Dialogue on the Threshold


15 March 2024

Télévision au XVIIe siècle : un monde rempli d'horreurs

Vn Professeur en Theologie m'a ecrit que depuis peu un gentilhomme ayant prié un Italien qui est soldat dans la garnison de Sedan de luy faire uoir quelque chose d'extraordinaire, il luy auoit faict uoir dans un miroir une femme qui est a cent lieues dela ecriuant sur sa table, ce qui l'effraya et l'obligea de se retirer. Pour iuger de ceste auanture il faudroit auoir la chose et examiner le lieu ou estoit le miroir, s'il n'y auoit rien derriere. Ie uoudrois encore qu'il y eust plusieurs personnes qui pussent rendre temoignage de ce qu'ils auroyent veu, et il seroit necessaire que ces temoins la ne fussent pas credules ny preoccupez ny timides parce que la peur nous represente les obiects autrement qu'ils ne sont. Ie croy que Dieu ne permet pas que les hommes ayent commerce auec les demons parce que le monde seroit rempli d'horreurs. que ne feroit un Ambitieux et un vindicatif s'ils pouuoient venir a bout de leurs desseins.
Henri Justel to G. W. Leibniz, 9 November 1677 
(Allgemeiner und Politischer Briefwechsel 1676-1679, No. 275)
A theology professor wrote to me that recently, when a gentleman asked an Italian who is a soldier at the Sedan garrison to show him something out of the ordinary, the Italian caused him to see in a mirror a woman writing at her table a hundred leagues away, which terrified the gentleman, forcing him to leave the room. In order to judge this episode, it would be necessary to have the mirror and to examine where it was, in case there was anything behind it. I would further like to have a number of people able to provide an account of what they saw, and it would be necessary that such witnesses not have been gullible or distracted or fainthearted, since fear represents objects to us differently than they are. I believe that God does not allow mankind to engage in commerce with demons because then the world would be filled with horrors. What would an ambitious and a vindictive man not be capable of if they were able to achieve their designs?

10 March 2024

On Obscurity

§ 672 Cicero (De finibus, 2,15) goes so far as to allow two unblameworthy modes of discourse whose aim is not to be understood. One is when you are deliberately obscure, as Heraclitus was when he discoursed on nature with the utmost obscurity, the other when it is the obscurity of the subject matter in itself rather than the language that makes the discourse obscure, as is the case in Plato’s Timaeus. Here, then, you have two obscure thinkers who are unblameworthy. If you take ‘deliberately obscure’ to mean intentional obscurity κατ᾽αἴσθησιν [i.e., in how he is perceived] lest in his scientific and esoteric considerations he fall into obscurity κατὰ νόησιν [i.e., in how he is understood], and if you hold him to have discoursed thus in his writings on nature, then Heraclitus is unblameworthy: assuredly, he did not discourse in such a way as not to be understood, but rather in such a way as not to be understood by readers who almost entirely bring to bear an analogue of reason in their reading, while declining to exert the power of actual reason.
§ 673 If you construe him to be deliberately obscure when, rather than making sure he accommodates an audience that is not yawning but giving him the requisite attention, he pours forth darkness and peddles smoke with a mind set on doing so, and if at least in places he succumbed to this due to his melancholy and his contempt towards his fellow citizens, then Heraclitus is blameworthy. If you interpret obscurity of subject matter as that weakness on the part of most people whereby their minds are unable to comprehend a given thing that is by its nature remote from their sense perceptions, even though not only are others perfectly able to understand the same thing thanks to a more diligent exercise of their mental acuity but also Plato himself clearly and distinctly grasps the matter to be discussed, and if in the Timaeus you therefore deem him to speak of matters utterly dark, then for these reasons he is actually unblameworthy in his obscurity, since he does not discourse in such a way as not to be understood, but in such a way as not to be understood except by those who likewise take pleasure in the mental stimulation of contemplating, now seriously, now in a more relaxed and pleasant way, matters that are by their very nature remote from the senses.
§ 674 If you interpret obscurity of subject matter as either the absolute obscurity proper solely to chimaeras, objective dreams, utopian fictions (*) and interpretations thereof, or that of things which from the contemplation of the human race 'the god coneals in murky night' (†) so that we cannot fathom anything of them even by a probable cause from aesthetics, meaning that nobody who would discuss them will either understand them or ever even mentally perceive them in a lucid way, and if you concede that at least in places in the Timaeus Plato sets out to depict things of this kind, or that by some other path he falls into such avoidable obscurity of subject matter, then for this reason he is not unblameworthy in his obscurity, it being baseless to plead obscurity of subject matter as an excuse. For worst of all are ἀδιανόητα, i.e., words that are plain but have a hidden meaning (Quintilian, Institutiones Oratoriae, 8, 2, 20). 

