A Personal Dictionary

literature: n; 5.

We measure a great book by the quality of its shade. Terrible literature hurts our eyes precisely because of a lack of shade.

from A Personal Dictionary


Umberto's Speculum

Foucault's Pendulum
by Umberto Eco (tr. by William Weaver)

649 p
1989 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
ISBN 0151327563

"in effect, a long, erudite joke"
(Anthony Burgess, New York Times, Oct 15, 1989)

   Has a novel ever been retracted? Is such a question even meaningful?  In science a published work can be retracted if it can be demonstrated that the research in question was done fraudulently, or with a degree of carelessness which renders the results impossible to replicate (see Retraction Watch for examples). In the first case the intent is to mislead; in the second case the issue is incompetence. Nevertheless, both situations merit a retraction of the work from the published record. 

   If one was to retract a novel, could any of these two cases apply? Certainly plagiarism is a conscious intention to mislead and literature is no stranger to plagiarism. But what about the second category, what about incompetence? A poorly written, poorly researched, poorly constructed novel is simply a bad book. I would argue that such things have a right to exist if only to serve as examples of how not to write and what not to strive for. But what if the incompetence is such that the book becomes incoherent, so incoherent that it becomes another book, an absurd anti-book that the author neither intended nor is aware of. Do such books even exist?

   Umberto Eco (1932-2016) was "
an Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher, semiotician, and university professor. He was the founder of the Department of media studies at the University of the Republic of San Marino, president of the Graduate School for the Study of the Humanities at the University of Bologna, member of the Accademia dei Lincei, and an honorary fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford" (Wikipedia). One could say that Umberto was a fairly competent man in many regards. His novel Foucault's Pendulum is a satirical mystery drowned in kabbalistic, alchemical, and other esoteric references. Numerology also plays a key role in establishing the premise for the entire novel, the key element being that the major event towards which all action in the novel is directed will occur in the year 2000. The reason for this is detailed early in the novel and specifically on page 138:

   Highlighting the key passage:

error: n; 2. Not admitting an error was an error is a far greater assault on truth than the error itself for the reason that the possibility of truth is denied and is overcome by a leap of faith. (A Personal Dictionary)

   It could be argued that this is an example of an honest mistake. Yet, this mistake concerns the basis for the plot. 1344 is an important date and 666 is the number of the beast... these things were considered and reconsidered throughout the book. An honest mistake that is repeated endlessly is the definition of incompetence. But then again, this is a novel. We don't really care. If everything was supposed to happen in 2010 but everyone in the novel is scurrying towards a presumed climax in the year 2000, the novel becomes a parody of itself. It becomes another book, one that was neither foreseen nor intended by the author. And as such, and to answer the question I began with, this book deserves to exist as much as any other. Whether it merits being read is another issue.

   It should be noted that Eco received the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement in 2005. Apparently literary achievements do not include grade school level mathematical competence.  

   It should also not be forgotten that the translator is not innocent in this affair. In fact it seems quite something that a writer who could not add also found a translator who could not add. Or, perhaps, sadly this is not so surprising. William Weaver (1923-2013) was the translator for Umberto Eco into English. Amongst numerous other Italian writers he also translated all of Italo Calvino into English. Italo Calvino could add, that I know for certain. Therefore, it seems this venerable translator must share some of the blame.

   I suppose that what I am writing here could be considered as an expression of concern
   Unlike science, politics, journalism, and other activities where the respect for truth is necessary for the integrity and continuation of the activity in question, the writing of fiction should remain a domain where truth can be put into play. Apart from plagiarism, which should not be condoned and which should lead to retractions, gross instances of incompetence should be allowed to remain as manifestations of, if nothing else, unintentional and curious monuments to humility. 

laziness: n; 2. Laziness is a more popular guide than curiosity. – W. Benjamin. (A Personal Dictionary)



An essay by Michel de Montaigne
written in white chalk by Mike Schertzer

Nuit Blanche 2014 (Paris)
October 4th, 19h -7h
4 rue des Irlandais,
5th arr. Paris

map (pdf)

