He had not the gift of expression, but rather the gift of suggestion… His mind was never quite in focus and there was always something left over after each discharge of the battery, something which now became the beginning of a new thought. When he found out his mistake or defect of expression, when he came to see that he had not said quite what he meant, he was the first to proclaim it, and move on to a new position, a new misstatement of the same truth.
~ John Jay Chapman, “William James”
I think of the Boudin Bakery of San Francisco which has used the same sourdough starter for over 150 years, kneading a portion of the ancient “mother dough” into loaves of endless elaboration. William James was not alone in saying (or trying to say) the same things over and over again. There is a mother dough at the root of all we say and think, a leaven of shared nature that expresses itself in questions, desires and fears that we all recognize. For all the really shocking variety among human individuals and cultures, it is this habitual defect of expression, of misstating the same truths, that impresses me most.
The Chevalier de Firmin (1681-1722) fought thirteen duels, killing three opponents and wounding three others, to enforce his insistence that Charles Coffin surpassed Jean Santeul as a modern Latin poet. Just before he died, Firmin confessed he had never read a single line written by either man.
~ Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
We can thank the good Chevalier for showing us, by the example of his life, the essential human condition. Convictions may be poorly informed and arbitrarily held, so long as you have them. After all, what would be left of history and culture if people gave up fighting over things they know nothing about?
“No one dared ask a beard like that for its academic credentials.”
Print by Charles Hart, 1891.
You can’t expect a dog to pass up a policeman on a bicycle. It isn’t human nature.
~ P.G. Wodehouse, Code of the Woosters
The trouble with ideals is their nonexistence. The final motivation for judging oneself or others by an abstract perfection can only be sadomasochistic. It guarantees failure. Meanwhile, Bartholomew (Stiffy Byng’s dog) can be reasonably impressed with himself if he gives up the chase after only a half mile.