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Aesthetics, vol. 2 (1758), 
trans. Alistair Ian Blyth
§ 672 L. de fin. II. 15. eo usque procedit, ut concedat duobus modis sine reprehensione fieri, si quis ita loquatur, ut non intelligatur. Si aut de industria facias, ut Heraclitus, qui de natura nimis obscure memorauit, aut quum rerum obscuritas, non verborum, facit, ut non intelligatur oratio, qualis est in Timaeo Platonis. Habes duos dogmaticos obscuros sine reprehensione. Si de industria obscurum interpreteris obscurum κατ᾽αἴσθησιν  deliberato consilio, ne per meditationes scientificas et acroamaticas in obscuritatem κατὰ νόησιν incidat: si talem in scriptis suis physicis fuisse Heraclitum statuas: est ille quidem sine reprehensione, verum tunc non ita loquutus est, ut non intelligatur, sed ita, ut non intelligatur a lectoribus solum paene rationis analogon ad lectionem afferentibus, rationis autem nervos intendere recusantibus. 
§ 673 Si de industria obscurum interpreteris eum, qui spectatoribus, quales praesertim attendere tenetur, non oscitantibus et merito requisitam attentionem offerentibus, tamen tenebras offundere, fumumque vendere fixum animo habet et propositum: si Heraclitus aliquando saltim, ex atra bile, contemtuque civium, eo lapsus est; non est sine reprehensione. Si rerum obscuritatem interpreteris eam plerorumque hominum infirmitatem, qua datam rem a sensibus suis natura remotiorem ne mente quidem assequuntur, licet eandem tum alii mentis aciem diligentius exercentes pulcre possint intelligere: tum ipse rem eandem tractaturus clare dilucideque perspiciat; si Platonem in Timaeo de rebus hac ratione subobscuris loqui senseris: hanc ob caussam obscurus est ille quidem sine reprehensione, verum nec ita loquutus est, ut non intelligatur, sed ita, ut non intelligatur, nisi ab iis, quibus volupe est aeque mentem acuere, rerum a sensibus per ipsam naturam remotarum contemplatione, nunc severiori, nunc remissa magis atque iucundiore. 
§ 674 Si rerum obscuritatem interpreteris vel eam absolutam solis chimaeris, somniis obiectivis, figmentis utopicis ac eorum interpretamentis propriam, vel istarum rerum, quas intuitu generis humani adeo
    Caliginosa nocte premit deus,
ut earum quicquam ne probabili quidem aestheticis ratione possimus hariolari, ut eas ne tractaturus quidem de iisdem vel intellexerit, vel dilucide saltim animo perceperit unquam: si Platonem in Timaeo, saltim aliquando, res eiusmodi pictum ire concesseris, vel alia via vitabilem rerum obscuritatem incurrere, hanc ob caussam obscurus non est sine reprehensione, nequicquam obscuritate rerum excusatus. Nam pessima sunt ἀδιανόητα, h. e. quae verbis aperta occulto sensu sunt. Quint. VIII. 2.
Alexand. Gottlieb Baumgarten, Aestheticorum Pars Altera
Frankfurt: Kleyb, 1758
(*) Baumgarten defines as 'utopian' those primordial mythological fictions that are not grounded in metaphysical truth (veritas metaphysica).

(†) Horace, Carmina, 3, 29, 30.

07 March 2024

Une certaine espèce de petits vers

In 1666, Le Journal des Sçavans published a letter from Amsterdam that described ships returning from the East Indies whose hulls were infested with a destructive 'worm', no doubt the Teredo navalis which was to inflict such devastation on the North Sea dykes sixty-five years later:
Quoy que vous ayez souvent visité nostre port, je ne sçay si vous avez remarqué le mauvais estat où se trouvent les vaisseaux qui reviennent des Indes. Il y a dans ces mers une certaine espece de petits vers, qui s'attachent aux œuvres vives des vaisseaux, & les percent de sorte qu'ils prennent eau de tous costez, ou s'ils ne les traversent pas entierement, ils affoiblissent tellement le bois, qu'il est presque impossible de les racommoder.
Extrait d'une Lettre escrite d'Amsterdam, Le Journal des Sçavans. Du Lundy 15. Fevrier, M.DC.LXVI
This Extract is borrowed from the French journal des Scavans of Febr. 15. 1666. and is here inserted, to excite Inventive heads here, to overtake the Proposer in Holland. The letter runs thus:
    Although you have visited our Port (Amsterdam) I know not whether you have noted the ill condition, our ships are in, that return from the Indies. There is in those Seas a kind of small worms, that fasten themselves to the Timber of the ships, and so pierce them, that they take water every where; or if they do not altogether pierce them thorow, they so weaken the wood, that it is almost impossible to repair them.

An Extract Of a Letter, Written from Holland, about Preserving of Ships from being Worm-eaten, Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 1 (1665-1666)

26 February 2024

Parasitic worlds within worlds (2)

Jan Ruyter, Three pieces of wood from the piles on the sea-dikes showing how they were eaten through by the worms, 1731. Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam
Quodsi porro in immensum animalculorum, quæ Teredinem inhabitant, numerum contemplationem nostram dirigamus, novum ecce detegimus illius finem, licet omnes imaginationis nostræ limites transcendentem. Ordo, locusque, concinna quam maxime ratione, singulis velut assignati animalculis Teredinem nobis marinam repræsentant, ceu mundum, illis particulariter creatum, in quo domicilium, vitæque sustentationem inveniant: neque hoc solum; sed, velut Teredine, ad parandum sibi cibum, opus habent animalcula; ita et his, ad propagationis opus, indigere rerum illa sicque, quod ajunt, manus manum lavare videtur. 
Godofredi Sellii, J.U.D. ex Societate Regia Londinensi, Historia Naturalis Teredinis seu Xylophagi Marini, Tubulo-Conchoidis Speciatim Belgici: cum tabulis ad vivum coloratis
Trajecti ad Rhenum Apud Hermannum Besseling, 1733.

If we further consider the vast number of animalcules that dwell within the ship-worm,(*) then, behold, we discover a new purpose to it, albeit one that passes beyond all the bounds of our imagination. So elegantly conceived, the order and place that are as if assigned to the animalcules show us that the ship-worm is like a world created specifically for them, in which they find a home and life's sustenance. But this is not all: as the animalcules need the ship-worm in order to furnish themselves with food, so too the ship-worm needs the animalcules in order to propagate and thus, as they say, one hand washes the other.

