Not Till We Are Lost

Not till we are lost, in other words, till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

~~H.D. Thoreau, Walden ‘the Village’, p. 115 (Norton ed.)

All ways it surprises me how one reading leads to another.  I am reduced, though it is my gain, to admit that in being lost one becomes more intimately aware of relations, if not relatedness itself (how such should ascend the stage would be quite the imponderable — how to raise the curtain which by nature connects all to itself?).

The best Wiki could offer

Is n’t being lost amidst a sea of pages similar to being lost amidst the calm of wintering trees?

But I am reduced in conveying the value of ‘lostness’.  How can an example be helpful if the experience itself is paramount?  Let it be understood I mean less to point at than to indicate; it is merely ironic that I should at last find an acquaintance with S. Cavell only after being dis-covered 9for all reading is being read — an idea I believe I am borrowing from Cavell here9 to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

In reading one can hardly help multiplying ‘relations’ as I believe Thoreau would have them.


For Thoreau ‘reading’ in such manner is seeing everything in the light of being darkened to the world which sets its watch by the locomotive and is employed not in living but in holding onto what scraps of life are allowed — turning away from that enslaving which is ownership so that the ‘read’er may find life in its sport rather than be made sport of as life runs past:

[L]et not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport.  Enjoy the land, but own it not.

~~ibidem “Baker Farm” p. 139

The path to such reading can only be seen if one has ‘been turned round once in this world’ (p. 115).  To find oneself can only come by means of being lost.  Till then, till one is lost and finds that she is everywhere at home — till then sight must be sought.  And that is reading in its truest form.

My reading of Wittgenstein has led through Cavell and into Walden all too naturally, but it is only because I am growing used to the lost element in reading that I find them such near relations.


the why of non-reading and why i’m still a mediocre non-reader

Not sure I ‘d ever find the exit again

Been thinking a lot about reading lately — mostly as I ‘ve not been able to do much of the reading I wish to.  I tend to go a little crazy in-between reads, but then there’s a certain craze always in my process as a reader.  Theoretically, or imaginatively, I intuit that there is no reading without purpose.  Sadly, my purpose is occasionally only to say that I have read.  But what does that mean?


What I think I think about reading~


How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read gave me a few categories for non-reading which help me think about reading more clearly.  The vast majority of what we read fades into the recesses of memory — often to unrecognizable forms.  They become part of our ‘screen books’ in which our readings serve our own purposes.  I try to be honest — most of my ‘author’ial citations are for the purposes of establishing my own view’s authority.  Author-authority — I ‘m engaging in some measure of an argument from authority when I cite my interpretation of X.

And our society engages in a goodly measure of this activity.  It even leads to pseudepigraphal (mis)attributions which are patently false.  C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, Einstein, Sherlock Holmes (‘elementary my Dear Watson’), St. Francis of Assisi (‘Preach the gospel always and, if necessary, use words’), Marie Antoinette (‘Let them eat cake’…was Rousseau and quite possibly speaking of another dignitary), or (of course) Mark Twain.  Why then is this the case?  The best I can offer is that if we hear an idea, and it sounds particularly appealing, we are most willing to accept its authority if we can find a suitable authorial source.

listen to him


One of my favorite authors says, more or less, that we ought to affirm an idea based on its truth rather than based on its source and reject an idea for its untruth by the same measure.  You can see that I ‘m not willing to let the author go, but I am willing to affirm that we are the active agents in discourse — we are the ones expressing our sentiments and seeking to show their solidity.  I recommend three items (you might suggest your own) as I have struggled with this thought:

  1. thoroughly consider why you think this is a helpful concept (so examine thineself)
  2. if you can’t find the source (in an actual book or article), let it stand on its own
  3. before filling out the citation line, give pause one last time to see whose purpose you ‘re serving by attributing this author’s voice to this idea


See, there ‘s some problem in that we limit authors to a certain location in our discourse as a society.  They occupy this space and no other.  E.g., it is shocking to some evangelicals how un-evangelical C.S. Lewis really is.  Or, Bertrand Russell is afforded a certain role as a genius.  This may be the case, but I personally have n’t found his works helpful or challenging toward helpful ends.  If the author is n’t given a chance to surprise us, as real people so often do, we are treating them as points on a spectrum (and stationary points at that) and they are less likely to rock us off our base/to challenge our pre-supposed view of reality.  Therefore, we have to be careful to allow the writer to be the author to some extent — let her or his words speak in this space and interact with them in that space (even challenge why they chose this space).