   My literary interventions are characterized by their fugacity. They are ephemeral, as are all of our efforts. In On Solitude Michel de Montaigne wrote, “In solitude be a crowd unto yourself”. This phrase, this command, has always been a touchstone for me. In this generalized insomnia that is our contemporary world, how can one nurture our capacity to dream? In this world where we all must submit to the dictature of time, how much time is necessary to express and transmit the essential ? Is it possible to stimulate the impulsion to dream, or inspire a creative desire in the blink of an eye? A man, alone— writing the words of an essay composed in the sixteenth century in chalk on a wall… is this enough to overcome the tyrrany of the quotidian? How can one humiliate all that seeks to eradicate our capacity to dream? Such is the nature of my effort, mon essai.

   In my work I approach and become intimate with absurdity, futility… because often beauty is not far from such things.

   Montaigne wrote, “In solitude be a crowd unto yourself”. In retracing the words of Montaigne my dream is to render his thoughts on the subject of solitude present to all those who pass by, to all those who should never forget that they will always merit their own solitude.

choose the good solitude (Nietzsche)

Nuit Blanche site (Ville de Paris)

some words on philosophy, health, solitude… and Michel de Montaigne

   "The soul that lodges philosophy, ought to be of such a constitution of health, as to render the body in like manner healthful too".

   Philosophy, health, solitude… these are subjects of prime concern for the sixteenth century philosopher and writer, Michel de Montaigne. Moreover, his treatment of these themes is still of interest to us today. “My work, and my art, it is to live” is a sentiment that merits not only our attention, but our admiration. His thinking and his essays remain contemporary and accessible. To visit his writing is to be welcomed with an unequalled generosity.

   When Montaigne speaks of sickness and suffering, he speaks of a subject which concerns him intimately. As did his father, Montaigne suffered from kidney stones— an extremely painful ailment that, in the sixteenth century, was fatal. No proven cure existed for his ailment and there were as many remedies as there were doctors— a fact which explains the well-known disdain Montaigne expressed towards doctors.

   Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that Montaigne encourages a rejection of medicine. Instead he favours a profound personal engagement with one’s illness and one’s suffering. “I carry within me my means of preservation, which are determination and patience”. Such a stoic response is founded upon Montaigne’s conception that the soul and the body are indivisible. “It is not a soul, and it is not a body which is our basis: it is a man”. The body is not against me, the body is me! When we are sick, as when we are in perfect health, it is not only the body that speaks to us.
   Health is often conceived as an empty concept, as an absence of illness… as goodness may be conceived as the absence of evil, or happiness as the absence of sadness. Such a conception banishes health from our lives so long as there persists the least trace of illness or unease. But is this justified… does illness possess the right to occupy and tyrannize every minute of our lives? For Montaigne health is not the absence of illness, but has a value in itself, “health, I say, I the most beautiful and the most rich gift that nature can offer us”.

   Nevertheless, illness is ever-present. It has the ability to find a way into our lives in unnumerable disguises; we even suffer anxieties for the illness that we sense but that has not arrived. “Anyone who is afraid of suffering suffers already of being afraid”. In other words, we are never beyond the reach of illness but it is within our power to resist its advances and limit its authority.

   But how does one confront pain and illness ? It is not a pharmacological question, but a moral question… and it is precisely the complexities of this question that Montaigne explores, and shares with us. In his essay On Solitude Montaigne writes, “You are no more to concern yourself how the world talks of you, but how you are to talk to yourself. Retire yourself into yourself, but first prepare yourself there to receive yourself”. The body in illness speaks to us in a voice we cannot ignore. Nevertheless, we must find a way to respond, to continue the conversation with ourselves, in a meaningful and creative way. Pain (like pleasure), illness (like health), “demands an even more profound engagement with our singularity” wrote Charles Taylor. Montaigne would have been in complete agreement. It is a fidelity with oneself which bears the key to health… and to our irrepar
ably human life.

