M.77 “find this out; but”

I am publishing here a further excerpt from my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. The commentary to the meme discusses titles of art works, classical editorial practices, and Aristotelian virtue ethics.

M.77 find this out; but

irksome2


M.77 find this out; but Composed: April 20th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Comic Sans. TB1: “Three minutes’ thought would suffice to…”, black. TB2: “Thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time!!!”, black.


This meme uses a well-known quotation from the poet and classicist A.E. Housman: “Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time” (Housman 1905, xi).  … [A]lthough Batman is clearly interrupting Robin, he is not hijacking the conversation to reframe Robin’s sentiment. Rather, the rhetorical effect of the entire original quotation is preserved intact.

What is not preserved intact, however, is the text of the original quotation. The artist has extracted part of the original from Batman’s and Robin’s encounter. Even with this text missing, their dialogue is entirely comprehensible but in fact, the extracted text is not entirely absent and shows up as (or in?) the meme’s title. The context from which it has been removed, in the meantime, has been slightly altered. Robin’s part of the original has had three dots added at its end. Nor, surely, are these the three dots of ellipsis, signaling that some text has gone missing. Their function is to indicate, rather, that Robin’s speech is interrupted. (This function they discharge largely by graphic means. They are like perforations along which the text is torn in two.) Batman’s segment of the original has its first letter capitalized. (It also has three exclamation marks not in Housman but that is not relevant to the title-text’s immediate surroundings.) Thus, having been extracted, the title-text can fit back properly into its original context at neither end. It is like a jigsaw piece the tabs and blanks of the neighboring pieces of which have been damaged. It has, to all intents and purposes, become an orphan, ripped from a home it can no longer return to.[1]

Turning to the content of Housman’s sentence, let us ask the obvious question: what is it, exactly, that three minutes’ thought would find out were thought not so irksome and three minutes not such a long time? The text is from the preface to his edition of the satires of Juvenal. Housman is discussing the principles of textual criticism and taking to task many of his contemporaries and predecessors. One fault many of these are alleged to have is a mechanical reliance on rules in editing. The 18th century, he says, had as its rule to go with the reading (if there is one) found in a simple majority of manuscripts. The rule of the second half of the 19th century, by contrast, is always to go with the reading of the best manuscript unless what it has is utterly impossible (by which he seems to mean principally ungrammatical or unmetrical). (He describes this as the “fashion of leaning on one manuscript like Hope on her anchor and trusting to heaven that no harm will come of it” (v).) This rule might find expression in an editor’s preface in such words as “I have made it my rule to follow a wherever possible, and only where its readings are patently erroneous have I had recourse to b or c or d” (xi) (though Housman writes acerbically that no eminent scholar would state the rule thus baldly, only his “unreflecting imitators”). Housman then poses a dilemma. Either b, c, and d are derived from a, in which case they should never be preferred to it, or they do not, in which case the rule assumes what is clearly false, that all errors in a will be “impossible readings.” It is this dilemma which three minutes’ thought would find out. Instead of the mechanical application of rules, Housman thinks critics should exercise their faculty of discernment and judgment. Each textual uncertainty will be attended by any number of circumstances a critic may take into account. One cannot detect errors only on the grounds of impossibility but must pay attention, above all, to the sense of what is expressed. A manuscript reading may be judged in error because it describes something implausible or inconsistent with other parts of the text too. (Which is not to say, of course, that these should be turned into new rules and an author never allowed, on principle, to be implausible or inconsistent.)

Housman returns to these themes in his well-known piece “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism” sixteen years later, though there are some subtle differences between the preface to Juvenal and the later lecture. In the earlier piece, though he does talk of inferior critics’ having become “entangled in a task for which nature has neglected to equip them,” he dwells much more on their moral failings and lack of appropriate training. The deplorable state of criticism in his day he ascribes to the combined effect of sloth and vanity. Sloth prevents the critic from “learning his trade” or being willing to “toil” over difficult passages; vanity prevents him from admitting his inability and refraining from editing. The section of the Juvenal preface from which the meme’s quotation is taken is said by Housman to be

meant for one only of the three classes into whose hands this book will come. It is not for those who are [true] critics: they know it already and will find it nothing but a string of truisms. It is not for those who never will be critics [i.e. most of those who take themselves already to be critics]: they cannot grasp it and will find it nothing but a string of paradoxes. It is for beginners; for those who are not critics yet, but are neither too dull to learn nor too self-satisfied to wish to learn. (xi)

In the later lecture, much more emphasis is laid on inborn talent. Adapting the Roman proverb about poets, he says “criticus nascitur, non fit” – a critic is born, not made. Criticism “cannot be taught at all” (69). The role of education (habit) is not to supply a deficiency of birth but to limit the damage it can do in one determined to practice criticism.

