Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Michel de Montaigne

The sin of sitzfleisch

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Yesterday, I was reading the new profile of Mark Zuckerberg by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker when I came across one of my favorite words. It appears in a section about Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, who describes her husband’s reaction to the recent controversies that have swirled around Facebook:

When I asked Chan about how Zuckerberg had responded at home to the criticism of the past two years, she talked to me about Sitzfleisch, the German term for sitting and working for long periods of time. “He’d actually sit so long that he froze up his muscles and injured his hip,” she said.

Until now, the term sitzfleisch, or literally “buttocks,” was perhaps most widely known in chess, in which it evokes the kind of stoic, patient endurance capable of winning games by making one plodding move after another, but you sometimes see it in other contexts as well. Just two weeks ago, Paul Joyce, a lecturer in German at Portsmouth University, was quoted in an article by the BBC: “It’s got a positive sense, [it] positively connotes a sense of endurance, reliability, not just flitting from one place to another, but it is also starting to be questioned as to whether it matches the experience of the modern world.” Which makes it all the more striking to hear it applied to Zuckerberg, whose life’s work has been the systematic construction of an online culture that makes such virtues seem obsolete.

The concept of sitzfleisch is popular among writers—Elizabeth Gilbert has a nice blog post on the subject—but it also has its detractors. A few months ago, I posted a quote from Twilight of the Idols in which Friedrich Nietzsche comes out strongly against the idea. Here’s the full passage, which appears in a section of short maxims and aphorisms:

On ne peut penser et écrire qu’assis (G. Flaubert). Now I’ve got you, you nihilist! Sitting still [sitzfleisch] is precisely the sin against the holy ghost. Only thoughts which come from walking have any value.

The line attributed to Flaubert, which can be translated as “One can think and write only when sitting down,” appears to come from a biographical sketch by Guy de Maupassant. When you read it in context, you can see why it irritated Nietzsche:

From his early infancy, the two distinctive traits of [Flaubert’s] nature were great ingenuousness and a dislike of physical action. All his life he remained ingenuous and sedentary. He could not see any one walking or moving about near him without becoming exasperated; and he would declare in his sharp voice, sonorous and always a little theatrical, that motion was not philosophical. “One can think and write only when seated,” he would say.

On some level, Nietzsche’s attack on sitzfleisch feels like a reaction against his own inescapable habits—he can hardly have written any of his books without the ability to sit in solitude for long periods of time. I’ve noted elsewhere that the creative life has to be conducted both while seated and while engaging in other activities, and that your course of action at any given moment can be guided by whether or not you happen to be sitting down. And it can be hard to strike the right balance. We have to spend time at a desk in order to write, but we often think better by walking, going outside, and pointedly not checking Facebook. In the recent book Nietzsche and Montaigne, the scholar Robert Miner writes:

Both Montaigne and Nietzsche strongly favor mobility over sedentariness. Montaigne is a “sworn enemy” of “assiduity (assiduité)” who goes “mostly on horseback, where my thoughts range most widely.” Nietzsche too finds that “assiduity (Sitzfleisch) is the sin against the Holy Spirit” but favors walking rather than riding. As Dahlkvist observes, Nietzsche may have been inspired by Beethoven’s habit of walking while composing, which he knew about from his reading of Henri Joly’s Psychologie des grand hommes.

That’s possible, but it also reflects the personal experience of any writer, who is often painfully aware of the contradiction of trying to say something about life while spending most of one’s time alone.

And Nietzsche’s choice of words is also revealing. In describing sitzfleisch as a sin against the Holy Ghost, he might have just been looking for a colorful phrase, or making a pun on a “sin of the flesh,” but I suspect that it went deeper. In Catholic dogma, a sin against the Holy Ghost is specifically one of “certain malice,” in which the sinner acts on purpose, repeatedly, and in full knowledge of his or her crime. Nietzsche, who was familiar with Thomas Aquinas, might have been thinking of what the Summa Theologica has to say on the subject:

Augustine, however…says that blasphemy or the sin against the Holy Ghost, is final impenitence when, namely, a man perseveres in mortal sin until death, and that it is not confined to utterance by word of mouth, but extends to words in thought and deed, not to one word only, but to many…Hence they say that when a man sins through weakness, it is a sin “against the Father”; that when he sins through ignorance, it is a sin “against the Son”; and that when he sins through certain malice, i.e. through the very choosing of evil…it is a sin “against the Holy Ghost.”