   Montaigne does not just write for those who are suffering from illness, but also for those who assume the responsibility of caring for the ill, for those who dare to cure them. For such people the thinking of Montaigne offers cautions regarding the limits of our knowledge, humilty in the face of our science, and courage when confronted with our ignorance. In fact, whether doctor or patient, our responsiility to ourselves remains the same : know yourself.

                                                                     — MS

We speak to break our solitude;
we write to prolong it.
                                                                - Edmond Jabès

 ... I would lke to thank Solène Dubois, Cécile Charré, Selma Mutal, 
la ville de Paris, et l'Institut Curie— 
who were indispensable for this adventure.

this work was realized with the support of the Institut Curie (Paris)   www.curie.fr


The Perjury Which Denies or Destroys Reality

The Death of Virgil
by Hermann Broch

493 p
1976; Pantheon Books
ISBN 0-8446-1742-3

‘what goal is it that you seek?’

   This is the question Caesar Augustus puts to his dying friend, the poet, Virgil. This goal— which is the justification for Virgil’s desire to burn his epic poem the Aeneid, an act which Augustus not only does not comprehend, but regards as criminal, is the focus of a confrontation between an emperor and a dying poet, and is the heart of Hermann Broch’s epic prose-poem, and masterwork, The Death of Virgil.

   Concerned about a rumour that the dying Virgil desires to burn his poem, the Aeneid, Augustus pays him a visit during which he wishes to take possession of the poem, in the name of the Roman people, to preserve what is and has been. In addition, he wishes to understand why Virgil intends to burn his masterpiece. To understand the position of Virgil, to situate the goal of Virgil’s striving in relation to the civic duty to which Augustus relegates it one must adopt a conception of art that is opposed to truth, in such a way that art will always be insufficient when its goal is truth. In such a schema, one can imagine three classes of insufficiency, or failure, regarding a work of art:

i) successful failure describes the situation where the goal of a work of art is successfully attained, but the work that remains is insufficient to express this;
ii) common failure describes the situation where the goal of a work of art is not attained, and the work of art that remains is insufficient to express the unattainable goal;
iii) absolute failure is a form of technical success where the goal of a work of art is attained and the work of art that remains is sufficient to express this goal.

   Successful failure and common failure are the domains of sincere artists, which is to say, they are largey uninhabited. Conversely, absolute failure is a comfortable and popular retreat; it is regarded as success, and often seems like a success as long as one does not regard such a work, which is wholly concerned with practical goals, in relation to a work that manifests successful failure. For those who cannot bear the unattainable, they will seek shelter with ‘the divinity of beauty, which is only a sham-beauty’. For Virgil, the predictable striving of the ‘death-herd of concurrent identities’ will never find themselves on the other side of a poem because they refuse to admit such a thing exists. The temptation to stop at what is attainable will forever separate the technician, the decorator, from the sincere artist. In answer to the question, ‘what goal is it that you seek?’, Virgil, pointing to the poem, his poem, which is the only goal Augustus can understand, proclaims, not that, ‘it is in my way’. And so, Virgil wishes to destroy his poem.

   ‘He who praised a verse as such, without troubling about the reality of its meaning, confused the thing created with the thing which creates, became consciously or unconsciously guilty of the perjury which denies or destroys reality’.

poem: n; 49. The poem, at its best, reveals to you how far you have fallen... how far you still must travel... for most, perhaps all, this is the most unbearable necessary knowledge. (A Personal Dictionary)

   This is of course a vision of pure art, or pure poetry, and such a conception is almost always dismissed for its impracticability. But impracticability is no argument against its truth.

incoherency: n; It is in those moments when all becomes clear, when inexplicables converge into a seemingly common purpose, that a writer, a thinker, betrays the ability and the will to honestly and coherently engage the insoluble incoherencies of being alive. (A Personal Dictionary)

   The status of a work of art is the subject of the argument between Augustus and Virgil. For Augustus, the resultant work is the goal, ‘one can judge [only] what remains’, all else is of no consequence, and to strive for such a thing is an abdication of one’s duty. And duty is precisely the limit of the Augustan approach to a work of art. He cannot and will not go further. However, as is often forgotten, as is often denied, "in the world one cannot create by obedience alone" (N. Berdyaev).