(*) Teredo navalis (Linnaeus, 1758), a marine bivalve mollusc that bores into the wooden hulls of ships, underwater piles, submerged timber, and which lives in symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteriathe animalcules described by Selliuswhose enzymes help the ship-worm to digest the cellulose on which it feeds. 
    In the winter of 1731, the dikes along the Dutch North Sea coast collapsed, flooding villages inland, and it was subsequently discovered that they had been undermined by a ship-worm infestation that left their wooden piles riddled with holes. The worm-engendered calamity was seen by the fanatical ministers of the Reformed Church as divine punishment for the depravity then supposed to be flooding the Dutch Republic: 'The worm had been, it was said by the authors of The Worm a Warning to the Feckless and Sinful Netherlands and The Finger of God, Or Holland and Zeeland in Great Need from this Hitherto Unheard Plague of Worms, custom-made by the Almighty for the express purpose of punishing a stiff-necked people steeped in filth and sin' (Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches. An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, Vintage Books, 1997, p. 607).

Parasitic worlds within worlds (1)

Sollte nicht eine Naturmythologie möglich sein? — Mythologie hier in meinem Sinn, als freie poetische Erfindung, die die Wirklichkeit sehr mannigfach symbolisiert.

Genialische, edle, divinatorische, wundertätige, kluge, dumme usw. Pflanzen, Tiere, Steine, Elemente usw. — Unendliche Invididualität dieser Wesen, — ihr musikalischer und Individualsinn — ihr Charakter — ihre Neigungen usw. Es sind vergangene geschichtliche Wesen.

Wir leben eigentlich in einem Tiere als parasitische Tiere. Die Konstitution dieses Tiers bestimmt die unsrige, et vice versa. Die Bedingungsverhältniße der atmosphärischen Bestandteile sind vielleicht sehr mit den Bedingungverhältnißen derselben Bestandteile im organischen Körper übereinstimmend. 

— Novalis

Why should a nature mythology not be possible? — I here take mythology to mean free poetic invention, which symbolises reality in a highly multifarious way. 

Ingenious, noble, divinatory, miraculous, stupid etc. Plants, animals, stones, elements etc. — endless individuality of such beings — their musical and individual meaning — their character — their tendencies etc. They are past historical beings. 

In actual fact we live as parasitic animals within another animal. This animal's constitution determines ours, and vice versa. The interdependent relations between the constitutive parts of the atmosphere are perhaps highly congruent with the interdependent relations of the same constitutive parts in the organic body.

04 February 2024

The allotted world

So, to our business, now—the fate of such
As find our common nature—overmuch 
Despised because restricted and unfit
To bear the burthen they impose on it
Cling when they would discard it; craving strength
To leap from the allotted world, at length
They do leap,—flounder on without a term,
Each a god's germ, doomed to remain a germ
In unexpanded infancy, unless . . . 
But that's the story—dull enough, confess!
Robert Browning, from Sordello (1840), Book the Third

28 January 2024

Obscure waters

Still, what if I approach the august sphere
Named now with only one name, disentwine
That under-current soft and argentine
From its fierce mate in the majestic mass
Leavened as the sea whose fire was mixt with glass
In John's transcendent vision,—launch once more
That lustre? Dante, pacer of the shore
Where glutted hell disgorgeth filthiest gloom,
Unbitten by its whirring sulphur-spume—
Or whence the grieved and obscure waters slope
Into a darkness quieted by hope;
Plucker of amaranths grown beneath God's eye
In gracious twilights where his chosen lie,—
I would do this! If I should falter now!

Robert Browning, from Sordello (1840), Book the First 

31 October 2023

The Fate of Yaakov Maggid

In his obituary of Ludovic Bruckstein, published in Viața Noastră [Our Life] on 12 August 1988, Jewish-Romanian literary critic Eugen Luca (1923–1997) was to write that like the protagonist of ‘The Fate of Yaakov Maggid’, Bruckstein himself accepted ‘the condition of the maggid’, the vocation of storyteller within the East-European Jewish tradition of Hassidism that was particularly strong among the Jews of Maramuresch. The maggid, says Luca, is a storyteller not for the sake of fame or fortune, but in fulfilment of a mitzva, a solemn, divinely ordained obligation towards his fellow man. In Bruckstein’s tales, there is also a strong sense that the maggid is a homeless wanderer between this world and the next, perhaps even a heavenly messenger in disguise, like the angel in the Book of Tobit. In Hebrew, the word also carries the meaning of daemon, a denizen of the interval between the celestial and the mundane planes, such as the maggid that conveyed messages regarding the divine mysteries to Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488–1575) during a series of nocturnal visitations stretching over five decades, recorded in Maggid Mesharim [Preacher of Righteousness] (Lublin, 1646).  The Hassidic maggidim can be distinguished from the earlier, widespread tradition of the maggid as wandering preacher, in that rather than admonishing their listeners for their sins and holding out the prospect of divine retribution—the Tocheichah, or the list of terrifying punishments laid out in the fifth book of Moses—they emphasised the indwelling divine holiness to be found in the simplicity of everyday communal life, the joy of prayer and celebration of the Sabbath and Pesach. In particular, they told hagiographic tales of the life of the movement’s founder, Israel ben Eliezer (1698–1760), a tzaddik, or holy man, who was to gain the title of Baal Shem Tov, abbreviated as ‘Der BeShT’, or ‘Master of the Good Name’.[ . . . ]A gezerah (Hebrew) or gzar (Yiddish), meaning ‘(evil) decree’, often features in the Hassidic tales told by the maggidim and is typically circumvented by the tzaddik protagonist, often by means of a miracle. In the Russian Empire, for example, any law, regulation or decree that specifically named the Jews was automatically a gezerah in that it inevitably brought anti-Semitic persecution in one or another degree.  ‘Rabbi, Tsar and Faith’ is typically Hassidic in its tale of the Rabbi of Rizhin, who disguises himself as the tsar and goes to the Kremlin in order to avert a pogrom, fooling the tsar’s ministers into signing an act rescinding the order. Even the scientific-minded Dr Iserovitch, a descendant of the Rizhiner Rebbe, who recounts the episode, is forced to conclude that the story must be true: there is simply no other reasonable explanation, given that the appointed pogrom did not take place.  In ‘The Good Oil’, another scientist descended from rabbis, Professor Johann-Josef Moellin, is likewise forced to recognise the existence of the miraculous, in the form of the otherwise inexplicable cures effected by Rabbi Moishe-Leib Sassower using ordinary sunflower oil. And this, ultimately, is what Ludovic Bruckstein invites his readers to do in short stories that draw deeply from the wellsprings of his ancestral Hassidism and the lost cultural milieu of Unterlander Jewry: to recognise and reacquaint themselves with the miraculous that exists in the pious simplicity of humble everyday life.
(from the Introduction)

