23 July, 2008

Garments of the saints

For Peony, and for Midshipman Easy.

A friend—Mr. Easy—returns from Africa. No, that is not right. He is not a friend: he is the friend. The friend who has known me since I was four, with whom, most of all, I grew up in adolescence, and whom I chose to be best man at my wedding. One of the reasons our friendship has survived so long is that it is founded less on shared interests, which, as I have learnt recently, are precarious to fortune, and more on shared experience—memory. He has a vociferous [sic] memory, in particular, for the history of my embarrassments, faux pas and non sequiturs, a memory which served him well in the composition of his wedding speech. And he is one of the very few people with whom I can reminisce with true pleasure, recalling times shared that were not like ours today: even with my wife, in our earliest moments together we were still as we are now, much the same. But with Easy, shared memory is sweeter, more poignant, because it makes us foreign to ourselves, and so just a little closer to each other.

When I see him he is lounging on the sofa, his expensivesque loafers and striped socks dangling over the edge. He shows me his new toy: a device for reading electronic books. I forget which model it is. He has already tried to convince me to buy a mobile phone and an iPod. The very thought of interesting me in one of these e-books amuses him. Later at my house, he gestures at my bookshelves, and says, Just think, you could get rid of all of these and have them at your fingertips, on a reader like mine. I give him a look.

Books are, of course, tactile, beautiful objects. That alone is enough of a reason to shun the grey digital box. But there is something else, too. I find sinister the thought of this box, with all its gigabytes, claiming ten-minute dominion over a world fashioned by patient hands, for thousands of years, and still unfinished. The box has an insouciant finality about it. The grim humour of this is related to that moment of the new Pixar film, WALL-E, when the human of the future, a grotesquely obese and over-satisfied creature, accustomed to passive voice-interaction with a computer screen, is handed a book and doesn't know how to work it. Similarly, the scene from Short Circuit that everyone remembers is the one in which the robot breezes a whodunnit in ten seconds. I think many of us feel, deep down, that reading should be hard. Reading should be hard because its rewards are so great: because it makes worlds of men.


The highlight of Frances Yates's famous monograph on the ars memoria—apart from her admission that she has no Arabic—is that page where the dull classicist mnemotechnics of Cicero's imitators give way to the freewheeling fantasy of the Neoplatonic speculators. This, possibly, is the money-quote:
It is because he believes in the divinity of man that the divine Camillo makes his stupendous claim of being able to remember the universe by looking down upon it from above, from first causes, as though he were God. In this atmosphere, the relationship between man, the microcosm, and the world, the macrocosm, takes on a new significance. The microcosm can fully understand and fully remember the macrocosm, can hold it within his divine mens or memory.
When I first read the book, it was this thought that deglazed my eyes. (By contrast, my eyes remained glazed throughout Paolo Rossi's Logic and the Art of Memory.) Man, by remembering, and especially by arranging his memories in the correct order, would not only grow in knowledge: he would actually take the universe into his head and thus become a microcosm, a Godlet, containing multitudes. Even the atheist can take something from this.


The e-book is an abuse, an aberration, because it is an insentient microcosm. It is a parody of Camillo's theatre, in which microchips memorize and arrange information in lieu of a defunct deity—an ape of God. Its words are insubstantial and too easily manipulable. Whereas the bookshelf presents a man with pieces ready to be put together, the well-stocked e-book presents him with the work already done. I, the Luddite, still want to preserve memory as a human faculty, imperfect though it might be, for it is memory that gives colour and shape to our experience. The Platonist Novalis wrote, with his usual knack for the quotable, 'As the garments of the saints still retain wondrous powers, so is many a word sanctified through some splendid memory, and has become a poem almost on its own.' The box robs words of their sanctity, for the words in the box are all digested, and therefore all equal. You can never make a discovery in an e-book, just as you cannot on Wikipedia: nothing is ever lost. But it is the threat and actuality of loss that makes memory—and thus reading—worthwhile.

[Update 11/02/09: James Ashley comments.]


John Cowan said...

This is well-written, Conrad, but I can no longer tell if you are making claims that admit of rebuttal, or writing prose literature.

On the latter assumption, it seems to me simply wrong that you can't discover anything in an electronic archive: in something as big as Wikipedia, to say nothing of the Internet as a whole, connections may be present that no one has yet seen.

It's perfectly obvious in hindsight, for example, that English pimp and German Pimpf 'young boy' are cognates, but nobody saw that in the 19th century because English literature didn't contain the word pimp, and so German philologists didn't know it; meanwhile, the word Pimpf had become rare until it was revived by the Hitler Youth, and so anglophone philologists didn't know it. But now all is light: see Anatoly Liberman's article "On Pimps and Faggots".

Anyhow, you sound like what's-his-name telling Thoth that his new invention of writing will ruin people's memory, not assist it. Of course they're both right, and so are you and I -- all zeal on my part, all zeal.

