To Sit, Perchance to Write

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

If I haven’t seemed very industrious lately it’s because I can’t sit. And if I can’t sit, I can’t very well write. It’s a pinched nerve, and I’m hoping it will pass soon.

Like Harvey Korman’s character in Blazing Saddles, though, my mind remains a rivulet of dazzling ideas; it’s just become temporarily hard for me to bring them to you.

In fact I have more to write about than I could contemplate even in perfect health. I’d like to review the execrable When It Was Dark, by Guy Thorne, a man who actually looks like what he was–a drunken toad. Victor Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness is a fascinating study of how the Nazis’ offensively stupid lies of 1933 somehow became Germany’s accepted political consensus by 1939 and dragged all of Europe into the most ruinous war in history, but why should we be dogged by this kind of rehashing of old business?

I had outlined a review of The Field of Fight, a tract that caws and screeches to life Mike Flynn’s delusional worldview. History, though, seems to be discrediting the first-he-wasn’t-then-he-was foreign agent faster than your humble reviewer can, so it is probably best just to let his book fade into a well-earned ignominy.

At the top of my list, though, I hope to write very soon about the unexpected celebrity of my own arcane profession, epistemology. Episte-what? Epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Briefly, it is a 2,500 year-old meditation, still ongoing, on the concept of knowledge. For a long time it has been one of those things to which the brochures of university philosophy departments pay bland or backhanded compliments (It sparks critical thinking, prepares the mind for the study of law, etc.), but now it seems to have become important. Our experiment in post-truth politics has, in a sense, made armchair epistemologists of us all. And since we seem to be courting “principles” that contend mightily with the basics of epistemology–that things can be true or false, that people can know or not know things–I thought some reflections on this topic might scratch a growing itch. Coming soon, I hope.

Conrad
Joseph Conrad, sitting

In the meantime, I leave you with this luminous passage from Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line. Like Martin Amis, who quoted it at the end of his book on 9/11, The Second Plane, I tend to think that the worst cases of our reactionism spring from the supernatural idea that what we have is a tawdry substitute for what is to come, or what is really out there. Isn’t all this as magical a thing as we can contemplate? Aren’t we already glutted when we demand more?

All my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is—marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.

 

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