Kant’s coffee

At the beginning of the last year of his life, he fell into a custom of taking, immediately after dinner, a cup of coffee, especially on those days when it happened that I was of his party. And such was the importance that he attached to his little pleasure that he would even make a memorandum beforehand, in the blank paper book that I had given him, that on the next day I was to dine with him, and consequently “that there was to be coffee.” Sometimes in the interest of conversation, the coffee was forgotten, but not for long. He would remember and with the querulousness of old age and infirm health would demand that coffee be brought “upon the spot.” Arrangements had always been made in advance, however; the coffee was ground, and the water was boiling: and in the very moment the word was given, the servant shot in like an arrow and plunged the coffee into the water. All that remained, therefore, was to give it time to boil up. But this trifling delay seemed unendurable to Kant. If it were said, “Dear Professor, the coffee will be brought up in a moment,” he would say, “Will be! There’s the rub, that it only will be.” Then he would quiet himself with a stoical air, and say, “Well, one can die after all; it is but dying; and in the next world, thank God, there is no drinking of coffee and consequently no waiting for it.”

When at length the servant’s steps were heard upon the stairs, he would turn round to us, and joyfully call out: “Land, land! my dear friends, I see land.”

This anecdote of Thomas de Quincey’s is from William H. Ukers’s All About Coffee (1922). Ukers introduces the quote: “In his old age, Immanuel Kant, the great metaphysician, became extremely fond of coffee; and Thomas de Quincey relates a little incident showing Kant’s great eagerness for the after-dinner cup.”

Breakfast was not suspected. No prophecy, no type of breakfast had been published. (De Quincey)

No such discovery as “breakfast” had then been made: breakfast was not invented for many centuries after that. We have always admired, and always shall admire, as the very best of all human stories, Charles Lamb’s account of the origin of roast pig in China. Ching Ping, it seems, had suffered his father’s house to be burned down; the outhouses were burned along with the house; and in one of these the pigs, by accident, were roasted to a turn. Memorable were the results for all future China and future civilization. Ping, who (like all China beside) had hitherto eaten his pig raw, now for the first time tasted it in a state of torrefaction. Of course he made his peace with his father by a part (tradition says a leg) of the new dish. The father was so astounded with the discovery, that he burned his house down once a year for the sake of coming at an annual banquet of roast pig. A curious prying sort of fellow, one Chang Pang, got to know of this. He also burned down a house with a pig in it, and had his eyes opened. The secret was ill kept—the discovery spread—many great conversions were made—houses were blazing in every part of the Celestial Empire. The insurance offices took the matter up. One Chong Pong, detected in the very act of shutting up a pig in his drawing-room, and then firing a train, was indicted on a charge of arson. The chief justice of Pekin, on that occasion, requested an officer of the court to hand him a piece of the roast pig, the corpus delicti, for pure curiosity led him to taste; but within two days after it was observed that his lordship’s town-house was burned down. In short, all China apostatized to the new faith; and it was not until some centuries had passed, that a great genius arose, who established the second era in the history of roast pig, by showing that it could be had without burning down a house.

No such genius had yet arisen in Rome. Breakfast was not suspected. No prophecy, no type of breakfast had been published. In fact, it took as much time and research to arrive at that great discovery as at the Copernican system. True it is, reader, that you have heard of such a word as jentaculum; and your dictionary translates that old heathen word by the Christian word breakfast. But dictionaries, one and all, are dull deceivers. Betweenjentaculum and breakfast the differences are as wide as between a horse-chestnut and chestnut horse; differences in the time when, in the place where, in the manner how, but preeminently in the thing which.

Galen is a good authority upon such a subject, since, if (like other pagans) he ate no breakfast himself, in some sense he may be called the cause of breakfast to other men, by treating of those things which could safely be taken upon an empty stomach. As to the time, he (like many other authors) says, [peri tritaen, ae (to makroteron) peri tetartaen,] about the third, or at farthest about the fourth hour: and so exact is he, that he assumes the day to lie exactly between six and six o’clock, and to be divided into thirteen equal portions. So the time will be a few minutes before nine, or a few minutes before ten, in the forenoon. That seems fair enough. But it is not time in respect to its location that we are so much concerned with, as time in respect to its duration. Now, heaps of authorities take it for granted, that you are not to sit down—you are to stand; and, as to the place, that any place will do—”any corner of the forum,” says Galen, “any corner that you fancy;” which is like referring a man for his salle à manger to Westminster Hall or Fleet Street. Augustus, in a letter still surviving, tells us that he jentabat, or took hisjentaculum in his carriage; now in a wheel carriage, (in essedo,) now in a litter or palanquin (in lecticâ.) This careless and disorderly way as to time and place, and other circumstances of haste, sufficiently indicate the quality of the meal you are to expect. Already you are “sagacious of your quarry from so far.” Not that we would presume, excellent reader, to liken you to Death, or to insinuate that you are “a grim feature.” But would it not make a saint “grim,” to hear of such preparations for the morning meal? And then to hear of such consummations as panis siccus, dry bread; or, (if the learned reader thinks it will taste better in Greek,) [Greek: artos xaeros!] And what may this word dry happen to mean? “Does it mean stale bread?” says Salmasius. “Shall we suppose,” says he, in querulous words, “molli et recenti opponi,” and from that antithesis conclude it to be, “durum et non recens coctum, eoque sicciorem?” Hard and stale, and for that reason the more arid! Not quite so bad as that, we hope. Or again—”siccum pro biscocto, ut hodie vocamus, sumemus?”[5] By hodie Salmasius means, amongst his countrymen of France, where biscoctus is verbatim reproduced in the word bis (twice) cuit, (baked;) whence our own biscuit. Biscuit might do very well, could we be sure that it was cabin biscuit: but Salmasius argues—that in this case he takes it to mean “buccellatum, qui est panis nauticus;” that is, the ship company’s biscuit, broken with a sledge-hammer. In Greek, for the benefit again of the learned reader, it is termed [Greek: dipuros], indicating that it has passed twice under the action of fire.

