PART TWO: ESSAYISTIC APHORISMS

 

 

1. We all possess a tendency to progressively underestimate a book, whether prosodic, philosophic, or poetic, which we had previously read and enjoyed, and mainly because we have forgotten most of what delighted us about it at the time. We may, for example, have been highly enthusiastic about Hamsun's Mysteries at the time of reading it. A year or two later we recall a few shreds of memory associated with our favourite passages from the novel, and these in turn we may couple to a vague recollection that Mysteries was a great book. But largely because our minds have moved on to fresh literary pastures, the initial enthusiasm engendered by this novel has if not altogether disappeared then considerably subsided, and we quickly discover the potential for flippancy, superficiality, indifference, oversimplification, irony, exaggeration, hostility, etc., lurking dangerously beneath the fragile surface of our judgement of it. In truth, one is always obliged to outgrow a previous experience. The author of a brilliant book yesterday may well become the author of a comparatively uninspiring one today - at least, as far as the reader is concerned!

 

2. If as writers and thinkers you cannot clear the ground of what has gone before, you will never have room to raise your own constructions. All great writers are also destroyers. Not only do they create new works but, in the process, destroy the reputations of old ones, especially those whose reputations were ripe for destruction. But when is the reputation of an old work ripe for destruction? As soon as a writer has found a substantial hole in it, which is to say as soon as he has exposed the lie in it! Then and only then is it in the wrong and he in the right. But until they are 'found out', even the most undeserved reputations, or decrepit foundations, will remain intact.

 

3. As a final product, a literary translation is never more than a combination of author and translator, a creation which, strictly speaking, stems neither from the one nor the other. Hence Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra effectively becomes, when translated into English, the product of a third factor - that of the author and translator combined. Thus Nietzsche's work, translated into English by Hollingdale, effectively becomes the work of 'Nietdale', or something of the sort. For we are reading neither Nietzsche's words nor Hollingdale's thoughts.

 

4. I distinguish between three kinds of literary masterpiece, viz. the small, the medium, and the large. The small applies to a work of under 200 pages in length, the medium to a work of 200-399 pages, and the large to a work in excess of 400 pages. To give an example of each kind of literary masterpiece, I regard Camus' The Outsider as a small masterpiece, Hamsun's Mysteries as a medium-sized masterpiece, and Joyce's Ulysses as a large masterpiece. As might be expected, it is then logical for me to contend Ulysses to be greater than both Mysteries and The Outsider, but Mysteries to be greater than The Outsider.

 

5. There are always authors who refrain from drawing attention to the works of certain other authors not, as might at first appear, because they don't particularly like their works (or, for that matter, their authors), but primarily because they are acutely conscious of the striking similarities between their own work and the works of these others, or acutely conscious, it may be, of how profoundly influenced they were by them, and therefore do not wish to be regarded as mere plagiarists.

 

6. There are those who not only regard their collection of books as a kind of 'work of art' in itself, that is to say as a carefully-determined, pre-arranged, and almost regimentally-ordered selection of interrelated material, but, more importantly, as a kind of 'intellectual shrine' in the presence of which they often pay unconscious, and sometimes conscious, homage to the deity of their literary obsessions. One doesn't act unseemly, i.e. flippantly or disrespectfully, in the presence of one's array of choice books. On the contrary, one retains an appropriate decorum which testifies to an almost religious awe and devotion vis--vis the proximity of intellectual greatness, as though one's bookcase were a kind of altar to the intellect upon which the vertical columns of books repose in sanctified beatitude.

 

7. All Christians who genuinely believe in Heaven and Hell should be aware of the fact that the concept of Heaven is only feasible because of the antithetical concept of Hell, and that unless, in strict accordance with the intrinsic dualism of Christian theology, 'the wicked' were destined for Hell, 'the good' themselves would never be able to enter Heaven. In short, their presumed future salvation partly depends upon the damnation of 'the wicked'. They are in great need of 'the wicked' if there is to be any salvation at all.

