Everything You Know Is Wrong.

As I suggested here, I’ve started Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, and I confess that so far I’m underwhelmed; he has interesting things to say, but as I wrote at Tom’s site: “I’m not nearly as interested in the apocalypse as he is — I mean, it’s an interesting concept that has been important to some writers, but he seems to me to be greatly exaggerating its importance to literature in general.” He also is far more interested in Robbe-Grillet than pretty much anybody has been in the last few decades, a peril of trying to deal with contemporary literature. But it’s interesting enough to carry me along, and now that I’ve gotten to chapter 2, I thought I’d quote the epigraphs (every chapter has its set of epigraphs) and make a few comments:

What can be thought must certainly be a fiction.

…the nicer knowledge of
Belief, that what it believes in is not true.
      Wallace Stevens

Who can deny that things to come are not yet?
Yet already there is in the mind an expectation
of things to come.
      St. Augustine

C’est par l’effort et le désir que nous avons fait connaissance avec le temps; nous gardons l’habitude d’estimer le temps selon nos désirs, nos efforts, notre volonté propre.
      Guyau, La genèse de l’idée de temps [My edition has the incorrect “Le genèse”; I don’t know whether the fault is Kermode’s or the publisher’s.]

The idea implied by the first two quotes has long fascinated me; perhaps the canonical expression in my head is the quote from the immortal Firesign Theatre that I have used as my post title. But I have questions. Why is Guyau (Jean-Marie Guyau, who sounds like a very interesting fellow — any friend of Kropotkin’s is a friend of mine — and about whom I am glad to learn) given in the original French, while Nietzsche and Augustine are in translation? (Nietzsche’s original is “was gedacht werden kann, muß sicherlich eine Fiktion sein”; Augustine’s is “quis igitur negat futura nondum esse? sed tamen iam est in animo expectatio futurorum.”) And why is so parsimonious a snippet of Stevens provided that you can’t make out what he’s saying? (It’s from section III of “The Pure Good of Theory”: “Yet to speak of the whole world as metaphor/ Is still to stick to the contents of the mind// And the desire to believe in a metaphor./ It is to stick to the nicer knowledge of/ Belief…”) At any rate, here are a couple of suggestive snippets from the chapter:

Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent. Myths make sense in terms of a lost order of time, illud tempus as Eliade calls it; fictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now, hoc tempus.
. . .

So my suggestion is that literary fictions belong to Vaihinger’s category of ‘the consciously false.’ They are not subject, like hypotheses, to proof or disconfirmation, only, if they come to lose their operational effectiveness, to neglect. They are then thrown, in Stevens’s figure, on to the ‘dump’—’to sit among mattresses of the dead.’ In this they resemble the fictions of science, mathematics, and law, and differ from those of theology only because religious fictions are harder to free from the mythical ‘deposit.’ […]
If we forget that fictions are fictive we regress to myth (as when the Neo-Platonists forgot the fictiveness of Plato’s fictions and Professor Frye forgets the fictiveness of all fictions).

Nice zinger at the end there, though I have no idea what passage of Frye’s is being zinged. Tom’s last two posts, by the way, are here and here; he says “Please come back in early November for more literary criticism, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which will, I hope, be over my head in different ways than The Sense of an Ending.”


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Everything you know is wrong.

    Without a doubt. Including this …

  2. Stu Clayton says

    What woozly peacock-tail-spreading. Thanks for the heads-down on Kermode ! I always like to know when I’m not missing anything.

  3. Stu Clayton says

    And yet here I am slogging through Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt, searching for crusts of bread in the Husserl and Bergson discussions (along the lines of your Augustine quote). Before that I found a few raisins in Whitehead porridge. The life of an intellectual is no tea party, unless we count the one thrown by the Hatter and the Hare.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    More erudition:

    # Mercury was used in the manufacturing of felt hats during the 19th century, causing a high rate of mercury poisoning among those working in the hat industry.[1] Mercury poisoning causes neurological damage, including slurred speech, memory loss, and tremors, which led to the phrase “mad as a hatter”.[1] #

  5. “Why is Guyau … given in the original French”
    At one time it was fairly common in English books to leave French in the original while translating other languages – the idea being that all educated English people would of course have a reading knowledge of French.

  6. An early draft of this post was briefly visible a while back. It was not complete, and I thought that my browser had not loaded it correctly. So I hit reload, and the post was gone. In light of the title and some of the quotes, it seemed eerily fitting.

  7. the idea being that all educated English people would of course have a reading knowledge of French.