From Thomas de Quincey’s “Dinner, Real and Reputed.”

“As books multiply to an unmanageable excess, selection becomes more and more a necessity for readers” (Thomas De Quincey)

As books multiply to an unmanageable excess, selection becomes more and more a necessity for readers, and the power of selection more and more a desperate problem for the busy part of readers. The possibility of selecting wisely is becoming continually more hopeless as the necessity for selection is becoming continually more pressing. Exactly as the growing weight of books overlays and stifles the power of comparison, pari passu is the call for comparison the more clamorous; and thus arises a duty correspondingly more urgent of searching and revising until everything spurious has been weeded out from amongst the Flora of our highest literature, and until the waste of time for those who have so little at their command is reduced to a minimum. For, where the good cannot be read in its twentieth part, the more requisite it is that no part of the bad should steal an hour of the available time; and it is not to be endured that people without a minute to spare should be obliged first of all to read a book before they can ascertain whether in fact it is worth reading. The public cannot read by proxy as regards the good which it is to appropriate, but it can as regards the poison which it is to escape. And thus, as literature expands, becoming continually more of a household necessity, the duty resting upon critics (who are the vicarious readers for the public) becomes continually more urgent — of reviewing all works that may be supposed to have benefited too much or too indiscriminately by the superstition of a name. The praegustatores should have tasted of every cup, and reported its quality, before the public call for it; and, above all, they should have done this in all cases of the higher literature — that is, of literature properly so called.

From Thomas De Quincey’s essay “The Literature of Knowlege and the Literature of Power,” part of The Poetry of Pope.

Borges Riff/Borges Anxiety

Art by Roman Muradov

1. Jorge Luis Borges is 115 today.

2. I’ve shared clips from my scattered readings of Borges on this blog (receiving the occasional takedown notice as well)—but I’ve never mustered the energy to try to say anything about him or describe his writing or try to situate it or analyze it or anything—

3. Because that’s what Borges does: He situates, analyzes, condenses, clarifies, expands, complicates, archives, curates, cultivates, teaches, improves literature.

4. And he does it in a way that makes following him with my own mealy mottled words seem superfluous (or maybe futile is the word I want—although I think Borges is unrelentingly positive and futile is such an ugly word).

5. I read a book of Borges’ essays this summer, a collection entitled Other Inquisitions. I read most of it in the Great Smoky Mountains, where the crisp morning air was perfect for Borges. Or for me to read Borges. It was lovely.

6. I wanted to write about Borges’ book—or, rather, and more exactly, I wanted to have written Borges’ book.

7. In one essay—I’ve put the book aside for now and can’t recall exactly which essay (maybe on FitzGerald and Omar Khayyam?); nor will I go look; if I had it out I’d only cite it, recycle it here; the book would kill this riff immediately, put a stake through its heart—Borges suggests that “A great writer creates his precursors.” — This, years, decades before Harold Bloom makes a career out of the same notion.

8. And Borges’ essays are a canon-making: His own canon–the formation and creation of his own precursors: Whitman, Kafka, DeQuincey, Carlyle, Becher, Valery, Wilde, Poe, Hawthorne…

9. The shock I experienced reading Borges’ essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne. That Borges had set about to riff on Hawthorne’s Note-Books, the same note-books I’d been reading since the early spring, the same note-books that seemed and still seem so generative to me, so full of entire worlds, so rich, so much fuller and richer than Hawthorne’s novels or his stories, so full in their singularity and off-focus, these notes, these Borgesian notes. Oh and that Borges had written the essay that I wished I could write!

10. Borges, who never wrote a novel, whose entire work might be some kind of postmodern novel.

11. Borges, whose short stories often seem like pretexts to an essay he’d like to write—and here pretext is not the right word, again—-so maybe the short stories, so many of them so brilliant, act as some kind of surface text that illuminates and yet simultaneously hides an essay underneath.