 

8. Many of those rather insular people who believe in the concept of a Creator 'up above', a Creator who is Lord of the Universe, tend to overlook the fact that there is undoubtedly a great deal more to the Universe than they naively imagine, and that, in all probability, it also extends to an incalculable extent 'down below'. But let us not ignore the fact that an Englishman and an Australian would each be pointing in opposite directions if they stood in their own country and posited a Creator 'up above'. The Englishman's 'above' would be the Australian's 'below', and vice versa.

 

9. If one could distinguish between priests who take those aspects of the Bible literally which were better taken symbolically and, conversely, those who take symbolically that which appears literal, I feel certain that, even these days, there would be more priests in the former category than in the latter one. In other words, there would be more priests who would believe material relating, for example, to the Garden of Eden to be an historical documentation of something that actually existed and happened than ones who, taking it symbolically, regard it as an account of man's rise to consciousness and the inevitable break with an unconscious, and comparatively blissful, identification with nature which this attainment necessarily entailed, as, outgrowing the animal plane, man became fully human and was obliged to abandon nature, or the 'Garden', for the toil and struggle of the world, with its redemptive promise. Thus could the clerical wheat be divided from the clerical chaff, as one sought to distinguish the more imaginative and possibly intelligent priests from their comparatively simpleminded, fundamentalist, and Bible-punching colleagues!

 

10. Man is neither an angel nor a demon but a being who incorporates aspects of both the angelic and the demonic. However, to refer to him as both angel and demon would hardly be nearer the truth! For such arbitrary designations presuppose absolutes, or ideal beings, which exist independently of each other and are thus incapable of mutual reconciliation. All one can reasonably contend is that there is a 'watered-down' angel and a 'watered-down' demon in every man; a part which aspires towards the angelic and, conversely, a part which aspires towards or, rather, stems from the demonic, without ever being in a position to make man either wholly the one or the other.

 

11. Whether, in fact, there was only one First Cause or, alternatively, numerous First Causes ... is something about which we have no definite knowledge at this point in time. Although scientists are inclined to reason, probably in deference to a monotheistic tradition, in terms of a single First Cause, a 'Big Bang', as it is somewhat colloquially called, the probability is that there were many creative influences, though not necessarily in this galaxy (of which our solar system is but a tiny and relatively insignificant component), but throughout the universe of galaxies as a whole. After all, polytheism preceded monotheism in the evolution of religion from gods to God, and it could be that the concept of a First Cause is simply a more evolved scientific point-of-view than that of First Causes - one analogous to monotheism.

 

12. It should always be remembered that the use of the term 'First Cause' indicates a scientific point-of-view, the use of the term 'God' or 'Creator', by contrast, a religious one. Strictly speaking, the scientists are no more wrong to reject God than the priests to reject the First Cause. What we are dealing with here are two ways of looking at the Universe, a factual and a figurative, a scientific and a religious, and anyone who specializes in the one can hardly be partial to the other, since they tend to be as mutually exclusive as monarchs and popes.

 

13. When we say that the sun is in the region of 93,000,000 miles away, we indicate that at least we know in theory what an immense distance the sun is from the earth. As, however, to knowing in practice what 93,000,000 miles are, none of us will ever do so, and consequently our knowledge of this astronomical fact remains incomplete or, at best, highly partial. Modern science presents us with a considerable number of fantastic figures to swallow, many of which are considerably more fantastic than the simple example cited above. Though, for all its breathtaking achievements in this context, we are usually left little or no wiser in the long run!

 

14. I can state that the average human brain is composed of approximately a billion neurons, or nerve cells, but I cannot expect you to know exactly what a billion of anything actually means, still less how we arrived at this fantastic figure. You will, of course, have the impression that a tremendous number of neurons are involved in the brain's composition. But that, alas, is as much as you can gather! Our fantastic figure will remain an isolated fact, not really telling us very much about anything at all. Thus we are regularly confronted, in modern science, by what may be termed the triumph of facts and figures over meaning. Unfortunately, the greater the lacunae between these facts and figures and our practical understanding of them, the greater is the danger of our becoming the dupes and victims of abstractions which exist beyond the pale of rational comprehension. In this respect, modern science has to a significant extent annexed the premium on faith formerly held by orthodox religion.

