The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann, (tr. by H. T. Lowe-Porter)

I’d heard so much about this book and have been meaning to read it for so long that I was very excited that it was finally chosen for Great Books. It’s been on the suggestion list before but never got enough votes. But I was quite disappointed, especially compared to the other Mann we’ve read, Death in Venice. The monologues and dialogues with Settembrini and Naphta were too frequent, too long, and too tedious. I had been looking forward to the theme of time and its subjectivity, but not much of that felt fresh. I did enjoy the cozyness of wrapping yourself in blankets and fur sleepsacks amidst the snows, and the impact of new technology like the x-rays and the gramophone was interesting. The most memorable bits were Hans Calstrop’s memories of his schoolmate Pribislav Hippe (the “Kirghiz”), who lent him a pencil, and the chapter “Snow” about Calstrop getting lost in a storm and dreaming of utopia. One of the Great Books participants, who loved it, says the book is about Germans blindly following the Nazis, not caring or paying attention to what was going on around them. As Mann said in the afterword:

You will have got from my book an idea of the narrowness of this charmed circle of isolation and invalidism. It is a sort of substitute existence, and it can, in a relatively short time, wholly wean a young person from actual and active life. Everything there, including the conception of time, is thought of on a luxurious scale. The cure is always a matter of several months, often of several years. But after the first six months the young person has not a single idea left save flirtation and the thermometer under his tongue. After the second six months in many cases he has even lost the capacity for any other ideas. He will become completely incapable of life in the flatland.

The translation seems quite problematic – I went back to compare the German and often couldn’t find the passage without a lot of effort because the match up is so loose. To my surprise, I stumbled across the fact that occasionally L-P took dialogue in German between Castorp and Clavdia, who often speak French to each other, and translated it into French? Why??? For example, Clavdia says “Du wirst das verstehen” and L-P renders it as “Tu peux comprendre çela” [sic – should be “cela”] So weird!

Short quotes

  • “It went against his grain to eat butter served in the piece instead of in little fluted balls.”
  • “the feeling of reckless sweetness he had felt for the first time when he tried to imagine himself free of the burden of a good name, and tasted the boundless joys of shame”
  • “One always has the idea of a stupid man as perfectly healthy and ordinary, and of illness as making one refined and clever and unusual.”
  • “He talks so well; the words come jumping out of his mouth so round and appetizing — when I listen to him, I keep seeing a picture of fresh hot rolls in my mind’s eye.”
  • Dr. Krokowski says “Symptoms of disease are nothing but a disguised manifestation of the power of love; and all disease is only love transformed.”
  • “the eyes said thou, for that is the language of the eyes, even when the tongue uses a more formal address”
  • Joachim: “You will find that when people discuss and express their views nothing ever comes of it but confusion worse confounded. I tell you, it doesn’t matter in the least what a man’s views are, so long as he is a decent chap. The best thing is to have no opinions, and just do one’s duty.”
  • “Their spirits, particularly the sallow Frau Magnus’s, were proof against any ray of cheer; forlornity exhaled from her like damp from a cellar.”
  • “Walking, he thrust the end of his stick in the snow and watched the blue light follow it out of the hole it made. That he liked; and stood for long at a time to test the little optical phenomenon. It was a strange, a subtle colour, this greenish-blue; colour of the heights and deeps, ice-clear, yet holding shadow in its depths, mysteriously exquisite.”
  • Snowflakes: “little jewels, insignia, orders, agraffes —no jeweller, however skilled, could do finer, more minute work”
  • Conserve jars: “The magic part of it lies in the fact that the stuff that is conserved is withdrawn from the effects of time, it is hermetically sealed from time, time passes it by, it stands there on its shelf shut away from time.”
  • Behrens on a new resident: “Not much hope, my lad; really none at all, I suppose. Of course, we’ll try everything that’s good and costs money.”
  • Tears: “those clear drops flowing in such bitter abundance every hour of our day all over our world, till in sheer poetic justice we have named the earth we live in after them” (meaning “the vale of tears”?)
  • Re Mynheer Peeperkorn, whose name I could not read without laughing: “his trouser pockets … are put in running up and down, not like yours and mine and most people’s of our class.”
  • Also about him: “He had said absolutely nothing. But look, manner, and gestures were so peremptory, perfervid, pregnant, that all, even Hans Castorp, were convinced they had heard something of high moment; or, if aware of the total lack of matter and sequence in the speech, certainly never missed it.” The same observation recurs in a longer quote below.