It is in this sense that we too ought to approach reading as authors.  Reading should not be a passive activity, for then it is only an act of memory.  We should instead be able to not only interact but interact critically with those whom we read.  Such an approach does justice to the fact that we are operating in discourse as well.  Otherwise we too fade away as the reading passes into inaccessible memories.


~What my reading actually looks like


But further, my external philosophy of reading conflicts with my motivations as a reader.  I want to do justice to the author, but I ‘m also looking for thoughts I can use.  Even though large portions of the book won’t prove useful, I still hold onto this fear that I ‘ll miss something important if I do n’t read every word.  While I know that I will remember impressions rather than words, I still find myself racing through pages in the interest of saying that I have ‘read’ this work.  For reading is the means by which I establish myself as an authoritative critic.

As I suggested, I give the author a chance to surprise me; but too often I judge myself as a reader based on whether I have completed every page (and forgotten its contents) rather than what thoughts I have gleaned and meditated fruitfully upon.  The latter are the very purpose for which I read, but I still fall into the trap of reading for completion.  The quantitative overrides the qualitative and I ‘m left with another forgotten book and not enough to say.

Am I reading to say I have read, or to encounter ideas and be changed by them?  This has rightly bothered me in the last few weeks, but I ‘m not sure I ‘ve come much closer to any form of an answer.  I can only say that I am better aware of some mis-purposes my reading may serve and that I wish to continue reading despite this.


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…or I shalt be subjected to conflagration

Sources for misattributed quotes:

  • some famous ensamples:
  • egregious and harmful examples:
  • Wiki’s offering (everything from minor errors to major blunders; I ‘m most interested in those which fit the category of mis-attribution because this calls into question the relation of assertion and the authority of the asserter):
    • I could n’t find examples I was thoroughly satisfied with here.  Perhaps you, as the critical reader, can provide help in this matter.  I ‘m looking for anything relating to what it says about a society when misattribution is evidenced.
    • case study of something C.S. Lewis did not and almost certainly would not have said:

On Non-reading:

A fellow addict: (reminds me of the sad priest in Les Miserables who I commiserated with as he sold his last tomes…but then Les Mis was an extended series of miseries)

Intros to European Philosophy: Spinoza

BARUCH SPINOZA (1632-1677)

Previously read: zilch

Key texts: Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order and Theologico-Political Treatise

Overall impression: Spinoza is perhaps what I expected Hegel to sound like.  Spinoza was one of the most difficult reads in this series of introductions (in European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley) and I’m not sure I slowed down enough to grab much from him.  It was interesting later to see how Hegel (mis?)appropriated him.  But as for Spinoza himself, the man had his own system (Geometrical Ethics…?!) which I couldn’t do much with, nor am I sure that I wish to.  It’s too…self-referential, I suppose for my taste.  Still, I’ll be interested to read of other appropriations of Spinoza later as his influence was largely unknown to me before.

Surprises: how many times one person can speak of ‘substance’ without me ascertaining his meaning fully.  Are we speaking of some acosmist non-world in which God alone exists as substance and nothing else in any meaningful way exists? 

Regardless, these are what jumped out at me:

  • He denied both intellect and will as pertaining to God’s nature (European Philosophers, pp. 154-155).  It’s not so surprising, but it’s problematic for me.  What’s the point of asserting that God exists if He doesn’t will?  It also seems incompatible with any Christian or Muslim faith-expression.  But this relates to my studies in Avicenna and Al-Ghazali (and I’m still trying to get a good grip on these).
  • Oh right, and he’s immutable — does n’t change in any meaningful way (ibidem, p. 157).  Difficult to reconcile with a God who acts in history, though its reiterated as gospel by many uncritically.

“There will now be need of many words to show that Nature has set no end before herself, and that all final causes are nothing but human fictions. (p. 166)”  from Ethics

“The second objection I answer by denying that we have free power of suspending judgment.  For when we say that a person suspends judgment, we only say in other words that he sees that he does not perceive the thing adequately.  The suspension of judgment, therefore, is in truth a perception and not free will. (p. 185)”

‘The Fantastic Imagination’ by George MacDonald

After speaking of those laws which must be most strictly adhered to in any world authorially constructed, which MacDonald asserts that contradictions to the constructed laws will cause the world to evaporate and that, as writing cannot help having a meaning, it should not violate moral consistency either by calling good a character who does bad things.  In this manner, we are made to understand

“[I]f it have proportion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.”