 

15. To suggest that we humans live in a man's world would be as presumptuous as for ants to suggest, assuming they could speak, that they live in an ant's world, or for flies to suggest that they live in a fly's world, since there are as many different kinds of worlds as there are living species. However, it is of course fair to suggest that we live in a man's world insofar as we are human beings, just as it would be reasonable for ants or flies to suggest that they live in their own respective worlds insofar as they are different kinds of insects. But their worlds, the contexts in which they live, would not qualify them to know for a fact that the earth belonged to them, any more than our world, the context in which we live, qualifies us to know for a fact that it belongs to us. All we can really be certain of is that we live on it, and that our lives co-exist with those of the many other species who co-inhabit it. For we are dealing here with an ecological balance which affects everyone ... from the smallest of the small to the biggest of the big, and which ultimately serves to indicate the eternal interdependence of the many species who subsist on a common planet.

 

16. Our flight from boredom, time, pain, worry, etc., often leads us to turn simple wisdom into complex folly. We are never satisfied that we know enough, even though we usually know far more than we need to know in order to survive, as well as far more than is generally good for us, and are consequently led to undermine the intrinsic value of much of our knowledge. Beyond a certain point knowledge acquires the same treatment as material possessions: the more of it we have the less value do we attach to its individual parts and the more value, by sheer force of habit, to accumulating as much of it as possible. Knowing too much is the spiritual counterpart of possessing too much, and all extremities are equally fatal!

 

17. The picture one has of the world is so related to the nature of one's intelligence that the most intelligent people will never appear recognizable as such to those of lower intelligence, to those, in other words, who have no compatible criterion by which to evaluate and/or appreciate their intelligence. What one sees of a person of greater intelligence is only what one's intelligence permits one to see, not the greater intelligence itself. Hence one is always restricted to a partial and necessarily misleading perspective of people more intelligent than oneself.

 

18. An extremist in one context will always be moderate in another. Indeed, one wouldn't know anything about moderation at all unless one was also extreme, unless one's extreme tendencies served both as a goad and as a counterbalance to one's moderate tendencies, since, without their periodic or intermittent prevalence, there would be no moderation at all. Hence an 'extreme man' and a 'moderate man' are both essentially figments of the imagination. It is as impossible to be exclusively the one as it is to be exclusively the other.

 

19. What one is conscious of in oneself one generally assumes other people to be conscious of as well. A man who is conscious of the fact that he is untidily dressed, as he walks along the street, and who at the same time feels ashamed of it, is virtually compelled, on such an occasion, to assume that every time another person looks at him, particularly when that other person is smartly dressed, it is for no other reason than to secretly criticize him for being untidily dressed. Whatever one feels internally inevitably conditions one's relationship to the external world. One is for the most part inclined to project oneself into the world without in the least being aware that that is all or what one is actually doing.

 

20. One often feels, after having recovered from an illness, that one has 'paid one's dues' to illness for some time to-come, in consequence of which there is little or no possibility of one's immediately becoming ill again. So one can afford to be a little more reckless or a little less cautious in one's attitude to health for a while - this, at any rate, is how one generally feels at the time. Unfortunately, there always comes another time when, in being more reckless or less cautious, one pushes one's luck too far and consequently succumbs to a fresh illness through the folly of believing oneself to be almost immune to illness, of putting too much confidence in one's health. Yet one isn't necessarily wrong to do so. Perhaps one's deeper self required a fresh illness just at that time in order to correct one's mistaken perspective of the relationship between health and sickness, and thereby rejuvenate one's pleasure in health? For to be well all of the time would probably amount to a grave affliction, something in which few if any of us would be able to take much lasting pleasure, and certainly something of which few if any of us would have much lasting experience!

