The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

July 2003


1 July 2003, around 12.23.

You might consider trying to duplicate your institution’s colors in the flower and candles, unless they are something like pomegranate and puce. Columbia’s blue and white lend themselves very well to table decorations, especially in the spring when the little blue irises are available, and have been known to bring a tear to the eye of a sentimental alumnus with a well-padded checkbook.

—Mary Kemper Gunn
A Guide to Academic Protocol
New York: Columbia UP, 1969.


2 July 2003, around 11.39.

I had the misfortune to own a first edition of Trees and other Poems by one Joyce Kilmer; it has filled many a dull hour with indignant mirth and there the matter might have ended, had it not been for the following stanza in ‘Old Poets’:

For these young flippertigibbets
     A-rhyming their hours away
They won’t be still like honest men
     And listen to what you say.

I will not offer any criticism of the sentiments or idiom of this stanza, for what irked me was the word ‘flippertigibbets,’ which seemed an unnecessary orthographical variation intended only to catch attention it did not deserve. I turned hastily to my trusty dictionary, to see if my vexation was born of ignorance, but although the OED does include such useful words as flipper-de-flapper and flipperty-flopperty, flippertigibbets does not receive an entry. Under flibbertigibbet one finds:

flibbergib(be, flybbergybe, flibber de’ Jibb, flebergebet, -gebit, -gibet, flibber-gibbet, fliberdigib(b)et, fliberdegibek, flibberty-, flipperty-gibbet, flibbertigibbet

While the substitution of a p for a b is no cause for alarm, and as there is some precedent for it in the rare flipperty-gibbet, and as the word is an any event onomatopœic, I have, I know, no real cause for complaint. In the light, however, of its uncommonness, I was still inclined to think Kilmer in the wrong — at best a crank, at worst an idiot incapable of spelling. Until this morning.

I am not one of your low Erse or pseudo Gaels, flippertigibbets of frothy flighty fervour, whom you can blow hither and thither with a sixpence for a fan.

—Fr. Rolfe (Baron Corvo)
Hadrian the Seventh, p. 31f.

One instance makes an error; two makes a variant. I stand (or sit) abashed. Joyce Kilmer, I offer my apologies: you’re still a rotten poetaster, but I can’t complain about your spelling.


7 July 2003, around 14.00.

After reading Adam Bede and Paul Clifford I think it’s safe to say that Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a really good book.

Part the Sixth

9 July 2003, around 8.46.

Heroically, Elspeth persevered, as her Aunt Maude had always encouraged her to do. (This was the same Aunt Maude who had fallen in love with a dead Russian novelist and, whenever the radio happened to play Rachmaninov, would shake her head sadly, saying with a gentle smile, ‘oh… the Russians,’ before wandering to the kitchen to make more tea.) Elspeth, with her reedy child’s voice, carefully lisped her explanation — she always felt it necessary to feign a speech impediment when explicating, it made the matter so very much clearer to everyone involved. Richard toyed with the loose ends of his cravat, but made no attempt to interrupt.

Finally, Elspeth said clearly, ‘I saw him try! But he’s too stupid — see: it’s right there!’ She pointed. Richard turned very red and remained very silent.

An Errant Academic

10 July 2003, around 13.44.

I mentioned Seth Lerer’s Error and the Academic Self more than a month ago and, having finally finished reading it, there are a few more comments I would like to make. To begin, though, with a summary:

errô, errare, erravi, erratus – to wander, to go astray, to err. The record of scholarship, particularly of literary criticism, is a map of the scholar’s errancy, his tendency to go astray, to make mistakes, to misread, to misremember, to quote falsely; its legend is an account of his attempts to correct the errors of others.1 From this one can conclude not only that all scholarship is subjective (i.e. entirely dependent upon the character of the scholar and his proclivities for a peculiar errancy) but also personal – that is, tending to illuminate the mind of the scholar to a degree equal or greater to the light it sheds on the ostensible subject.2 Running beneath this inquiry, below the consideration of Tolkein, Casaubon, Auerbach, et al., is the sense that scholarship is essentially a misguided endeavor, one which – if not in itself personally destructive – springs from the scholar’s hurts and fears or even – in extreme cases – the broken relics of his humanity.3