Sitzfleisch, in short, is the sin of those who should know better. It’s the special province of philosophers, who know exactly how badly they fall short of ordinary human standards, but who have no choice if they intend to publish “not one word only, but many.” Solitary work is unhealthy, even inhuman, but it can hardly be avoided if you want to write Twilight of the Idols. As Nietzsche notes elsewhere in the same book: “To live alone you must be an animal or a god—says Aristotle. He left out the third case: you must be both—a philosopher.”

My ten great books #2: In Search of Lost Time

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In Search of Lost Time

The best advice I’ve found for approaching this enormous, daunting book is Roger Shattuck’s observation, in his useful study Proust’s Way, that Marcel Proust’s most immediate precursor is Scheherazade, the legendary author of The Thousand and One Nights. In Search of Lost Time has less in common with the novels that we usually read than with the volumes of myths and fairy tales that we devour in childhood, and it might seem more accessible to the readers who currently find it bewildering if, as Shattuck suggests, it had been titled The Parisian Nights. Proust is a teller of tales, and like Homer, his work is infinitely expansible. An exchange that lasts for a few lines in an oral epic like The Iliad could have been expanded—as it probably was for certain audiences—into an entire evening’s performance, and Homer deploys his metaphors to introduce miniature narratives of human life that don’t otherwise fit into a poem of war. Proust operates in much the same way. One observation leads naturally to another, and an emotion or analogy evoked in passing can unfold like a paper flower into three dense pages of reflections. In theory, any good novel could be expanded like this, like a hypertext that opens into increasingly intimate levels: In Search of Lost Time happens to be the only book in existence in which all of these flowerings have been preserved. Its plot could fit into a novella of two hundred unhurried pages, but we don’t read Proust for the plot, even if he knows more about suspense and surprise than you might expect. His digressions are the journey, and the result is the richest continuous slice of a great writer’s mind that a work of fiction can afford.

And the first thing that you notice about Proust, once you’ve lived in his head for long enough, is that he has essential advice and information to share about everything under the sun. Proust is usually associated with the gargantuan twin themes of memory and time, and although these are crucial threads, they’re only part of a tapestry that gradually expands to cover all human life. At first, it seems a little unfair that our greatest writer on the subject of sexual jealousy should also be a genius at describing, say, a seascape, as well as a mine of insight into such diverse areas as art, class, childhood, travel, death, homosexuality, architecture, poetry, the theater, and how milk looks when it’s about to boil over, while also peopling his work with vivid characters and offering up a huge amount of incidental gossip and social reportage. When you look at it from another angle, though, it seems inevitable. Proust is the king of noticing, and he’s the author who first awakened me to the fact that a major novelist should be able to treat any conceivable topic with the same level of artistic and intellectual acuity. His only rival here is Shakespeare, but with a difference. Plays like Hamlet speak as much in their omissions and silences, leaving us to fill in the gaps. Proust, by contrast, says everything—it’s all there on the page for anyone who wants to unpack it—and you can’t emerge without being subtly changed by the experience. Like Montaigne, Proust gives us words to express thoughts and feelings that we’ve always had, and if you read him deeply enough, you inevitably reach a point where you realize that this novel, which seemed to be about everything else in the world, has been talking about you all along.

Written by nevalalee

May 9, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know; nor any people so confident as those who entertain us with fables, such as your alchemists, judicial astrologers, fortune tellers, and physicians.

Michel de Montaigne, “That a Man is Soberly to Judge of the Divine Ordinances”

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

“Pretty clever!”

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The Simpsons episode "Hurricane Neddy"

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What pop-culture concepts have you found to be ripe for everyday use?”

A few years ago, my wife and I went on a trip to Peru and Bolivia. It was meant as one last stab at adventure travel before kids—which we knew would soon figure in our future—made that kind of vacation impossible, and we’d planned an ambitious itinerary: Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, the salt flats of Uyuni. As soon as we landed in Cuzco, though, I was felled by a bout of altitude sickness that made me wonder if we’d have to cancel the whole thing. A few pills and a day of acclimation made me feel stable enough to proceed, but I never got entirely used to it, and before long, I found myself hiking up a hillside in the Lares Valley, my heart jackhammering in my chest like an animal that was trying to escape. To save face, I’d periodically pause on the trail to look around, as if to take in the view, when I was just trying to get my pulse under control. But what got me through it, weirdly, was the thought of Frodo and Samwise slogging their way toward Mount Doom: if a couple of hobbits could do it, then I could climb this hill, too. It was an image to which I clung for the rest of the way, and the fantasy that I was heading toward Mordor sustained me to the top. And later, when I confessed this to my wife, she only smiled and said: “Yeah. I was thinking of the Von Trapp family.”

