According to Robert Craven’s 1980 article on Pool slang in American speech, breaks – as in good break, bad break, those are the breaks – derives from the American lingo of pool, which is distinct from British billiard terms. The difference in terminology emerged in the 19th century, but he dates the popular use of break (lucky break, bad break, the breaks) to the 20s. I love the idea that this is true, that the Jazz age, the age of American modernity and spectacle, saw the birth of the breaks. If the word indeed evolved from the first shot in pool – when you “break” the pyramid of balls, a usage that seems to have been coined in America in the 19th century, as against the British term – then its evolution nicely intersects one of the favored examples in the philosophy of causation, as presented by Hume.
Hume’s work, from the Treatise to the Enquiry, is so punctuated by billiard balls that it might as well have been the metaphysical dream of Minnesota Fats – excuse the anachronism – and it has been assumed, in a rather jolly way in the philosophy literature, that this represents a piece of Hume’s own life, a preference for billiards. However, as some have noted, Hume might have borrowed the billiard ball example from Malebranche – whose work he might have read while composing the Treatise at La Fleche. But even if Hume was struck by Malebranche’s example and borrowed it, the stickiness of the example, the way billiard balls keep appearing in Hume’s texts, feels to the reader like tacit testimony to Hume’s own enjoyment or interest in the game. Unfortunately, this detail has not been taken up by his biographers. When we trace the itinerary of Hume as he moved from Scotland to Bristol to London to France, we have to reconstruct ourselves how this journey in the 1730s might have intersected with billiard rooms in spas and public houses. In a schedule of coaches from London to Bristol published in the early 1800s, we read that there is a coach stop at the Swan in St. Clements street, London, on the line that goes to Bristol, and from other sources we know that the Swan was famed for its billiard room. Whether this information applies to a journey made 70 years before, when the game was being banned in public houses by the authorities, is uncertain. One should also remember that in Hume’s time, billiards was not played as we now play American pool or snooker. The table and the pockets and the banks were different. So was the cue stick – , it wasn’t until 1807 that the cue stick was given its felt or india rubber tip, which made it a much more accurate instrument. And of course the balls were hand crafted, and thus not honed to a mechanically precise roundness.
If, however, Hume was a billiard’s man, one wonders what kind he was. His biographer Hunter speaks of the “even flight” of Hume’s prose – he never soars too much. But is this the feint of a hustler? According to one memoirist, Kant, too, was a billiards player – in fact the memoirist, Heilsberg, claimed it was his “only recreation” – and he obviously thought there was something of a hustle about Hume’s analysis of cause and effect, which is where the breaks come in.
There’s a rather celebrated passage in the abstract of the Treatise in which Hume even conjoins the first man, Adam, and the billiard ball. The passage begins: “Here is a billiard ball lying on the table, and another ball moving towards it with rapidity. They strike; and the ball which was formerly at rest now acquires a motion.” Hume goes on to describe the reasons we would have for speaking of one ball’s contact causing the other ball to acquire a motion. The question is, does this description get to something naturally inherent in the event?
“Were a man, such as Adam, created in the full vigour of understanding, without experience, he would never be able to infer motion in the second ball from the motion and impulse of the first. It is not anything that reason sees in the cause which makes us infer the effect.”
This new man, striding into the billiard room, Hume thinks, would not see as we see, even if he sees what we see. Only when he has seen such things thousands of times will he see as we see: then, “His understanding would anticipate his sight and form a conclusion suitable to his past experience.”
Hume’s Adam is an overdetermined figure. On the one hand, in his reference to Adam’s “science”, there is a hint of the Adam construed by the humanists. Martin Luther claimed that Adam’s vision was perfect, meaning he could see objects hundreds of miles away. Joseph Glanvill, that curiously in-between scholar – defender of the ghost belief and founder of the Royal Society – wrote in the seventeenth century:
“Adam needed no Spectacles. The acuteness of his natural Opticks (if conjecture may have credit) shew'd him much of the Coelestial magnificence and bravery without a Galilaeo's tube: And 'tis most probable that his naked eyes could reach near as much of the upper World, as we with all the advantages of art. It may be 'twas as absurd even in the judgement of his senses, that the Sun and Stars should be so very much, less then this Globe, as the contrary seems in ours; and 'tis not unlikely that he had as clear a perception of the earths motion, as we think we have of its quiescence.”
