(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘literature

“Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject, nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling”*…

Beethoven at 30 (1800)

The estimable Ted Gioia is exploring the possibility that we are at the cusp of a major change in the zeitgeist– the beginning of a new age of Romanticism…

I made a flippant remark a few months ago. It was almost a joke.

But then I started taking it seriously.

I said that technocracy had grown so oppressive and manipulative it would spur a backlash. And that our rebellion might resemble the Romanticist movement of the early 1800s.

We need a new Romanticism, I quipped. And we will probably get one.

A new Romanticism? Could that really happen? That seems so unlikely.

Even I didn’t take this seriously (at first). I was just joking. But during the subsequent weeks and months, I kept thinking about my half-serious claim.

I realized that, the more I looked at what happened circa 1800, the more it reminded me of our current malaise.

  • Rationalist and algorithmic models were dominating every sphere of life at that midpoint in the Industrial Revolution—and people started resisting the forces of progress.
  • Companies grew more powerful, promising productivity and prosperity. But Blake called them “dark Satanic mills” and Luddites started burning down factories—a drastic and futile step, almost the equivalent of throwing away your smartphone.
  • Even as science and technology produced amazing results, dysfunctional behaviors sprang up everywhere. The pathbreaking literary works from the late 1700s reveal the dark side of the pervasive techno-optimism—Goethe’s novel about Werther’s suicide, the Marquis de Sade’s nasty stories, and all those gloomy Gothic novels. What happened to the Enlightenment?
  • As the new century dawned, the creative class (as we would call it today) increasingly attacked rationalist currents that had somehow morphed into violent, intrusive forces in their lives—an 180 degree shift in the culture. For Blake and others, the name Newton became a term of abuse.
  • Artists, especially poets and musicians, took the lead in this revolt. They celebrated human feeling and emotional attachments—embracing them as more trustworthy, more flexible, more desirable than technology, profits, and cold calculation.

That’s the world, circa 1800.

The new paradigm shocked Europe when it started to spread. Cultural elites had just assumed that science and reason would control everything in the future. But that wasn’t how it played out.

Resemblances with the current moment are not hard to see.

These considerations led me, about nine months ago, to conduct a deep dive into the history of the Romanticist movement. I wanted to see what the historical evidence told me.

I’m now structuring my research in chronological order—that’s a method I often use in addressing big topics.

I make no great promises for what I share below. These are just notes on what happened in Western culture from 1800 to 1804—listed year-by-year.

Sharing these is part of my process. I expect this will generate useful feedback, and guide me on the next phase of this project…

Because music is always my entry point into cultural changes, it plays a key role here in how I analyze past (and present) events. I firmly believe that music is an early indicator of social change. The notes below are offered as evidence in support of that view…

[There follows a fascinating– and compelling– account of those five years, featuring Napoleon, Haydn, Beethoven, Woodsworth, Coleridge, Herder, Schelling, the Marquis de Sade, Novalis, Ann Radcliffe, and others]

… Beethoven turns against Napoleon—and this is emblematic of the aesthetic reversal sweeping through Europe. Not long ago, Beethoven and other artists looked to French rationalism as a harbinger of a new age of freedom and individual flourishing. But this entire progress-obsessed ideology is unraveling.

It’s somehow fitting that music takes the lead role in deconstructing a tyrannical rationalism, and proposing a more human alternative.

Could that happen again?

  • Imagine a growing sense that algorithmic and mechanistic thinking has become too oppressive.
  • Imagine if people started resisting technology as a malicious form of control, and not a pathway to liberation, empowerment, and human flourishing—soul-nurturing riches that must come from someplace deeper.
  • Imagine a revolt against STEM’s dominance and dictatorship over all other fields?
  • Imagine people deciding that the good life starts with NOT learning how to code.

If that happened now, wouldn’t music stand out as the pathway? What could possibly be more opposed to brutal rationalism running out of control than a song?