~The Fantastic Imagination (1893) by George MacDonald accessed here

Laws, even inverted physical or metaphysical laws, provide a space which may offer vitality.  Perhaps we should think of something being ‘true to life’ in order to grasp what MacDonald might mean by “vitality is truth” or perhaps I have n’t grasped his meaning at all.  Regardless, however, for the time I am pleased to consider such a thought (and to be guided to a better one should it present itself).

It reminds me of a time I attempted to defend the notion of truth as a person contra my fellow speaking of truth solely as correspondence.  In his definition, ‘true to life’ meant that it was true to some overarching laws we might never be able to perceive truly (though he would assert, I think, that we know a good deal already – it is the denial of this which betrays weakness of stomach for him) but I can’t let the matter go so easily.

Truth is not a thing to be had in such a manner, but that which some chase while others abandon all hope of ever turning up the trail again.  Perhaps it is not so elusive, but truth is at least that which is acceptable within our discourse (and so it lives as our stumbling words enable it to) and I think it goes beyond that as some persons are wholly incapable of being summed within our discourse well.  Chief of these is, for my faith, Christ who seemed interested in showing the untruthfulness/deceitfulness of the hearts of many (coupled with the offer to then come follow).  But the healing movement was not to agree to his underlying principles, it was to ‘go and sin no more’ – to be a follower in the truest sense, the living one.

My own considerations have, I think, bent away from where a close reading might take us (of Fantastic Imagination, not of MacDonald’s corpus I think) so I return to consider that the experience of that vitality in reading will be different for each reader.  It is not that the reader has failed to meet the author’s intention, but that the author always says more than she intended and that some readers may find items which enrich the discourse in a manner the author could not have dreamed of.

“If so, how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning into it, but yours out of it?”

‘Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine.'”


I love that MacDonald answers question with question for if we will understand our questions we may understand what we are hoping for.  Many read with the hope of reconstructing the author’s intended reading, but no such thing can be reconstructed while maintaining the vitality which captured the author.  It is the author’s job (as the sculptor’s) to remove that which is not truly part of the story so that the story may exhibit that life of which we are speaking.

As Pierre Bayard asserts, we are going to assert our meaning into the text – but hopefully we shall realize we are doing so and in so doing test our ‘seeing as’ to note whether it will hold up to the richness of the story.  Instead of being assured that we bring nothing to the text (whether through force of will or otherwise) we ought to fully dive into this reading and see what can be made of it.  Perhaps it is less than the author envisioned, but it may be more.  Or, more likely, our seeing-as will teach us about the way in which we view the real world – the manner with which we approach vitality.  It is my hope that, through submitting such readings in dialogue, we might learn how best to reconnect with our own world rather than escape from it and be trapped within the fantastic.  Instead, the imagination is a tool to teach us indirectly about true vitality so that we may experience it in its fullness and that is most unlikely if we settle for the catching the author’s meaning where we should practice ‘living in’ so that we might learn how to better see home.


In sum,

“If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an æolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it.”


I believe logical conviction to be far less meaningful than the attempts to awaken or stir the soul of the reader.  In such case misunderstanding is not the object of fear – it is to be immovable and incapable of being stirred from slumber.  Which is the more frightening?  Better by far to misunderstand and be misunderstood but strain to catch the music and join in.

Sharing the ‘Inner Book’: Meditations on ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’

If you do n’t talk about the books you read, they may, at best, only benefit you.  A book may serve as the subject of your inner dialogue until you forget its contents, but that inevitable outcome always approaches far too quickly.  In such case, our inner book is unlikely to reveal to us our own face while such mirroring may well occur in dialogue.  Therefore, when we not only think about books but assert and deny, we use books not as the means of reaffirming ourselves but as reference points for discourse.  After all, augmenting discourse is the raison d’etre for many a book’s creation and all books are a ‘speaking from’ whose voice is best found not in a sole utterance but as a mark within the discussion.

Intertwine: C.S. Lewis, Reading, and Atrophy of the Mind

While I ‘m working perhaps a bit too much, and making little headway in pursuit of my particular research interests, some little time is afforded me for reading.  Perhaps I should spend such times in transit lesson-prepping instead, but I hope the exercise keeps me from turning dull.  Last week I finished a book from my favorite Masters’ class (ironically an intensive I had to add for the purpose of graduating but simply so that I should have enough loans dispersed so as to be able to finish the course necessary for completion of my degree): Overcoming Onto-Theology by Merold Westphal. 

