sundry appropriations & reflections

First, the appropriation (1) : Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), founder of the essay-genre, was the first blogger! (2)

Because blogs, really, are nothing but variations on the essay-genre: private persons’ honest attempts to make sense of their miscellaneous observations. Blogs, just as essays, espouse a personal viewpoint to examine the many perplexities spawned by our daily intercourse with the world (and with ourselves). In fact they are dialogues, with the self and with the world, strewn with quotes & links & tentative insights.(3)

Montaigne was both modest and confident about the purport of his essays. He “only paints himself” (4), he says , for the sake of friends and family, oblivious of glory, proposing “an unimportant life without luster”. But still, he deems himself a worthy subject to write about, since “each man carries the entire form of the human condition”. He blithely confesses that he knows nothing, “que sais-je” , but that should not keep him from writing about “matters that he does not understand, because it is not these matters themselves but his ignorance of them that is his real subject”. (5)

Montaigne did love to quote his ancient authors – his collected essays could well carry the subtitle “quotations for all occasions”. And the fact that these quotes are in Latin bestows an irresistibly grave authority upon them:

“Calamitosus est animus futuri anxius” .

No need to understand Latin to be impressed by such thunderous, calamitous wisdom! (compare this to the pedestrian admonition “Miserable is the mind which is worried about the future”. (6))

But so, there we have Mr. de Montaigne, withdrawing from family and public obligations into his private castle-tower-with-library. Surrounded by a thousand books, conversing with the great authors of antiquity, meditating and thinking. All very private and individual, these ruminations, bound not to leave a single trace, if he had not arrested these most fleeting and perishable thoughts, and had not tried to give them some relative permanence in his essays. Now isn’t this, in one way or another, what most bloggers attempt to do too? (7)

But speaking of fleeting & perishable things – this spring outside…., oozing the sheer bliss of being alive, this blazing sun, mocking the very idea of either essays or blogs. (8) Time to let myself out – there’s this twisting path in the forest, cutting through ferns in a deep shadowy vale. With a suddenly accelerating slope, where you have to release all gears on your mountain-bike, stand upright on your pedals, and keep furiously moving, moving, else you’d slip & fall.


(1) Appropriation: “to take or make use of without authority or right” – this is, by the way, the blogging dilettante’s main vice
(2) we moderns & post-moderns are só self-centered and conceited: praising the past for its supposed “modernity” whenever we spot some trait deemed characteristic of our own age. If we were humbler, we'd rather bemoan the lack of originality of our 'modern' age, and we'd just sigh “nothing new under the sun”.
(3) The potential interactivity of the blog also confers to it some aspects of the “salon” (credits go to Antonia for this insight) - the salon! that lovely societal realm, somewhere in-between the private and the public, a realm where speech reigned .
(4)"[dans ce livre] je ne me suis proposé aucune fin, que domestique et privée. Je n’y ai eu nulle considération […] de ma gloire. [...] Je l’ai voué à la commodité particulière des mes parents et amis : à ce qu’[…] ils y puissent retrouver aucuns traits de mes conditions et humeurs, et que par ce moyen ils nourrissent plus entière et plus vive, la connaissance qu’ils ont eu de moi. […] car c’est moi que je peins. […] Ainsi, lecteur, je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre : ce n’est pas raison que tu emploies ton loisir en un sujet si frivole et si vain. "
(5) Charles Rosen in his Feb 2008 NYRB article « The Genius of Montaigne»
(6) quite true!
(7) “we only see what we look at” – I’m aware of my own tunnel-vision, enthusiastically zooming in on any contemporary incarnations of humanist dignity. There’s of course nothing Montaign-esque about the millions of techie-blogs and specialist blogs out there. And also, obviously, most of us do not have a “castle-tower-of-our-own” nor the unrestricted leisure of the gentleman-essayist. What we have at our disposal is, at best, the spare time of the animal laborans.
(8) Am avidly collecting Spring quotes these days: here’ s one from Baudelaire: “Et le printemps et la verdure , Ont tant humilié mon cœur” – “Spring and greenery, have so humiliated my heart”

magically murky moments (1)

Let me first express my gratitude to nuruL H: the sheer zest of her buoyantly alliterative posts & titles is justification enough for alliteration, this lovely linguistic mannerism (in which I too like to indulge).
In many contexts, however, alliteration has a bad reputation (just as rhyme has): it is considered as frivolous & superfluous. A silly ornament, distracting from the message.

I’m of course quite used to accept humbly society’s strictures on the aesthetic (2) , but as far as language is concerned, I do beg to differ, & to grumble: there’s more to alliteration than a silly play!

Looking for a smack of serious science to back this up, I found a reference to the
memory-enhancing benefits of alliteration.
Which may suggest that our brain not only stores words as symbols or signs, but also according to their sound. (3)
But of course I would prefer alliteration to be just a bit more than a cerebral storage & retrieval trick, I would want it to have meaning!

Daniel Tammet (a high-functioning autistical savant, with extraordinary fluency in both numbers and language) claims just that: words are no mere arbitrary conventions to denote reality. Words, or more precisely, how words sound, have intrinsic connotations .
It is no meaningless coincidence that following words start with “b”: ball bean bubble balloon.

But I must admit, my objective judgment in these matters is totally compromised by my own love of language which is so intimately bound up with my longing for meaning. So of course I would project magical meaning in alliteration.

Anyway, it gives me a good excuse to quote (again) Adam Kirsch, from his wonderfully insightful article about Walter Benjamin’s poetic longing for meaning.

“Of course, secular reason holds that human languages are purely conventional, but Benjamin would not countenance the idea that words are arbitrary. […] The vision of language that Benjamin advances here is moving precisely because it is beyond logical proof, and because it expresses so eloquently his longing for meaning in a world that usually presents itself as mere chaos. [..]

“Quod in imaginibus, est in lingua” . How crucial the notion was to Benjamin’s thought […] he felt that names and things belonged together, that a rhyme had revealed a reality."

(1) In fact, this post was just going to display the two photos. Evoking some dear moments, filled with ambiguous light: one taken once upon a spring evening, lost in thoughts on a train and another, coming home from work late, rejoicing in the magical mix of artificial and natural luminosity ( “l’heure entre chien et loup”). But then the ‘murky moments' title popped up and then there was nuruL’s ‘may messages’ post. Too many signs to ignore – hence the mutation into a ponderous post about alliteration.
(2) I always have to run a thorough alliteration-purging check on memos I produce in a work context, since the merest hint of playfulness would of course ruin the memo’s credibility.
(3) It never ceases to amaze (& depress) me how different the conventions of “efficiently communicating a message” in a business context are from the conventions of “conveying meaning and insight” in the artistic & philosophical realm.
(4) Personally, I’m significantly more inclined to exuberant alliteration in English than in my mother tongue. Perhaps because I’ve acquired so much of my English by looking up words in an alphabetically organized dictionary? And that would be why my brain has stored the word “fragment” quite close to the word “frivolous”?