In Praise of Solitude: Stachelschweine in der Kälte

Perhaps you ‘ve heard of Schopenhauer’s cold porcupine/hedgehog dilemma.  Therein the poor creatures, analogous to we shivering masses — in need of what society has to offer, huddle together for warmth.  Of course, the pricks of proximity drive them again away from one another and so an equilibrium is reached where both cold and pricking are minimised.  My reading of Schopenhauer finds the negative qualities given central roles — we do not find a good in society as good is merely the absence of bad, happiness the absence of suffering.  And so, as the title Studies in Pessimism should warn the reader, goodness’ solidity is no match for the harshness of its more effective counterpart.

Having heard the parable before, I was surprised to find his intended point: not that it is best to find this equilibrium, but it is best to have an internal source of heat.  What interests is the non-hopeful idealism this elicits, in myself at least.  The goings-on of these pigs-with-spikes is of little immediate interest — it is to the pig of a different sort Schopenhauer beckons.

Ordinary people are sociable and complaisant just from the very opposite feeling;—to bear others’ company is easier for them than to bear their own…

…people are rendered sociable by their ability to endure solitude, that is to say, their own society.  

Our Relation to Ourselves

Here too he goes on to discuss people crowding together for warmth and to aver that this sociability which develops is not worth the condescension imposed on this singular person.  “It may be said that a man’s sociability stands very nearly in inverse ratio to his intellectual value.”



Not so long ago, I would have agreed.  I still wish to uphold the value of a cultivated solitude (for in a noisy, inter-networked world maintaining the state necessary for concentration is no small feat), but it must also be helpful to some portion of the others.  It is not acceptable only to be a man apart, capable of self-produced warmth but not of diffusing such heat.  In such a state the good which might be attained is lost — bottled up inside the (perhaps) happy but incommunicable soul.  It is not enough that Socrates pursued the true path if the markers left behind cannot be followed.  Surely not all (likely most) society is worthy of our time, but the good must be communicated else no lasting progress be effected.

In sum, solitude is not merely a worthy pastime and a potential joy but its benefits are insufferable if they are to never be offered (in some adjusted socialisation) to others who shiver as well.

Noise – Noxia – Nausea

Engulfed.  A sea of noise drowns out all competitors and so plunges thoughts below the surface.  Be carried by the current or struggle against it at your peril.

My wife won’t stand for commercials.  They grate on her classically trained ears.  I feel my best chance of returning to the ‘sunlit lands’ above the waves is to ignore them.

We each have cultivated sensitivities which require focus, and focus must be protected.  As Schopenhauer relates, a diamond divided into shards loses all value.  So too with thought or the serenity which accompanies its careful manifestations.

The city is no friend of the sound-sensitive, or smell- or sight-sensitive for that matter, but we are on the subject of sound.  For Schopenhauer, it was the heedless and unceasing cracking of whips — a sound which paralyses the brain.  Its current counterpart would be the car-horn: counterintuitively it demands another go when the sound screams halt.  And so it has not the desired effect, resulting in a chorus of replying honks.  Or, an incomprehensible blaring of directions must be shouted at us until the warning it is meant to deliver is blocked out with all other such noisea.

As a teacher I have well marked that my best chance of regaining control of the classroom is not to shout over the students, but to grow quieter and firmly signal my intent to speak.  A nudge effects more than a shove, unless we are living in a world of shoves.


But thought, if it is to be fruitful and worthy of discourse, must be checked and re-checked.  New pathways must be explored and old ones unearthed.  Most cultural output is too ready to speak and shows it has not listened.  It cannot listen for it is merely shouting over the din and so becoming part of this oceanic violence.

Getting our attention for a fraction of a moment is considered just cause for violating our peace.  My thought and your thought is not worth protecting when profit is to be made.  It is everyone’s job to entertain us long enough to be marketed to.

But books are little better.  Publishers, academic or otherwise, are less interested in the value of their product and its usefulness to the audience than in making a profit despite technological challenges.

That which is most helpful often is whispered, not shouted, and for the listener ear and ground must draw closer.  But so long as profit is to be made from noise it must remain the primary occupation of thinkers to escape long enough to produce something.

If you have misunderstood me

It is so much the easier for me to accept your mis-statements if I assume they betray some underlying misunderstanding.

It would be so much easier for you to helpfully locate my responses if you realize I am responding to the ways in which I believe you have misunderstood me.

Considerable stress ensues if one of us insists ‘no, I have understood you’ for asserting I nearly understand you engenders no power-language, but insisting on my understanding limits your ability to speak on your own account. Now we both are to wrestle for the same ground — and presumably the ground ought to be yours first.