However, this is not the line that Hume develops. His Adam has our human all too human sensorium, and is no marvel of sensitivity. Rather, he belongs to another line of figures beloved by the Enlightenment philosophes: Condillac’s almost senseles statue, Locke’s Molyneaux, Diderot’s aveugle-né. Here, the human is stripped down to the basics. Adam’s conjunction with the billiard ball, then, gives us a situation like Diderot’s combination of the blind man and the mirror – it’s an event of illuminating estrangement.
It is important that these figures were certainly not invented in the eighteenth century. Rather, they come out of a longer lineage: that of the sage and the fool. Bruno and his ass, Socrates and Diogenes the cynic, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza – it is from this family that all these deprived souls in the texts of the philosophes are appropriated and turned into epistemological clockworks.
Hume’s point is to lift the breaks from off our necks, to break the bonds of necessity – or rather to relocate those bonds. In doing so, he and his billiard balls are reversing the older tendency of atomistic philosophy, which was revived by Gassendi in the 17th century. Lucretian atoms fall in necessary and pre-determined courses, the only exception being that slight inexplicable swerve when the atoms contact the human – hence our free will. Hume, who had a hard enough time with Christian miracles, did not, so far as I know, discuss the Lucretian version of things even to the extent of dismissing it.
To be a little over the top, we could say that the eighteenth century thinkers disarmed necessity, exiled Nemesis, and the heavyweight heads of the nineteenth century brought it back with a vengeance, locating it – in a bow to Hume, or the Humean moment – in history. Custom. From this point of view, Hume was part of a project that saw the transfer of power from God and Nature back to Man – although we are now all justly suspicious of such capitalizable terms.
But the breaks survived and flourished. There is a way of telling intellectual history – the way I’ve been doing it – that makes it go on above our heads, instead of in them. It neglects the general populace, the great unwashed. Book speaks to book. To my mind, intellectual history has to embrace and understand folk belief in order to understand the book to book P.A. system.
Which is why we can approach the breaks in another way.
In 1980, I was going to college in Shreveport, Louisiana. I went to classes in the morning, then worked at a general remodeling store from 3 to 10. I worked in the paint department, mostly. At seven, the manager would leave for home, and Henry, the assistant manager, would let us pipe in whatever music we wanted to - which is how I first heard Kurtis Blow’s These are the Breaks. I also first heard the Sugarhill Gang’s Rappers delight this way, and I still mix them up. I heard both, as well as La Donna and Rick James, at the Florentine, a disco/gay bar that I went to a lot with friends – it was the best place to dance in town. Being a gay bar, it was always receiving bomb threats and such, which made it a bit daring to go there. We went, however, because we could be pretty sure that the music they played would include no country or rock. It was continuously danceable until, inevitably, The Last Dance played.
At the time, I was dabbling a bit in Marx, and thought that I was on the left side of history. At the same time, 1980 was a confusing year for Americans. The ‘malaise’ was everywhere, and nothing seemed to be going right – from the price of oil to the international order. There were supposedly communists in Central America, African countries were turning to the Soviet Union, and of course there was the hangover from the Vietnam War – the fantasy that we could have won that war had not yet achieved mass circulation, so it felt like what it was, a plain defeat.
I imagined, then, that the breaks were falling against a certain capitalist order. In actuality, the left – in its old and new varieties – was vanishing. Or you could say transforming. The long marches were underway – in feminism, from overthrowing patriarchy to today’s “leaning in”; in civil rights, from the riots in Miami to the re-Jim Crowization of America through the clever use of the drug war; and in labor organization, from the union power to strike to the impotence and acceptance that things will really never get better, and all battles are now rearguard.
My horizons were not vast back then – I didn’t keep up with the news that much, but pondered a buncha books and the words of popular songs. But I knew something was in the air. As it turned out, Kurtis Blow’s breaks were not going to be kind to my type, the Nowhere people, stranded socially with their eccentric and unconvincing visions. However, after decades of it, I have finally learned to accept what Blow was telling me: these are just the breaks. That is all they are.