 

21. Travelling is another means of increasing one's sense of power. Ultimately, one runs the risk of only associating with people who are widely travelled, the most powerful, in this context, being those who have visited the most number of countries, especially the most distant countries. Like religion, politics, science, sport, etc., travel is just another way of dividing people. And yet, it isn't simply egocentricity or vanity which creates the divisions but, more usually, the need to associate with people who can appreciate one's experiences. Then it is that they can be properly understood and objectively evaluated. For a person with little interest in travel would fail to appreciate the nature of those experiences and thereby considerably detract from one's sense of power. It is, above all, the need to assert, foster, and witness one's power that drives one in search of 'kindred spirits'.

 

22. How often we find the word 'idealism' used in a context where instead of making matters better, the ideas behind it would ultimately make them worse? Is not 'idealism' one of the most misused expressions in the English language? Indeed, one has to be extremely careful here, to tread one's way with cautious feet, lest one inadvertently upsets the precarious balance of realism and idealism in favour of an idealism that would not only transpire to making matters worse than they were already, but would simultaneously poison one's sense of realism and thereby transform one into the most pernicious kind of idealist. For an idealist in this sense isn't necessarily a man without any realism. On the contrary, he is usually a man who stands reality on its head, in order that he may have the perverse pleasure of disparaging it in the name of an impossible existence. And sometimes he isn't even that; sometimes he is a man who is merely - playing with words!

 

23. The more one conceives with the mind, the faculty of thought, the less one can perceive with the senses. Eventually, the senses begin to atrophy and the thinker, insofar as he is permitted, either accepts the situation for what it is or, if worried by the noticeable deterioration in the condition of his sensual perception, attempts to give more attention to the senses, even to the extent of becoming a sort of sensualist. But the most likely way for a thinker to do so is, of course, to think on the value of the senses and then possibly write in praise of sensuality, establishing a subtle self-deception in the interests of thought. For a thinker is always prepared to turn his private mistakes or shortcomings into a public lesson, albeit duly disguised under the mantle of objective thought.

 

24. The more one utilizes one's energies and talents in one context, the less one can utilize them in another. If, as a writer, one spends a few months typing-up a work which one had previously drafted in ink, one will become a fairly good typist but a comparatively poor writer, and, in returning to one's notebook at a later date, will probably have to persevere with a certain degree of creative incompetence or impotence for a few days, while retraining one's mind to slot into the groove of creative writing again. Thus it could be contended that habit rather than talent or intelligence is the fundamental mainstay behind the literary achievements of creative writers. Without routine all is lost. The mind goes where we send it, and if we send it away from our creative tasks, then we have only ourselves to blame when it proves less than responsive to creation at a later date. We shouldn't accuse it, on returning from some other preoccupation, of being insufficiently creative when, as often happens, we hadn't conditioned it to being such!

 

25. To be a thinker, in the deepest sense of that term, one must have all day in which to cultivate the difficult art of thinking, all day in which to live as a philosopher. One cannot be a thinker in one's spare time, after one has done one's duty elsewhere. For one will not only have to contend with the relative negativity of the evening (assuming one works during the day), the shortage of time in which to collect and develop one's thoughts, the fact of knowing oneself to be an amateur thinker on account of one's diurnal occupation and its possibly humbling effects upon one's psychology (not to mention the humbling effects that certain fellow workers may have on it), the reduction of energy and commitment one experiences in consequence of the effects of that occupation, the possibility of neighbour or family distractions, and the temptation to relax, to indulge in reading, listening to music, watching television, holding conversation, etc., as a natural inclination, but, in addition to some or all of these factors, one will also have to contend with the virtual inevitability that one's objectively-oriented conditioning during the day, far from enhancing one's ability to think deeply, actually reduces it, so that, in spite of any good intentions one may have, one would ultimately be fighting a lost cause. In sum, one can only be a thinker professionally, not in one's spare time!