Books

There was a period in adolescence when my growth was inhibited at one of my boarding schools, which I might illustrate best by my having received a blank stare (and more silence) by the librarian when I asked to be given a list of particularly edifying books. It was in college that I got this dream list (the point being that it contains books one has yet to discover) from one of my roommates. As I collected a few incipit thoughts before writing this post, I realised that it has been one of my life's ambitions to have a solid enough knowledge of great extant books that I would know where to look for certain ideas when the need for them arose. This probably makes me a kind of philosophical eclectic though not "woo woo" (a word I learned this week). I wonder about this difference sometimes, and think it lies in the presence of self-doubt, but also another mechanism lined with questioning: an attempted exploration that is not smoothly paved.
Exemplary of this approach, aside from Cicero and Seneca, is John Ruskin: he was classically inclined but also engaged with modernity. My favourite example of this includes where he compared the edifices built for the idol of "the goddess of [not everybody's but somebody's!] Getting-on" with the Athenian goddess of Wisdom. A pertinent illustration he gives is about how Athena's Gorgon and mantle represent the "chilling horror and sadness (turning men to stone, as it were,) of the outmost and superficial spheres of knowledge—that knowledge which separates, in bitterness, hardness, and sorrow, the heart of the full-grown man from the heart of the child. For out of imperfect knowledge spring terror, dissension, danger, and disdain; but from perfect knowledge ... strength and peace, in sign of which she is crowned with the olive spray, and bears the resistless spear." ("Traffic"). This is a good illustration of eclecticism vs. woo woo: discernment of consequences.
But I meander, and there is a set course for this post, which began with the dream list of books I got from a roommate in college. One of the books on this list was Philosophical Investigations, which I quickly acquired when I worked briefly at The Strand bookstore, where I got many other gems that I have since lost to circumstance and struggle to restore to memory.



The book is important if we are to talk about books because it demonstrates something important about words, namely, that meaning is gleaned from use, as opposed to the idea that words are essentially rooted in meaning. In some ways, Investigations is similar to Deleuze's paper on Plato and the Simulacrum, where he contrasts essence with appearance, originals with copies, model and simulacrum.
To be or feel removed from essence, does it mean that it is not there? What if the use of the word essence is consistently corrupted by the circles of people one is surrounded by? Isn't looking for essence also dangerous because in the hall of mirrors of use, there is so much deception?
If some words are symbols using iconic augmentation to gather together a hierarchy of metaphors that together constitute meaning, one may never be sure that one has pinned down their meaning during a lifetime. I am thinking now of words like love.
"We are only with the help of recent investigation beginning to penetrate the depth of meaning couched under the Athenaic symbols" Ruskin writes in "Traffic".
To use Bakhtinian words, we could say that we are talking here about centripital vs. centrifugal meanings. But now I will complicate things and say that for ecclecticism, it is not enough only to journey inwards, because of those times when one might have the word, like accord, but be lacking relevant explanation of how to realise it.
To complicate things further, the conventions of use hinder one on the quest, because knowing another essence does not release one from the obligations of Ps and Qs.
Which is a funny phrase to use now, in today's age, because, ostensibly, standards are being obliterated and the law of use, which can turn into relativity, is supreme. And where there is no essence, there will be no coherent wholes.


Which brings this post to its final note: fragmented fiction. Jazz critic and music historian Ted Gioia has gathered some interesting comments on the form. And who better to understand fragmented literature than one versed in jazz? We note here that the secret to jazz is in the standard, and the beauty of solos to return to a melody/rhythm with the rest of the band. But we may prefer to reflect on the solo and the fact that the melody is, after all, cut up.
Once upon a time, during the summers at the backwater boarding school I attended, I used to sneak into a jazz club between sets, when non-conoisseurs would have abandonned their expensive tables. It sounds hackneyed to say that the music spoke to aspects of my experience. So I'll write that it was for me a tiny hall of mirrors of use. We want to see ourselves, our surroundings, reflected back at us: "[our] railroad mounds, prolonged masses of Acropolis; [our] railroad stations, vaster than the Parthenon, and innumerable; [our] chimneys, how much more mighty and costly than cathedral spires! [our] harbour-piers; [our] warehouses; [our] exchanges!—all these are built to [our] great Goddess of 'Getting-on;'" ("Traffic"). New things keep getting added to this list, so imagine how long it will take to tire of those complex fragments, before they become puzzle pieces.
Adding to the complication of fragments is that they masquerade as holistic wisdom. One of my favourite parts of Gioia's "Fractious Fiction" is where he talks about Wittgenstein's Tractatus: "If fragmentation were more than just a game storytellers played and could actually stake a claim for its superior grasp of reality, then Wittgenstein was the prophet and systematizer who provided a philosophy to complement the fractured narratives of the postmodern novelists."
What is at stake is a grasp of reality. Even essence has a stake in it, though it moves beneath its surface. Lives can be lost due to a single poor interpretation.
While eclecticists value use (i. e. concrete example), they also value books for pointing to something that cannot always be readily seen. And as it is impossible, and superficial, to inhabit the invisible (i.e. abstract essence), the point here has to do with harmonising (i. e. the golden mean). Where the use that surrounds us will be limited whether because of epoch, social status, circumstance, books can extend beyond. Except, because things are complex, some books curtail. More important than books is the reader. This post was written in response to today's prompt for an August Break.

Book in background: Francois Boucher's 10,000 Years of Fashion
Brush: foliage by Creature Comforts.

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