Greg Afinogenov said...

Yes. As far as I'm concerned all our technological fiddle-faddling with information is just the bastard child of Bouvard and Pécuchet's encyclopedia, from Flaubert's notes for the end of the book:

"One day, they find (in the old papers from the mill) the draft of a letter from Vaucorbeil to the Prefect.

The prefect has asked whether Bouvard and Pécuchet are dangerously insane. The doctor's letter is a confidential report explaining that they are just two harmless imbeciles. They recapitulate their actions and thoughts, which for the reader should be a critique of the novel.

"What shall we do with this?"--No time for reflection! Let's copy! The page must be filled, the "monument" completed. All things are equal: good and evil, beautiful and ugly, insignificant and characteristic. There is no truth in phenomena.

End with a view of our two heroes leaning over their desk, copying..."

Peony said...

Hi John, I think if Conrad had said that nothing could be _learned_ from google or an ibook; well, I too would have had the same reaction. Of course, much can be gleaned from the Net-- much of importance I am sure.

However, I think the keyword is "discovery" ---and this word our Conrad is using as a technical term in the same way poor Herr Heidegger was trying to use his technical language for his latter essays-- I am still upset about that entire discussion :)

In one sense, the same could be said about TV. The experts tell us that TV "feeds" the information to viewers in a way which is passive. It doesn't get processed actively in the brain/heart/kokoro/imagination-- what have you, but rather the information comes in like cars on a one-way street, if you will.

Discoveries and learning can indeed be done via electronic means-- including iPods, iBooks, the WWW-- TV, you name it. The question is whether _discovery_in the sense that Conrad is talking about can be stimulated.

To answer the question, is google making us stupid? I think you must go back to the phenomenology itself.

Is the way in which we are processing information/knowledge and our cultural patrimony changing? I think a good place to start thinking about this question is not in the devices but rather in the way they are changing the way we think (vis-a-vis chnaging our lifestyles). For example, I remain engaged-- passionately occupied--in a book, whose idea came from a TV show! It was pure inspiration. The point in my case was that after the show was over, I had forgotten about it, but found the images were coming alive inside my mind. Maybe you could call that discovery, but the fact is very probably that I would find it hard going to remain truly engaged in the project with only TV or the NET. My project requires a subjective something else. Something along the lines of a journey or a journey of discovery which infuses much Self into the project.

Anyway, I guess I am kind of a Luddite as well... no Car, no cell phone, no iBooks, no microwave-- I'm barely out of the stone age actually :)

And is google making me stupid?

Well, there is a real possibility!!!

Languagehat said...

John: When you say "It's perfectly obvious in hindsight, for example, that English pimp and German Pimpf 'young boy' are cognates... But now all is light: see Anatoly Liberman's article," you are succumbing to the fallacy of Authority. I find Liberman always intriguing, rarely convincing, and I am not convinced by him here. He himself admits that a German word related to an English p- word should begin with pf-, and that in itself is enough to cast serious doubt on the etymology. It's a cute pairing, but whether it's a coincidence or a historical connection is impossible to say, and you do etymology no favors by tossing around would-be conversation-stoppers like "perfectly obvious." (Liberman pats his own back often enough that he doesn't need others to do it for him.)

As for "German philologists didn't know it," I refer you to Liberman: "By contrast, English dictionaries always included pimp."

Needless to say, this fellow Luddite agrees with his esteemed host about the primacy of the bound book over its flickering imitators.

Malone said...

I'm afraid that I don't understand your point that the e-book is an "abuse, an aberration, because it is an insentient microcosm." It seems to me that you're making extravagant claims for the poor e-book, which functions more as a well-stocked library (with more economy of course) than a well-stocked mind.

If anything, the gray box is abhorrent because it is so limited and redundant. The e-book,(if I understand how it works) relies upon the human librarian/owner for its stock. It's content is limited to whatever has been digitized, and as a piece of hardware, it has extraordinarily limited function (why have an e-book when you have a laptop?) In addition, as you point out, it divorces us from all the sensual pleasures so essential to reading and collecting physical books. It is decidedly unsexy. This fact, more than the limitations of the medium upon discovery (whether in a technical or general sense) makes it worthy of contempt. If it even rises to that level of significance.

Of course, if they made the thing waterproof so that I could read the Washington Post in the bath without any unfortunate incidents, all bets would be off.

Anonymous said...

Peony: Three cheers for the stone age, and not simply due to a sculptor's affinity. Seems to me the e-book is to the tome what e-mail is to the art of the letter...not to mention the microwave to the gas stove.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John: "Anyhow, you sound like what's-his-name telling Thoth that his new invention of writing will ruin people's memory, not assist it. Of course they're both right, and so are you and I -- all zeal on my part, all zeal."

