Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came
across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an
appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily
life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it; and if they did not have
access to his popular De Copia, they consulted printed models or
the local schoolmaster. The practice spread everywhere in early modern
England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis
Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a very
special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who
follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern
Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They
broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by
transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they
reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more
excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities.
They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the
world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by
keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one
stamped with your personality.
The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000
We are each a chapter house: we are a monk
inscribing his page by winter light:
holding off with willed calm our common dread;
aware of the clinked-coin noise at our gate.
New York, 1992
It was the end of the year but not of hypocrisy, banality, and unsubtle
thuggery, nor gabbling hysteria. Oh, we were tired. Wouldn’t politics,
let alone the damned economy, please just shut up? I turned toward Little
Muddyfoot, but her blank gaze revealed nothing. Was the word “thuggery”
overstating it? Nobody had drawn a gun, after all. No response. Well,
then, what about “the healing process,” “compassion” – sorry,
not compassion – “compassionate conservatism,” “no bipartisan
bickering”: anything credible there? Nothing doing. I persisted. Could
you follow Justice Scalia’s reasoning? No change, though I thought her
face had tightened. All right, Justice Stevens’ opinion: is that where
we stand? Her eyes – green eyes, seer’s eyes – looked into the
distance. She was only a marionette, a little wooden jointed object
born in a farmyard in Central Europe. How much of the world had she seen? I felt I had hoped for too much and left myself wide open.
Then it began to snow, and it snowed all day. Afterward, it was very,
very quiet. I thought for a while about my dead. If any one thing had been
altered, all that followed would have been different. What one thing would
I have altered? Nothing, I decided, for the thousandth time. I carried a
bottle of fine Madeira into the study and promised myself a contemplative
For months, slowly, I had been trying to read John Felstiner’s
beautiful literary biography of Paul Celan. Slowly, by no more than one
line in any day, I approached the poems. In the car I kept an audio book
of INVISIBLE MAN, Joe Morton reading all of those
voices Ellison had caught on the page, infusing them with the grief, pain,
anger, the pure delirious humor, the language, Ellison had unloosed from
the page. Though forgetting nothing I played the tapes rarely, only as
often as I could bear to. I wondered about this.
I had watched a documentary about the present Pope. It was a serious,
complex study of this man of God and the Virgin, of whom I am so wary. I
could not stop thinking about one thing in particular. The Pope believes
that people who have not known suffering have not lived full lives. He
does not advocate suffering, it was said, but (he knows that) it exists.
He has witnessed suffering. He believes those who are able to endure it
are somehow deepened in their humanity.
I thought this must be so. In his observation, those who have not
suffered are, by implication, the capitalist (American) middle class. What
is the virtue of this class, that is, its historical nature, but frantic
acquisition against the fear of dispossession, acquiescence in the
dismantling of public social relations, and neurotic or calculated
self-interest? What is the suffering of this class?
We bow before the suffering of individuals. How could I ignore the man
diagnosed with melanoma, the woman who found herself without home or
position, the woman with voice ragged from the emotional derangement of
her body, the man whose longed-for marriage had become infirm? These were
friends of my heart. How could I think of them as instruments of capital?
They were alert, schooled, thoughtful adults, who did not know each other,
though I knew them all. A great writer, also a Pole, Gustaw
Herling-Grudzinski, observed, “In vain had books taught him of human
perversity and the disasters that clung like shadows to man’s fate; his
heart refused to believe what his eyes read.” I, at least, was that man
of whom Herling wrote.
I drew back. It was distressing even to imply a comparison of the
scales of human suffering. Rather, my unease had been set off by some kind
of warning noise, it occurred to me; a cacophony. I won’t storm at God
or the middle class just now, I thought, but try to listen to the
Clinked coins at the gate.
An editor in New York named Ben Gerson used to say that the public
liked George Bush because they saw compromise in his face, the face of a
man who had abandoned his principles, and it made them feel less lonely.
Our new president was going to be that man’s son. He, the son, was not
learned or well-read, nor widely-traveled, nor worldly; often spoke
incoherently; did not seem brave. He was a man who had made a comfortable
amount of money from relatively small investments and become governor of
his state; no other accomplishments, pubic or private, were reported. One
had no sense of his mind, how it moved, what nourished it.
Since election day, a sense of discontinuity had fallen over me.
Whatever had been true of our national life the day before, it felt,
somehow no longer was. A shift had occurred, so that as we went forward we
could no longer look behind and see what we had come from; the past was
obscured and irrelevant. It was a feeling of unmooring, not easily
described but almost tangible. I recalled Natalia Ginzburg’s essay “The
Little Virtues,” which begins, “As far as the education of children is
concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the
great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not
caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but
frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbor and
self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.”
