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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

The Immortal Minds Were His Brethren

Only a few close friends knew of his theory: that much which is unworthy in human life might be avoided if people would only accustom themselves to talking in verse. “It need not exactly rhyme,” he said. “Nay, it really ought not to rhyme. Rhyming verse in the long run is an underhand attack on the true being of poetry. But we should express our feelings, and communicate with one another, in blank verse. For iambics gently sway our nature’s rawness—to noble worth, and zealously divide—chatter and tripe and scandal’s overspill—from gold and silver in the human speech.” In the great moments of his existence Herr Soerensen himself thought in iambics.

—Isak Dinesen, “Tempests”

And Yet Everything Hath its Own Phlegm

5. Q.–Which is the most noble salt?
A.–If you desire to learn this, descend into yourself, for you carry it about with you, as well the salt as its Vulcan, if you are able to discern it.

6. Q.–Which is it, tell me, I pray you?
A.–Man’s blood out of the body, or man’s urine, for the urine is an excrement separated, for the greatest part, from the blood. Each of these give both a volatile and fixed salt; if you know how to collect and prepare it, you will have a most precious Balsam of Life.

7. Q.–Is the property of human urine more noble than the urine of any beast?
A.–By many degrees, for though it be an excrement only, yet its salt hath not its like in the whole universal nature.

8. Q.–Which be its parts?
A.–A volatile and more fixed; yet according to the variety of ordering it, these may be variously altered.

9. Q.–Are there any things in urine which are different from its inmost specific urinaceous nature?
A.–There are, viz., a watery phlegm, and sea salt which we take in with our meat; it remains entire and undigested in the urine, and by separation may be divided from it, which (if there be no sufficient use of it in the meat after a convenient time) ceaseth.

10. Q.–Whence is that phlegm, or insipid watery humidity?
A.–It is chiefly from our several drinks, and yet everything hath its own phlegm.

11. Q.–Explain yourself more clearly.
A.–You must know that the urine, partly by the separative virtue, is conveyed with what we drink to the bladder, and partly consists of a watery Teffas (an excrementitious humour of the blood), whence being separated by the odour of the urinaceous ferment, it penetrates most deeply, the saltness being unchanged, unless that the saltness of the blood and urine be both the same; so that whatsoever is contained in the urine besides salt is unprofitable phlegm.

12. Q.–How doth it appear that there is a plentiful phlegm in urine?
A.–Thus suppose; first, from the taste; secondly, from the weight; thirdly, from the virtue of it.

13. Q.–Be your own interpreter.
A.–The salt of urine contains all that is properly essential to the urine, the smell whereof is very sharp; the taste differs according as it is differently ordered, so that sometimes it is also salt with an urinaceous saltness.

14. Q.–What have you observed concerning the weight thereof?
A.–I have observed thus much, that three ounces, or a little more, of urine, taken from a healthy man, will moderately outweigh about eighty grains of fountain water, from which also I have seen a liquor distilled which was of equal weight to the said water, whence it is evident that most of the salt was left behind.

15. Q.–What have you observed of its virtue?
A.–The congelation of urine by cold is an argument that phlegm is in it; for the salt of urine is not so congealed if a little moistened with a liquid, though it be water.

16. Q.–But this same phlegm though most accurately separated by distillation, retains the nature of urine, as may be perceived both by the smell and taste.
A.–I confess it, though little can be discerned by taste, nor can you perceive more, either by smell or taste, than you may from salt of urine dissolved in pure water.

17. Q.–What doth pyrotechny teach you concerning urine?
A.–It teacheth this, to make the salt of urine volatile.

—Eirenaeus Philalethes, “The Secret of the Immortal Liquor Called Alkahest or Ignis-Aqua” from Collectanea Chemica: Being Certain Select Treatises on Alchemy and Hermetic Medicine

Interpretation in Variegated Life

Ricoeur’s phrase, [“hermeneutics of suspicion,”] moreover, has the singular advantage of allowing us to by-pass the exceptionalist tendencies of critique: its presumption that whatever is not critique can only be assigned to the ignominious state of the uncritical. As a less prejudicial term, it opens up a larger history of suspicious reading, including traditions of religious questioning and self-scrutiny that bear on current forms of interpretation, but that are occluded by the aggressively secular connotations of critique (Hunter). In this context, Ricoeur’s own account needs to be supplemented and modified to acknowledge this larger cultural history; the hermeneutics of suspicion is not just the brain-child of a few exceptional thinkers, as his argument implies, but a widespread practice of interpretation embedded in more mundane, diffuse and variegated forms of life (Felski 220).

Finally, the idea of a suspicious hermeneutics does not invalidate or rule out other interpretative possibilities—ranging from Ricoeur’s own notion of a hermeneutics of trust to more recent coinages such as Sedgwick’s “restorative reading,” Sharon Marcus’s “just reading” or Timothy Bewes’s “generous reading.” Literary studies in France, for example, is currently experiencing a new surge of interest in hermeneutics (redefined as a practice of reinvention rather than exhumation) as well as a reinvigorated phenomenology of reading that elucidates, in rich and fascinating detail, its immersive and affective dimensions (see Citton; Macé). This growing interest in the ethos, aesthetics, and ethics of reading is long overdue. Such an orientation by no means rules out attention to the sociopolitical resonances of texts and their interpretations. It is, however, no longer willing to subordinate such attention to the seductive but sterile dichotomy of the critical versus the uncritical.

—Rita Felski, Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion.

