Category Archives: Literary, mainly C18

false starts, true beginnings

The English language doesn’t carve out clear distinctions between varieties of knowledge: savoir and connaître; know-of and knowhow; the things you learn and the knowing that comes from familiarity. Perhaps the hardest to pin down is the knowledge derived from continuous incremental experience, the area under the curve where the x-axis is time.

We count ‘big time’ in centuries, but our sense of them doesn’t map to round figures. In literature, milestones often come early in a century, but rarely at the beginning: 1922 delivered high Modernism with Ulysses, Jacob’s Room and The Waste Land, echoing the Augustan moment of 1726-28 that gave us Gulliver’s Travels, The Beggar’s Opera and The Dunciad.1

The year is 2015; we don’t quite know what year it is. The notion that 2020 will show up five years from now seems absurd, that ‘10 years ago’ refers to ‘2005’ hardly less so. We recognise that some things weren’t part of our lives a decade ago (iPhones, Twitter, a black US president, an impending sense of doom) but digging back to the point of their emergence sets off a temporal slippage, a missed gear. This is the crest of the beginning, and still the not-quite-begun.

Perhaps it’s not entirely that. We began the next century ahead of time, anticipated it, sent Marty McFly to explore it and are waiting for his second coming among us, where we will know him by his hoverboard. This first decade-point-five becomes a continuation, uncovering what we projected of our fin-de-siècle desires, until the second-order effects converge to wash them all away.

‘Los Angeles // November, 2019’

  1. The equivalent in the 19th century? Perhaps 1847, which began with Vanity Fair and ended with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, a truly late beginning.

‘if you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.’

Every half-decent tercentennial profile of Samuel Johnson will remark upon the fact that he is seldom read, and best known through the writing of another. Most will choose a sample of his work to share with the reader: perhaps Rasselas, or the Life of Savage, or ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’.

My affections lie with the periodical essays, whose moral subject matter is generally even more off-putting to potential readers. I’m always moved by the sheer humanity of his writing; the prose is architectural, grave and measured, but glows like cut sandstone at sunset. Thus, from Rambler 134 on the perennial topic of procrastination and idleness:

Among all who sacrifice future advantage to present inclination, scarcely any gain so little as those that suffer themselves to freeze in idleness. Others are corrupted by some enjoyment of more or less power to gratify the passions; but to neglect our duties merely to avoid the labour of performing them, a labour which is always punctually rewarded, is surely to sink under weak temptations. Idleness never can secure tranquillity; the call of reason and of conscience will pierce the closest pavilion of the sluggard, and, though it may not have force to drive him from his down, will be loud enough to hinder him from sleep. Those moments which he cannot resolve to make useful, by devoting them to the great business of his being, will still be usurped by powers that will not leave them to his disposal; remorse and vexation will seize upon them, and forbid him to enjoy what he is so desirous to appropriate.

registering on the scale

Zadie Smith, a woman who knows how you’re meant to speak in tutorials, even if the way you speak it is, at best, an approximation of those beside you who seem born to the task:

We feel that our voices are who we are, and that to have more than one, or to use different versions of a voice for different occasions, represents, at best, a Janus-faced duplicity, and at worst, the loss of our very souls.

Like her, my first thought with regard to Obama was his grasp of register; an apprehension which, to be done properly, must always be both conscious and unconscious.