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To Whom It Definitely Concerns

I met Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz five or six years before the Second World War. I was then a student, and Witkiewicz sometimes dropped by as a guest to the seminars given by the Philosophy Department of Warsaw University. I knew his two novels and some of his plays that had been published in magazines or were circulating in manuscript copies. I saw many of his paintings; Witkacy (the name he created for himself from the first part of his last name and the last part of his middle name) was very popular as a painter. He was making portraits at a low price, and he often gave them away free of charge. Later on I met some of his personal friends, or rather his “ex-” friends; Witkacy called them his “ideological enemies.” He had the practice of keeping a numbered list of his acquaintances, and whenever he lowered the position of one of them, he would inform him about it with an “official” letter.

—Jan Kott, introduction to The Madman and the Nun and the Crazy Locomotive, by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz

Epistemology as a Wellspring (of Science)

At the heart of this new optimistic view of the possibility of knowledge lies the doctrine that truth is manifest. Truth may perhaps be veiled. But it may reveal itself. And if it does not reveal itself, it may be revealed by us. Removing the veil may not be easy. But once the naked truth stands revealed before our eyes, we have the power to see it, to distinguish it from falsehood, and to know that it is truth.

The birth of modern science and modern technology was inspired by this optimistic epistemology whose main spokesmen were Bacon and Descartes. They taught that there was no need for any man to appeal to authority in matters of truth because each man carried the sources of knowledge in himself; either in his power of sense-perception which he may use for the careful observation of nature, or in his power of intellectual intuition which he may use to distinguish truth from falsehood by refusing to accept any idea which is not clearly and distinctly perceived by the intellect. Man can know: thus he can be free. This is the formula which explains the link between epistemological optimism and the ideas of liberalism.

This link is paralleled by the opposite link. Disbelief in the power of human reason, in man’s power to discern the truth, is almost invariably linked with distrust of man. Thus epistemological pessimism is linked, historically, with a doctrine of human depravity, and it tends to lead to the demand for the establishment of powerful traditions and the entrenchment of a powerful authority which would save man from his folly and his wickedness. (There is a striking sketch of this theory of authoritarianism, and a picture of the burden carried by those in authority, in the story of The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoievsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.)

—Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge

Despising Other Hours

Like most introverts, he was very dependent upon small, minute-to-minute comforts, no matter whence they came. Fern’s gaze upon life was very decisively inwards. He read much. He reflected much. One of his purest pleasures was an entire day in bed; all by himself, in excellent health. He lived in a quite pleasant surburban flat, with a view over a park. Unfortunately, the park, for the most part, was more beautiful when Fern was not there; because when he was there, it tended to fill with raucous loiterers and tiny piercing radios. […] For years, then, Fern teetered along the tightrope between content and discontent; between mild self-congratulation and black frustration; between the gritty disillusionments of human intimacy and travel (for Fern the two became more and more inseparable), and the truth and power of his dream. It might be a twilight tightrope, but twilight was not an hour which Fern despised.

—Robert Aickman, “Never Visit Venice”

Look At This Perfect Character

The Delicate is pale, limbs pipe-cleaner thin, with a head as shiny hard as beetle-back. Violent, in utero skull tectonics have led to a precipice of brow, a compression of matter past the point of truth. His eyes are crow eyes, and his ear holes winding tunnels to nowhere. He comes in the latter days of afternoon, through blowing snow, dressed in black, while Schubert’s “Eighth” plays magically in the background. He comes to suck the breath out of passing fancies and to treat the infirm of mind, the particularly annoying, to a long sleep. “In order to take the waters,” as he explains it, he comes to a resort town on the edge of reason. Beyond it, the wilderness stretches north to the frozen pole. God has never drawn breath there—the domain of bat-winged demons whose skin is the ringed wood of oak trees. These creatures fly out of the forest at night to snatch up children, their little legs kicking to the moon. To live in Absentia is to live with a soul that is liquid lead.

—Jeffrey Ford, “The Delicate”

Nested Men of Genius

“Is it true, as Valéry said, that every man of genius contains within himself a false man of genius?