There is much food for thought, some repeated a little too often, but on the whole I am remembering something of the language presented in that course on Philosophical Hermeneutics (because ‘interpretation’ just sounds too simple, and after all; Gadamer will demonstrate how interpretation never escapes, nor should it attempt to, its embeddedness in its Zeitpunkt (time/place, but the German adds a bite to my ticked ear).  This poorly executed segue could, largely unbeknownst to its author, almost serve to illustrate the point Lewis wants to make in ‘Edmund Spenser, 1552-99’ as found in my current travel-mate: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1998), Cambridge U., by C.S.L. 


What the revered Mr Lewis has to say about nearly any matter piques my interest, and I should say this is most true for the ways in which I yet find his writing a surprise not merely to be admired but worthy of being pondered at length.  As regards Spenser, whose Faerie Queene I tackled because it fell within Lewis’ realm some years ago, I find C.S.L.’s reading sheds light on those qualities I had forgotten.  Foremost is Spenser’s ‘polyphonic’ story-telling which surprisingly leaves Prince Arthur, his squire, and Sir Guyon in pursuit of an unknown damsel close-followed by a forester (the intrigue is ryp to be pickt) in favor of following the tale of a strange knight of whose character the reader is wholly unfamiliar. 

In my own reading, I recall both my initial shock and my determination to await the inevitable ‘dovetail’ing where again I should meet the exploits of Arthur and his court.  Lewis remarks that the “old polyphonic story…enjoyed a longer success than the modern novel has enjoyed yet” (Studies p. 134) and some of us might add our approval.  While C.S.L. appeals to the renewal of a theme by a composer, he has addressed a reader too musically challenged to benefit.  Thus I am only able to appreciate the simile theoretically where it might prove illustrative for one less impaired.  But as a reader I share this appreciation for the complex, if not a mind skilled enough to wield it properly. 


And so I nearly escape the charge that “this kind of suspense is lost on us because our bad memories frustrate it and when we get back to Arthur we have forgotten all about him, then, since our ancestors made no such objection, it would seem that we differ from them by an inferiority, not by a superiority” (Ibidem).  I rather envy this skill of such readers – perhaps in such I am ‘behind my time’.  But then, I suppose that is rather essential to any imaginative reading; for any reading that not only explains this world but carries us to another point, another space, another world is, to my mind, an attempt to leave this particular Zeitpunkt in favor of considering the world from another (and then, of course, returning with fresh eyes to see our own – no reading is a truly successful escape).  That former minds were able to embed themselves so thoroughly in such a world, be it a land of faerie or whatever you will have, that their memory extends through the pages and cantos and Books that comprise a work like Faerie Queene illustrates a deficiency of my time.

Lewis takes this opportunity to aver that while the technologies of reading have improved, the faculty of memory has diminished.  Where he points to “cheap paper, typewriters, notebooks, and indexes” as prime examples of what impairs our memories, just as “automobiles have made some people almost incapable of walking” (Studies p. 134), Lewis echoes Socrates’ complaints in Plato’s Phaedras about the book as destroyer of memory and anticipates Nicholas Carr’s ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ – reading technologies have continued in progressively offering greater accessibility to resources for reading even as those technologies inhibit the practiced attention needed for higher order reasoning.  In the same sense, the more accessible my destination is by motored vehicle the more effort I need to exert to fight atrophy (surely not a concern for my forebears). 


It is in this sense that C.S.L. marks: “One of the great uses of literary history is to keep reminding us that while [humanity] is constantly acquiring new powers [it] is also constantly losing old ones” (Ibidem).  But our tale need not end on such a negative note for Lewis believes that exercise of these faculties, however much more effort is required, can still be practiced to good effect.  Just as the habit of walking will restore and strengthen our legs, the habit of reading works with ‘thickness’ or ‘density’ may expand our view so that we may not merely follow the immediate events of our stories, as we live them, but so we may be impressed of the conviction that other stories worth being told may break in and interrupt, or better intersect that which we thought worth our interest.  The world of such poems is intricate enough that we should always be forced to leave one tale untold to consider the other, and I should think this true of our own world equally.