Long quotes

[from the foreword] We shall tell it at length, thoroughly, in detail — for when did a narrative seem too long or too short by reasons of the actual time or space it took up? We do not fear being called meticulous, inclining as we do to the view that only the exhaustive can be truly interesting.

Space, rolling and revolving between him and his native heath, possessed and wielded the powers we generally ascribe to time. From hour to hour it worked changes in him, like to those wrought by time, yet in a way even more striking. Space, like time, engenders forgetfulness ; but it does so by setting us bodily free from our surroundings and giving us back our primitive, unattached state. Yes, it can even, in the twinkling of an eye, make something like a vagabond of the pedant and Philistine. Time, we say, is Lethe; but change of air is a similar draught, and, if it works less thoroughly, does so more quickly.

A familiar feeling pervaded the child: a strange, dreamy, troubling sense: of change in the midst of duration, of time as both flowing and persisting, of recurrence in continuity — these were sensations he had felt before on the like occasion, and both expected and longed for again, whenever the heirloom [baptism basin] was displayed.

Habituation is a falling asleep or fatiguing of the sense of time ; which explains why young years pass slowly, while later life flings itself faster and faster upon its course. We are aware that the intercalation of periods of change and novelty is the only means by which we can refresh our sense of time, strengthen, retard, and rejuvenate it, and therewith renew our perception of life itself. Such is the purpose of our changes of air and scene, of all our sojourns at cures and bathing resorts; it is the secret of the healing power of change and incident. Our first days in a new place, time has a youthful, that is to say, a broad and sweeping, flow, persisting for some six or eight days. Then, as one “gets used to the place,” a gradual shrinkage makes itself felt. He who clings or, better expressed, wishes to cling to life, will shudder to see how the days grow light and lighter, how they scurry by like dead leaves, until the last week, of some four, perhaps, is uncannily fugitive and fleet. On the other hand, the quickening of the sense of time will flow out beyond the interval and reassert itself after the return to ordinary existence: the first days at home after the holiday will be lived with a broader flow, freshly and youthfully — but only the first few, for one adjusts oneself more quickly to the rule than to the exception; and if the sense of time be already weakened by age, or — and this is a sign of low vitality — it was never very well developed, one drowses quickly back into the old life, and after four-and-twenty hours it is as though one had never been away, and the journey had been but a watch in the night.

Our account of the first three weeks of Hans Castorp’s stay … has consumed in the telling an amount of time and space only too well confirming the author’s half-confessed expectations; while our narrative of his next three weeks will scarcely cost as many lines, or even words and minutes, as the earlier three did pages, quires, hours, and working-days. We apprehend that these next three weeks will be over and done with in the twinkling of an eye.

Which is perhaps surprising; yet quite in order, and conformable to the laws that govern the telling of stories and the listening to them. For it is in accordance with these laws that time seems to us just as long, or just as short, that it expands or contracts precisely in the way, and to the extent, that it did for young Hans Castorp.

Waiting means hurrying on ahead, it means regarding time and the present moment not as a boon, but an obstruction; it means making their actual content null and void, by mentally overleaping them. Waiting, we say, is long. We might just as well — or more accurately — say it is short, since it consumes whole spaces of time without our living them or making any use of them as such. We may compare him who lives on expectation to a greedy man, whose digestive apparatus works through quantities of food without converting it into anything of value or nourishment to his system. We might almost go so far as to say that, as undigested food makes man no stronger, so time spent in waiting makes him no older.

[Naphta says] The Fathers of the Church called mine and thine pernicious words, and private property usurpation and robbery. They repudiated the idea of personal possessions, because, according to divine and natural law, the earth is common to all men, and brings forth her fruits for the common good. They taught that avarice, a consequence of the Fall, represents the rights of property and is the source of private ownership. They were humane enough, anti-commercial enough, to feel that all commercial activity was a danger to the soul of man and its salvation. They hated money and finance, and called the empire of capital fuel for the fires of hell. The fundamental economic principle that price is regulated by the operation of the law of supply and demand, they have always despised from the bottom of their hearts; and condemned taking advantage of chance as a cynical exploitation of a neighbour’s need. Even more nefarious, in their eyes, was the exploitation of time; the monstrousness of receiving a premium for the passage of time — interest, in other words — and misusing to one’s own advantage and another’s disadvantage a universal and God-given dispensation.