What is one to make of an author who — in a book of this description — blithely quotes ‘χρυσοζ αιδομενου πυζ’ (p. 67) and calls it Pindar, Olymp. 1.2? Even setting aside the fact that this is not actually Greek, a quick glimpse at Pindar’s first Olympian ode shows that the bit most nearly resembling that gobbledygook (χρυσὸς αἰθόμενον πῦρ) occurs at Olymp. 1.1.4 I could readily pardon this, as Lerer is quoting from George Hickes’s Linguarum Vett. Septentrionalium Thesaurus Grammatico-Criticus et Archaeologicus (1703–5) and Hickes could very well have erred in his citation;5 if that is the case, however, I would expect a big fat [SIC] from Lerer to lay the blame on the amateur philologist – that, or an equally corpulent note concerning the state of Pindar’s text in the late seventeenth century (of which I am ignorant, tho’ I do not imagine it to be as bad as that).

My guess is, however, that this has nothing to do with Hickes at all, but is first and foremost sloppy proof-reading on Lerer’s part and, secondly, a deplorable attempt to show off by quoting in the Greek he does not really know. An apologist would say the typographer’s to blame, for the transposed letters do bear a resemblance to the letters which should have been used, and the (presumably Greekless) typographer could not be expected to know the difference (!).6 This does not explain the absence of breathings and accents in each of the occasional bits of Greek Lerer dribbles throughout his text. Now I do understand it is difficult for publishers to have polytonic Greek on hand, but if that was the problem, why not just transliterate? (Especially considering there is no real need, aside from prestige, to use untransliterated Greek in a work of this kind.)7

This might seem a very great fuss about a very minor error, but when combined with some dubious translations from Latin8 and very free renderings of German it is, I think, sufficient to give one serious reservations about Lerer’s philological reliability.9 It makes me worry about the translations of Anglo-Saxon poems which he includes, for as I am ignorant of that language I depend upon him to be accurate if not euphonic. It is the duty of the reader to be critical, but it is the duty of the scholar to inspire confidence, if not in his reasoning, at least in his attention to details. Despite (and in some cases, because of) the unstransliterated ‘Greek’, Lerer’s credibility declines before it’s been established.

I am not so foolish as to ignore the possibility that these slips and errors are intentional. This is certainly possible. It would be the sort of cute self-consciousness one almost expects, even as one dreads it. One may call this many things; I, for one, cannot call it scholarship. It should not be surprising, then, that I think this book should never have been published in its current condition; I find its notions thought-provoking, but the arguments supporting them are ill-considered, ill-organized and ill-presented; on the whole, it wants condensation and clarification — for then it would be something he could read at the MLA convention, where it would stand a better chance of drawing the attention of its intended audience. In short, I found this work insufficiently dense, though it is equally possible I am over-abundantly so.