But what does that kind of music sound like? In 1800, it was Beethoven. And today?…

Why it may be 1800 all over again: “Notes Toward a New Romanticism,” from @tedgioia in his terrific newsletter, The Honest Broker.

* Charles Baudelaire


As we review vibes on the verge, we might send rational birthday greetings to an avatar of the Enlightenment against which the Romantics rebelled, Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he was born on this date in 1694.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 21, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Those of us who read because we love it more than anything, feel about bookstores the way some people feel about jewelers”*…

Your correspondent is certainly among that number; bookstores– and libraries– are at the center of my mental map of civilization. So imagine my surprise when Alex Leslie delivered data demoting book shops in the literary hierarchy…

A lot of ink has been spilled over the decline of the dedicated bookstore – stores dedicated “just” or primarily to selling books – amid the rise of online retailers and e-readers in the 21st century. Yet dedicated bookstores were often not the main source of books in the U.S. historically. In fact, that market role was highly contested over the last two centuries.

In the early 20th century, a consumer could buy books from many different types of retailer. The specific focus, stock, clientele, and consumer experience of these different retailer types varied significantly and did much to shape the relationship between consumers (or readers) and books. In this richly varied market, the dedicated bookstore was outplayed on multiple fronts…

[Leslie brings the receipts…]

… Perhaps the most striking aspect of their position in the book retail market is how unstriking it is. Dedicated Bookstores represented a significant 7.5% of Lippincott’s revenue, yet they trailed behind News companies and Department Stores (Fig. 1). They carried less purchasing power at the individual level, where they fell in the middle of the pack behind less-common yet higher-volume retailer types like Foreign, Medical, and even Religious (Fig. 2). And while Bookstores were easily the second-most-common retailer of books, only 9% bought directly from Lippincott’s—meaning that they weren’t especially consistent either (Fig. 3).

Dedicated Bookstores were a major player in the book ecosystem, but they did not define it. They competed in a tight market where other retailer types beat them on affordability, breadth of location, specialized subject matter, and high-margin editions. In this context, dedicated Bookstores could all too easily become jacks of all trades and masters of none. A majority of Americans got their books from other retailers, and this was not entirely due to a lack of dedicated Bookstores in many towns: it also stemmed from a lack in dedicated Bookstores’ business model, a lack which continued to plague them into the 21st century even as they became more ubiquitous. For all our platitudes about the power of books writ large or reading as a single hobby, books seem to be less of a unifying force in their own right than the subjects they concern or the experiences they complement…

Still, I love them: “The Dedicated Bookstore Predicament,” from @azleslie.

* Anna Quindlen


As we browse, we might spare a thought for Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (known in English as Leo Tolstoy); he died on this date in 1910. A writer whose works adorn most bookstores, he is considered one of the greatest authors of all time. (He received nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1902 to 1906 and for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, 1902, and 1909, but never won. After one slight, August Strindberg and dozens of other authors and artists issued a proclamation shaming the Nobel Committee.)

Tolstoy is best known for War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878), widely regarded as pinnacles of realistic fiction. In the late 1870s, after a profound moral crisis, followed by what he regarded as an equally profound spiritual awakening, he became a fervent Christian anarchist and pacifist. His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894), had a profound impact on such pivotal 20th-century figures as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ludwig Wittgenstein.


“Thou art a monument without a tomb, / And art alive still while thy book doth live / And we have wits to read and praise to give”*…

400 years ago this month, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, his friends John Heminge and Henry Condell published The First Folio, containing 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, (an endeavor which they financed with a bequest that he had left them).

Although 19 of Shakespeare’s plays had been published in quarto before 1623, the First Folio is arguably the only reliable text for about 20 of the plays, and a valuable source text for many of those previously published. Eighteen of the plays in the First Folio, including The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and Measure for Measure among others, are not known to have been previously printed.