Another difference between the two works is a little harder to make precise. Though both works are equally opposed to the dominance of rules in criticism, there seem to be different conceptions of rules at work in each. In the earlier piece, we are given two examples of offensive rules, as we have seen. “If a majority of manuscripts agree on a certain reading, go with that” and “if the best manuscript has a certain reading, go with that unless it is impossible.” The first is a bad rule because not all manuscripts are equal in their value, the second because scribes can make mistakes that are not ungrammatical or unmetrical. In both cases, one must attend to the particulars of any situation to determine the best reading. The nature and role of these particular considerations is not susceptible to codification. Anything, potentially, might be relevant; and only judgment can determine how. In the later essay, though some of the language is the same, the context is slightly different. There, Housman argues that textual criticism is both science and art: “the science of discovering error in texts and the art of removing it.” But it is not an exact science. Hence, unlike mathematics, it is not subject to hard-and-fast rules. Such rules “will lead you wrong; because their simplicity will render them inapplicable to problems which are not simple, but complicated by the play of personality” (68). There seem to be three separate, though possibly connected, issues at play here. First there is the matter of simplicity versus complexity. But in the Juvenal preface, he does not argue against the proposed rules because they are too simple. And, indeed, one could imagine similar rules to them, inadequate just as they are, and yet vastly more complicated. Secondly, there is the nature of the subject matter of a rule. Mathematics has hard and fast rules because its subject matter is lines and numbers. Criticism’s subject matter, though, involves the play of personality. But the reason that the play of personality may make hard and fast rules impossible may have nothing to do with complexity – it is simply the wrong kind of domain to sustain such rules.[2] Thirdly, there is the issue of uncodifiability, of rule versus (to use the language of the philosopher John McDowell) the ability to perceive what is salient in a given situation. This contrast exists whatever the nature of the rules in question are, though emphasizing the importance of the perception of salience may be compatible with allowing the use of rules of thumb or heuristic principles. (For example, there may be no applicable rule that helps someone determine the size of a given object – but a rule of thumb, such as trying to imagine the object against an object of known size, may be helpful nonetheless. Rules of thumb, of course, are better if they are simple, not worse.)

Housman attempts to drive his point home, in the later discussion, with a simile no less perplexing than it is charming. The critic, he says, “is not at all like Newton investigating the motions of the planets: he is much more like a dog hunting for fleas. If a dog hunted for fleas on mathematical principles, basing his researches on statistics of area and population, he would never catch a flea except by accident” (69). Is the dog, in the simile, hunting for any old fleas? Then he should go where the fleas are likely to be, “basing his research on statistics of area and population.” Or is the dog aware of some particular flea he wishes to catch? Then of course, he should just try and catch that flea. But then he needs no science at all – though the skill of catching will be helpful. Given this simile, and given the rather inconsistent position on rules, then, it seems obscure why Housman thinks of criticism as like a science in any sense.

I dwell on these matters at such length because I am struck, especially in his, I think, superior treatment in the Juvenal preface, by the similarity between Housman’s conception of criticism and the way ethical theories are nowadays framed. There is an opposition, among ethical theories, between those which are rule-based and those which are not. Of the former, Kantianism and Utilitarianism are the most prominent. Kant tells us not to perform any action whose maxim (i.e. the description under which it is performed intentionally) cannot be made a universal rule. Utilitarianism, more simply, gives us a single rule directly: among the alternative actions you can undertake at any moment, always perform that which produces the greatest amount of some designated value (pleasure, utility, goodness, etc., according to the different varieties of Utilitarianism). Over against these stands virtue ethics. Here the emphasis is on the person who is acting. A virtuous person will, in any given set of circumstances, see what the right thing to do is. But since the circumstances are infinitely variable, no possible rule can codify this knowledge of the virtuous person. In Aristotle’s version of the theory, a person becomes virtuous by some mixture of first and second natures. First nature is what one is born with; second nature is what one acquires through training and education. Clearly Housman, though wavering between the relative importance of first and second natures, is like the Aristotelian virtue ethicist. Like that of the virtuous, the skill of critics is uncodifiable; they will, in particular circumstances, exert their judgment to arrive at a conclusion about the correct reading. They are not infallible, any more than the virtuous are infallible. But both rely on a skill that cannot be reduced to the application of rules to a situation. And in both cases, this is because situations are too rich, too replete with indefinite detail any part of which might be relevant to a given decision, ethical or textual.