Not sure I understand this at all? But it’s in the mouth of Naphta, who often says nutty things. And maybe I haven’t run with the right kind of Protestants:

Judaism, by virtue of its secular and materialistic leanings, its socialism, its political adroitness, had actually more in common with Catholicism than the latter had with the mystic subjectivity and self-immolation of Protestantism; the conversion of a Jew to the Roman Catholic faith was accordingly a distinctly less violent spiritual rupture than was that of a Protestant.

“Ah, the trees, the trees! Oh, living climate of the living — how sweet it smells! “

It was a park. It lay beneath the terrace on which he seemed to stand — a spreading park of luxuriant green shade-trees, elms, planes, beeches, birches, oaks, all in the dappled light and shade of their fresh, full, shimmering foliage, and gently rustling tips. They breathed a deliciously moist, balsamic breath into the air. A warm shower passed over them, but the rain was sunlit. One could see high up in the sky the whole air filled with the bright ripple of raindrops. How lovely it was! Oh, breath of the homeland, oh, fragrance and abundance of the plain, so long foregone!

Narration resembles music in this, that it fills up the time. It “fills it in” and “breaks it up,” so that “there’s something to it,” “something going on” … For time is the medium of narration, as it is the medium of life. Both are inextricably bound up with it, as inextricably as are bodies in space. Similarly, time is the medium of music; music divides, measures, articulates time, and can shorten it, yet enhance its value, both at once. Thus music and narration are alike, in that they can only present themselves as a flowing, as a succession in time, as one thing after another; and both differ from the plastic arts, which are complete in the present, and unrelated to time save as all bodies are, whereas narration — like music — even if it should try to be completely present at any given moment, would need time to do it in.

“Mynheer Peeperkorn has a gift, say what you like; and thus it is he can stick us all in his pocket. Put Herr Naphta in one corner of the room, and let him deliver a discourse on Gregory the Great and the City of God — it would be highly worth listening to — and put Mynheer Peeperkorn in the other, with his extraordinary mouth and the wrinkles on his forehead, and let him not say a word except ‘By all means — capital — settled, ladies and gentlemen!’ You will see everybody gather round Peeperkorn, and Herr Naphta will be sitting there alone with his cleverness and his City of God, though he may be uttering such penetrating wisdom that it pierces through marrow and cucumber, as Behrens says.”

In this book I learned

  • Third breakfast! Wikipedia only traces it here, but I doubt Mann made it up.
  • I can’t find anything about “Scotch-thread drawers” online except in full-text versions of MM, but looking up the German original it’s “file d’écosse-Unterhose.” So the translation should really be “lisle underwear.” (I doubt my blog has enough Google traction to make “Scotch-thread drawers” come up in this context – I posted the first instance of “kalegarth” back in 2005 and now it doesn’t even come up (because the blog was inaccessible for years and I’ll never get my rankings back, ah well…))
  • Original sweaters: “The women wore chiefly close-fitting jackets of wool or silk — the so-called sweater — in white or colours, with turnover collars and side pockets.” Cardigans, I guess. The German has “sogenannte Sweater… mit Fallkragen und Seitentaschen.” Love those Compound Nouns!
  • I knew Blue Peter only as the British television show, which supposedly refers to a flag indicating a vessel is about the leave, but here it’s a sputum flask. Again the translation is weird, though – it’s “Blauen Heinrich,” Blue Henry, and that’s how it’s most commonly known in English. There’s even a book – looks interesting. Blue Peter is a known variant in English, but I’d love to get more information.
  • Gala Peter chocolate
  • Formamint – “Formamint was a lozenge made up of formaldehyde, milk sugar, citric acid and pepsin-hydrochloric acid” per this very interesting-looking article I want to go back and read someday…
  • Jonathan had just told me about the parlor game of sketching a pig with one’s eyes closed, and here it is in MM, one of the faddish parlor games the residents play.
  • Soldanella, which Mann describes as having “little eye-lashed bells of rose-color, purple, and blue”
  • Coincidentally, Jonathan was reading the September 1927 issue of The Bookman and came across this: “Thomas Mann, author of The Magic Mountain, seems to be winning American favor even greater than that of Hermann Sudermann, whose Song of Songs was for long the most popular of modern novels translated from the German.” Wikipedia says “after 1945, [Sudermann’s] plays and novels were almost completely forgotten,” but Song of Songs has an entry, and the Garbo vehicle Flesh and the Devil was based on one of his novels.
  • Tula-silver-handled cane (Tulasilberkrücke): synonym for niello, found on the very helpful Canequest site
  • Skilly – but in the original it’s Linsen, lentils!
  • The Seven Sleepers
  • Philopena (Vielliebchen, translated “philippina”)
  • Weird fact: Boris Johnson is the great-grandson of the translator.