27 July 2023

A pluralitie of worlds

Angels, who do not propagate, nor multiply, were made at first in an abundant number; and so were starres: But for the things of this world, their blessing was, Encrease; for I think, I need not aske leave to think, that there is no Phoenix; nothing singular, nothing alone: Men that inhere upon Nature only, are so far from thinking, that there is any thing singular in this world, as that they will scarce thinke, that this world it selfe is singular, but that every Planet, and every Starre, is another World like this; They finde reason to conceive, not onely a pluralitie in every Species in the world, but a pluralitie of worlds.
John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and severall steps in my Sicknes: digested into 1. Meditations upon our Humane Condition. 2. Expostulations, and Debatements with God. 3. Prayers, upon the severall Occasions, to him. London. Printed by A.M. for Thomas Jones. 1624

23 July 2023

Metaphysical detritus

What might be termed metaphysical detritus: the subtle excremental matter voided by the demons that throng the lower aerial sublunary regions like falling snow or like the swarms of gnats and mosquitoes that obnubilate the skies above the Danube Delta and the Bărăgan Steppe in summer. In his commentary on Leviticus 17:7, (*)  cabbalist Nahmanides reports that demons (šedim) dwell in the far- flung wastes (šedudim) of the cold, septentrional climes and that their substance is elemental, consisting of fire and air only. Although compounded from subtle fire, they emanate a terrifying coldness. But since they are elemental, like humans they are mortal and susceptive to decay. In his dialogue De daemonum operatione, Byzantine philosopher Michael Psellus makes startling allusion to the vermicular seminal matter excreted by such demons. (†)  It would be incorrect, however, to infer that if demons’ physiology allows such excretion (perittōsis), they are therefore possessed of spermatic vessels or vital parts. (‡)  Rather, they feed in the manner of sponges or shellfish by absorbing vapours or moisture from the surrounding air, before voiding the aforementioned secretions. (¶)  Centuries later, thanks to the invention of the microscope, empirical evidence of such demonic matter might be said to have been discovered, based on which Christian Franz Paullini makes a painstaking theologico-physiological inquiry into whether bodily death itself be a ‘wormy substance,’ (§) a maggoty underlying essence, leading the reader through a vast macrocosm whose every nook and cranny, whose every substance, be it animal, mineral or vegetable, swarms with the living death (mors viva) of countless invisible worms (vermes), seethes with their fecund seed, ovules, and animate faeces (excrementa animata).
excerpt from Alistair Ian Blyth, Card Catalogue, Dalkey Archive Press, 2020
ISBN-13: 978-1628972696 

(*) ‘And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto devils, after whom they have gone a whoring. This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations.’
(†) Sperma nonnulli eorum emittunt, et vermes quosdam spermate procreant 
(‡) vasave spermatica et vitalia 

(¶) Aluntur alii quidem inspiratione, ut spiritus arteriis nervisque contentus, alii humiditate, non tamen ore, ut solemus, excepta, sed spongiarum testaceorumque piscium more adjacentum quidem humorem extrinsecus attrahentes, posteaque concretionem spermati- cam excernentes.
(§)  Disquisitio curiosa an mors naturalis plerumque sit substantia verminosa? Revisa, aucta et emendata, multisque raris, selectis et curiosis DEI, Naturæ Artisque magnalibus, mys- teriis, et memorabilibus illustrata et confirmata, Frankfurt and Leipzig, Apud Johann Christoph Stösseln, 1703.
On 1 October 1803, at Greta Hall, Keswick, S. T. Coleridge opened his copy of this little-read title, which ‘had remained uncut an exact century, 8 years of the time in my possession,’ and was prompted to remark: ‘It is verily and indeed a Book of Maggots.’


21 July 2023

A labyrinth made of labyrinths

The Universe is a labyrinth made of labyrinths. Each leads to another. And wherever we cannot go ourselves, we reach with mathematics. Out of mathematics we build wagons to carry us into the inhuman realms of the world. It is also possible to construct, out of mathematics, worlds outside the Universe, regardless of whether or not they exist. And then, of course, one can always abandon mathematics and its worlds, to venture with one's faith into the world-to-come. 

Stanisław Lem, Fiasco (1986), trans. Michael Kandel, Chapter 4

17 July 2023


Hanenpoot (1807) is an eight-page picture booklet consisting of pen and ink drawings captioned with rhyming couplets, mostly four to a page, which was made by Willem Bilderdijk for his young son Julius Willem, and whose content is nonsensical and scatological. In Dutch, hanenpoot ('cockspur', Echinochloa crus-galli) can also mean 'illegible handwriting'. Unknown for more than one and a half centuries, Hanenpoot was published in facsimile in 1977 (Willem Bilderdijk, Hanenpoot - Prentenboek voor zijn zoontje Julius Willem, Tjeenk Willink).