    True, but these were originally given as lectures at Bryn Mawr. Of course, it’s possible they were revised for publication and larded with French quotes.

    An early draft of this post was briefly visible a while back.

    Very odd! I’m always afraid of prematurely hitting “Post,” but I don’t think that happened. But maybe it did; after all, everything I know is wrong.

  8. John Cowan says

    I once criticized Michael Everson for leaving French and German quotations in one of his papers in the original language only, while translating the English ones. My tongue was in my cheek, of course, since the “English quotations” were in Old English.

    I now note a tendency to either present the quotation in the original with a translation in a footnote, or else the other way around.

  9. I wonder how many scholars of myth today would agree that myths are agents of stability that call for absolute assent. At least in the Greco-Roman world every myth seems to have existed in numerous contradictory versions, not to mention that you could make up your own myths on an as-needed basis (as Plato did). A myth is not necessarily some timeless monolithic dogma.

  10. Stu Clayton says

    A myth is as good as a wile.

  11. the idea being that all educated English people would of course have a reading knowledge of French.

    Wouldn’t they also be expected to know Latin?

  12. Stu Clayton says

    Luhmann’s practice was to put quotes in footnotes, in the original languages with nary a translation. These were English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Latin – in whatever form they had over the centuries. So you got medieval Spanish, Latin and Italian, along with 17C French.

    I find this bracing. I have almost no trouble understanding any of the quotes. I suspect Luhmann selected them for this property. He never quotes murky mutterings of the kind Kermode apparently prefers, but only plaintext in evidence of his analysis. I know of no other writer with such clarity of presentation.

  13. “A myth is as good as am I”, as the bush said to Moses

  14. Unrelated, but has anyone come across this kind of kibble:

    I picked up a fist-sized lump of rock, gritty, zebra-striped, kibbled with crystals. Lewisian gneiss.


    (+rickle of stones)

    To his left stood a concrete bench, its surface kibbled with small brown stones.

    The horse was thin as a slice of toast, kibbled with botfly bites and missing one shoe.

    Cut the cream cheese into small chunks and add them to the egg mixture, beating after each chunk so the mixture will look “kibbled” with little bits of cream cheese floating in it.

  15. Trond Engen says

    Myths combine the semblance of eternal truth with a tenacity in moral and message. They are constantly reinterpreted and reimagined to fit the everchanging needs in society. A version or an interpretation of a myth shouldn’t be separated from the message it’s meant to convey and who are in control of that message. Much like a constitution, come to think of it.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    And a political platform. And a sitcom. There’s not much to choose between The Cave and Leave It To Beaver.

  17. This is quite wrong. As Greek philosophy teaches us, it is impossible to know something. You can have an opinion, it can be a good and well-grounded opinion, but the true knowledge is an eternal and absolute thing and is quite impossible. Socrates was a self-important fool for thinking that he knows that he knows nothing. How could he know that? Maybe he knew something without knowing it.

    Now, do I get quoted in the epigraphs of intellectual books?

  18. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Luhmann’s practice was to put quotes in footnotes,

    That would be Niklaus Luhmann, I suppose. I haven’t been impressed with his attempts to apply autopoietic ideas to questions of society, and still less with the vacuous statements of his followers.

    Die Gesellschaft ist ein autopoietisches System auf der Basis von sinnhafter Kommunikation. Sie besteht aus Kommunikationen, sie besteht nur aus Kommunikationen, sie besteht aus allen Kommunikationen. Sie reproduziert Kommunikation durch Kommunikation…. Gesellschaft ist also ein geschlossenes und ein offenes System zugleich, und Kommunikation ist die Form der elementaren Operation, die diese Kombination laufend leistet und reproduziert.

    Society is an autopoietic system based on meaningful communication. It consists of communications, it consists only of communications, it consists of all communications. It reproduces communication through communication…. Society is therefore a closed and an open system at the same time, and communication is the form of the elementary operation that constantly makes this combination and reproduces it. (My translation, with a great deal of help from a German colleague.)

    However, that is truly insightful compared with what you can find at http://web.sfc.keio.ac.jp/iba/papers/2008JJNAMS08-ecosystem.pdf`

  19. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    For a truly erudite author, who assumed that his readers could cope with untranslated Latin, Greek, French and occasionally Italian and Spanish, try d’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (On Growth and Form). Curiously though, I don’t think he expected his readers to know German.

    Among his many accomplishments, he was a Professor of Mathematics, and included some fairly simple mathematics in his book. Luhmann, on the other hand, included no equations at all in his book, though it could have done with some.

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