We relate to pop culture in all kinds of complicated ways, but one of the most curious aspects of that dynamic is how it can motivate us to become slightly better versions of ourselves, even if such exemplars aren’t entirely realistic. (The real Von Trapps didn’t hike over the mountains into Switzerland: they took a train.) Yesterday, Patrick Stewart showed up on Reddit to answer some questions, and if there was one common thread to the comments, it was that Jean-Luc Picard had been a role model, and almost a surrogate father, for many viewers as they were growing up. Just as fairy tales, with their fantasies of power and destiny, allow children to come to terms with their physical vulnerability as they risk a greater engagement with the world, the heroes we admire in books and movies give us an ideal toward which to aspire. As long as we’re aware that complete success is probably unattainable—”We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” as Emerson said—I don’t see anything wrong with this. And such comparisons often cross our minds at the least dignified moments. Whenever I’m struggling to open a package, an image flits through my mind of Daniel Craig as James Bond, and I think to myself: “Bond wouldn’t have trouble opening a bag of pretzels, would he?” It doesn’t make what I’m doing any less annoying, but it usually inspires me to do something marginally more decisive, like getting a pair of scissors.

The Sound of Music

Pop culture can also provide ways of seeing our own lives from a new perspective, often by putting words to concepts and emotions that we couldn’t articulate before. At its highest level, it can take the form of the recognition that many readers feel when encountering an author like Proust or Montaigne: for long stretches, it feels eerily like we’re reading about ourselves. And a show like Seinfeld has added countless terms to our shared vocabulary of ideas, even if it was by accident, with the writers as surprised as anyone else by what struck a nerve. As writer Peter Mehlman says:

Every line was written just to be funny and to further the plot. But, actually, there was one time that I did think that a certain phrase would become popular. And I was completely wrong. In the “Yada Yada” episode, I really thought it was going to be the “antidentite” line that was going to be the big phrase, and it was not. That line went: “If this wasn’t my son’s wedding day, I’d knock your teeth out, you antidentite bastard.” The man who said it was a dentist. And no one remembers that phrase; it’s the “yada yada yada” line that everyone remembers.

Sometimes a free-floating line will just snag onto an existing feeling and crystalize it, and along with Seinfeld, The Simpsons has been responsible for more such epiphanies than any other series. Elsewhere, I’ve compared the repository of Simpsons quotes that we all seem to carry in our heads to the metaphorical language that Picard encountered in “Darmok,” and there’s no question that it influences the way many of us think about ourselves.

Take “Hurricane Neddy,” which first aired during the show’s eighth season. It probably wouldn’t even make it onto a list of my fifty favorite episodes, but there’s one particular line from it that has been rattling around in my brain ever since. After a hurricane destroys Flanders’s house, the neighborhood joins forces to rebuild it, only to do a spectacularly crappy job. It all leads to the following exchange:

Ned: “The floor feels a little gritty here.”
Moe: “Yeah, we ran out of floorboards there, so we painted the dirt. Pretty clever!”

Those last two words, which Moe delivers with a nudge to Ned’s ribs and an air of self-satisfaction, are ones that I’ve never forgotten. At least once a week, I’ll say to myself, in Moe’s voice: “Pretty clever!” The reason, as far as I can pinpoint it, is that I’m working in a field that calls for me to be “clever” on a regular basis, whether it’s solving a narrative problem, coming up with a twist for a short story, or just figuring out a capper for a blog post. Not all of these ideas are equally clever, and many of them fall into the category of what Frederik Pohl calls “monkey tricks.” But Moe’s delivery, which is so delighted with itself, reminds me both of how ridiculous so much of it is and of the necessity of believing otherwise. Sometimes I’m just painting the dirt, but I couldn’t go on if I wasn’t sort of pleased by it. And if I had to sum up my feelings for my life’s work, for better or worse, it would sound a lot like “Pretty clever!”

Written by nevalalee

August 21, 2015 at 8:34 am

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