A Message Without Code

Thus can be seen the special status of the photographic image: it is a message without a code; from which proposition an important corollary must immediately be drawn: the photographic message is a continuous message. Are there other messages without a code? At first sight, yes: precisely the whole range of analogical reproductions of reality—drawings, paintings, cinema, theatre. In fact, however, each of those messages develops in an immediate and obvious way a supplementary message, in addition to the analogical content itself (scene, object, landscape), which is what is commonly called the style of the reproduction; second meaning, whose signifier is a certain ‘treatment’ of the image (result of the action of the creator) and whose signified, whether aesthetic or ideological, refers to a certain ‘culture’ of the society receiving the message. In short, all these ‘imitative’ arts comprise two messages: a denoted message, which is the analogon itself, and a connoted message, which is the manner in which the society to a certain extent communicates what it thinks of it. This duality of messages is evident in all reproductions other than photographic ones: there is no drawing, no matter how exact, whose very exactitude is not turned into a style.

—Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text

Oblivion Hidden from Our Eyes

Now the memories of love are no exception to the general laws of memory, which in turn are governed by the still more general laws of Habit. And as Habit weakens everything, what best reminds us of a person is precisely what we had forgotten (because it was of no importance, and we therefore left it in full possession of its strength). That is why the better part of our memories exists outside us, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which, when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source, can make us weep again. Outside us? Within us, rather, but hidden from our eyes in an oblivion more or less prolonged. It is thanks to this oblivion alone that we can from time to time recover the person that we were, place ourselves in relation to things as he was placed, suffer anew because we are no longer ourselves but he, and because he loved what now leaves us indifferent.


I believed that I hankered after Balbec just as much as the doctor who was treating me and who said to me on the morning of our departure, surprised to see me looking so unhappy: “I don’t mind telling you that if I could only manage a week to go down and get a blow by the sea, I shouldn’t have to be asked twice. You’ll be having races, regattas, it will be delightful.” But I had already learned the lesson—long before I was taken to see Berma—that, whatever it might be that I loved, it would never be attained, save at the end of a long and painful pursuit, in the course of which I should have first to sacrifice my pleasure to that paramount good instead of seeking it therein.

—Marcel Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

Forgetting, the Sensation

I’m sure in the dream all that senseless agitation came wrapped in a precise and admirable mechanism, but now I don’t know what that was. The key to the code has been erased. Or is that what I should provide myself, with my deliberate work? If so, the dream doesn’t have the least use, and it leaves me as unequipped as before, or more so. But I resist giving it up, and in that resistance it occurs to me that there’s something else I could rescue from the ruins of forgetting, and that is forgetting itself. Taking control of forgetting is little more than a gesture, but it would be a gesture consistent with my theory of literature, at least with my disdain for memory as a writer’s instrument. Forgetting is richer, freer, more powerful . . . and at the root of the dream idea there must have been something of that, because those serial prophecies, so suspicious, lacking in content as they are, all seem to come to an end at a vertex of dissolution, of forgetting, of pure reality. A multiple, impersonal forgetting. I should note, in parentheses, that the kind of forgetting that erases dreams is very special, and very fitting for my purposes, because it’s based on doubt as to whether the thing we should be remembering actually exists; I suppose that in the majority of cases, if not in all of them, we only believe we’ve forgotten things when actually they had never happened. We haven’t forgotten anything. Forgetting is simply a sensation.

—César Aira, The Seamstress and the Wind

Your Other Life, Waiting

If I now write, in the cafés of Paris, The Seamstress and the Wind, as I have proposed, it’s only to accelerate the process. What process? A process with no name, or form, or content. Or results. If it helps me survive, it’s only the way some little riddle would have. I think that for a process to be sustained over time there must always be the intrigue of a point out of place. But nothing will be discovered in the end, or at the beginning either, because the decision has already been made: I will never travel again. Suddenly, I’m in a café in Paris, writing, giving expression to anachronistic decisions made in the very heart of the fear of adventure (in a café in my neighborhood, Flores). A person can come to believe he has another life, in addition to his own, and logically he believes that he has it somewhere else, waiting for him. But you only have to test this theory once to see it doesn’t hold. One trip is enough (I made two). There’s only one life, and it is in its place. But still, something must have happened. If I’ve written, it’s been so I might interpolate forgetfulness between my life and myself. I was successful there. When a memory appears, it brings nothing with it, only a combination of itself and its negative aftereffects. And the whirlwind. And me.


The imagination, this marvelous faculty, does nothing, if left uncontrolled, but lean on memory. “Memory makes things felt, heard and seen rise into the light, a bit the way a bolus of grass rises again in a ruminant. It may be chewed, but it is neither digested nor transformed.” (Boulez)

—César Aira, The Seamstress and the Wind

Cognitive Reaching Claw

The study of objects of time is the study of cognition and culture, but not of the sort limited to the mind or to a simpleminded notion of cultural boundaries. For most clock users, the logics used to determine the time are outside of their knowledge but within the objects. These logics have an artifactual existence that mediates between consciousness and the world—part of what Cole describes as the “special characteristics of human mental life” as “the characteristics of an organism that can inhabit, transform, and recreate an artifact-mediated world” (1995, 32). When one wants to know what time it is, one does not calculate it, but simply refers to a clock or watch. When one wants to know the date, one consults a calendar rather than observes the Sun, Moon, and stars. This placement of temporal logics in artifacts clearly forms a feature of humans that is quite different from anything shared with any other animal—not only do humans make tools, and not only do humans have knowledge far beyond what animals exhibit, but humans place this knowledge in tools. The cultural diversity of concepts of time is closely related to the fusion of diverse ideas and artifacts used to think. Whereas my examples so far are the clock and the calendar, the use of objects to mediate time is not new. Objects related to time are among some of the most famous in the archaeological record, for example, Stonehenge, the Aztec calendar, and the Antikythera Mechanism.

—Kevin K. Birth, Objects of Time