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hypochondria of the deskbound

All the neighborhood dogs/lickin at her feet

“Benvenuto Cellini made the brilliant observation: wounds do not make us clever, because new ones always announce themselves under a different form. This I know well from my own experience.”

Lichtenberg’s experience – his orientation, if you will – derived, as everybody likes to point out, from the childhood accident that crippled him – bent his spine, that is (although the Lichtenberg society has demystified this beautiful story with a more plausible one about rickets – no matter! the myth probably arises from Lichtenberg’s own understanding of his wound ). It left him with a lifetime’s share of hypochondria – in one letter after another, his whole life long, Lichtenberg was dying. He felt bad about the fact that, feeling bad all the time, he didn’t know if he was feeling bad or good at any one particular time. The hypochondriac’s dilemma, as he well knew, was that hypochondria, in which one always suspects something bad, might disguise the advent of something worse.

Lichtenberg was an enlightenment savant, the professor of “universal philosophy” in Göttingen, an astronomer, mathematician, and general spreader of light. Ah, these savants in their cities – Smith in Glasgow, Montesquieu in Bordeaux, Kant in Konigsberg, and Lichtenberg in Göttingen. Like any enlightenment savant, he liked sex – and this part of Lichtenberg’s life, since Gert Hoffman’s novel, has now become the most famous part of his life. This would not really surprise Lichtenberg, with his satiric sense of the unexpected reputation, the perversity of fame, that checkers history.

Like all the German savants, Lichtenberg was an inveterate contributor to or founder of journals. For a long time, he contributed little essays to the Göttingen Tachenkalender. In 1783, he contributed Specimens of curious superstitions. I don’t believe this essay has been translated into English. Lichtenberg is, in general, not very translated into English. NYRB books published a translation of the Waste Books for which he is most known, by the most successful translator of Nietzsche, R.J. Hollingdale. I must say, I find Hollingdale’s preface pretty bad, since it isn’t true that Lichtenberg’s other writings are terrible. True, the Hogarthian essay is, uh, tedious ... but it was preparatory to the great anti-physiological writings. Lichtenberg’s epigrammatic style is evident in these writings – for instance, his mock learned work on the physiognomy of dog’s tails and what they tell us about the character of dogs. There is something very Twain like about that essay.
Well, LI is pressed by business right now, and we have to go to Chicago for a wedding on Wednesday – we will be back on Monday, August 4. So our readers might not fill themselves with the usual cornucopia of trivial fact and bombastic speculation that we try to give them each and every day. Damn! So our plan to translate Lichtenberg in bits, then the remarks about superstition by Goethe in his essay on Justus Moser, then the bit about astrology in Goethe’s letter to Schiller - these will all have to be put off.


Anonymous said…
"since it isn’t true that Lichtenberg’s other writings are terrible." That Hollingdale has some nerve. Back in the day when I did things like go to the beach, Lichtenberg made fine beach reading.