—Donald Barthelme, “The Genius”

If Bleakest Batman Wrote a Western

They were about in the morning before daybreak and they caught up and saddled their mounts as soon as it was light enough to see. The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning. As the riders came up through the mesquite and pyracantha singlefile in a light clank of arms and chink of bitrings the sun climbed and the moon set and the horses and the dewsoaked mules commenced to steam in flesh and in shadow.

—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

(the trick is to read all Cormac McCarthy in a batman voice)

Fresh Categories, New Sciences

For much of twentieth-century philosophy it is no longer possible to think of Being as foundation, not simply because of the risk that objectivism might lead to a totalitarian society—to Auschwitz or to the Gulag—but above all because European culture has become aware that there are other cultures that cannot be merely classified as “primitive,” that is, as lagging behind the West in the way of “progress.” The 1800s were the century in which the historical sciences, including cultural anthropology, arose: there was a ripe awareness that there was not just a single course of history (culminating in Western civilization) but different cultures and different histories. This awareness would be decisively advanced through the wars of liberation of the colonial nations. Algeria’s revolt against France as well as the petroleum war of the early 1970s were the last episodes within the theoretical, practical, and political rupture of Eurocentrism, i.e., of the idea of a unique human civilization of which Europe was conceived to be the leader as well as the apex.

—Gianni Vattimo, After Christianity

Paranoiac Alien Lonesomeness

In their exquisite self-centeredness our ancestors believed that they were alone in the universe. At the same time, they had convinced themselves that Earth was the blue apple of God’s eye and the sole reason for all of creation. This two-headed fallacy caused humanity both delusions of grandeur and a paranoiac sense of loneliness. Although we eventually achieved the ability of space travel at speeds exceeding that of light and discovered a proliferation of planets along with the near-infinite diversification of species inhabiting them, we could never flee far enough to escape those ingrained disabilities of ego and the angst of isolation but carried them with us like ghostly stowaways to the most remote corners of the universe. The drama caused by the tension between these two psychological conditions born of the same impulse played itself out on a million far-flung stages. As a historian, I can tell you that in studying the history of mankind, this is, though it dons a multitude of disguises, the sole phenomenon one studies. At least a thousand instances come readily to mind, but allow me to apprise you of a single case, and it will be for you like a mirror. One glance and you will be assured that you are not alone in your willful loneliness.

—Jeffrey Ford, “The Far Oasis”

Peradventure Led Into Error

Fleshy janglers, open praisers and blamers of themselves or of any other, tellers of trifles, ronners and tattlers of tales, and all manner of pinchers, cared I never that they saw this book. For mine intent was never to write such things unto them, and therefore I would that they meddle not therewith; neither they, nor any of these curious, lettered, or unlearned men. Yea, although that they be full good men of active living, yet this matter accordeth nothing to them.

—author unknown, The Cloud of Unknowing

A French Breakfast in Tourist Thailand

The coffee was revolting, weak, almost undrinkable; from that point of view at least, we were working to American standards. The young couple looked completely bloody stupid, it almost pained me to see their ‘ecological paradise’ crumbling before their eyes; but I had a feeling that everything was going to cause me pain today. I looked to the south again. ‘I’m told Burma is very beautiful,’ I said in a low voice, mostly to myself. Sylvie solemnly agreed: it was indeed, very beautiful, she’d also heard as much; that said, she forbade herself from going to Burma. It was impossible to think that one’s money would go to supporting a dictatorship like that. Yes, yes, I thought, money. ‘Human rights are extremely important,’ she exclaimed almost despairingly. When people talk about ‘human rights’, I usually get the impression that they’re being ironic; but that wasn’t true in this case, at least I don’t think so.

‘Personally, I stopped going to Spain after the death of Franco,’ interrupted Robert, taking a seat at our table. I hadn’t seen him arrive. He seemed to be in excellent form, his formidable ability to infuriate well-rested. He informed us that he’d gone to bed dead drunk and consequently had slept like a log. He had almost chucked himself in the river a couple of times on his way back to the chalet; but in the end it hadn’t happened. ‘Insh’allah.’ he concluded in a booming voice.

—Michel Houellebecq, Platform