I can live with this assessment. Peony's response has the right flavour.

Good quote, Greg. I must re-read B and P. You seem to be the man appointed by God to remind me to re-read great books.

LH: I do love your snark mode!

Malone: "I'm afraid that I don't understand your point that the e-book is an "abuse, an aberration, because it is an insentient microcosm.""

As a mediaevalist you should have some sense of what I mean! I conceive the e-book much the same way as our ancestors conceived the monstrous: the irrational, ungodly perversion of nature. There is something totemic about the box: it is like a bookshelf just enough to underline its radical opposition. The e-book not only brings all words out the same, it encourages a skimming approach to the world of books, and a false sense of mastery over the material: the text is in your pocket--you have it all, more than Thomas Phillipps ever dreamed of, and yet it will never be yours

Amanda: "what e-mail is to the art of the letter"

Wow, now I feel embarrassed!

peacay said...

Books are, of course, tactile, beautiful objects. That alone is enough of a reason to shun the grey digital box.

No. That's the reason to keep the books. An entirely different thing. The box is a facilitator, a convenience, it's not meant to replace books (as I perceive the technology anyway, but of course it would be a personal choice) but to allow you to carry around great whacking tomes in an easily accessible format so you can continue to do that which you like to do: read the bloody content. On a commute, in a plane, backpacking etc.

But the irony of seeing these sorts of luddite -vs- technophile discussions being played out on the internet is rather delicious.

Peony said...

Peakay, I don't really have an answer and yet I think you are begging the question as to whether the box is changing (or not) the way the mind processes the information. Not all reading experiences are equal perhaps?

I actually broke down (as I was extremely resistent)and to my first book on tape and I must say it was on the whole a pleasant experience!

At the same time, I concede it was a *different* experience. I think Conrad is aiming at a kind of reading experience that goes beyond the accessing of content...

Amanda, the woman with the lyre is stunning.

Paul M. Rodriguez said...

If I may venture a comment:

I was once an enthusiast of e-books; but I soon realized, in reading them, that their only appeal was in the idea of their inevitability, and the consequent gratification of early adoption. I don't remember who said, "The world exists to end up in a book"; but I am confident that no one will ever say, "The world exists to end up in an e-book." There is a diffidence to the medium which cheapens things read in it: an e-book version of a paper book is almost a parody.

As for traveling, I have come to favor Dr. Johnson's method: take a difficult textbook. Not only is it sure to be inexhaustible, but (I find) the shaking-up of the mind in moving between different settings makes it particularly absorbent.

I still remember first reading Yates. I actually worked back to Yates after studying Llull directly; that insight was, for me, one of those moments of crystal nucleation that changes the consistency of the whole mind. (Of course, at 16, such moments were easy to come by.)

Shawn Thuris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Malone said...

My dear C., it is as a mediaevalist that I recognize a rant against the soullessness of technological innovation to be a very old topos indeed (see "The Gutenberg Elegies" for a famously popular example).

I think there is a place for e-books. Bookshelves within bookshelves! That's a symptom of acquisitive bibliomania, not a renunciation of it.

That said, the question of how google may or may not affect reading and memory is certainly an interesting one.

Conrad H. Roth said...

PK: "read the bloody content". But that's only a small part of what I want to do with a book!

"But the irony of seeing these sorts of luddite -vs- technophile discussions being played out on the internet is rather delicious."

Yes. In all honesty I am not at all a Luddite. I have more sympathy for the machine smashers of the Industrial Revolution than for modern technophobes. I took to the internet as soon as I could. I would not abandon technology, only delimit its reign.

Paul: "As for traveling, I have come to favor Dr. Johnson's method: take a difficult textbook."

Yes, I take Burton, which fulfils the same function. Last time it was Traherne. Do you know his Centuries?

"I still remember first reading Yates. I actually worked back to Yates after studying Llull directly"

I admit that I only read Llull (in Bonner's short compilation) after finding Lull and Bruno incomprehensible. Llull himself was a terrible disappointment. My reaction was, "That's all it is?" I had the same with Roger Bacon.

Shawn: Thanks for coming to the see Varieties in their native form. And I'm sure we all have such experiences of reading old books. The diminution of the reading process is only one of the inevitable consequences of the shift towards e-books. I will have to set up my villain's library behind the mainframe!

Malone: "a rant against the soullessness of technological innovation to be a very old topos indeed"

It's an old one but a good one!

"That's a symptom of acquisitive bibliomania, not a renunciation of it."

I'm not convinced: bibliomania is not just about quantity.

Paul M. Rodriguez said...

I don't know Traherne. I am mostly ignorant, as yet, of the devotional writers; I have only just read any of Taylor.

The interest of the (genuine) Llull is mostly as a link in a chain. Everything seems to pass through him. And while the superstructure of his system is feeble, I view most of Liebniz's thought as an attempt to excise and generalize the remarkable ontology implicit in it.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"The interest of the (genuine) Llull is mostly as a link in a chain. Everything seems to pass through him."

