Rare Birds

Where does the Blogger’s Code (you know those self-appointed men that harangue from street corners) stand on updating old posts? I’d never thought much about it, except to correct typos, until I read One Activity You Should Do On Your Blog Every Day. Then I forgot about it for a few days.

Today I’ve been reading Lev Losev’s Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life and reflecting on the subject of genius. Losev writes:

“Genius” is not a scholarly term. Its common use is mainly emotive: “You’re a genius!” For me, “genius” is first and foremost a cognate of “genetic.” A one-in-a-million genetic makeup creates a person of unusual creative potential, willpower, and charisma. It may offend our democratic sensibilities to admit that such rare birds are so different from the rest of our common flock, but in fact they are.

That’s a definition I can accept. It lead me to search Time’s Flow Stemmed for how often, in a delirium of enthusiasm for a book I’ve just read, I overuse the term. My search led me to an old post on Aristotle’s hypothesis that mastery of metaphor is a sign of genius. Revisiting led to the sacrilegious act of updating an old post, then to an act of time travel, linking from that old post to one four years later.

Brodsky, almost certainly a genius, in an essay about artistic creativity said, “The lesser commenting upon the greater has, of course, a certain humbling appeal, and at our end of the galaxy we are quite accustomed to this sort of procedure.” Brodsky’s phrase: that the lesser cannot comment upon the greater. This pinpoints my intuition about most literary criticism, that however brilliant the critic, there is always something important left out.

Joseph Brodsky: Six Years Later

So long had life together been that now
the second of January fell again
on Tuesday, making her astonished brow
lift like a windshield wiper in the rain,
so that her misty sadness cleared, and showed
a cloudless distance waiting up the road.

So long had life together been that once
the snow began to fall, it seemed unending;
that, lest the flakes should make her eyelids wince,
I’d shield them with my hand, and they, pretending
not to believe that cherishing of eyes,
would beat against my palm like butterflies.

So alien had all novelty become
that sleep’s entanglements would put to shame
whatever depths the analysts might plumb;
that when my lips blew out the candle flame,
her lips, fluttering from my shoulder, sought
to join my own, without another thought.

So long had life together been that all
that tattered brood of papered roses went,
and a whole birch grove grew upon the wall,
and we had money, by some accident,
and tonguelike on the sea, for thirty days,
the sunset threatened Turkey with its blaze.

So long had life together been without
books, chairs, utensils—only that ancient bed—
that the triangle, before it came about,
had been a perpendicular, the head
of some acquaintance hovering above
two points which had been coalesced by love.

So long had life together been that she
and I, with our joint shadows, had composed
a double door, a door which, even if we
were lost in work or sleep, was always closed:
somehow its halves were split and we went right
through them into the future, into night.

Idées Fixes of the Week

JMW Turner: The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne – Sunrise


Edmund Husserl
Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology

First, anyone who seriously intends to become a philosopher
must “once in his life” withdraw into himself and attempt,
within himself, to overthrow and build anew all the sciences
that, up to then, he has been accepting. Philosophy — wisdom
(sagesse) — is the philosophized quite personal affair. It must
arise as his wisdom, as his self-acquired knowledge tending
toward universality, a knowledge for which he can answer from
the beginning, and at each step, by virtue of his own absolute
insights. If I have decided to live with this as my aim — the
decision that alone can start me on the course of a philosophical
development — I have thereby chosen to begin in absolute
poverty, with an absolute lack of knowledge. Beginning thus,
obviously one of the first things I ought to do is reflect on how
I might find a method for going on, a method that promises to
lead to genuine knowing. Accordingly the Cartesian Meditations
are not intended to be a merely private concern of the philoso-
pher Descartes, to say nothing of their being merely an im-
pressive literary form in which to present the foundations of his
philosophy. Rather they draw the prototype for any beginning
philosopher’s necessary meditations, the meditations out of
which alone a philosophy can grow originally.


From Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals Vol. 1.

Day cold a warm shelter in the hollies, capriciously
bearing berries. Query : Are the male and female
flowers on separate trees ?

23rd. Bright sunshine, went out at 3 o’clock. The
sea perfectly calm blue, streaked with deeper colour by
the clouds, and tongues or points of sand ; on our
return of a gloomy red. The sun gone down. The
crescent moon, Jupiter, and Venus. The sound of the
sea distinctly heard on the tops of the hills, which we
could never hear in summer. We attribute this partly
to the bareness of the trees, but chiefly to the absence of
the singing of birds, the hum of insects, that noiseless
noise which lives in the summer air. 1 The villages
marked out by beautiful beds of smoke. The turf fading
into the mountain road. The scarlet flowers of the moss.

24th. Walked between half-past three and half-past
five. The evening cold and clear. The sea of a sober
grey, streaked by the deeper grey clouds. The half dead
sound of the near sheep-bell, in the hollow of the sloping
coombe, exquisitely soothing.

25th. Went to Poole’s after tea. The sky spread
over with one continuous cloud, whitened by the light of
the moon, which, though her dim shape was seen, did
not throw forth so strong a light as to chequer the earth
with shadows. At once the clouds seemed to cleave
asunder, and left her in the centre of a black-blue vault.
She sailed along, followed by multitudes of stars, small,
and bright, and sharp. Their brightness seemed con-
centrated, (half-moon).

26th. Walked upon the hill-tops ; followed the sheep
tracks till we overlooked the larger coombe. Sat in the
sunshine. The distant sheep-bells, the sound of the

1 Compare Keats, Miscellaneous Poems

There crept

A little noiseless noise amongst the leaves
Born of the very sigh that silence heaves. ED.

And Coleridge, The AEolian Harp

The stilly murmur of the distant sea

Tells us of silence. ED.


Rare footage of Franco-Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot.


Joseph Brodsky
Letter to an Archaeologist

Citizen, enemy, mama’s boy, sucker, utter
garbage, panhandler, swine, refujew, verrucht;
a scalp so often scalded with boiling water
that the puny brain feels completely cooked.
Yes, we have dwelt here: in this concrete, brick, wooden
rubble which you now arrive to sift.
All our wires were crossed, barbed, tangled, or interwoven.
Also: we didn’t love our women, but they conceived.
Sharp is the sound of the pickax that hurts dead iron;
still, it’s gentler than what we’ve been told or have said ourselves.
Stranger! move carefully through our carrion:
what seems carrion to you is freedom to our cells.
Leave our names alone. Don’t reconstruct those vowels,
consonants, and so forth: they won’t resemble larks
but a demented bloodhound whose maw devours
its own traces, feces, and barks, and barks.


Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 by J. M. Coetzee

In August I read J. M. Coetzee’s Inner Workings, a book of outstanding literary essays. The earlier collection of essays, Stranger Shores, is also brilliant, worthy to sit on the shelf beside Coetzee’s fiction. It includes superb essays on Joseph Brodsky, Robert Musil, Kafka, Borges and Doris Lessing, as well as a reflection on T. S. Eliot entitled ‘What is a Classic?’ There are twenty-six pieces in total, some less strong but none less than enjoyable.