The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy, 1878

The second Hardy we’ve read for Great Books – what an interesting and weird book! I loved the description of Egdon Heath and how Thomasin feels at home there while Damon hates it. Eustacia Vye is a fascinating character, and timorous Christian provides good comic relief.

Short quotes

  • “his painfully circular eyes, surrounded by concentric lines like targets”
  • “‘When folks are just married ’tis as well to look glad o’t, since looking sorry won’t unjoin ’em.'”
  • “the hearty tones natural when the words demanded by politeness coincide with those of deepest feeling”
  • Contrast of Eustacia’s mouth with the locals “whose lips met like the two halves of a muffin”
  • “‘Little children think there’s only one cuckoo, one fox, one giant, one devil, and one reddleman, when there’s lots of us all.'”
  • “thought is a disease of flesh… ideal physical beauty is incompatible with emotional development and a full recognition of the coil of things”
  • “To be yearning for the difficult, to be weary of that offered; to care for the remote, to dislike the near… This is the true mark of the man of sentiment.”
  • “men are drawn from their intentions even in the course of carrying them out”
  • “the players appeared only in outline against the sky; except when the circular mouths of the trombone, ophicleide, and French horn gleamed out like huge eyes from the shade of their figures”
  • A hot, dry day: “large-leaved plants of a tender kind flagged by ten o’clock in the morning; rhubarb bent downward at eleven; and even stiff cabbages were limp by noon”
  • “the quiet way of one who, though willing to ward off evil consequences by a mild effort, would let events fall out as they might sooner than wrestle hard to direct them” (Eustacia)
  • Eustacia again: “instead of blaming herself for the issue she laid the fault upon the shoulders of some indistinct, colossal Prince of the World, who had framed her situation and ruled her lot.”
  • “oozing lumps of fleshy fungi, which at this season lay scattered about the heath like the rotten liver and lungs of some colossal animal”
  • Dickens said it better but differently: “Resources do not depend upon gross amounts, but upon the proportion of spendings to takings”
  • A toddler: “of the age when it is a matter of doubt with such characters whether they are intended to walk through the world on their hands or on their feet; so that they get into painful complications by trying both.”

Long quotes

“I ha’n’t been [to church] these three years,” said Humphrey; “for I’m so dead sleepy of a Sunday; and ’tis so terrible far to get there; and when you do get there ’tis such a mortal poor chance that you’ll be chose for up above, when so many bain’t, that I bide at home and don’t go at all.”

In an ordinary village or country town one can safely calculate that, either on Christmas day or the Sunday contiguous, any native home for the holidays, who has not through age or ennui lost the appetite for seeing and being seen, will turn up in some pew or other, shining with hope, self-consciousness, and new clothes. Thus the congregation on Christmas morning is mostly a Tussaud collection of celebrities who have been born in the neighbourhood.

A traditional pastime is to be distinguished from a mere revival in no more striking feature than in this, that while in the revival all is excitement and fervour, the survival is carried on with a stolidity and absence of stir which sets one wondering why a thing that is done so perfunctorily should be kept up at all. Like Balaam and other unwilling prophets, the agents seem moved by an inner compulsion to say and do their allotted parts whether they will or no. This unweeting manner of performance is the true ring by which, in this refurbishing age, a fossilized survival may be known from a spurious reproduction.

On Egdon there was no absolute hour of the day. The time at any moment was a number of varying doctrines professed by the different hamlets, some of them having originally grown up from a common root, and then become divided by secession, some having been alien from the beginning. West Egdon believed in Blooms-End time, East Egdon in the time of the Quiet Woman Inn. Grandfer Cantle’s watch had numbered many followers in years gone by, but since he had grown older faiths were shaken. Thus, the mummers having gathered hither from scattered points each came with his own tenets on early and late; and they waited a little longer as a compromise.

