sotheby’s can be contacted.