  1. I use the masculine pronoun because all of the scholars Lerer considers were/are male; although he does consider elements of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, he is more concerned with the character of the Casaubon than the character of the novel as whole. []
  2. Fair enough; one learns just as much about Fergus Millar from his Emperor in the Roman World as one does about the supposed routines of the Trajan and Claudius, but at least it is more than merely suggestive, its footnotes heavier with primary sources than secondary scholarship. This focus on source material rather than the modern cabalism serves to open the topic up for a more general discussion, an endeavor sometimes lacking in the fashionable exclusivity of some modern scholars. What good, I ask, is a book of criticism or historical inquiry if it only enlumines the idiosyncrasies of the scholar without a corresponding clarification of the topic under consideration? Reading such works, I am inclined to throw the egotistical nincompoops out the window – as this is frequently impossible, I content myself with throwing the relevant books across the room. []
  3. Lerer also includes a notion that Americans are the chosen people to further the future of scholarship. There seems no need to comment on such an absurd idea. []
  4. Transliterations: Lerer (p.67): khrusoz aidomenou puz ; Pindar, Olympia 1.1: khrusòs aithómenon pûr. []
  5. I have been unable to check this because the work lies in a section of the stacks which is shut owing to a leaky air-conditioner. []
  6. Indeed, I noticed the substitution of zeta (ζ) for the final sigma (ς) in the Penguin classics edition of Adam Bede (p. 302, 605), and nu (ν) and upsilon (υ) are dangerously similar to the, uh, uninitiated; it takes a bit more ingenuity, though, to make a delta (δ) of a theta (θ). []
  7. November 2010: this seems to me the real crux of what I intended to say; I suppose it was the unnecessary pretension I took offense to. []
  8. Lerer translates dominus … sublime caput omnium creaturaum as ‘God … the sublime head of all creatures’ (71); this is not wrong, but the pat equivalences at the cost of idiom seem to me a step on the primrose path of errancy. I’m sorry, but I do wince when a person translates sublime as sublime, which lacks (I feel) the sense of physical and emotional distance expressed in the Latin. []
  9. It is one thing to follow Müller’s reading of Wordsworth (though frankly I imagine if the poet were asked for a one word alternative to ‘orient Conqueror of gloomy Night’ he might choose ‘dawn’ rather than ‘philology’ — and if the emphasis were on the ‘orient’ it might be capitalized along with Conqueror…), it is quite another to find the etymology of ‘orient’ (from L. oriens, rising sc. sun) ‘illuminating’ (149). []

Citation (10)

12 July 2003, around 8.05.

Who is not exerting at the time for exertion,
Young, strong, possessed of laziness,
With mind filled with confused notions, indolent, lethargic—
Does not find the way to wisdom.

(2003.102, v. 280)

weird stuff

14 July 2003, around 16.20.

No philosopher and hardly any novelist has ever managed to explain what that weird stuff, human consciousness, is really made of. Body, external objects, darty memories, warm fantasies, other minds, guilt, fear, hesitation, lies, glees, doles, breathtaking pains, a thousand things which words can only fumble at, coexist, many fused together in a single unit of consciousness. How human responsibility is possible at all could well puzzle an extra-galactic students of this weird method of proceeding through time. How can such a thing be tinkered with and improved, how can one change the quality of consciousness? Around ‘will’ it flows like water round a stone.

—Iris Murdoch (The Black Prince, p. 190).

Hours of Idleness

15 July 2003, around 11.07.

I will not advance, by the rules of romance,
    To humour a whimsical fair;
Though a smile may delight, yet a frown won’t affright,
    Or drive me to dreadful despair.

While my blood is thus warm I ne’er shall reform,
    To mix in the Platonists’ school;
Of this I am sure, was my passion so pure,
    Thy mistress would think me a fool.

And if I should shun every woman for one,
    Whose image must fill my whole breast—
Whom I must prefer, and sigh but for her—
    What an insult ’twould be to the rest!

—Byron, from ‘The Sighing Strephon’

He was by nature a great ladies’ man, and like most deep adorers of the sex, never tied up his freedom of general worship by making one willful sacrifice of himself at the altar.

—Herman Melville, ‘Jimmy Rose’


16 July 2003, around 8.20.

Through all the varied lawns the grass once green again is brown, the summer dulling even as does winter. I am a winter creature myself, and these warm days, clear skies and noisome jocundities cause me to ache for a long nap ’til sweet reason returns with the fall; the merest mention of aestivation, however, receives stern frowns — even (especially) from bears well known to hibernate.


18 July 2003, around 14.04.

From a review (via A&L Daily) of a biography of Hans-Georg Gadamer (of whom I am as ignorant as a newborn):

Was Gadamer really like Socrates? Or did he lack the courage that made the Greek drink poison rather than submit to the mob?