Neither the man nor the woman lost dignity by sudden death. Misfortune had struck them gracefully, cutting off their erratic histories with a catastrophic dash, instead of, as with many, attenuating each life to an uninteresting meagreness, through long years of wrinkles, neglect, and decay.

In this book I learned about

Daniel Deronda – George Eliot, 1876

It’s no Middlemarch but I’m glad I read it. Opinions divided in the Great Books group about the first half, which focuses on Gwendolyn, versus the second half, which is more Daniel’s story. I found Gwendolyn tiresome, and her suitor/husband Grandcourt purely horrible – much more of a villain than anyone in Middlemarch. My favorite character is Princess Halm-Eberstein, who gives a powerful feminist speech near the end.

Short quotes

  • “Having always been the pet and pride of the household… she naturally found it difficult to think her own pleasure less important than others made it”
  • “Was there ever a young lady or gentleman not ready to give up an unspecified indulgence for the sake of the favorite one specified?”
  • “In the school-room her quick mind had taken readily that strong starch of unexplained rules and disconnected facts which saves ignorance from any painful sense of limpness”
  • “the sort of question which often comes without any other apparent reason than the faculty of speech and the not knowing what to do with it”
  • “Much quotation of any sort, even in English is bad. It tends to choke ordinary remark. One couldn’t carry on life comfortably without a little blindness to the fact that everything had been said better than we can put it ourselves.”
  • “sort of contemplative mood perhaps more common in the young men of our day—that of questioning whether it were worth while to take part in the battle of the world: I mean, of course, the young men in whom the unproductive labor of questioning is sustained by three or five per cent, on capital which somebody else has battled for.”
  • “authorship—a vocation which is understood to turn foolish thinking into funds”
  • “Their faces seemed full of speech, as if their minds had been shelled, after the manner of horse-chestnuts, and become brightly visible.”
  • “The days and months pace over us like restless little birds, and leave the marks of their feet backward and forward; especially when they are like birds with heavy hearts—then they tread heavily.”
  • “What should we all do without the calendar, when we want to put off a disagreeable duty? The admirable arrangements of the solar system, by which our time is measured, always supply us with a term before which it is hardly worth while to set about anything we are disinclined to.”
  • “I wonder why he fixed on me as the musical one? Was it because I have a bulging forehead, ma, and peep from under it like a newt from under a stone?”
  • “… pressing his lips together, rubbing his black head with both his hands and wrinkling his brow horizontally, with the expression of one who differs from every speaker, but does not think it worth while to say so. There is a sort of human paste that when it comes near the fire of enthusiasm is only baked into harder shape.”
  • “day followed day with that want of perceived leisure which belongs to lives where there is no work to mark off intervals”
  • “To have a pattern cut out—‘this is the Jewish woman; this is what you must be; this is what you are wanted for; a woman’s heart must be of such a size and no larger, else it must be pressed small, like Chinese feet; her happiness is to be made as cakes are, by a fixed receipt.’”
  • Quoting William Browne: “A wretch so empty that if e’er there be / In nature found the least vacuity / T’will be in him.”
  • “we were as different as the inside and the outside of the bowl”
  • Reading the lists of marriages in the newspaper gave Mrs. Meyrick “the pleasant sense of finishing the fashionable novels without having read them, and seeing the heroes and heroines happy without knowing what poor creatures they were.”
  • “Those who have been indulged by fortune and have always thought of calamity as what happens to others, feel a blind incredulous rage at the reversal of their lot, and half believe that their wild cries will alter the course of the storm.”
  • “What outpourer of his own affairs is not tempted to think any hint of his friend’s affairs is an egotistic irrelevance?”

In this book I learned about:

  • byssus: very fine cloth, or the attachment of mussels
  • scent of russia – ie Russian leather
  • making plates with playing cards – I can’t find specifics about this game. It sounds like they are tossed together? “The grandmother had a pack of cards before her and was making “plates” with the children. A plate had just been thrown down and kept itself whole. … The plate bore several tossings before it came to pieces.”
  • anecdote: “the dying Copernicus made to touch the first printed copy of his book when the sense of touch was gone, seeing it only as a dim object through the deepening dusk”
  • stiving: “to shut up in a warm close place”

Deronda on gambling – I have never thought about it from this angle, and it resonates:

