Sunday, May 01, 2016

`To Serve As So Many Small Epilogues'

Attached like a library annex to the conclusion of A Stroll with William James (1983) is a commonplace book of quotations Jacques Barzun collected across a lifetime spent reading James. All were written by thinkers who preceded James, but in them Barzun hears prescient echoes of the philosopher/psychologist. (Borges expresses a similar thought in “Kafka and His Precursors.”) He observes that “temperaments recur, predicaments also, and the resultant sayings show matching parts.” Seasoned readers with retentive memories will recognize the frequent occurrence of such resonant affinities among writers. Barzun explains:

. . . the worth of parallels lies chiefly in their showing that to similarly `tuned receivers’ experience comes in similar `drops’ and inspires similar reflections [i.e., there is no such thing as originality]. That in itself is pleasant to contemplate. I have accordingly made a small selection of `takings’ similar to James’s and grouped them loosely, to serve as so many small epilogues to topics dealt with along the way. The choice is arbitrary; apart from the pleasure I have just mentioned, it may also suggest something that needs no proof: that I have seldom forgotten James while reading his predecessors in the Great Conversation.”

That marvelous word and pastime, “conversation,” has lately been vulgarized and drained of meaning, largely in political contexts. Barzun uses it properly, in a manner that recalls Michael Oakeshott’s “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind”:

In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no 'truth' to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing.

Among Barzun’s sources for proto-Jamesian thought are Aristotle, St. Matthew, Swift, Dr. Johnson and Hazlitt. Here is a useful citation from Walter Bagehot’s Physics and Politics (1872), a book I have not read:

“Unproved abstract principles without number have been eagerly caught up by sanguine men and then carefully spun out into books and theories which were to explain the whole world. But the world goes clear against these abstractions, and it must do so, as they require it to go in antagonistic directions. The mass of a system attracts the young and the unwary; but cultivated people are very dubious about it.”

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