The education of children is much more haphazard than the public likes
to believe, for kids are in the hands of the culture, as it is called,
more readily than of their parents, and “the culture” is rank with
the little virtues, particularly the last one. Natalia Ginzburg had
written of a different time than ours, but her observations sounded warm.
I went on reading.
“Usually we do just the opposite; we rush to teach them a respect for
the little virtues, on which we build our whole system of education. In
doing this we are choosing the easiest way, because the little virtues do
not involve any actual dangers, indeed they provide shelter from Fortune’s
blows. We do not bother to teach the great virtues, though we love them
and want our children to have them; but we nourish the hope that they will
spontaneously appear in their consciousness some day in the future, we
think of them as part of our instinctive nature, while the others, the
little virtues, seem to be the result of reflection and calculation and so
we think that they absolutely must be taught.”
Yes, she was right; I recognized the noise of calculation. A moment
later I read the following: “Now I believe that a climate which is
completely pervaded by a respect for the little virtues will, insensibly,
lead to cynicism or a fear of life. In themselves the little virtues have
nothing to do with cynicism or a fear of life, but taken together, and
without the great virtues, they produce an atmosphere that leads to these
This was the essay I wanted. I had been thinking about the nature of
authority and how, since the Sixties, I supposed, “respect for authority”
had gone away and been replaced nationally by a kind of – of what?
Anarchy wasn’t the right word, nor chaos. The lives of many people were
now rigorously controlled, in fact, to such a degree that when they sat at
computers in the places where they worked, their very key strokes could be
counted and their time-travels on the internet monitored (and censured if
desired), and such spied-out data were added up to become part of what was
called (amazingly) “productivity,” on which an index of our economy
depended. Disrespect was what had replaced authority. I didn’t mean,
disrespect for authority; I meant something like the opposite: the lack of
respect of authority for human dignity.
I did think this, I realized, because (I saw) so many of those “in
authority” believed that each man and woman had a price, for buying and
selling. Ideas could be sold to the public; the people had to market
themselves, their values, their talents, in order to make even a decent
living; and many indecent livings were to be made. At the end of the year,
“success” was a very little virtue.
During the noise of the campaigns I had heard nothing like Natalia
Ginzburg’s ideas said by a public person. Moved by that thought, I sat
and typed parts of it into my commonplace book, and as I wrote I thought
of John Locke’s belief that a newborn child was like a blank page on
which the form of his world could be impressed. I did not think this was
entirely so. A child is not a blank page; but the world forms it
nonetheless, and I did not want that world, the world as it is now, cut
off from what had gone before. Writing the lines, I linked myself more
finely and strongly to literature, which does not obscure the past and
illuminates the present. Doing this did not put me at ease, but it made my
“In our relationships with our children it is no use our trying to
remember and imitate the way our parents acted with us…. They were
authoritarian towards us in a way that we are quite incapable of being.
Strong in their principles, which they believed to be indestructible, they
reigned over us with absolute power. They deafened us with their
thunderous words: a dialogue was impossible because as soon as they
suspected that they were wrong they ordered us to be quiet: they beat
their fists on the table and made the room shake. We remember that gesture
but we cannot copy it. We can fly into a rage and howl like wolves, but
deep in our wolf’s howl there lies a hysterical sob, the hoarse bleating
of a lamb.
“And so we have no authority; we have no weapons. Authority in us
would be a hypocrisy and a sham. We are too aware of our own weakness, too
melancholy and insecure, too conscious of our illogicality and
incoherence, too conscious of our faults; we have looked within ourselves
for too long and seen too many things there. And so as we don’t have
authority we must invent another kind of relationship.”
John Felstiner, PAUL CELAN POET, SURVIVOR, JEW
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)
Paul Celan, SELECTED POEMS AND PROSE OF PAUL
CELAN. Tr.from the German by John Felstiner (New
York: W.W. Norton, 2001)
Ralph Ellison, INVISIBLE MAN
(New York: Random House Audiobooks, unabridged, read by Joe Morton)
Natalia Ginzburg, THE LITTLE VIRTUES.
Tr. from the Italian by Dick Davis (New York: Arcade Publishing,
“John Paul II: The Millennial Pope,” Helen Whitney, producer.
Helen Whitney and Jane Barnes, writers. Frontline, PBS airdate
The Poem of the Grand
Inquisitor, Vol. 4, No. 3
On the Marionette
Theater, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2
The Double, Vol. 3, No. 4
Folly, Love, St.
Augustine, Vol. 3, No. 3
On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2
Passion, Vol. 3, No. 1
A Flea, Vol. 2, No. 4
On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3
Fantastic Design, with
Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1
Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4
The Devil’s Dictionary; Economics for
Poets, Vol. 1, No. 3
Hecuba in New York;
Déformation Professionnelle, Vol. 1, No. 2
Art, Capitalist Relations, and Publishing on the
Web, Vol. 1, No. 1