I think it would be better for men not to gamble. It is a besotting kind of taste, likely to turn into a disease. And, besides, there is something revolting to me in raking a heap of money together, and internally chuckling over it, when others are feeling the loss of it. I should even call it base, if it were more than an exceptional lapse. There are enough inevitable turns of fortune which force us to see that our gain is another’s loss:—that is one of the ugly aspects of life. One would like to reduce it as much as one could, not get amusement out of exaggerating it.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values – Robert Pirsig, 1974

Re-read for Great Books; I remember my dad reading it in the ’70s, and I first picked it up myself in college (maybe another re-read in my 20s or so? not sure). I do think it’s not aged particularly well, but I wasn’t vastly disappointed the way most of the others were.

The contrast between the narrator and his friend John, who doesn’t want to deal with technology, is still fascinating to me (see long quote below). As a hands-one person myself, I resonate so hard with the narrator. But he’s such a jerk to his poor son Chris, who is only ELEVEN! Other book group people were agitated about him taking Chris on the trip because of physical safety – that didn’t bother me, but the lack of emotional safety/support did. And the lack of understanding of a child, expecting him to act like an adult. “He’s angry and I expect we’re going to have one of his little scenes.” The contempt! Ugh.

I did enjoy the reveal of Phaedrus (the narrator’s former self), concluding with “Unusual behavior tends to produce estrangement in others which tends to further the unusual behavior and thus the estrangement in self-stoking cycles until some sort of climax is reached. In Phaedrus’ case there was a court-ordered police arrest and permanent removal from society.” It becomes like a detective story. I don’t always agree with Phaedrus, but his observations on science and teaching are fascinating. But I really trip over “Quality” as his primary value – pace Humpty Dumpty, I can’t make it mean what he wants it to mean.

Short quotes

  • “The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away.”
  • “Physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much.”
  • “Logic exists in the mind. Numbers exist only in the mind. I don’t get upset when scientists say that ghosts exist in the mind. It’s that only that gets me. Science is only in your mind too, it’s just that that doesn’t make it bad. Or ghosts either.”
  • “what old time radio men called a ‘short between the ear-phones,’ failures to use the head properly”
  • “The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know.”
  • “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”
  • “I know how instructions like this are put together. You go out on the assembly line with a tape recorder and the foreman sends you to talk to the guy he needs least, the biggest goof-off he’s got, and whatever he tells you—that’s the instructions. The next guy might have told you something completely different and probably better, but he’s too busy.”
  • “This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous.”
  • “One thing about pioneers that you don’t hear mentioned is that they are invariably, by their nature, mess-makers. They go forging ahead, seeing only their noble, distant goal, and never notice any of the crud and debris they leave behind them. Someone else gets to clean that up and it’s not a very glamorous or interesting job.”
  • “That wall in Korea that Phaedrus saw was an act of technology. It was beautiful, but not because of any masterful intellectual planning or any scientific supervision of the job, or any added expenditures to ‘stylize’ it. It was beautiful because the people who worked on it had a way of looking at things that made them do it right unselfconsciously. They didn’t separate themselves from the work in such a way as to do it wrong.”
  • “I like the word ‘gumption’ because it’s so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along.” (I did not get how “gumption” was connected to Quality – more Humpty Dumpty. But I loved coming across it because it’s a byword on the wonderful Ask a Manager site.)
  • “There isn’t a mechanic alive who doesn’t louse up a job once in a while. The main difference between you and the commercial mechanics is that when they do it you don’t hear about it—just pay for it, in additional costs prorated through all your bills. When you make the mistakes yourself, you at least get the benefit of some education.”
  • “I have heard that there are two kinds of welders: production welders, who don’t like tricky setups and enjoy doing the same thing over and over again; and maintenance welders, who hate it when they have to do the same job twice. The advice was that if you hire a welder make sure which kind he is, because they’re not interchangeable.”
  • “The conversation’s pace intrigues me. It isn’t intended to go anywhere, just fill the time of day. I haven’t heard steady slow-paced conversation like that since the thirties when my grandfather and great-grandfather and uncles and great-uncles used to talk like that: on and on and on with no point or purpose other than to fill time, like the rocking of a chair.”
  • “the tendency underlying all the evil of our technology, the tendency to do what is ‘reasonable’ even when it isn’t any good
  • “When a shepherd goes to kill a wolf, and takes his dog to see the sport, he should take care to avoid mistakes. The dog has certain relationships to the wolf the shepherd may have forgotten.”