Uh, Mr. Reviewer, sir? Socrates drinking the poison? Uh, that was submission to the mob — the mob being the jury which in accordance to the laws of Athens had sentenced him to death. That’s part of what democracy was/is about: respecting the laws supported by the demos, no matter how misguided or a/immoral those decisions might be (and trying to change them for the better when possible). Had Socrates chosen not to submit to the ‘mob,’ had he chosen to submit, rather, to the advice of his aristocratic buddies, he could have continued philosophizing in exile. Just a thought. (Of course, I’m following Plato blindly here, and should perhaps check my Xenophon and Diogenes Laertius, but even so…)

Tangential: things finally got so bad in Athens, the state coffers were so empty, that prisoners sentenced to death had to pay for the hemlock with which they were to be killed. (References (from Plutarch) available upon request.)


21 July 2003, around 13.40.

Theodor Mommsen

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf

Erwin Rohde

Friedrich Nietzsche

A view (9)

25 July 2003, around 8.07.

Yes. I have just discovered
my digital camera will take
pictures at night.

ex silentio

26 July 2003, around 8.07.

Mine heart began to weep within my breast, silently, very bitterly: but the crowds which came in and the crowds which went out were ignorant of my grief. To the genuinely aggrieved, there is nothing more distracting (and consoling) than the knowledge that he is keeping his grievance to himself.

Don Tarquinio, chapter iii, p. 26.

There’s that notion again, that ‘genuine’ grievance receives a sort of relish when set in silence, the disjunction between the bustling externals (always, for some reason, imagined as more contented than oneself, though doubtless they too have their hidden troubles) and the artificial calm of supposedly silent self-pity. In this way one may (given a stoic’s, a martyr’s, an epicure’s temperament) become a connoisseur of wretchedness, doling out only so much as might better reflect one’s own state and enhance it — acquiring in the meantime the aura of (dis)respectability dependent not on how well or ill one bears suffering, but on the supposed reasons one has for ‘hiding’ it.

‘True’ happiness, on the other hand, cannot be hid; one glows, and one’s more wretched neighbors long to kick you in the shins for being happier than they.

I think not so, my lord

27 July 2003, around 8.05.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I totally agree. These statistics on accidents are extremely fascinating; they prove that the British public can use practically anything in this world to hurt themselves with. It is understandable that there are an estimated 55 accidents a year from putty, while toothpaste accounts for 73. However, it is rather bizarre that 823 accidents are estimated to be the result of letters and envelopes. It is difficult to understand how they can be the cause of such serious plight. I agree with the noble Baroness that it would be helpful if people paid careful attention.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, does the Minister agree that sardine tins and anchovy tins are also very difficult to open with their tin-openers?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I think I will just agree with the noble Baroness on that question.

6 May 2003 (via Harper’s)

at the circumlocution office

31 July 2003, around 8.07.

How to evade the tendency to view an individual life as somehow symbolic or representative of the lives of an entire group of people (or subculture); for instance: repressed homosexuality (‘abnormal sexual desires’) the root of all Corvo’s problems according to Symons (2003.108). Well, then. Far be it from us to suggest that Corvo/Rolfe was simply queer in every sense of the word, as an entire human being rather than simply a sexual entity. Now that Rolfe’s been pigeon-holed, categorized, classified, safely labeled and tucked away, let’s move on, shall we?

Leonard Bast — clerk with intellectual aspirations in Forster’s Howards End, ultimately crushed by the weight of what he aspires to understand. If one follows The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, though, Bast is an inaccurate representation of the entire class of clerks with intellectual aspirations who, unlike Bast, successfully found an outlet for their fomenting thoughts by writing for one of the new (dare we say, ‘vulgar’?) periodicals. That this misrepresentation is an instance of Forster’s bourgeois hypocrisy mentality or blindness, a sort of nostalgia for a cultured England which never was. Or perhaps what was true of Bast in the novel was merely true for Bast as an individual — not as a representative of his ‘class’ or ‘station.’ That when Forster/Margaret Schlegel says ‘only connect’ it is as much about dealing with the people in the room as it is about class consciousness;1 that the characters are at once themselves and something more, their actions and manners as symbols and selves refracting through and against each other to form a single image, though as neither the one nor the other are they wholly entire.

  1. Or, if you prefer, a conspiracy of the self-identified intellectuals and capitalists against those less fortunate than themselves. []

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