Que Sais-Je?

“We live now in days when Authority is said to be worn out and discredited. But never was Authority more numerously or more noisily represented. In the disintegration of the old social body every little worm that springs from its corruption into life comes forth exclaiming ‘I am He!’ Each clever youth who has just left school is in haste to found a school of his own. Every philosopher shouts ‘Eureka!’ Every politician has taken out a patent of his own for the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Ask what question you will, someone is at hand to answer it with assurance. But from all these confident professors of conflicting certainties, what answer shall we take to the question Montaigne asked himself three hundred years ago, — Que sais-je?” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1883, An Essayist of Three Hundred Years Ago)

Lately at IWP Books

Available HERE:

  • Christopher Burney, 1961, Solitary Confinement
  • Erwin Chargaff, 1977, Voices in the Labyrinth
  • Erwin Chargaff, 1978, Heraclitean Fire
  • Erwin Chargaff, 1986, Serious Questions: An ABC of Skeptical Reflections
  • Theodor Haecker, 1950, Journal in the Night
  • Philip Gilbert Hamerton, 1875, The Intellectual Life
  • Johan Huizinga, 1935, In the Shadow of Tomorrow
  • Dorothy L. Sayers, 1941, The Mind of the Maker

Certainly To Correct Language

“Tzu-lu said, If the prince of Wei were waiting for you to come and administer his country for him, what would be your first measure? The Master said, It would certainly be to correct language. Tzu-lu said, Can I have heard you aright? Surely what you say has nothing to do with the matter. Why should language be corrected? The Master said, Yu! How boorish you are! A gentleman, when things he does not understand are mentioned, should maintain an attitude of reserve. If language is incorrect, then what is said does not concord with what was meant; and if what is said does not concord with what was meant, what is to be done cannot be effected. If what is to be done cannot be effected, then rites and music will not flourish. If rites and music do not flourish, then mutilations and lesser punishments will go astray. And if mutilations and lesser punishments go astray, then the people have nowhere to put hand or foot. Therefore the gentleman uses only such language as is proper for speech, and only speaks of what it would be proper to carry into effect. The gentleman, in what he says, leaves nothing to mere chance.” (The Analects of Confucius, tr. Arthur Waley)

“Zilu asked: ‘If the ruler of Wei were to entrust you with the government of the country, what would be your first initiative?’ The Master said: ‘It would certainly be to rectify the names.’ Zilu said: ‘Really? Isn’t this a little farfetched? What is this rectification for?’ The Master said: ‘How boorish can you get! Whereupon a gentleman is incompetent, thereupon he should remain silent. If the names are not correct, language is without an object. When language is without an object, no affair can be effected, When no affair can be effected, rites and music wither. When rites and music wither, punishments and penalties miss their target. When punishments and penalties miss their target, the people do not know where they stand. Therefore, whatever a gentleman conceives of, he must be able to say; and whatever he says, he must be able to do. In the matter of language, a gentleman leaves nothing to chance.'” (The Analects of Confucius, tr. Simon Leys)

The Greatest Amateur

“The prototype of the amateur, perhaps the greatest amateur the world has known, is Michel de Montaigne. During a sun-salty, wave-sandy, glorious summer, once in Maine, I read Les Essais in the excellent and convenient Villey-Saulnier edition, all one hundred and seven chapters. This huge collection of ‘essays’ — Montaigne introduced that term — has often been attacked for its lack of professionalism and even of seriousness. Indeed, it is neither philosophy, nor fiction, neither an autobiography nor a mere collection of anecdotes, not a guide to better living or wiser dying, but it is a little bit of all that and more. It resembles an ocean from which all manner of things can be drawn forth: a gleaming pearl, a dead fish. It is a book that can teach those most who do not need learn; but dolts will always complain that it lacks organization and cannot be fitted into any category of literature. Whatever went into that book had to pass through the prism of one character, one temperament; it is the self of Montaigne that remains the only element of order in that vast collection of memories, experiences, quotations. Many readers find, in fact, the copious quotations, mostly from the Latin, an impediment. Owing to a curious quirk of his education, Montaigne’s first language was Latin, not French. He had been, during the first six years of his life, in the hands of a German pedagogue, ignorant of French, who only talked Latin at, to, and with the growing child, something that presumably could happen only during the Renaissance.” (Erwin Chargaff, 1986, Serious Questions)

Think Spring

“Too many of the days when I record nothing in this notebook are days of despair. I know — one mustn’t let oneself go. And besides, we keep on living. We live out of habit, if that is living. We hold on, we last. But submerged by solitude and sorrow, overwhelmed by the very awareness of our own impotence. We have no temptations, no desires. Very rarely, a thought dares to spread its wings. It sinks as soon as it rises. What’s the use? The snow has melted in Paris; there’s a thaw. We merely think we’re going to be a little less cold.”