Longer quotes

In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.

But what struck me for the first time was the agreement of these manuals with the spectator attitude I had seen in the shop. These were spectator manuals. It was built into the format of them. Implicit in every line is the idea that “Here is the machine, isolated in time and in space from everything else in the universe. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it, other than to turn certain switches, maintain voltage levels, check for error conditions…” and so on. That’s it. The mechanics in their attitude toward the machine were really taking no different attitude from the manual’s toward the machine, or from the attitude I had when I brought it in there. We were all spectators. And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.

John is horrified at the idea of fixing his motor with a shim from a beer can – this is one of my favorite sections in the whole book:

He was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred-dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can! … I should say, to explain this, that beer-can aluminum is soft and sticky, as metals go. Perfect for the application. Aluminum doesn’t oxidize in wet weather—or, more precisely, it always has a thin layer of oxide that prevents any further oxidation. Also perfect.

In other words, any true German mechanic, with a half-century of mechanical finesse behind him, would have concluded that this particular solution to this particular technical problem was perfect.

For a while I thought what I should have done was sneak over to the workbench, cut a shim from the beer can, remove the printing and then come back and tell him we were in luck, it was the last one I had, specially imported from Germany. That would have done it. A special shim from the private stock of Baron Alfred Krupp, who had to sell it at a great sacrifice. Then he would have gone gaga over it. …

I had been seeing that shim in a kind of intellectual, rational, cerebral way in which the scientific properties of the metal were all that counted. John was going at it immediately and intuitively, grooving on it. I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was. That’s how I arrived at that distinction. And when you see what the shim is, in this case, it’s depressing. Who likes to think of a beautiful precision machine fixed with an old hunk of junk?

I should talk now about Phaedrus’ knife. It’ll help understand some of the things we talked about.

The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we are aware of millions of things around us—these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road—aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see. We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious, a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.

The handful of sand looks uniform at first, but the longer we look at it the more diverse we find it to be. Each grain of sand is different. No two are alike. Some are similar in one way, some are similar in another way, and we can form the sand into separate piles on the basis of this similarity and dissimilarity. Shades of color in different piles—sizes in different piles—grain shapes in different piles—subtypes of grain shapes in different piles—grades of opacity in different piles—and so on, and on, and on. You’d think the process of subdivision and classification would come to an end somewhere, but it doesn’t. It just goes on and on.

Classical understanding is concerned with the piles and the basis for sorting and interrelating them. Romantic understanding is directed toward the handful of sand before the sorting begins. Both are valid ways of looking at the world although irreconcilable with each other.

What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and unites them into one. Such an understanding will not reject sand-sorting or contemplation of unsorted sand for its own sake. Such an understanding will instead seek to direct attention to the endless landscape from which the sand is taken. That is what Phaedrus, the poor surgeon, was trying to do.

To understand what he was trying to do it’s necessary to see that part of the landscape, inseparable from it, which must be understood, is a figure in the middle of it, sorting sand into piles. To see the landscape without seeing this figure is not to see the landscape at all. To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely.

[Phaedrus pursued] a ghost which calls itself rationality but whose appearance is that of incoherence and meaninglessness, which causes the most normal of everyday acts to seem slightly mad because of their irrelevance to anything else. This is the ghost of normal everyday assumptions which declares that the ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible, but that this is the ultimate purpose of life anyway, so that great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only madmen ask why. One lives longer in order that he may live longer. There is no other purpose. That is what the ghost says.

An untrained observer will see only physical labor and often get the idea that physical labor is mainly what the mechanic does. Actually the physical labor is the smallest and easiest part of what the mechanic does. By far the greatest part of his work is careful observation and precise thinking. That is why mechanics sometimes seem so taciturn and withdrawn when performing tests. They don’t like it when you talk to them because they are concentrating on mental images, hierarchies, and not really looking at you or the physical motorcycle at all. They are using the experiment as part of a program to expand their hierarchy of knowledge of the faulty motorcycle and compare it to the correct hierarchy in their mind. They are looking at underlying form.

I don’t think the conclusion here is entirely correct, but it’s interesting:

The more you look, the more you see. Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude. What this means logically is that as you try to move toward unchanging truth through the application of scientific method, you actually do not move toward it at all. You move away from it! It is your application of scientific method that is causing it to change!

