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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

the parable of methods

In a letter to Sophie Valland, Diderot gave an account of an argument concerning method between his friend Grimm and M. Le Roy. Grimm hated method, or at least talk about method – either you knew how to arrange things through the force of things, or you do not. Le Roy took the opposite opinion. Just then the secretary of the ambassador of Naples in France – Ferdinando Galiani – spoke up:

“My friends, I am reminded of a fable: listen. It will be, perhaps, long, but it won’t bore you.
One day, in the midst of the forest, there arose a dispute concernng song between the nightingale and the cuckoo. Each vaunted his talent. “what bird, said the cuckoo, has a song as easy, as simple, as natural and also as measured as me?|”
- What bird, said the nightingale, has one that is sweeter, more varied, more lively and more light and more touching than mine?
- The cuckoo:  I say little, but what I say has weight, and order, and is thus memorable.
- The nightingale: I love to talk: but I am always new, and I am never tiring. I enchant the forests. The cuckoo saddens them. He is so attached to the lessons of his mother that he would not dare chance a tone that he hasn’t got from her. Myself, I don’t recognize a master. I play with the rules. It is when I infringe on them that I’m admired most. What comparison can there be between his fastidious method and my happy inspirations!

The cuckoo sought to interrupt the nightingale several times. But the nightingale sang on and didn’t listen: it is a little their characteristic fault. Ours, carried away by his ideas, followed them with rapidity, without caring about the responses of his rival.

However, after  the exchange of replies and counterreplies, they agreed to give the judgment of their dispute up to a third animal.
But where to find a third equally instructed and impartial who could judge them? It is difficult to find a good judge. The went in search of one everywhere.
They were crossing a meadow when they perceived an ass with the most grave and solemn aspect. Since the beginning of assdom, none had ever sported such long ears. “ah, said the cuckoo, in seeing them,”we are really fortunate that our dispute is an affair of  ears: here’s our perfect judge. God created him for us especially!”
The ass was eating grass. He hardly imagined that one day he’d be called upon to judge music. But Providence amuses itself with all kinds of things. Our two birds abased themselves before him, complimented him on his gravity and judgment, and exposed to him the subject of their dispute, after which they humbly begged him to listen to them and decide.

But the ass, hardly turning his heavy head and not missing a blade of grass, made them a sign with his ears that he was hungry and that today was not his day to assume the judge’s seat. The birds insisted: the ass continued to graze. In so doing, his appetite eased. There was some trees planted along the path through the meadow. “oh well, “ he told them, go there. I surrender to your wish: you will sing, I will digest, I will listen to you, and then I will tell you my opinion.

The birds went like a shot and perched themselves. The ass followed them with the air and step of a judge made of cement walking through the halls of the palace of justice. Finally he arrived and said: “begin, the court will hear you.” He was of course the sole court.

The cuckoo said: My lord, my argument is such that you cannot miss a word. Grasp the character of my song and, above all, observe the artifice and the method.” Then, breathing deeply and flapping his wings to emphasize the beat, he sang: coocoo coocoo coocoo coooocooo coocoo. And after having combined this in all possible ways, he fell silent.

The nightingale without a preambule deployed his voice, threw himself into the boldest of modulations, followed the newest tunes, and the ones that were the most rare. His cadences were such that they verged on the breathless; now one heard the sounds fall and murmur from the bottom of his throat like the ripples of a stream which loses itself among the pebbles, now the voice went higher, swellled little by little, filled the entirety of the air and remained there as though suspended. It was successively tender, light, brilliant, pathetic and painted whatever character it took on. But his song was not made for everybody.

Carred away by his enthusiasm, he kept singing; but the ass, who had already yawned many times, stopped him and said. I don’t doubt that everything that you sang there is very beautiful, but I don’t understand it. It appeared to me to be bizarre, tangled, and incoherent. You are perhaps more expert than your rival, but he is more methodical than you – and I, I am for method!


Such is the parable of methods.

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