“My recourse, my refuge, is my profession. I work hard at it, I wear myself out at it, I lose myself in it. I give to it all the taste for perfection of which I am capable. I only find a bit of freshness in front of those fifty young men, my students. At the door of the lycée, before going in, I stand up straight, out of consideration for the judgment of others. My students are waiting for me in the classroom. I walk in, and immediately I am sure that all the misfortunes of this country are temporary. The hope that is merely an act of the will for me is organic, as it were, in these young men. When they offered me their season’s greetings three weeks ago, they wished me: ‘Think spring’ [Alain]. But as for them, they live spring. Nothing will prevent spring from blossoming again. So I try to describe Racine’s reverie or Pascal’s torment to them. We forget together, and for a few moments it really seems that modern idiocy has been utterly abolished.” (Jean Guéhenno, Diary of Dark Years, 1940–1944)

Twenty-four Experts Sharing a Tub

“When I look back on my early way in science, on the problems I studied, on the papers I published — and even more, perhaps, on those things that never got into print — I notice a freedom of movement, a lack of guild-imposed narrowness, whose existence in my youth I myself, as I write this, had almost forgotten. The world of science was open before us to a degree that has become inconceivable now, when pages and pages of application papers must justify the plan of investigating, ‘in depth,’ the thirty-fifth foot of the centipede; and one is judged by a jury of one’s peers who are all centipedists or molecular podiatrists. I would say that most of the great scientists of the past could not have arisen, that, in fact, most sciences could not have been founded, if the present utility-drunk and goal-directed attitude had prevailed. It is clear that to meditate on the whole of nature, or even on the whole of living nature, is not a road that the natural sciences could long have traveled. This is the way of the poet, the philosopher, the seer. A division of labor had to take place. But the overfragmentation of the vision of nature — or actually its complete disappearance among the majority of scientists — has created a Humpty-Dumpty world that must become increasingly unmanageable as more and tinier pieces are broken off, ‘for closer inspection,’ from the continuum of nature. The consequence of the excessive specialization, which often brings us news that nobody cares to hear, has been that in revisiting a field with which one had been very familiar, say, ten or twenty years earlier, one feels like an intruder in one’s own bathroom, with twenty-four grim experts sharing the tub.” (Erwin Chargaff, 1978, Heraclitean Fire)

News of Atrocities in Homeopathic Doses

“When news of atrocities being perpetrated are dispensed in small homeopathic doses, one becomes inured, for the normal human mind is not capable of the sort of integration that would raise the misdeed in its full abominable flesh. For that, the flame of an Isaiah is required or a religious genius of the intensity of Kierkegaard, of whom I once wrote as follows: ‘It is the privilege of the great religious thinker to predict the impending Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand, the coming slaughter of the millions of innocents, after reading some newspaper gossip about what Frøken Gusta said last night in a theater box to Frue Waller.’ In the absence of Biblical prophets, however, the reading of such writers as Kierkegaard, Kraus, Kafka, or Bernanos may help; that is, if you take them seriously, which is something very difficult to accomplish in our light-minded time.” (Erwin Chargaff, 1978, Heraclitean Fire)

Not Cut Out for Discussion

“I am a good listener and a good hearer: I understand at once, and clearly. But usually I only know the right answer later. And so, with certain exceptions, I am not cut out for discussion, and least of all for conversation. I can very well remember that one of the most painful experiences of my youth was when I had the absolutely certain feeling that an assertion made by someone was false, and I could offer nothing in reply, or only the most ridiculously inadequate reply, because my tongue was paralysed by my inarticulate thoughts. On the other hand it was this very impotence to answer on the spot which occasioned my endeavours to attain clarity, and to break up the solid rock of my feeling of certainty, to carve out of it logical arguments.” (Theodor Haecker, 1950, Journal in the Night)

The Third Thought

“The man who acts at once, on first thoughts, will make many mistakes, both in theory and in practice; it is seldom that first thoughts are best, though then indeed in quite a different degree when it is a matter of doing something good. One should do it on the spot! The man who acts on second thoughts, the careful man, lives more securely; he will have fewer disappointments. Second thoughts can of course include an indefinite number of thoughts. Decision really lies then, in the third thought, that outweighs all the others, the first and the second. And so right living implies three thoughts. Might they not be distinguished by the fact that first and second thoughts are almost always ‘inspired’, and only the third follows upon a conscious, logical judgment? Far from it, the third thought may well be ‘inspired’.” (Theodor Haecker, 1950, Journal in the Night)