In this our usage more closely relates to epistamai in Greek or oferstandan from Old English wherein our piecing together stands upon this (cf., maintained by D. Harper).  The word picture is of a conqueror, not of a partner in discourse.

How better to dismiss another than with the words I understand?  To do such is to disinherit the other’s power of commanding her own words.

But if I assume we are wielding two competing misunderstandings, the bugle call to unending allegiance to what I probably did not intend dies away in favor of a chance to listen to you — to listen without immediate concerns of power.  We should become accustomed to the body postures which accompany the most harmful of misunderstandings — the shoulders of dismissal and the accompanying upturned lips along with the spinal tilt of self-rectitude and compare these with the relaxed focus necessary to give any worthy other a hearing.

Of course hearing is more difficult than non-hearing.  A ready mind must readily dismiss more than it accepts and so many misunderstandings may persist.  The commitment, daily, should be to unstop the ears quickly and with it to un-tense the neck so a positive misunderstanding might be attained.

Narrare — Relating

“…and he never returned.”

A number of scenes arrange themselves, quietly seeking an attending to.  Tonight they are places I have once visited and largely forgotten since.  More than one of these are churches — a place I should prefer some invisibility — inviting enough though sure to prove their humanity with a little provocation.  In all ways it surprises me when I return to such a place; it feels a sacrifice of my intrapersonality.  Few thoughts could drive me further than ‘it seems a modest sort of place I could see myself returning to’.

It seems the one thing in common to places he never returned to — they were too easy to find.

A few other instances would be parties, but these are far less frequent for me.  Having one or two ‘deep’ conversations with another is verging on what matches this narrative.

Are these ghosts of a self I was trying to be?  Are they much different from interviews for jobs or similar enquiries?  It feels there is some mirroring going on — an exercise in the intrapersonal.  Not merely being ‘I’ but very much feeling the incongruities of summing up and pretending some coherent unity.  It is in conversing with new persons that we are offered the chance to meet with ourselves — to examine our impulses.

I can say little for why I have ever gone back to a place.  Many times I might describe the pull as interpersonally motivated.  It is the move from ‘could’ to ‘do’ whose causality is least explicable to myself.  The mirroring does not stop — it continues to question, and therefore relate, to itself — at least insofar as it is even a unity.  Even this seems a form of re-turning: turning back in until finally there is a going-out.

That seems the gap between the action pondered and its enacted non-relative, for the thing done and the thing not done are cousins in thought only.



He should have stopped there.  In fact, in many ways he did.

I realise self-talk is a normal thing — perhaps a normal thing grossly distorted in sleep or when this filtering mechanism is mis-trained or damaged.  I can’t recall not generating (or experiencing the generation of) these sort of odd narratives.  I say odd because they re-sort and ‘fix their grammar’ or tamper with memories.  Locating what prompts their change is difficult, but I ‘ll attempt considering it as self-protection in the form of ‘hearing oneself’.

Perhaps it develops as a largely defensive framework for conversing; I feel least lonely often when I am least conscious of its back-bringing.  Those are the moments when conversations or thoughts or actions shine brightest — when we are least aware of any underlying items.  There is simply the natural interrelatedness.  But self-talk is not to be despised — it can surely be trained.  I think it is through this that I attempt to hear myself, for I am most shocked when I discover some information lacking in my internal dialogues.  ‘Oh, is that how you say it?’


Now comes the part of interest — how do you experience this?  For I experience you as part of this intrapersonality as well — the interpersonal is more of an ideal or a practice (and better a practice).  It is only by continually meeting, and being surprised at what confounds my expectations that the proper disjunction is maintained.  That is, in misunderstanding you I misunderstand myself and the way by which you misunderstand me is also a self-misunderstanding.  You should get that checked… or…

Genealogically Misingenuous ~ on Wordsmithery and Plagiary

Life is spent in learning the meaning of great
words, so that some idle proverb, known for years and accepted
perhaps as a truism, comes home, on a day, like a blow.

Style (1897), Walter Raleigh

At the outset we should be clear in the goal.  There ‘s no graduation in learning, only maturation in fullness or, conversely, desiccation and decay.

Another tale of plagiarism un-covered.  Another.  Yet another.  The cycle won’t soon end.  Oh, it could be ended.  Simply.  Either give up vilifying dis-covered cases, hence admitting most writing is n’t worth being read, or re-move the titling and benefits of publishing.