[1] “find this out; but” is certainly an odd-looking title. Its fragmentary nature, the initial lower-case letter, the incongruous (without context) semi-colon all contribute to this strangeness. But the strangeness helps to highlight an interesting set of issues concerning titles of artworks generally. Jerrold Levinson (1985), restricting himself to authorially-chosen titles, argues that titles of works are proper names of the works they entitle. If so, they are, as Levinson admits, an unusual and distinctive type of proper name, for two reasons. For first, on the plausible assumption that a title is a part of the work it entitles, such a title would be the name of something of which it itself was a part. Usually, of course, a name and that which it names are ontologically distinct. And secondly, titles of artworks have interpretive significance for understanding what they are names of in a way in which ordinary proper names do not. (This requires, and receives from Levinson, some qualification but I shan’t dwell on that here.) But if the titles of artworks are proper names of those artworks, a whole range of further issues come into view as well. In the commentary on M.79 (Perimeter), I shall discuss some recent philosophical issues surrounding names. To anticipate briefly, on the one hand, there are those who take the relation between a name and its bearer to be mediated by some descriptive content associated with the name. On one extreme version of this, a name abbreviates a definite description (say “Walter Scott” abbreviates “the author of Waverley”) and the name refers to its bearer because the bearer is that which satisfies the description. On the other hand, there is the view that names are bestowed on their bearers directly and refer to them owing to these historical facts, without that link’s being mediated by any descriptive content attaching to the name. Against the background of this dichotomy, consider titles of artworks. They are clearly bestowed on their bearers (by the artist – and it is for this reason only that they bear on the interpretation of the works they entitle). Yet they often have content (without which they would have little to offer to the effort of interpreting the works they entitle). That content may be a description or it may be something else. And where it is a description, it may or may not describe the entitled work. Yet even if it does, it does not refer to the work owing the work’s satisfying that description.

Consider the following cases. 1) Robert Elsmere. This is the title of a novel by Mary Augusta Ward. It is derived from, and homomorphic with, “Robert Elsmere,” which is the name of the main character in Ward’s novel. (I leave out of consideration here the issues raised by so-called empty names or fictional names. That is a different topic.) But the two are distinct proper names, for one names a character and the other the novel. 2) The Mayor of Casterbridge. This is the title of a novel by Hardy. It is homomorphic with the description “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” which applies to a character within the novel. (Again, I set aside the issue of empty or fictional descriptions.) As title of the work, The Mayor of Casterbridge does not describe, or purport to describe, anything. It certainly does not refer to the work in virtue of the work’s satisfying the description since the work itself is not the mayor of Casterbridge or anywhere else! Yet the title’s status as a description is still important. It is significant in understanding the work that its name is a description which is satisfied (fictionally) by one of the novel’s characters. 3) The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. This is the title of a poem by Eliot. It has the form of a definite description and the description is, presumably, meant to be, and is, satisfied by the work that is so entitled. That poem itself is J. Alfred Prufrock’s love song. (This supposes that the descriptive phrase “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is the title; one might feel inclined to say that the phrase occurs in the title, implying that the title and the phrase are not identical. A full accounting of this issue exceeds the scope of this note.) Strangely, supposing the descriptive phrase is supposed to be satisfied by the work the phrase entitles, it seems that the work could not fail to satisfy it. What if an artist entitled a poem The Last Poem I’ll Ever Write and then, subsequently, wrote another poem? Presumably, in that case, we would allow that the title still named the same poem, but the poem would not satisfy the description that is the title. So some descriptions can be ‘falsified’ and some (like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) cannot. Presumably, this has to do with the way the description relates to the entitled work. In the case of Prufrock, the description works through the fictional world of the poem; in the case of “The Last Poem I’ll Ever Write” it describes via the poem’s place in the actual world. 4) The Lark Ascending. This is the title of a composition by Vaughan Williams. The description does not describe anything, exactly. Not the piece itself, nor something in the piece. But the piece does evoke something that might be described by the title. Why, one might wonder, is the piece not called A Lark Ascending? Why the definite description? There are, of course, works whose titles are indefinite descriptions, including 5) A Shropshire Lad, by A.E. Housman! (Could that have been entitled The Shropshire Lad equally well, as in the Vaughan Williams case? Surely not.) There are, however, titles with contents that are not descriptions at all (though they may contain descriptions). For example, 6) I met Heine on the Rue Fürstenburg, a composition by Morton Feldman. Assuming that the “I” of the title is taken as referring to the composer (but why should we assume that?), the sentence that is the title of this work is actually true (according to Feldman). It is not at all clear what the meaning of the sentence has to do with the work it entitles. Qua title, it is a (simple) noun phrase that refers to the work (if titles are names, as Levinson argues) and clearly would have to refer quite independently of its content since although the content is an important part of the title, it cannot function to relate the title to the work (as can the description “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). Are there two homophonous linguistic expressions, one a sentence and one a (simple) noun phrase? Or does a single expression function simultaneously in two different ways? Finally, we may add 7) find this out; but. Unlike titles that are proper names of characters or places, or indefinite or definite descriptions, or sentences, this title is not a natural linguistic unit. It has content, though its content is neither a sentence nor a description. But it, as anything, can still be pressed into service as title (and name) of the work it entitles, namely the meme M.77.

[2] Here Housman may be echoing the distinction drawn by Wilhelm Dilthey between Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences) and Geisteswissenschaften (human sciences). Dilthey argued that the Geisteswissenschaften relied on a hermeneutic methodology quite different from the methodology of the natural sciences. I don’t know if Housman knew Wilhelm Dilthey’s work but he certainly knew the work of his younger brother Karl, who was a prominent classicist.

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