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Showing posts from August 23, 2015

The backwards oarsman

It was, I think, about six months after Adam learned to walk that he began to experiment with walking backwards. Walking backwards goes against our social bodily image, which aligns our face with our motion. For just that reason, it ends up, for a child, in the realm of play. Since learning to walk backwards, Adam indulges in it not so frequently, but always with a giggle and a sideglance at his parents, because he feels he is doing something a bit naughty. The image of the oarsman that I’ve excavated from Montaigne and from Pliny exerts, to my mind,  a marvelous poetic power as a model that tells us something about the course of a life or a history partly because it stands in suprising contrast to  our rooted association of facial direction and forward motion. Of course, the sightless oarsman is looking, but only at what recedes behind him. In considering this image, one has to recall, as well, the socio-economic system in which the slave oarsmen in Pliny’s time, or the oarsmen

backwards progress. Montaigne's image

Comparisons, it was anciently thought, were among the royal tools of thought, along with logic. One of the interesting thing about comparisons is how, buried beneath them, we find coincidences, intersections on the plane of concept or image. And the comparison is all the more powerful in that, like a coincidence, it produces a cognitive shock, a crossroads surprise. The shock, if the comparison goes off well, will be transmitted to the object we began with. It will seem not only as if we have given an explanation, but we have given a surplus of explanation. It is here that comparison runs into trouble, for, like coincidence, it seems tangled in superstition. Enlightenment begins, perhaps, with a suspicion of the surplus of explanatory value. Ancient  enlightenment – the sceptics and epicurians who came after Aristotle – recognized that comparison did too much work. It is as if an occult power, a dark force, planned that meeting of concepts or images or situations. The enlightenment