                                Cockspur's a clever imp, no doubt,
                                He blows the candles in and out. 
                                His ingenuity he boasts,
                                When meat and bread alike he toasts.

                                Let each one choose the way he goes!
                                As for me, I walk upon my nose.

                                What Cockspur in his breeches sows
                                Might the next day smell like a rose.  

                      What fun it is for him to set   
                      Cockspurishness inside a net                 
                       Says Jonah, looking out: Beware,
                       Inside the fish there's room to spare.

Translation: Alistair Ian Blyth

Image sources:
The Bilderdijkkamer, exhibition curated by Professor Rick Honings in collaboration with Leiden University Libraries and the Things That Talk Foundation to mark the 265th anniversary of Bilderdijk's birth on 7 September 2021.

Willem Bilderdijk (1756-1831), poet and dramatist, historian and millenarianist, lawyer, reactionary satirist and vitriolic controversialist, anti-progress, anti-liberal, anti-democracy and anti-Enlightenment monarchist and mystical nationalist, theosophical Neoplatonist and metaphysical fatalist, was the author of a posthumously published thirteen-volume history of Holland (Geschiedenis des Vaderlands, ed. H. W. Tydeman, 1832-53). His collected poetic works (Dichtwerken, ed. I. da Costa, 1856-9) run to sixteen volumes and include De Geestenwareld (1811), which encapsulates his interest in Swedenborg, spiritualism and the esoteric, and the unfinished epic De ondergang der eerste wareld (1820), which narrates the world's decline from the Fall to the Flood. Bilderdijk believed that the Dutch language alone, if purged of corrupting French and Latin accretions, could provide access to prelapsarian knowledge, as the purest offshoot of the original language of paradise (See: Eijnatten, Joris van. “Vestige of the Third Force: Willem Bilderdijk, Poet, Anti-Skeptic, Millenarian.” Journal of the History of Ideas 62, no. 2 (2001): 313–33).
“A monumental and grotesque figure, [Bilderdijk's] great talent and feeling made him appear the leader of a new golden age and think himself the chosen vessel of divine gifts, but his brilliant intellect is debased by lack of self-criticism and distorted by an egotistical and impulsive temperament. His originality and sometimes unbalanced passion are yet harnessed to neo-classical imagery and rococo flourish which mar the greater part of his work. His style is equally effusive whether he is expatiating on the evils of rationalism or the boiling of eggs” (The Penguin Companion to Literature, vol. 2: European, ed. Anthony Thorlby)

05 July 2023

Dystheoric and aporetic speculations

Ὡς γὰρ οἱ ἐν νοσήμασι χρονίοις πρὸς τὰ κοινὰ βοηθήματα καὶ τὰς συνήθεις διαίτας ἀπειπόντες ἐπὶ καθαρμοὺς καὶ περίαπτα καὶ ὀνείρους τρέπονται, οὕτως ἀναγκαῖον ἐν δυσθεωρήτοις καὶ ἀπόροις σκέψεσιν, ὅταν οἱ κοινοὶ καὶ ἔνδοξοι καὶ συνήθεις λόγοι μὴ πείθωσι, πειρᾶσθαι τῶν ἀτοπωτέρων καὶ μὴ καταφρονεῖν, ἀλλ’ ἐπᾴδειν ἀτεχνῶς ἑαυτοῖς τὰ τῶν παλαιῶν καὶ διὰ πάντων τἀληθὲς ἐξελέγχειν·
Plutarch, Moralia 920 b-c
Just as those suffering from chronic diseases give up on the common remedies and the customary regimens and turn to purificatory offerings and periapts and dreams, so too in irreducible and insoluble speculations, when the common and generally accepted and customary arguments are unpersuasive, it is necessary to attempt those that are paradoxical and not to disdain them, but artlessly to repeat to ourselves the magic charms (*) of the ancients and to put the truth to the test by every means. 
(*) Cf. Plato, Phaedo 114d, where Socrates, after recounting the eschatological myth of the immortal soul's abodes in the next world, says that it is proper and worthy for the man of sense (νοῦν ἔχων ἀνήρ) to venture to believe such things, and even that he should repeat them to himself like magic charms (χρὴ τὰ τοιαῦτα ὥςπερ ἐπᾴδειν ἑαυτῷ)

09 May 2023

Into the hollow halls of the Underworld must every poet venture

Weil vom Wohllaut deiner Lieder 
Selbst das Totenreich erbebte, 
Kam's, daß die Geliebte wieder 
In den lichten Äther schwebte.
Hättest du nur nicht so zweifelnd 
Deinen Blick züruckgewendet, 
Wäre ihr ein neues Leben 
Durch des Liedes Kraft gespendet.
In der Unterwelt Gehäuse
Muß sich jeder Dichter wagen,
Um wie Orpheus Eurydiken
In das Licht emporzutragen.
Meines Weinbergs Hyazinthen,
Welche Muskatduft verhauchen,
Haben ohne Zweifel Wurzeln,
Die bis in den Hades tauchen.
Dieser Duft ist wie ein Schlüssel
Zu den allerfernsten Räumen,
Wo die Geister aller Blumen
Ihre Liebesträume träumen.
Charons schwarzer Nachen kann nicht
Nach dem andern Ufer finden,
Ohen daß die lichten Horen
Hier ein Rosensträußchen winden.
 Friedrich Georg Jünger (1898-1977)

 At the euphony of your songs, the kingdom of the dead itself did tremble. It came about that the beloved did float once more into the bright upper air. / Had you not so doubtingly turned back your gaze, to her would have been granted new life through the power of song. / Into the hollow halls of the Underworld must every poet venture, that like Orpheus he might carry Eurydice up into the light. / There is no doubt that my vineyard hyacinths, which exhale a scent of musk, have roots that plunge into Hades. / This fragrance is like a key to the farthermost spaces, where the spirits of all flowers dream their dreams of love. / Charon's swart boat cannot reach the other shore unless here the bright hours wind a garland of roses.