It is considered one of the most influential books ever published. Of perhaps 750 copies printed, 235 are known to remain, most of which are kept in either public archives or private collections. More than one third of the extant copies are housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., which is home to a total of 82 First Folios.

It is also, as Alicia Andrzejewski and Carole Levin explain, one of the most stolen…

Late at night on July 13th, 1972, an unknown person entered the University of Manchester’s Library and violently smashed the plate glass top of an exhibition case, stealing the contents. Inside was one of the most famous, most valuable books in existence: the library’s near-perfect edition of one of Shakespeare’s First Folios. This theft is the most mysterious of all the stolen First Folios. More than fifty years have passed, and this First Folio—one of the 750 printed in 1623 and of the estimated 232 known copies across the globe today—is still missing.

This year, 2023, marks the 400th year anniversary of the printing of Shakespeare’s First Folio, deemed one of the most significant books in the English language, “a coveted treasure,” to quote Eric Rasmussen, an expert on the First Folios and author of The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios. Without the First Folio, we would not have many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, the half that were not printed in his lifetime, including The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest. In collecting and printing these plays, Shakespeare’s two close friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, validated that plays are more than entertainment—they have literary value.

The First Folios still in existence are mainly housed in public institutions—their significance is underscored by their rarity, as copies are almost never available for sale, and the most recent one sold in 2020 for almost ten-million dollars. Even in the seventeenth century, when the First Folios were first printed, they were only available to elite members of society: earls, lords, knights, admirals, and the occasional lawyer. To this day, ownership is limited to, and a fetish among, the super wealthy. Because of their elite status, Rasmussen speculates that, of the copies that cannot be located, most “have probably been stolen.”

For some, as Rasmussen suggests, the First Folio is coveted because of its monetary value, an object to steal and eventually attempt to sell. Three First Folios were stolen in the 20th century alone, including the Manchester Library’s copy, and the thieves in the latter two cases are characters as strange as some of those in Shakespeare’s plays, the heists as thrilling as some of his plots. The thefts we describe, and the desires that inspire them, speak to Shakespeare’s foothold in Western civilization—the reverence and awe so many people have for him, that imbue the First Folio with an almost religious power…

Some of the most brazen heists of a historic volume: “Shakespeare’s First Folio has been Stolen Many, Many Times,” in @CrimeReads.

* Ben Jonson, “To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare” (in the First Folio)


As we linger on literary larceny, we might recall that it was on this date fifty years ago that then-President Richard Nixon made his famous declaration of character:

On Nov. 17, 1973, President Richard M. Nixon held a news conference before Associated Press managing editors in Orlando, Fla., in which he defended himself against a number of allegations. Most of the questions related to the Watergate break-in, which had become even more of a scandal a month earlier with the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Other questions focused on reports that he had cheated on his tax returns.

The Nov. 18 New York Times outlined President Nixon’s many assertions, concluding that the president had acquitted himself well: “The president seemed composed and on top of the subject throughout the session, faltering perceptibly only during the discussion of his taxes. In contrast with some of his recent appearances he did not berate his critics or his political enemies.”

The best-remembered part of the news conference came as the president defended himself against claims that he had illicitly profited from his years in public service. “I made my mistakes, but in all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service — I earned every cent,” he said. “And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I could say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook. I have earned everything I have got.”

The news conference did little to end questions over Mr. Nixon’s honesty. His declaration “I’m not a crook” was used against him — and the line would forever be associated with the Watergate era.

