The autobiography of some great delight

Another reading from The Voice of the Machines, Gerald Stanley Lee’s “Introduction to the Twentieth Century”:

The truest definition of a gentleman is that he is a man who loves his work. This is also the truest definition of a poet. The man who loves his work is a poet because he expresses delight in that work. He is a gentleman because his delight in that work makes him his own employer. No matter how many men are over him, or how many men pay him, or fail to pay him, he stands under the wide heaven the one man who is master of the earth. He is the one infallibly overpaid man on it. The man who loves his work has the single thing the world affords that can make a man free, that can make him his own employer, that admits him to the ranks of gentlemen, that pays him, or is rich enough to pay him, what a gentleman’s work is worth.

The poets of the world are the men who pour their passions into it, the men who make the world over with their passions. Everything that these men touch, as with some strange and immortal joy from out of them, has the thrill of beauty in it, and exultation and wonder. They cannot have it otherwise even if they would. A true man is the autobiography of some great delight mastering his heart for him, possessing his brain, making his hands beautiful.

… While the definition of a poet and a gentleman—that he is a man who loves his work—might appear to make a new division of society, it is a division that already exists in the actual life of the world, and constitutes the only literal aristocracy the world has ever had.

You can get The Voice of the Machines at Gutenberg.org. This selection is from Part I: “The Men Behind the Machines”.

The blue and the green

Noted without comment:

There is only one crime, in the local sense, and that is not to turn blue, if the gods are blue: but, in the universal sense, the one crime is not to turn the gods themselves green, if you’re green.

From Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned.

In new language

Egypt in the Twelfth Dynasty. It’s the 19th century BCE and a touch on the warm side. Khekheperre-Sonbu wrote:

Would, that I had words that are unknown, utterances and sayings in new language, that hath not yet passed away, and without that which hath been said repeatedly — not an utterance that hath grown stale, what the ancestors have already said.

I can’t think of anything to add to that.

As told in Will Durant’s Our Oriental Heritage.

What have you been reading?

We’ve been reading the same things we’ve always been reading. It’s been a frighteningly long time since we’ve read a new book. But this last handful of seasons has made all the old books new again. By phonelight, in stolen jags of time, on endless train and bus rides along the same broad northerly scar, we’ve been reading. We’ve been reading Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only other human beings can do that. The realization that the world does not tell us what language games to play should not, however, lead us to say that a decision about which to play is arbitrary, nor to say that it is the expression of something deep within us.

We’ve been reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning. The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part.

We’ve been reading the various adventures of Sherlock Holmes:

—“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
—“You horrify me!”
—“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”

We’ve been reading The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger:

We were never asked if we wanted to exist, and we will never be asked whether we want to die or whether we are ready to do so. In particular, we were never asked if we wanted to live with this combination of genes and this type of body. Finally, we were certainly never asked if we wanted to live with this kind of a brain including this specific type of conscious experience. It should be high time for rebellion. But everything we know points to a conclusion that is simple but hard to come to terms with: Evolution simply happened — foresightless, by chance, without goal. There is nobody to despise or rebel against — not even ourselves. And this is not some bizarre form of neurophilosophical nihilism but rather a point of intellectual honesty and great spiritual depth.

We’ve been reading Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand:

Nobody can save the world, but any of us can help set in motion a self-saving world — if we are willing to engage the processes of centuries, because that is where the real power is.

Of course we’ve read Jerry Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting:

Your ideal form of influence is first to help people see their world more clearly, and then to let them decide what to do next. Your methods of working are always open for display and discussion with your clients. Your primary tool is merely being the person you are, so your most powerful method of helping other people is to help yourself.

When our train arrives and the phone rings and the baby cries, we yield to the day and its concerns. But if you see the gleam in our eye or the tiny little spring in our step, it’s because we’ve been reading.

The joke

A reading from The Voice of the Machines, Gerald Stanley Lee’s “Introduction to the Twentieth Century”:

All language is irrelevant, feeble, and absurd. We live in an organically inexpressible world. The language of everything in it is absurd. Judged merely by its outer signs, the universe over our heads — with its cunning little stars in it — is the height of absurdity, as a self-expression. The sky laughs at us. We know it when we look in a telescope. Time and space are God’s jokes. Looked at strictly in its outer language, the whole visible world is a joke. To suppose that God has ever expressed Himself to us in it, or to suppose that He could express Himself in it, or that any one can express anything in it, is not to see the point of the joke.

We cannot even express ourselves to one another. The language of everything we use or touch is absurd. Nearly all of the tools we do our living with — even the things that human beings amuse themselves with — are inexpressive and foolish-looking. Golf and tennis and football have all been accused in turn, by people who do not know them from the inside, of being meaningless. A golf-stick does not convey anything to the uninitiated, but the bare sight of a golf-stick lying on a seat is a feeling to the one to whom it belongs, a play of sense and spirit to him, a subtle thrill in his arms. The same is true of a new fiery-red baby, which, considering the fuss that is made about it, to a comparative outsider like a small boy, has always been from the beginning of the world a ridiculous and inadequate object. A man could not possibly conceive, even if he gave all his time to it, of a more futile, reckless, hapless expression of or pointer to an immortal soul than a week-old baby wailing at time and space. The idea of a baby may be all right, but in its outer form, at first, at least, a baby is a failure, and always has been.

The Voice of the Machines is a small and deeply weird book, one of those that are worth revisiting from time to time. The book doesn’t change (anymore), but maybe you do.

You can get The Voice of the Machines at Gutenberg.org. This selection is from Part II: “As Good as Ours”.

The City & The City

To navigate the city, you have to unsee as much as you see.

If you actually encountered the city for what it was, you’d be unable to use it for anything, much less live in it. Great myths and human tragedies on every corner, unfurled histories along each broken-down street and sidewalk — almost all of which you have learned to ignore, nearly subconsciously, in order to walk to the grocery store or the bar.

China Miéville’s book is a carefully observed novelistic treatment of the minute-by-minute, step-by-step experience of living in a city: of the discipline, decision-making, and rejection of empathy required for an individual to treat a city as an environment. Its detective mystery plot, antifantasy trappings, and weird kinship to 1984 rocket the book from start to finish. But the what’ll stick with you is the vocabulary it generates for making sense of the city visible and invisible.

Read Michael Moorcock’s review of The City & The City or get a copy.