But that is n’t what we want to hear.  Instead, we want academic members to prove their abilities by publishing and so most provide worthless, unreadable literature.  What else could we expect?  But this is n’t the only carrot rewarding the well-published; status and money are packed in.

Can’t they just be honest?  I hope you can answer that for yourself.  Of course many are, but truthfulness is either self-rewarding or slow-to-answer.

The best quotations, the best translations, the best
thefts, are all equally new and original works. From quotation, at least, there is no escape,
inasmuch as we learn language from others.  All common phrases that do the dirty work of the world are quotations – poor things, and not our own.

Raleigh, Style

Raleigh’s point rings clear: we learn by imitation.  ‘Common knowledge’ is merely knowledge we can no longer recall the source for.  We ‘ve all forgotten where we placed it.

What makes a quotation good or bad?  The quality of our appropriation.  But poor writing is not ignored, not if the right strings are pulled.  But instead of recognising that the best authors steal well, our concerns are for protection of intellectual property.

I have no idea what those words mean.

Communication necessarily requires an attempt to speak to another.  There ‘s a releasing which is part of writing.  At some point you let it go.  The best authors are recognised consistently, according to T.S. Eliot’s “Philip Massinger”, by the quality of their imitation.

What do they do with it?  Simply, (via Nancy Prager’s ‘Good Poets Borrow, Great Poets Steal…’)

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

Eliot, T.S., “Philip Massinger,” The Sacred Wood, New York:,   2000.

as cited by Ms Prager in her ‘Good Poets Borrow, Great Poets Steal…’

I believe Thoreau, in ‘Walden’, remarked that poets are ever stealing the sunset, regardless of who holds the deed of property.  Their plagiarism could be followed, but what does their smithery evoke?

Is n’t that the real question?  If you ‘ve tracked from my appropriation of Raleigh, the use is more important than the theft.

Again: “Quotations, conscious or unconscious, vary in kind according as the mind is active to work upon them and make them its own (Raleigh, Style).”

And finally,

Plagiarism is a crime only where writing is a trade; expression need never be bound by the law of copyright while it follows thought, for thought, as some great thinker has observed, is free.  The words were once Shakespeare’s; if only you can feel them as he did, they are yours no less than his.
Raleigh, Style

That ‘s where I have to lay my allegiance.  Simply by using words, you submit their appropriation to the other.  Wrestle over intellectual property so long as you wish, would n’t you be better wrestling over the proverbs and re-crafting your own ineloquencies by attempting to dis-cover and say something worth remembering.

For these words of Raleigh still resonate:

But writing cannot be luminous and great save
in the hands of those whose words are their own by the indefeasible title of conquest.

Towards an Orderly Mis-Education

[Rejecting Perfection

Alright, well that ‘s done.  That is, until I have to undergo another teacher observation or experience one of those awkward moments where I really feel I ought to be able to show exactly how my teaching is best.

Honestly (can you ever be sure in this blog?) I learned how to grow without a set ideal long ago — perhaps many still need them, but I hope not for long.  Of course improving is about setting goals, getting close enough to see how close you came and whether it was worth the effort… and resetting new goals.  The ‘perfect teacher’ is a way to keep the confidence deficient below ground and, more often, a self-justificating mechanism for the teacher-centred teacher.

[Shifting the Core

“We need to be provoked….It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure — if they are indeed so well off — to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives. Shall the world be confined to one Paris or one Oxford forever?”

— H.D. Thoreau, Walden “Reading”

I hope not.

I see the primary goal of the teacher to be un-educating the students (and they often need this).  This is no less true in my English skills classes than in maths courses.  Why?  Simply, knowledge is a moving target.  To mis-purpose a borrowed metaphor from Peter Elbow, writing (which is a means of communicating and re-purposing knowledge anyway) is like trying to hold onto Proteus in the midst of his shifting.

Having cleared, or actually perpetually clearing and finally teaching the students to clear away for themselves, the teacher ought to present opportunities for students to reach out and learn.  Creating experiences which are as near as possible to those truly encountered is my primary teaching goal (although I reserve the right to change this later).

[Who’s responsible?

Oh right, and if student-centred learning is to be the way, students have to be made responsible for their learning.  Thoreau let loose an image which still breathes in my mind: students do n’t care about school because it was already built for them.  Instead they need to take part in the building of the school.

In fact, a school should be perpetually built (one could argue that this is the case due to entropy and narcissism anyway, or in many cases elitism).  If knowledge is ever changing, should n’t its pursuers shift with it?  As such, it certainly can’t invest in merely a few teachers, but learners ought to congregate.  Hence we may have our villages at last — but we may be fewer than hoped.