In April 1974, the Internal Revenue Service ordered that the president pay more than $400,000 in back taxes for making improper deductions. And the Watergate investigation continued to uncover misconduct. In August 1974, with the House Judiciary Committee having recommended impeachment and the release of a “smoking gun” tape showing that he had approved a cover-up, the president resigned…

“Nixon Declares ‘I Am Not a Crook’”


“The mind was dreaming. The world was its dream.”*…

Further to yesterday’s piece, a dreamy allegory from Jorge Luis Borges: his (very short) story “Ragnarök” in its entirety:

The images in dreams, wrote Coleridge, figure forth the impressions that our intellect would call causes; we do not feel horror because we are haunted by a sphinx, we dream a sphinx in order to explain the horror that we feel.  If that is true, how might a mere chronicling of its forms transmit the stupor, the exultation, the alarms, the dread, and the joy that wove together that night’s dream?  I shall attempt that chronicle, nonetheless; perhaps the fact that the dream consisted of but a single scene may erase or soften the essential difficulty.

The place was the College of Philosophy and Letters; the hour, nightfall.  Everything (as is often the case in dreams) was slightly different; a slight magnification altered things.  We chose authorities; I would speak with Pedro Henríquez Ureña, who in waking life had died many years before.  Suddenly, we were dumbfounded by a great noise of demonstrators or street musicians.  From the Underworld, we heard the cries of humans and animals.  A voice cried: Here they come! and then: The gods! The gods!  Four or five individuals emerged from out of the mob and occupied the dais of the auditorium.  Everyone applauded, weeping; it was the gods, returning after a banishment of many centuries.  Looming larger than life as they stood upon the dais, their heads thrown back and their chests thrust forward, they haughtily received our homage.  One of them was holding a branch (which belonged, no doubt, to the simple botany of dreams); another, with a sweeping gesture, held out a hand that was a claw; one of Janus’ faces looked mistrustfully at Thoth’s curved beak.  Perhaps excited by our applause, one of them, I no longer remember which, burst out in a triumphant, incredibly bitter clucking that was half gargle and half whistle.  From that point on, things changed.

It all began with the suspicion (perhaps exaggerated) that the gods were unable to talk.  Centuries of a feral life of flight had atrophied that part of them which was human; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these fugitives.  Beetling brows, yellowed teeth, the sparse beard of a mulatto or a Chinaman, and beastlike dewlaps were testaments to the degeneration of the Olympian line.  The clothes they wore were not those of a decorous and honest poverty, but rather of the criminal luxury of the Underworld’s gambling dens and houses of ill repute.  A carnation bled from a buttonhole; under a tight suitcoat one could discern the outline of a knife.  Suddenly, we felt that they were playing their last trump, that they were cunning, ignorant, and cruel, like aged predators, and that if we allowed ourselves to be swayed by fear or pity, they would wind up destroying us.

We drew our heavy revolvers (suddenly in the dream there were revolvers) and exultantly killed the gods.


* Jorge Luis Borges


As we confront the return of old monsters, we might send surprising birthday greetings to another master of the short story, William Sydney Porter (better known by his pen name, O. Henry); he was born on this date in 1862. After serving three years in the Ohio Penitentiary for bank fraud and embezzlement (a licensed pharmacist, he had worked in the prison’s infirmary), he turned to what had been a pastime, writing.  Over the next several years he wrote 381 short stories under the pen name by which we know him, “O. Henry,” including a story a week for over a year for the New York World Sunday Magazine.

His wit, characterization, and plot twists– as evidenced in stories like “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief”– were adored by his readers but often panned by critics… though academic opinion has since come around: O. Henry is now considered by many to be America’s answer to Guy de Maupassant.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 11, 2023 at 1:00 am

“There is nothing waste, nothing sterile, nothing dead in the universe; no chaos, no confusions, save in appearance”*…

Still, appearances mattered to Leibnitz. And as Richard Halpern explains in a piece adapted from his new book, Leibnizing: A Philosopher in Motion, they give us another avenue to understanding his philosophy…

Possessed of a monumentally impressive intellect, the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) was not blessed with a body to match. Bald, short, and unhandsome of feature, he accordingly availed himself of that universal male cosmetic—and prosthetic—of his era, the peruke (figure 1). Leibniz’s peruke ameliorated several bodily shortcomings: it covered his bald pate, including a bony growth the size of a pigeon’s egg that purportedly sat there; it added several inches to his height; and it did not so much frame his face as distract attention from it.