I must disagree. I find Mark Johnston's portrait of Llull more convincing than Yates. Johnston says:

"The two modern views of Llull as singular genius [eg. Yates] and Scholastic giant both overlook the overwhelmingly commonplace character of the doctrines expounded in the Great Art. Llull himself insists that his system employs general principles common to Christian, Muslim, and Jewish learning alike, and comprehensible to "simple people". Indeed, his ideas rarely exceed the basic doctrines found in any Latin or Arab encyclopedia."

Llull, in other words, was a pretty standard devotional writer who tricked up his preaching in slightly bizarre clothes. There just isn't much serious intellectual content at all in his work, and furthermore, although he had a fair amount of local and occult influence, he is squarely outside the mainstream of mediaeval and Renaissance philosophy. I don't think everything passes through him any more than it does through Aquinas, Grossteste, Ockham, Scotus, or any of the major late mediaeval thinkers.

"I view most of Leibniz's thought as an attempt to excise and generalize the remarkable ontology implicit in it."

Leibniz was a much more sophisticated thinker: still mediaeval in some respects (hence his place at the end of Rossi's book) but much more rigorous and elaborate. His De arte combinatoria is as naive as Llull in its aims, but far more brilliant in its methods.

A. Ominous said...

We plunge, laughing, towards Hell because we grasp, so poorly, what Hell is. But I can tell you it'll be full of conveniences. I said "no" to CDs and "no" to the cell phone when it first came out, but this time I mean it: no e-books. I can't accept a system in which "The Breast" weighs as much as "Moby Dick".

Paul M. Rodriguez said...

I exaggerated to say "everything", but I can't concede that Llull was peripheral or standard. I should point out first of all that it would not be necessary for there to be any substance to the Art for it to be influential; the idea of it would be enough. One could compare Bacon's Instoration: his efforts to fill it out were failures, but his project was a success.

Llull certainly claimed to be combining Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thought; but really, the Arabic influence was overwhelming. All his writing declares it: he can't write a sentence that doesn't sound as if it were translated from Arabic. The significance of this is that Llull's Arabic guide to philosophy was not Ibn Rushd the philosopher, but Al-Ghazzali the anti-philosopher—which makes Llull the first anti-philosopher in the West—anti-philosopher not in the sense of someone opposed to the aims of philosophy, but someone who has another way in mind to fulfill them.

Looking at his diagrams, the most striking thing is the absence of hierarchy. God is not at the summit of Llull's system; when He appears, it is usually at the center, inside of thought. This might be taken for typically Neoplatonic; but I think it is really Ash`ari—so radically insistent on God's transcendence of thought that it effectively eliminates Him as an object of thought. That is the essence of Llull's system—a super-theism approaching atheism—and Llull's attempt to work God into the system is an appalling kludge: He appears among the Subjects, but only as one spoke in the wheel, alongside angels and the elements and man.

Liebniz quickly abandoned his attempt to rehabilitate the superstructure of Llull's Art. But it kept working its way out. Consider one obvious implication of the universe being generated by a system of exhaustive recombinations: that truths (or entities) which are seemingly interchangeable to us, even tautologies, may still have a real distinctness in reference to the different mean by which they were generated—the beginning, I suspect, of Liebniz's investigations of the algorithm and the function.

Alas, I don't seem to have a quip about books or e-books that I could use to bring this back on topic.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Roth:

One of the greatest joys (if not the only one for me) of the Internet is its capacity to keep me in touch with many far-flung friends, most of whom do not have the time or inclination to put pen to paper. While I cherish my snail-mail, I also deeply appreciate words from friends no matter what format they arrive in.


Thank you.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Steven: Nor can I, I think!

Paul: I must confess that for me, as for Yates, Arabic is a limitation, so I can't comment on his Islamic sources. Although Llull wrote his 'Book of Contemplation' in Arabic, and so was clearly conversant with the major Arabic works, it seems to me that he could have derived all or most of the materials of his Art from Eriugena and cabbala.

As for Leibniz, finding the origin of his thought in Llull, as so many scholars want to do, is a bit like tracing the origin of modern atomism to Democritus. I have no specialist knowledge of the field, but my guess would be that Leibniz's more immediate inspiration (or influence) was the development of probabilistic and combinatorial mathematics in the 17th century. It would seem more valuable to hold him up against that background than to look for parallels (and there are many) between such different types of mind, in such different contexts, as Llull and Leibniz.

John Cowan said...

Hat: True enough that a straight second-consonant-shiftification of pimp would be Pfimf, but I doubt that would be a stable form: a prosthetic [p] would appear between [m] and [p] (cp. English Thompson), and the rule against double /pf/ in the root would quickly reduce that to Pimpf.