“There should be some restraint of law against foolish and impertinent scribblers, as well as against vagabonds and idle persons . . . . I do not speak this in jest: scribbling seems to be a sign of a disordered and licentious age.”
Montaigne “Of Vanity” (c. 1580)
“Cobbler, stick to your last.”
Apelles of Kos (c. A.D. 79)
Montaigne was of the opinion that everyone could lend a hand in the destruction of society, since each man could bring to this great work his own pernicious power. “One contributes treachery,” he wrote, while others, differently gifted, contribute “injustice, irreligion, tyranny, avarice and cruelty.” As in happier undertakings, “the same spirit” is in this evil enterprise advanced by “diversities of gifts” and “diversities of ministrations” (1).
“O wad some pow’r the giftie gi`e us,
To see ourselves as others see us!
It wad frae mony blunder free us . . .”
Robert Burns, “To a Louse” (c. 1785)
Burns wrote these lines after he spotted a louse capering on the bonnet of a particularly proud and vainglorious woman who was sitting before him in church. In her own mind, Jenny was a lovely object of envy and admiration; to everyone else she was a lousy popinjay and a slovenly groomer. And so we have all blundered, at one time or another, swelling with vanity at the very moment a booger dangled from our nose, or our fly stood open to the four winds, or a louse did the jitterbug on our bonnet. Continue reading
If you wish to become a successful witch doctor, you must be the first in your tribe to discover a pattern in the natural order. For instance, imagine yourself as a member of a tribe of savages, your tribe as the inhabitants of a dismal swamp, and the swamp as home to a hideous black snake, the bite of which kills men at a rate of 1:2. Being slightly more observant than the other savages, you notice that, within two days of being bitten, the feet of a doomed man emit a faint but peculiar odor, whereas a glutinous yellow slime coats the inner eyelid of a man on his way to recovery.
If you were a modern doctor, you would publish your findings; but a witch doctor keeps his findings to himself. Continue reading
I do not see why very wealthy parents should not purchase places for their dull offspring at prestigious universities. College classes are very seldom full, so these silver-spoon admits very seldom “take the place” of students with more brains and less money. In fact, with the wealthy parents’ gifts in hand, prestigious universities could cut costs for other students. And if the classrooms get crowded, they could use the gifts to build bigger classrooms. Continue reading
We speak for two reasons. One is to convey information, but what we say is often phatic, meaning that what we say is said to affirm that we are on some sort of “speaking terms” with the one we say it to. If I were to meet you on a sultry street, both of us bearing the sheen and stains of ample sweat, and if I (mopping my brow with a sodden handkerchief) were to observe that the day was a mite warm, the remark would be phatic. Insofar as information goes, this would be “needless to say.” Continue reading
In fifty years or less, everyone reading this will be gone. Where you will be gone to is, of course, a controverted question, but the settled possibilities are nowhere at all, in or on the road to paradise, or clad in woolen underwear in a crowded and smoky room without air conditioning. What all of these places have in common is that, once you are in one of them, you will be beyond caring about the place in which you are presently sitting, sipping your coffee and peering at your computer screen. I have yet to encounter a theory of the afterlife in which the souls of the dead are hungry for news of the living. Continue reading
Every true country is a land apart, for no place is a country unless it is stands out as different from other places. The word country comes from the Latin phrase contrata terra, which means a land (terra) that contrasts (contrata) with other lands. We say a rural district is in the country, for instance, because it stands apart from the city. It is a contrata terra and things are different there. Continue reading
“Guilt trip” is a phrase of the 1960s counter-culture that went mainstream as part of the psychobabble of the 1970s. Trip originally meant a hallucination, since the “tripping” on which this metaphor is based was “tripping” on psychedelic drugs. Hallucinations of guilt were said to result from ingestion of the false rules of the obsolete “bourgeois morality.” Thus, for instance, if a square remonstrated with a dude that it was not cool to seduce his girlfriend’s best friend with the aid of his girlfriend’s stash of reefer, the dude would dismiss the square’s scruples as a risible attempt to send him on a hallucinatory “guilt trip.” Continue reading
“The attack on the Jew . . . is an attack on Christianity itself and on the Judeo-Christian basis of our Western civilization.”
San Francisco Chronicle (Oct. 9, 1947)
The notion that Western civilization rests on a Judeo-Christian basis is very largely an invention of the 1940s, when Jews felt a sudden and unprecedented desire to join the Western club and lock arms with their Christian “brothers.” Although a palpable oxymoron, the phrase prospered in the years that followed, and is now well established as one of the hardier weeds in the unlovely garden of American political cant. Continue reading
“Such is the strength of art, rough things to shape,
And of rude commons rich enclosures make.”
James Howell, “Upon Dr. Davies’ British Grammar” (1629).
An unwholesome jungle of rank nonsense has grown up around the concept of art, so that it often seems as if art is a sort of mythical beast—perhaps a talking stag—that stalks this unwholesome jungle late at night. At bottom, art simply refers to that which man has made. It refers to the artificial as opposed to the natural, so that an omelet or a pigsty, be it ever so scorched or ever so smelly, is entitled to the name of art. Continue reading