Leibniz was hardly the only seventeenth-century philosopher to sport a wig: René Descartes and John Locke did so as well. Theirs were not quite so extravagant and luxurious as Leibniz’s, however, nor did they give quite the same impression that a poodle had curled up for a nap on the wearer’s head. In the portrait reproduced here, by the fashionable court painter Christoph Bernhard Francke, Leibniz’s peruke complements the rich velvet folds of his garment to project an aura of prosperity, prestige, and fashion. Leibniz, who was fond of perfume as well as of perukes, made no bones about his wish to be included in polite society. The duke of Orleans was sufficiently impressed with his elegance to declare: “It is unusual for intellectuals to dress well, not to smell bad, and to understand jokes.”

Leibniz’s peruke silently poses questions: Should philosophers concern themselves with reputation, physical appearance, and fashion in the way that Leibniz does? Shouldn’t the philosopher focus rather on the disinterested pursuit of truth? Ever since Diogenes the Cynic, poverty and simplicity have served as emblems of philosophical authenticity. If we no longer demand that our philosophers be poor, we expect at least a certain slovenliness—a sign that their attention is directed elsewhere, upon more fundamental matters, and not on their appearance.

John Locke seems to make a related point in the dedicatory epistle to An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: “The Imposition of Novelty is a terrible Charge among those, who judge of Men’s Heads as they do their Perukes, by the Fashion; and can allow none to be right, but the received Doctrines.” The philosopher is supposed to be defined by what goes on in his or her head, not by what is perched upon it. Philosophers pursue truth, but the wig is an emblem of falsehood. The philosopher investigates eternal verities, but the wig occupies the ephemeral realm of fashion. In The Wig: A Harebrained History (London: Reaktion, 2020), Luigi Amara posits the wig as the supremely antiphilosophical object, more at home with the deceptive rhetorical chicanery of the Sophists (and for that reason also a supreme philosophical provocation).

But if philosophy and wigs are conceptually incompatible, this fact did not seem to bother Leibniz, who was perfectly comfortable with both. I would like to suggest, indeed, that the wig takes on enhanced significance if juxtaposed not only to philosophy in general but also to Leibniz’s philosophy in particular. One of the things Leibnizian metaphysics does is take Cartesian dualism and push it to an extreme: bodies and minds not only are of essentially different natures, as Descartes held, but also because of this they do not interact at all. But if bodies and minds cannot affect one another causally, Lebiniz argued, they nevertheless express each other. Every mental event is accompanied by some change in the bodily state of the entity experiencing it and vice versa. These expressive relations are not the result of direct mutual influence but are created by God as part of what Leibniz called pre-established harmony. In place of causal relations between mind and body, then, Leibniz posits something more like aesthetic ones.

Leibniz’s philosophy would claim, therefore, that his own bodily appearance is not unrelated to what goes on in his head…

On the philosophical Importance of fake hair: “Leibniz’s Peruke,” from @ColumbiaUP.

* Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz


As we ruminate on rugs, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Robert Pirsig; he was born on this date in 1928. A writer and philosopher, he is best known for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, an exploration of the underlying metaphysics of Western culture.

Pirsig had great difficulty finding a publisher for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He pitched the idea for his book to 121 different publishers, sending them a cover letter along with two sample pages; only 22 responding favorably, and then only tentatively.  Ultimately, an editor at William Morrow accepted the finished manuscript; when he did, his publisher’s internal recommendation averred, “This book is brilliant beyond belief, it is probably a work of genius, and will, I’ll wager, attain classic stature.”  Indeed, in his review, George Steiner compared Pirsig’s writing to Dostoevsky, Broch, Proust, and Bergson, arguing that “the assertion itself is valid … the analogies with Moby-Dick are patent.”


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