12. The great joy of reading Borges: We read through Borges: Borges the librarian grants us access to so many minds. We get to share his perceptions, read over his shoulder, or maybe through his glasses—we get to glance over his annotations, his notes. But that’s not accurate—he’s so much more lucid than that scatter-shot image suggests, even when he’s at his most Borgesian, which is to say his most labyrinthine, mirrored, winding, forking, decentering and recentering, deferring, echoing, prefiguring…

13. I’ve written more than I intended to and have yet barely edged into all the thicket of anxieties that guard Borges’ oeuvre from poseurs like myself. It’s enough to know that his works exist, will exist.

“On the Knocking at the Gate, in Macbeth” — Thomas De Quincey

“On the Knocking at the Gate, in Macbeth” by Thomas De Quincey

From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth. It was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account. The effect was, that it reflected back upon the murder a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however obstinately I endeavored with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.

Here I pause for one moment, to exhort the reader never to pay any attention to his understanding when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind. The mere understanding, however useful and indispensable, is the meanest faculty in the human mind, and the most to be distrusted; and yet the great majority of people trust to nothing else; which may do for ordinary life, but not for philosophical purposes. Of this out of ten thousand instances that I might produce, I will cite one. Ask of any person whatsoever, who is not previously prepared for the demand by a knowledge of perspective, to draw in the rudest way the commonest appearance which depends upon the laws of that science; as for instance, to represent the effect of two walls standing at right angles to each other, or the appearance of the houses on each side of a street, as seen by a person looking down the street from one extremity. Now in all cases, unless the person has happened to observe in pictures how it is that artists produce these effects, he will be utterly unable to make the smallest approximation to it. Yet why? For he has actually seen the effect every day of his life. The reason is—that he allows his understanding to overrule his eyes. His understanding, which includes no intuitive knowledge of the laws of vision, can furnish him with no reason why a line which is known and can be proved to be a horizontal line, should not appear a horizontal line; a line that made any angle with the perpendicular less than a right angle, would seem to him to indicate that his houses were all tumbling down together. Accordingly he makes the line of his houses a horizontal line, and fails of course to produce the effect demanded. Here then is one instance out of many, in which not only the understanding is allowed to overrule the eyes, but where the understanding is positively allowed to obliterate the eyes as it were, for not only does the man believe the evidence of his understanding in opposition to that of his eyes, but, (what is monstrous!) the idiot is not aware that his eyes ever gave such evidence. He does not know that he has seen (and therefore quoad his consciousness has not seen) that which he has seen every day of his life. But to return from this digression, my understanding could furnish no reason why the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce any effect, direct or reflected. In fact, my understanding said positively that it could not produce any effect. But I knew better; I felt that it did; and I waited and clung to the problem until further knowledge should enable me to solve it. At length, in 1812, Mr. Williams made his début on the stage of Ratcliffe Highway, and executed those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a brilliant and undying reputation. On which murders, by the way, I must observe, that in one respect they have had an ill effect, by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied by anything that has been since done in that line. All other murders look pale by the deep crimson of his; and, as an amateur once said to me in a querulous tone, “There has been absolutely nothing doing since his time, or nothing that’s worth speaking of.” But this is wrong; for it is unreasonable to expect all men to be great artists, and born with the genius of Mr. Williams. Now it will be remembered that in the first of these murders, (that of the Marrs,) the same incident (of a knocking at the door soon after the work of extermination was complete) did actually occur, which the genius of Shakspeare has invented; and all good judges, and the most eminent dilettanti, acknowledged the felicity of Shakspeare’s suggestion as soon as it was actually realized. Here, then, was a fresh proof that I was right in relying on my own feeling in opposition to my understanding; and I again set myself to study the problem; at length I solved it to my own satisfaction; and my solution is this. Murder in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person, is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason, that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life; an instinct, which, as being indispensable to the primal law of self-preservation, is the same in kind, (though different in degree,) amongst all living creatures; this instinct therefore, because it annihilates all distinctions, and degrades the greatest of men to the level of “the poor beetle that we tread on,” exhibits human nature in its most abject and humiliating attitude. Such an attitude would little suit the purposes of the poet. What then must he do? He must throw the interest on the murderer. Our sympathy must be with him; (of course I mean a sympathy of comprehension, a sympathy by which we enter into his feelings, and are made to understand them,—not a sympathy of pity or approbation.) In the murdered person all strife of thought, all flux and reflux of passion and of purpose, are crushed by one overwhelming panic; the fear of instant death smites him “with its petrific mace.” But in the murderer, such a murderer as a poet will condescend to, there must be raging some great storm of passion,—jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred,—which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look. Continue reading ““On the Knocking at the Gate, in Macbeth” — Thomas De Quincey”