Where the Outlines Are Dim

Two thoughts have been circling through my mind all week, like that Buddhist's 'eternal loop' track. I am not trying to be trite when I use such references (everyone seems to want to appropriate such references today). I really had an 阿嬤 who listened to it when I was a child, hence the association, if adapted to a far shallower context here, though drawing on the mysticism of repetition and the consideration of important words. The first thought was the poet's comment about learning to "actually be an adult" in a world so distant from the ideals of youth; the second, a quotation that provoked the question of how one is supposed to cope with inclinations or needs if one lacks the appropriate training.
I do not know what I would do without books. Sometimes one's questions just cannot be met in one's immediate surroundings; sometimes, too, those who might be able to teach or guide do not, and for very understandable reasons, make themselves accessible. So many times I wish I could consult experts in the field, but perhaps the number of such people a person can reach is limited at any given time; perhaps, too, one has to make ultimate decisions about the most important questions one wants direct answers to. For example, one may choose the bigger-picture type of questions concerning the meaning of existence, which may teach one, for example, that the good word is more fruitful than a lesson taught to the unwilling. Such seems to be the constellation guiding Sir Arthur Helps, whose Cloister and Crowd is bringing me much relief, as I read it as slowly as I imagine his wooded walks proceeded, walks which provide the setting for his thoughts. Meaning - a word so many today equate with primacy, yet the Victorian writers whose works I read agree that the manifestation of this (good, ethical, wise) meaning may be adapted to the practical needs of the age. I admit my selection may be influenced by personal bias; but to be fair, who gets the final right to define the thought of an age - this question is also riddled by problems of whether one is to seek the answer through quantity or 'quality'. I do not think such questions are outdated.
But whether you believe in the good life or not, perhaps you are a musician who seeks to create through resonances with the lyre of the past. Are you authorized to access the past? Ideas are like race cars, not the vehicle of choice for the novice.
Helps considered the problem of the expert and original on viewing de Vinci's Last Supper in Milan, incidentally later marred in WWII and only restored recently after two decades' work: the outlines of forms from only half a millennium ago may dim that soon. Helps observes as we, too, may have noticed, that looking at a painting in person may give entirely different impressions than those afforded by viewing reproductions - whether because of scale, etc., or, as Helps remarks, the interferences of copyists.




"The copyist thought he could tell the story better than the painter, and where the outlines are dim, was not content to leave them so, but must insert something of his own which is clearly wrong. This I thought is the way of most translation, and I might add, of most portrait-painting and nearly all criticism. And it occurred to me that the written history of the world was very like the prints of this fresco namely, a clear account, a good deal of it utterly wrong, of what at first hand is considerably obliterated, and which, except in minds of the highest power of imagination, to be a clear conception can hardly be a just one." (62-3) He then considers what original narratives may face, and how those who do not possess the facility to see the divine in the original, misrepresent it.
There are thus repercussions for the work inspired by a misunderstood past. One may represent one part of the truth, but miss something perhaps even more valuable. Here we come to the idea of training. We may read here about who is deemed fit to write about works from the distant past: "He held that no one had the bona fides to write about ancient literature or thought until he had published at least one critical index verborum and a critical text 'from the ground up' of one Latin and of one Greek author." (William M. Calder III, "Nuda Veritas") Who would dispute this? We all know, like Helps observed, that to have closer access to the original increases one's perception.
Does this mean that until one has studied the past 'from the ground up' - like an artist who might, for example, repaint two masterpieces using tempera, on a dry wall if need be - one is to remain silent? Or perhaps we can just strip away what we do not know, make no claims to it, access only through the Muse. The Muse that assists in the construction of meaning in life.
In my free time, I try to learn Greek, and am seeing a little progress after having left Pharr, who I plan to return to, for Woodward and Pagos' homage to another teacher, Dr. J. F. Desmond, whose motive for teaching was to inspire. It is noted that their method does not dwell on the important details of the language, like the accents; however, it aims to enable the student to be able to read. Even if I learn to read more fluent works, I am still not qualified according to Calder to write about Greek works. The only way forward that I see is through getting advice from the more skilled - to read the experts, to try to see. The outlines are dim, but I remember from the translations I read of the Phaedrus that Socrates appealed to the Muses, embodied in the cicadas, who, if listened to in the right way could bestow wisdom.



Brush. Cicada from a 廣州 market.

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