At such time, I shall take the ill-advised course of explaining how I inadvertently slipped into giving an example of what struck me in this writing.  I have, of course, completely failed to consider in any depth the world opened by Westphal’s course.  In truth, it is a story I have tried to begin more than once and I can but promise that this poor teller of tales would at least warn his reader against the notion that King Arthur’s court (or the likes of Heidegger, Derrida, and Nietzsche by way of M. Westphal) have left the pages of this sham world not to be summoned again, for there are ever more tales to be told (of faerie and wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein) if the reader will but follow along.

Mis-hap or Stumblings: Readings in George MacDonald’s ‘Lilith’

As far as debts go, my reading owes ever so much to the e’er so well known C.S. Lewis (if over-quoted in favor of items he never would ‘ve backed – such is the lot of the popular, doomed to being misunderstood) but few debts are so dear as that which led through Lewis to the goodly Irishman MacDonald.  I think I never truly breathed faerie nor so happily mis-happed before feeling its metaphysical pull.

Lilith and Phantastes are ever welcome traveling companions (although a companion, etymologically, is one who shares bread with the fellow traveler) as are MacDonald’s rather bumbling protagonists. But these uncanny mis-haps, these unreflective seeings, lend to the strength of the dream-quality of both books.  No other works to date present themselves so immediately to my senses, nor demand such reflective responses.

Some samplings for those considering or already reading Lilith:

Often the main character in a MacDonald work will have some education, often some relation to Oxford.  In Lilith, these studies are mere backdrop to an otherwise unremarkable life.  The character quickly forgets his own name when first he stumbles through the mirror and is none the worse for it.

Books!  Often a vast library sets the home base for whatever may occur.  In three paragraphs the ‘fine library of his ancestors’ is introduced and its age hints at future wonders for the reader (as well as the only significant occupation for its proximal owner).  We come to find that this particular collection has served and continues to serve for the haunt of one Mr. Raven.

One day our narrator is able to follow this shadow through previously unknown passages to find the mirror, which we soon find is a ‘door out’ where previously he had only experienced ‘doors in’ (p. 12).  Upon mis-stepping so as to gain a better view, our character finds himself in the open air – “behind me: all was vague and uncertain, as when one cannot distinguish between fog and field, between cloud and mountainside. (p. 11)”

Mr. Raven provides further enlightenment (which is more confounding for our bewildered narrator) in telling, “the more doors you go out of, the farther you get in! (p. 12)”  A door is supposed to keep the unwanted out and allow the desired in, but here we are considering doors whose ‘whereness’ is considerably less clear.  The machinations may be inconsistent, or rather, we may not understand them.  Understanding our surroundings is turned on its head when we are told, “The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home. (p. 13)”

Something in me loves that line.  Misunderstanding is a frightening thing when one is not at home.  The possibility of ‘doors in’ and ‘doors out’ is unwelcome until we are able to ‘well come’ – to embrace that which is of a nature frightening.  It is not that ‘whereness’ is flimsy, it is that we are and our understandings are.  I write this in an unfamiliar place I (and my wife) are trying to make home.  It ‘s quite funny how the mind struggles to settle where it will endure anything when it ‘s home.  Perhaps this is the sense in which “the more doors you go out of, the farther you get in!”

Home is the only place you can go out and in.  Hm…

One more ‘aroma of an idea’ before moving on…  Mr. Raven presents the unanswerable: “Who are you, pray?”  At this moment, the narrator finds that no answer he can give will suffice.  Should he give his name he is only explaining a relation whose source cannot be demonstrated.  Worse, he does not know himself at all so that he can provide no ‘what’ or ‘who’ to his questioner.

The questioner’s lesson (yet to be learned in full) is that “no one can say he is himself until first he knows that he is, and then what himself is. (p. 14)”  Reflection should easily dismiss any solid notion of either assertion.  The cogito ergo sum gives us no notion of what ‘to be’ or ‘I’ truly mean.  Ironically, this is not skepticism, but merely an acknowledging that the words we use (and the understandings we hold) fail to hold that which we expect from them.  Their solidity is purely derivative.  The solidity that is does not falter because our words fail, but the comfort of our words may well be lost.

It now dawns on our protagonist that perhaps he is dead.  In a sense this seems the likely deduction, but I would think it represents moreso the terror of death or separation.  He falls through into the garret chamber in which the mirror was housed and retreats from the unfamiliar upper rooms of the house in a full horror.  But it is most surely the fear of death, or the realization of how dead he already is, that grips him and now robs him of the familiarity previously he assumed with himself.

It is this state which the main character wakes from in the morning, on which note I shall put myself to bed.