22 April 2023

The horrors of Sleep

Hell? but whence came the descriptions of its Torments? From the imagination? But who having experienced what can be suffered in distempered Sleep, will compare the imaginative unsensational power of the man awake with the imagination that the Soul produces & suffers in Sleep?---One of the most horrible of these states of Morbid Sleep is the Sensation that counterfeits Remorse---& actual Remorse we know, when intense, realizes all the horrors of Sleep & seems indeed the identity or co-inherence of Sleep & Wake, Reality and Imagination.---If then Hell mean, & I know no more rational meaning, the state & natural consequences of a diseased Soul abandoned to itself or additionally tortured by the very organic case which had before sheltered it, and the force of the blows & blunted the point and edge of the daggers---it must contain---& surpass all the description of Hell, that were the portraits of the disturbed imagination---/---To consider the proper consequences an Act or Course of Action is to consider the Act itself, and no way inconsistent with the hatred of Sin for its own sake. 

Entry 4846, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol. 4: 1819-1826, ed. Kathleen Coburn and Merton Christensen, London: Routledge, 2002.

31 March 2023

A paskudnyak

He turned out to be the ultimate swindler, a phoney, a lecher, a conman, a sleazeball, an out-and-out scoundrel: if there’d been a Nobel Prize for all that, he’d definitely have won it.

Haim Goldenstein, Regn-Boygns. Dertzeylungen [Rainbows. Short Stories], Bucharest: Verlag Kriterion, 1981, p. 119.

Er hot zikh aroysgevizn der letster aferist, a gots-ganev, a khamereyzl,(*) an opnarer, a paskudnyak, a vos-in-der-kort, volt men far dem ales gegebn dem nobel preyz, volt er im zikher geven gekrign.

ער האָט זיך אַרויסגעוויזן דער לעצטער אַפֿעריסט, אַ גאטס־גנבֿ, א כאַמעראייזל, אַן אָפּנארער, אַ פּאַסקודניאַק, אַ וואָס־אין־דער־קאָרט, וואָלט מען פֿאַר דעם אַלעס געגעבן דעם נאָבעל פּרייז, וואָלט ער אים זיכער געווען געקריגן

חיים גאָלדענשטיין
רעגן־בויגנס (דערציילונגען)
פארלאג קריטעריאָן, בוקאַרעשט 1981

(*) Khamereyzl כאַמעראייזל [sic = חמור־אייזל] ‘lecher, womaniser, libertine, debauchee, oysgelasener’, lit. ‘donkey-donkey’. A bilingual tautology, the expression compounds the Yiddish words for ‘donkey’, khamer (< Hebrew חֲמוֹר khamor) and eyzl (< German Esel), to create a humorous term of abuse—in its figurative sense of ‘chucklehead’, the word khamer is inherently humorous.

19 January 2023




Wagner (2)

Wagner's operas tend towards magic delusion, to what Schopenhauer calls 'The outside of the worthless commodity', in short towards phantasmagoria. This is the basis of the primacy of harmonic and instrumental sound in his music. The great phantasmagorias that recur again and again occupy a central position in his work (...) The phantasmagorical nature of the Venusberg music can be analysed technically. Its characteristic sound is created by the device of diminution. A diminished forte predominates, the image of loudness from afar. (...) The Venusberg appears to Tannhäuser diminished in size. It is reminiscent of the distorting mirror effects of the Tanagra theatre that can still be found in fairgrounds and suburban cabarets. (...) the concept of illusion as the absolute reality of the unreal grows in importance. It sums up the unromantic side of the phantasmagoria: phantasmagoria as the point at which aesthetic appearance becomes a function of the character of the commodity. As a commodity it purveys illusions. The absolute reality of the unreal is nothing but the reality of a phenomenon that not only strives unceasingly to spirit away its own origins in human labour, but also, inseparably from this process and in thrall to exchange value, assiduously emphasizes its use value, stressing that this is its authentic reality, that it is 'no imitation' and all this in order to further the cause of exchange value. In Wagner's day the consumer goods on display turned their phenomenal side seductively towards the mass of consumers while diverting attention from their merely phenomenal character, from the fact that they were beyond reach. Similarly, in the phantasmagoria, Wagner's operas tend to become commodities. Their tableaux assume the characters of wares on display.

Theodor Adorno, Verssuch über Wagner (1952),  
In Search of Wagner, trans. Rodney Livingstone, Verso, 2005, pp. 74-79

Entrance to the Venusberg

16 January 2023


At that time I was a great Wagnerian. I never lost an opportunity to hear Wagner's music either in the theatre or at concerts. Today I have lost my love for that music in which I feel something mawkish and immoral, something which is also perhaps bad. 
Giorgio de Chirico, Memorie della mia vita (1962),  
The Memoirs of Giorgio de Chirico, trans. Margaret Crosland, 
Peter Owen, London, 1971


11 January 2023

Library-cities (2)

