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February 13, 2007

TT: Consider the source

I have a sneaking suspicion that my main contribution to the sum total of human happiness is the fact that I go well out of my way to provide a traceable source for this blog’s daily almanac entry. Cyberspace is cluttered with millions of pithy quotations, most of which are unsourced and thus unreliable. Not infrequently a bit of sophisticated surfing will allow you to pin down their sources, but too often they remain firmly rooted in the realm of conjecture.

Off the top of my head I can think of only two favorite quotations that I’ve never been able to trace to their original sources, and last week I finally pinned down one of them: “All knowledge is a descent from the paradise of undifferentiated sensation.” R.P. Blackmur said it, but prior to last Friday I only knew this brilliant apophthegm by way of Arlene Croce, who quoted it without source in one of her out-of-print collections of essays on dance. Now I can give it to you in the original:

For most minds, once doctrine is sighted and is held to be the completion of insight, the doctrinal mode of thinking seems the only one possible. When doctrine totters it seems it can fall only into the gulf of bewilderment; few minds risk the fall; most seize the remnants and swear the edifice remains, when doctrine becomes intolerable dogma. All fall notwithstanding; for as knowledge itself is a fall from the paradise of undifferentiated sensation, so equally every formula of knowledge must fall the moment too much weight is laid upon it—the moment it becomes omnivorous and pretends to be omnipotent—the moment, in short, it is taken literally. Literal knowledge is dead knowledge; and the worst bewilderment—which is always only comparative—is better than death. Yet no form, no formula, of knowledge ought to be surrendered merely because it runs the risk in bad or desperate hands of being used literally; and similarly, in our own thinking, whether it is carried to the point of formal discourse or not, we cannot only afford, we ought scrupulously to risk the use of any concept that seems propitious or helpful in getting over gaps. Only the use should be consciously provisional, speculative, and dramatic. The end-virtue of humility comes only after a long train of humiliations; and the chief labor of humbling is the constant, resourceful restoration of ignorance.

That thought-provoking paragraph is to be found in a 1935 essay by Blackmur called “A Critic’s Job of Work,” which was originally collected in Language as Gesture (1936) and is now more readily available in Selected Essays of R.P. Blackmur, a 1986 collection edited by Denis Donoghue. I feel better!

The only unsourced quote that continues to nag me is a remark allegedly made by Flaubert which I first ran across in Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism and later had occasion to cite in my Mencken biography:

More important, though, Babbitt was the first of Mencken’s critics to suggest that his noisy war against the booboisie had at last reached the point of diminishing returns: “One is reminded in particular of Flaubert, who showed a diligence in collecting bourgeois imbecilities comparable to that displayed by Mr. Mencken in his Americana….Another discovery of Flaubert’s may seem to him more worthy of consideration. ‘By dint of railing at idiots,’ Flaubert reports, ‘one runs the risk of becoming idiotic oneself.’”

Alas, Babbitt never gave his source for this beautifully balanced sentence, and despite making a public plea for help back in 2003, I’ve yet to be able to trace it. Anyone who can do so now will earn my permanent gratitude.

Posted February 13, 2007 12:00 PM

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