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.

Mu as “no thing,” neither yes nor no:

The dualistic mind tends to think of mu occurrences in nature as a kind of contextual cheating, or irrelevance, but mu is found throughout all scientific investigation, and nature doesn’t cheat, and nature’s answers are never irrelevant. It’s a great mistake, a kind of dishonesty, to sweep nature’s mu answers under the carpet. Recognition and valuation of these answers would do a lot to bring logical theory closer to experimental practice. Every laboratory scientist knows that very often his experimental results provide mu answers to the yes-no questions the experiments were designed for. In these cases he considers the experiment poorly designed, chides himself for stupidity and at best considers the “wasted” experiment which has provided the mu answer to be a kind of wheel-spinning which might help prevent mistakes in the design of future yes-no experiments.

With nuts and bolts you’re in the range of large mechanical forces and you should understand that within these ranges metals are elastic. When you take up a nut there’s a point called “finger-tight” where there’s contact but no takeup of elasticity. Then there’s “snug,” in which the easy surface elasticity is taken up. Then there’s a range called “tight,” in which all the elasticity is taken up. The force required to reach these three points is different for each size of nut and bolt, and different for lubricated bolts and for locknuts. The forces are different for steel and cast iron and brass and aluminum and plastics and ceramics. But a person with mechanic’s feel knows when something’s tight and stops. A person without it goes right on past and strips the threads or breaks the assembly.

In this book I learned about:

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens, 1859

Re-read for Great Books. I loved it in high school, but it didn’t hold up as well as other Dickens novels for me. Sydney Carton was the most interesting character but we get so little insight into why he’s wasted his life.

Short quotes

  • “Perhaps second-hand cares, like second-hand clothes, come easily off and on.”
  • “The little narrow, crooked town of Dover hid itself away from the beach, and ran its head into the chalk cliffs, like a marine ostrich.”
  • “The fountain in the village flowed unseen and unheard, and the fountain at the chateau dropped unseen and unheard—both melting away, like the minutes that were falling from the spring of Time.”
  • “faces hardened in the furnaces of suffering until the touch of pity could make no mark on them”
  • “that peculiar kind of short cough requiring the hollow of a hand before it, which is seldom, if ever, known to be an infirmity attendant on perfect openness of character”
  • “Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”

Longer quotes

I recently came across the word “sonder,” coined about 2012. But Dickens described the idea perfectly, a century and a half ago:

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

It was a large, dark room, furnished in a funereal manner with black horsehair, and loaded with heavy dark tables. These had been oiled and oiled, until the two tall candles on the table in the middle of the room were gloomily reflected on every leaf; as if they were buried, in deep graves of black mahogany, and no light to speak of could be expected from them until they were dug out.

“I don’t want dozens of people who are not at all worthy of Ladybird, to come here looking after her,” said Miss Pross.

“Do dozens come for that purpose?”

“Hundreds,” said Miss Pross.

It was characteristic of this lady (as of some other people before her time and since) that whenever her original proposition was questioned, she exaggerated it.

In this book I learned about:

Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata (tr. Edward G. Seidensticker), 1957

Read for Great Books. I didn’t love it, but some others did.

  • “He wondered whether the flowing landscape was not perhaps symbolic of the passage of time.”
  • “The bud of her lips opened and closed smoothly, like a beautiful little circle of leeches.”
  • “[Her hair] glowed like some heavy black stone.”
  • Seeing Komako from the train window: “it was as though one strange piece of fruit had been left behind in the grimy glass case of a shabby mountain grocery.”
  • “The beans jumped from their dry pods like little drops of light.”

It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. There was no moon. The stars, almost too many of them to be true, came forward so brightly that it was as if they were falling with the swiftness of the void. As the stars came nearer, the sky retreated deeper and deeper into the night color. The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the starry sky in a blackness grave and somber enough to communicate their mass. The whole of the night scene came together in a clear, tranquil harmony.

Something none of us understood, when Shimamura talks to Yoko – Jonathan says he’s punishing himself, which I guess makes sense?

But at that moment his affection for Komako welled up violently. To run off to Tokyo, as if eloping, with a nondescript woman would somehow be in the nature of an intense apology to Komako, and a penance for Shimamura himself.

In this book I learned about “Chijimi grass-linen,” a ramie fabric bleached in the snow.