If the world lasts another thousand years and as many books are written as today, then I think entire library-cities will come into being; but time's attrition and various causes will destroy many of them. 
Godfrey William Leibnitz, Otium Hanoveranum, ed. Joachim Friedrich Feller, 
Leipzig: Johann Christian Martin, 1718.
Si mundus adhuc mille annos durabit, et tot libri, ut hodie, conscribentur, vereor, ne e Bibliothecis integræ civitates fiant; Sed iniuria temporum et casus varii multas perdent. 
Otium Hanoveranum, Sive, Miscellanea, Ex ore et schedis Illustris Viri, piæ memoriæ, Godofr. Guilielmi Leibnitii, S. Cæs. Maj. Consiliarii, et S. Reg. Maj. Britanniarum â Consiliis Justitiæ intimis, nec non à scribenda Historia, Quondam notata et descripta, Cum ipsi in colligendis et excerpendis rebus ad Historiam Brunsvicensem pertinentibus operam navaret, Joachimus Fridericus Fellerus, Secretarius Ducalis Saxo-Vinariensis. Additæ sunt coronidis loco Epistolæ Gallicæ amoebeæ Leibnitii et Pelissonii de Tolerantia Religionum et de controversiis quibusdam Theologicis, jampridem editæ, nunc recusa. Quibus præmissum est supplementu vitæ Leibnitianæ. 
Cum Privilegio Reg. Polon. et Elect. Saxon. Lipsiæ M DCC XIIX. 
Impensis Joann. Christiani Martini.

24 December 2022


Die Bibliotheken werden endlich Städte werden, sagt Leibniz. [C 212]

Wenn, was Leibniz geweissagt hat, dereinst die Bibliotheken Städte werden, so wird es auch düstere Straßen und Schindergäßchen geben so wie jetzt. [J 861]

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), Sudelbücher
Libraries will finally become cities, says Leibniz. 
If, as Leibniz prophesied, libraries one day become cities, there will still be dismal streets and back alleys as there are now.

20 December 2022

Infinite divisibility

Nothing is more pleasant to the fancy, than to enlarge itself, by degrees, in its contemplation of the various proportions which its several objects bear to each other, when it compares the body of man to the bulk of the whole earth, the earth to the circle it describes round the sun, that circle to the sphere of the fixed stars, the sphere of the fixed stars to the circuit of the whole creation, the whole creation itself to the infinite space that is every where diffused about it; or when the imagination works downward, and considers the bulk of a human body, in respect of an animal, a hundred times less than a mite, the particular limbs of such an animal, the different springs which actuate the limbs, the spirits which set these springs a-going, and the proportionable minuteness of these several parts, before they have arrived at their full growth and perfection. But if, after all this, we take the least particle of these animal spirits, and consider its capacity of being wrought into a world, that shall contain within those narrow dimensions a heaven and earth, stars and planets, and every different species of living creatures, in the same analogy and proportion they bear to each other in our own universe; such a speculation, by reason of its nicety, appears ridiculous to those who have not turned their thoughts that way, though, at the same time, it is founded on no less than the evidence of a demonstration. Nay, we might yet carry it farther, and discover in the smallest particle of this little world, a new inexhausted fund of matter, capable of being spun out into another universe. 

Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 420

06 December 2022


Qu’il soit fondé sur un fait ou librement inventé, de toute façon ce n’est pas le sujet qui fait le roman, à plus forte raison ne peut-on lui demander de débrouiller les relations du « vrai » et du « feint », dont la complexité outrepasse de beaucoup l'opposition tranchée admise par les articles des dictionnaires. A strictement parler, en effet, tout est « feint » dans un monde créé de toutes pièces pour être écrit : quelque traitement qu'elle subisse et sous quelque forme qu’elle soit suggérée, la réalité romanesque est fictive, ou plus exactement, c’est toujours une réalité de roman, où des personnages de roman ont une naissance, une mort, des aventures de roman. En ce sens on peut dire qu’il n’y a ni plus ni moins de réalité dans les Voyages de Gulliver que dans Madame Bovary, dans le Château que dans David Copperfield, dans Don Quichotte que dans un roman des Goncourt ou de Zola. Le Prague de Kafka n’est pas plus irréel que le Londres de Dickens ou le Saint-Pétersbourg de Dostoïevski, les trois villes n’ont que la réalité empirique des livres où elles sont créées, celle d’objets dont rien ne tient lieu et qui ne remplacent rien, mais qui viennent un jour s’ajouter réellement aux autres objets réels du monde. Le degré de réalité d’un roman n’est jamais chose mesurable, il ne représente que la part d’illusion dont le romancier se plaît à jouer.

 Marthe Robert, Roman des origines et origines du roman, Éditions Bernard Grasset, 1972


12 November 2022

Mundus mortuorum

When you get to the end of this book [The Third Policeman] you realise that my hero or main character (he's a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he has earned for the killing. Towards the end of the book (before you know he's dead) he manages to get back to his own house where he used to live with another man who helped in the original murder. Although he's been away 3 days, this other fellow is 20 years older and dies of fright when he sees the other lad standing in the door. Then the two of them walk back along the road to the hell place and start going thro' all the same terrible adventures again, the first fellow being surprised and frightened at everything just as he was the first time and as if he'd never been through it before. It is made clear that this sort of thing goes on forever - and there you are. It's supposed to be very funny but I don't know about that either. If it's ever published I'll send you a copy. I envy you the way you write just what you want to and like it when it's finished. I can never seem to get anything just right. Nevertheless, I think the idea of a man being dead all the time is pretty new. When you are writing about the world of the dead - and the damned - where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks. 
Flann O'Brien to William Saroyan, 14 February 1940

15 August 2022

The dark star

Quare ex particulis hic mundus constat, ac ille

Ex totis, vivis per se, distantibus a se,

Singula nonnulli credunt quoque sidera posse

Dici orbes, terramque appellant sidus opacum,

Cui minimus divum praesit: quia nubibus infra

Imperium teneat, producatque omnia solus,

Corpora, quae aequor habet, tellusque infimus aër:
Umbrarum dominus, simulacraque viva gubernans, 
Cui data sit rerum cura et moderamen earum:
Quae quia non durant, sed tempore corrumpuntur

Exiguo, prope nil possunt, umbraeque vocari.

