Indulgence of sloth, and hatred of vacancy

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Everyone knows that Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan". But it's less well known that he became one of the great curmudgeons of literary history. I thought of him when I read Motoko Rich's NYT article "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?" (7/27/2008). And so for your online reading pleasure, I'll reproduce footnote 1 from Chapter III of his  Biographia Literaria (1817).

For as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly day-dreaming, during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole materiel and imagery of the doze is supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects and transmits the moving phantasms of one man's delirium, so as to people the barrenness of an hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose. We should therefore transfer this species of amusement, (if indeed those can be said to retire a musis, who were never in their company, or relaxation be attributable to those, whose bows are never bent) from the genus, reading, to that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely; indulgence of sloth, and hatred of vacancy. In addition to novels and tales of chivalry in prose or rhyme, (by which last I mean neither rhythm nor metre) this genus comprizes as its species, gaming, swinging, or swaying on a chair or gate; spitting over a bridge; smoking; snuff-taking; tete a tete quarrels after dinner between husband and wife; conning word by word all the advertisements of the daily advertizer in a public house on a rainy day, &c. &c. &c.

I believe that STC would have been inspired to additional flights of divergent eloquence by this sentence from Rich's article:

As teenagers' scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.

For added amusement, here are the first two sentences of Coleridge's chapter, including the footnoted phrase:

To anonymous critics in reviews, magazines, and news-journals of various name and rank, and to satirists with or without a name, in verse or prose, or in verse-text aided by prose-comment, I do seriously believe and profess, that I owe full two thirds of whatever reputation and publicity I happen to possess. For when the name of an individual has occurred so frequently, in so many works, for so great a length of time, the readers of these works (which with a shelf or two of Beauties, Elegant Extracts and Anas , form nine-tenths of the reading of the reading public1) cannot but be familiar with the name, without distinctly remembering whether it was introduced for an eulogy or for censure. And this becomes the more likely, if (as I believe) the habit of perusing periodical works may be properly added to Averrhoe's2 catalogue of Anti-Mnemonics , or weakeners of the memory.

And here is Coleridge's footnote 2, giving his version of "Averrhoe's catalogue of Anti-Mnemonics":

Ex. gr. Pediculos e capillis excerptos in arenam jacere incontusos; eating of unripe fruit; gazing on the clouds, and (in genere) on moveable things suspended in the air; riding among a multitude of camels; frequent laughter; listening to a series of jests and humourous anecdotes, as when (so to modernise the learned Saracen's meaning) one man's droll story of an Irishman inevitably occasions another's droll story of a Scotchman, which again by the same sort of conjunction disjunctive leads to some etourderie of a Welchman, and that again to some sly hit of a Yorkshireman; the habit of reading tomb-stones in church-yards, &c. By the bye, this catalogue strange as it may appear, is not insusceptible of a sound psychological commentary.



11 Comments

  1. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    August 2, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

    No wonder I had such a hard time memorizing the vowel chart when I first learned it! Too many camels.

  2. Joe said,

    August 2, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

    If you think the vowel chart is bad, just try memorizing Java when it's written in CamelCase. Also, I'd best stop laughing at this or it will impair my memory according to that footnote. Or was it a handnote? See? I'm already impaired!

  3. felix culpa said,

    August 2, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

    I'll take my impairment straight up, bartender.

    And now isn't that fine Mr. Coleridge just such a one as to talk about impairment! Being such a notable expert for the ages as he is.
    Should we follow his warning or his example?

  4. dr pepper said,

    August 2, 2008 @ 9:36 pm

    Heh. In The Alexandria Quartet, which never impressed me as much as it did my parents or my college english teacher, one character opines that the perfect novel would be one that could be traversed in multiple sequences. And in fact there are some scenes that are repeated from different points of view. Years later, when i discovered hypertext, i tought what a shame Durrell didn't live to see it. Meanwhile, Michael Moorcock's meta epic, the Eternal Champion series continues to flourish despite the fact that he killed the main character and destroyed the universe, back around 1970; new stories just get threaded into a heavily knotted timeline.

    That's just two examples. I don't think literature has ever been a completely linear endeavor,

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 2, 2008 @ 9:36 pm

    What's this business about throwing uncrushed lice picked from the hair into the sand?

  6. rootlesscosmo said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 11:36 am

    I read "incontusos" as "crushed," taking "in-" not as a negative particle but a descriptive one. But the murkiness of my memory of Latin may be gauged by the fact that I studied it in a New York public high school.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

    rootlesscosmo: I read "incontusos" as "crushed," taking "in-" not as a negative particle but a descriptive one.

    Unfortunately incontundo isn't in Lewis & Short, and neither incontundo, incontusus, nor incontusos seem to be anywhere in the Perseus library.

    General web search for incontusos turns up only references to Coleridge's quotation, as far as I can tell.

    So I think we get to decide for ourselves whether it's like impel, imbue, inquire or like illiterate, irregular, innocent. (Though the principle of choosing the reading that makes the most sense doesn't seem to apply here.)

    But anyhow, I have a different and prior question: why did Coleridge cite this particular aspect of Averrhoe's catalogue in Latin, while the others are in English? The usual reason for bits of Latin in such passages is as a sort of translingual bleeping, to hide concepts or comments viewed as inappropriate for open discussion. But surely headlice were not viewed as obscene in 1817 England?

    Of course, this whole discussion could be seen as nit-picking …

  8. Alexandre said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

    Precious!

    Seems to me, if the Protestant Work Ethic was so related to the Industrial Revolution, chances are that daydreaming makes most sense in this here Post-Industrial Era.

  9. Simon Cauchi said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

    Never mind about the headlice. What's this nonsense about "amusement" meaning being "retirement from the muses"? I can't tell if STC is just having his little joke or is genuinely mistaken about the origin of the word, which derives from "muse" as in being bemused, being put into a muse. Nothing to do with the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne.

  10. Thought Streams about Online Literacy « Disparate said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 9:34 pm

    […] Literacy Debate – Online, R U Really Reading? – Series – NYTimes.com (via Language Log) […]

  11. Ken Brown said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

    I think its pretty sure that he is "having his little joke".

    I'll plead guilty to at least five or six of these:

    "… gaming, swinging, or swaying on a chair or gate; spitting over a bridge; smoking; snuff-taking; tete a tete quarrels after dinner between husband and wife; conning word by word all the advertisements of the daily advertizer in a public house on a rainy day…"

    – and I imagine Coleridge would as well :-)

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