Theoretical frivolousness

Michael Wood writing about Roland Barthes in the latest edition of the London Review of Books (subscribers-only link):

Two years after Barthes’s death, Chantal Thomas wrote very well of ‘the persistence of a theoretical desire progressively liberated from a concern with seriousness or consequence’. Does that sound frivolous?

Well, does it? I mean, if you absolutely had to choose an adjective to describe the phrase ‘the persistence of a theoretical desire progressively liberated from a concern with seriousness or consequence’, would frivolous be the first to spring to mind? As opposed to incomprehensible, say, or (I'm tempted to suggest) meaningless.

It's unfair, perhaps, to quote two sentences out of context, so here's the whole paragraph in which they appear:

Two years after Barthes’s death, Chantal Thomas wrote very well of ‘the persistence of a theoretical desire progressively liberated from a concern with seriousness or consequence’. Does that sound frivolous? The concept of theoretical desire suggests a project that might be urgent, as well as fun. Barthes himself has a wonderful phrase about theory. ‘To some extent, theory is also a fiction’ – the context is a 1977 discussion of Sartre’s philosophical novels – ‘and it was always in this guise that it tempted me: theory is, as it were, the novel that people enjoyed writing over the last ten years.’ Theory was the novel Barthes enjoyed writing – many critics were busy thinking they were philosophers – and perhaps the only novel he needed to write.

Actually, no, on second thoughts, perhaps frivolous was closer to the mark after all.

The art of analogy

I'm a firm believer that use of good analogies is a reliable indicator of intelligence. The ability to convey a complex concept by comparing it to one easier to understand is the mark of a gifted communicator.

So, how would you go about describing the dangers of self-reflection when vexed?

When one is vexed, one must avoid meditating about oneself. One is like a man with jaundice: he must not study the map of the countries he is about to traverse—he would see everything in yellow. Yellow is the colour of Sweden, so he would believe that every country was Sweden, and if by chance the King of Sweden had set a price upon his head, he would be in despair: this despair would be the effect of his jaundice. And such is the effect from which I suffer every time I go to Grenoble; so much so that, on the last occasion, I almost entirely avoided thinking about my future.
Stendhal to his sister Pauline, 17-Sep-1805
To the Happy Few: selected letters of Stendhal (trans. Norman Cameron) (1952)

…I'm reluctantly beginning to accept I'll never be recognised as a literary genius on a par with Stendhal.

Chuzzle wit

A literary joke for you:

Q: Who was the most notorious Dickensian groper?
A: David Cop-a-feel.

[You won't find high-brow entertainment like that in the Murdoch rags.]

The boy who decried Woolf

From Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf:

Then, while a seedy-looking nondescript man carrying a leather bag stood on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and hesitated, for within was what balm, how great a welcome, how many tombs with banners waving over them, tokens of victories not over armies, but over, he thought, that plaguy spirit of truth seeking which leaves me at present without a situation, and more than that, the cathedral offers company, he thought, invites you to membership of a society; great men belong to it; martyrs have died for it; why not enter in, he thought, put this leather bag stuffed with pamphlets before an altar, a cross, the symbol of something which has soared beyond seeking and questing and knocking of words together and has become all spirit, disembodied, ghostly—why not enter in? he thought and while he hesitated out flew the aeroplane over Ludgate Circus.

Far be it from me to find fault with the late, great Virginia Woolf—the woman whose writing inspired my own mini-masterpiece, The Aftermath—but read those words again very carefully:

Then, while a seedy-looking nondescript man carrying a leather bag stood on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and hesitated, for within was what balm, how great a welcome, how many tombs with banners waving over them, tokens of victories not over armies, but over, he thought, that plaguy spirit of truth seeking which leaves me at present without a situation, and more than that, the cathedral offers company, he thought, invites you to membership of a society; great men belong to it; martyrs have died for it; why not enter in, he thought, put this leather bag stuffed with pamphlets before an altar, a cross, the symbol of something which has soared beyond seeking and questing and knocking of words together and has become all spirit, disembodied, ghostly—why not enter in? he thought and while he hesitated out flew the aeroplane over Ludgate Circus.

Do you see Mrs Woolf's utter howler, there? Her schoolgirl error, so to speak? The sort of mistake that, when realised, would almost compel any writer worth their salt to fill their pockets with stones and take a long walk into the nearest convenient river?

What do you mean, ‘No’?! IT'S STARING YOU IN THE FACE!

How can a ‘seedy-looking’ man possibly be ‘nondescript’? Nondescript means not distinctive enough to be described. But she's just described him: she said he was ‘seedy-looking’! Anyone who can be described as ‘seedy-looking’—or, indeed, as anything else—is, ipso facto, most definitely descript.

If I might make so bold, I think what Mrs Woolf meant to write was something along the lines of:

Then, while a seedy-looking, otherwise nondescript man carrying a leather bag stood on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and hesitated, for within was what balm, how great a welcome, how many tombs with banners waving over them, tokens of victories not over armies, but over, he thought, that plaguy spirit of truth seeking which leaves me at present without a situation, and more than that, the cathedral offers company, he thought, invites you to membership of a society; great men belong to it; martyrs have died for it; why not enter in, he thought, put this leather bag stuffed with pamphlets before an altar, a cross, the symbol of something which has soared beyond seeking and questing and knocking of words together and has become all spirit, disembodied, ghostly—why not enter in? he thought and while he hesitated out flew the aeroplane over Ludgate Circus.

(My emphasis added.)

Sloppy, Ginny! Sloppy!

 

I totally stole this joke from someone on Twitter:

BBC: Chinese author Mo Yan wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Finally Mo Yan is getting the recognition that he or she deserves!

Inexperienced heraldry

An inexperienced heraldist resembles a medieval traveler who brings back from the East the faunal fantasies influenced by the domestic bestiary he possessed all along rather than by the results of zoological exploration.
—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, Ch. 3

 
Discuss.

Rowling, Rowling, Rowling…

BBC: Betting opens on new Potter plot

Bets are being taken on whether boy wizard Harry Potter will die in the final instalment of the series - with his arch-enemy the predicted killer…

William Hill spokesman Rupert Adams said: "JK [Rowling] mentioned that Harry might be killed off and the general consensus seems to be that Harry is the final Horcrux and to ensure that Voldemort dies he will need to be sacrificed."

Close, but no Quidditch Cup, I think.

Ever since JK Rowling mentioned in an interview a couple of books back that she knew how the series would end, and that she had already decided the final book's final sentence, I have been sure that I knew what the ending would be. Those of you who do not want to know the result, please look away now. (To prevent accidental reading, I have cleverly encoded my prediction á la The Mirror of Erised.)

.em dna uoy ekil tsuj ,elggum dlo ,nialp a emoceb dna srewop yldraziw sih pu evig ot eb lliw ecifircas etamitlu sih tub ,tromedloV taefed deedni lliw rettoP yrraH

Remember, you heard it here first.

See also: Pottering