Hic reor est Pluton, a quo tenebrosa teneri
Regna canunt vates: namque infra nubila nox est,

Supra autem lux clara nitet, splendorque perennis:

Huic igitur, tanquam minimo, Deus ille deorum
Rex genitorque dedit vilissima regna, aliosque

Ut quisque est melior, melioribus addidit astris,

Imperiumque suum natis divisit habendum.

Marcellus Palingenius Stellatus,  Zodiacus vitae (1536), Liber VII

By reason of the fact that this world consists of parts, and that world(*) of wholes, living through themselves, separate from each other, some believe that each star may be said to be a world, and they call the Earth the dark star, over which reigns the least of the gods,(†) for he wields power underneath the clouds, where he alone generates all things, the lord of shadows, governing the living simulacra that are the bodies which exist in sea, on land, and in lower air. To him is given the care and management of these things which, since they do not last, but waste away in a short time, scarcely deserve to be called even shadows. I deem him to be the same Pluto who, so the ancient bards sing, rules the dark kingdom, for underneath the clouds it is night, whereas up above pure light and eternal splendour shine. To him, therefore, as the least of them all, the God of gods, King and Creator, gave the basest realms. The other gods, in order of which was the better, He joined to better stars, dividing the rule of his kingdom among his sons.

* The preceding lines lay out a Platonic hierarchy of Being in descending order, from the higher world of the noumenal to the lower world of the phenomenal, from light to darkness, from indivisible wholes to sundry parts.

† Quoted by Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy ( 'The air is not so full of flies in summer as it is at all times of invisible devils: this Paracelsus stiffly maintains, and that they have every one their several chaos; others will have infinite worlds, and each world his peculiar spirits, gods, angels, and devils to govern and punish it. Singula nonnulli credunt . . .  Cui minimus divum praesit.'

10 August 2022

Words and things

I wish you to write a book on the power of words, and the processes by which human feelings form affinities with them—in short, I wish you to philosophize Horn Tooke’s system, and to solve the great Questions—whether there be reason to hold, that an action bearing all the semblance of pre-designing Consciousness may yet be simply organic, & whether a series of such actions are possible—and close on the heels of this question would follow the old “Is Logic the Essence of Thinking?” in other words—Is thinking impossible without arbitrary signs? &—how far is the word “arbitrary” a misnomer? Are not words &c parts & germinations of the Plant? And what is the Law of their Growth?—In something of this order I would endeavour to destroy the old antithesis of Words & Things, elevating, as it were, words into Things, & living Things too. 
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, letter to William Godwin, September 1800

08 June 2022

Tout est crasse

Nicolas Poussin, Le Triomphe de Cthulu (1633)

Mercredi 10 juillet [1957]

Bref nous vivons au milieu de crétins, en plein crétinisme, chez les sourds et chez les aveugles, que la prétention rend impardonnables puisqu’elle les prive des bénéfices de la naïveté, propre aux limites d’un organisme qui ne se transcende que pour prendre les mauvaises routes. Prêtrise, police, tout cela dans un monde où, s’il existait un humour supérieur au lieu de puissances atroces et bestiales, les hommes seraient sans cesse giflés et bottés par des mains et par des pieds énigmatiques. Mais hélas, tout est crasse, l’éternité, l’infini comme le reste, et la puanteur dont Lovecraft accompagne les manifestations de l’inconnu illustre à merveille la terrible parole de Renan : « Il se pourrait que la vérité fût triste. » Devenue pour moi : « La vérité est triste. D’autant plus triste qu’il n’y a même pas de vérité. »

Jean Cocteau, Le Passé défini, vol. 5, 1956-1957, eds. Pierre Caizergues, Francis Ramirez, Christian Rolot, Paris: Gallimard, 2006, p. 621

In short, we live in the midst of idiots, in complete idiocy, among the deaf and the blind, whose pretension makes them unforgivable because it deprives them of the benefits of the naïveté peculiar to the limits of an organism that goes beyond itself only to take the wrong path. Priesthood, police, all this in a world in which, if there existed some higher humour instead of atrocious, bestial powers, people would be constantly slapped and kicked by enigmatic hands and feet. But unfortunately, all is crass, eternity, infinity the same as everything else, and the stench which in Lovecraft* goes along with the manifestations of the unknown perfectly illustrates the grim words of Renan: ‘It may be that the truth is bleak.’ Which for me becomes: ‘The truth is bleak. All the bleaker for there not even being any truth.’

* In 1954, Cocteau had remarked on the stench emanated by Lovecraft’s entities of cosmic evil, when reading Jacques Papy's newly published translations La Couleur tombée du ciel (Paris: Denoël, 1954) and Dans l’abîme du temps (Paris: Denoël, 1954):

[24 octobre 1954] Importance olfactive chez Lovecraft. Son invisible pue. (Ce qui est étrange car il se dénonce par une infecte odeur.) 

Importance of the olfactory in Lovecraft. His invisible [world] stinks. (Which is strange since it gives itself away by a vile odour.)

[14 novembre 1954] L’aspect qu’il donne à ses abominable entités et l’odeur infecte qu’elles répandent autor d’elles ne varient guère d’un conte à l’autre.

The aspect that he lends his abominable entities and the vile odour that they give off varies barely at all from one story to another.

In October 1954, on learning that Hemingway has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Cocteau remarks on the triumph of mediocrity (‘Le médiocre marche tout seul’) and the epoch of journalists who think themselves great modern writers, whereas it took many years for Lovecraft to be translated into French and there are no publishers or translators to be found for Bierce, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, M. R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu.

Claude Gellée (Le Lorrain), Paysage avec le dieu Cthulu (1634)