   For Augustus, the artist brings form from formlessness, as exemplified in a sculpture. However, for Virgil, this ideal is precisely the problem. If the ideal of a sculpture is accepted, one would have to continue, via the so-called finished figure, sculpting it until nothing remains. In other words, the figure is a means to achieve this total sculpture, or nothingness. For Virgil, the works that remain, all the results of artistic production, ‘where the beautiful is substituted for truth’, are problematic. They obscure what is not evident; the finished veils the unfinished. Furthermore, in the universe of finished works (including works in progress) we become prejudiced in the midst of so much being and assume that there is nothing more. And so, bound to duties that grudgingly tolerate us, we habituate ourselves, ‘the speech-robbed non-solidarity of unrelated beings’, within an empire of cruel temporality dedicated to the unrelenting industrial glorifications of evil endlessness. For Augustus, such an empire can only be crowned with glory; for Virgil, ‘a world full of deeds yet empty of perception’, is one that must be traversed.

   Virgil (or, Broch’s Virgil) is a committed adherent to the aforementioned successful failure. He experiences, and pursues, the ‘not quite here but yet at hand’. The poem can lead to truth, but it cannot arrive. His torment is the torment of all those who seek the moment when ‘the universe, [is] dissolved and acquitted in the word’.

insufficiency: n; 1. Even if a poem, or the compulsion towards poetry, is an intellectual apex, it nevertheless always reveals the insufficiency of our minds in the presence of those forces and experiences which provoked the poetic response. 2. The fact that most people are incapable of bearing true freedom and are so resolute in their ability to withstand the temptation of freedom does not mean they should be deprived of the opportunity experiencing their insufficiency. 3. All that we do, no matter how well, or how thoroughly, is insufficient. And so, we must go further.(A Personal Dictionary)

   And so, to the question ‘what goal is it that you seek?’, Virgil does have an answer— one whose unacceptability to Augustus is a measure of its sincerity— ‘to understand death’. It is that second immensity, that truth that stands only on the far shore, which is his goal, and which is the proper goal of all art. And to reach this shore, to be able to perceive the truth that reigns there, the vessel can only be sacrifice. The poem can herald the truth, but it cannot survive it.

‘To include all life within yourself and to be excluded from all life’— such is the poet’s glory, and such is the extent of his sacrifice.

   In the end, Augustus leaves in possession of the Aeneid. Successful in saving the manuscript from the flames, his victory was not a result of superior arguments, nor due to the weariness of a dying opponent. For Virgil, to consign his creation to the flames, or to deliver it to a people who will never understand the goal for which he was willing to perform such a sacrifice, is to consign it to equivalent obscurities. ‘Creation is more than form, creation is resolution’— and it is such a resolution which art attempts to communicate, and which, almost always and everywhere, it fails to do... almost.

incommunicability: n; The essential truth that every writer discovers is something that most writers refuse to accept. And of all writers it is only a poet who is most likely to grant this truth the respect it deserves, as it is also only a poet who will be able to live with and work with it. This truth, to those who do not wish to acknowledge it, or who wish to run away from it, is a threat— the most important aspect of a person, of a life, resides in its incommunicability. (A Personal Dictionary)


The Unbearable Truth

(some thoughts on the pathology of writer's block)

   To claim writer’s block is to admit to not being a writer, while at the same time pretending to be one.

   The phenomenon of writer’s block has always been a mystery to me, something that would be at home in a museum of oddities along with the Loch Ness monster, Sasquatch, Mesmerism… Every pronouncement of writer’s block has never elicited more than skepticism from me. As a science undergraduate I took some electives in a department of Creative Writing. It was there that I first encountered the claims of writer’s block. In fact I faced examples of its manifestations before I encountered any examples of creative writing— the so-called fiction instructor had been suffering from it for many years, and the only thing he had written was a list of things that one could not write about (and which he solemnly handed out to the class). Imagine a chemistry professor stating to the class that he had chemistry-block... his resignation would follow soon after. Of course there were some students who were also stricken. As I listened to them describing the particularities of their ailment I considered that if only they wrote down what they were saying, they would be cured. Then again, who wants to be a doctor prosecuted by a cook before a jury of children who are fonder of sweets than they are of bitter medicine (Socrates).
   I should add that for my entire adult life I have written every day. This is not hyperbole. Every day, in sickness and in health, something literate has been attended to, edited, amended, erased, continued… And it is for this reason and this reason only, that I feel justified in calling myself a writer.

writer: n; 19. For any writer there is only one truth, and it is the most difficult truth to remain faithful to— a writer must write what is their’s to write. Sometimes profound, lifelong silences might be required in order to approach just such a unique creative possibility. And along with silence there are the false starts, the labyrinths, the traps, and the seemingly endless forests of failure and banality that anticipate every courageous exploration. It is therefore understandable why most would rather write specifically for the sake of writing, if only to avoid, with every word, the responsibilities and the fidelity owed to the truth they cannot bear.(A Personal Dictionary)

   To be a writer is to write. It is that simple. And so it follows that if one does not write, one is not a writer. There is no such thing as builder’s block for an architect, or experiment block for a scientist. There are certainly frustrations, just as there may be conditions that make the realization of one’s work impossible. Nevertheless, in such examples one would still do all one could expecting that perhaps one day the restrictive conditions might change. To cease the activities required of an architect or an experimental scientist is to cease being such a thing. The same holds for being a writer. There are many aspects to being a writer beyond putting a pen to paper. To claim that all such activities are blocked is to cease being a writer. Moreover, to insist that one’s malady is so debilitating that it affects one’s ability to even conceive of any written activity is so obviously hysterical that to comment on it can only lend it validity. But I am commenting on it, if only to indicate its complete lack of validity.

   Again— to claim writer’s block is to admit to not being a writer, while at the same time pretending to be one. To be sure, this phenomenon is evidence of some sort of debility— but one that has more to do with delusional thinking than with writing.

   If one is a writer, there is no excuse for not writing, except of course if one is exhausted, physically and mentally from writing. But this is precisely what is not claimed by the stricken. When one remembers a true poet like Osip Mandelstam, who composed poems in his head because the presence of written records of his activity was for him, in Stalinist Russia, a death sentence, it is evident that for a writer, there is truly no excuse for not writing. The excuses such as I am too busy, or I have nothing to write about deserve no comment. There is always something to write— a letter, even a letter to someone who does not exist, or a response to something one has read, editing of old work, the composition of a list of titles of books one would like to write (including a brief synopsis), a manifesto, a refusal speech for an award one will never win, a suicide note… the universe of possible writing is indeed infinite. To claim writer’s block is to demonstrate one’s unwillingness to enter, or participate in such a universe. It is also to forget that there is no other universe.
   In the end, to write is to live. The stereotype of the writer, who exists sheltered from life and the living, is an argument from incredulity. The committed writer could not be more engaged with the world of the living. And this is why it is a rare thing to be a writer.

writing: n; 12. That generative residue, that which persists and which in the end is represented by the words and the book it has left behind is identical with the subject who, in the end, is represented by the moments and by the life he has left behind. (A Personal Dictionary)

   If to suffer from writer’s block means only that one does not write, and such an ailment affects the majority of humanity. Yet, it is only a small minority of these sufferers who claim that they actually are writers and that, if it was not for their illness, they would have no shortage of evidence to justify their claim. One has to ask why they desire to proclaim such a thing. They are no different from the mass of humanity that does not write. There is nothing shameful in this. At the same time, apart from a lack of self-knowledge and some innocuous dishonesty, there is nothing malicious about claiming to be a writer when one is not. After all, some people claim to be the living incarnation of Christ, or St. Peter, and we understand the true nature of their debility— and it is not salvation-block.

   There is always the possibility that the one who claims to be suffering from writer’s block is consenting to the discomforts of delusional thinking in order to save themselves from the perceived horror, and the true suffering, that would ensue should they allow themselves to admit an unbearable truth.

write: v; 9. What we do not write for those do exist, we write for those who do not exist. (A Personal Dictionary)