A jawn like no other

Dan Nosowitz in Atlas Obscura:

The word “jawn” is unlike any other English word. In fact, according to the experts that I spoke to, it’s unlike any other word in any other language. It is an all-purpose noun, a stand-in for inanimate objects, abstract concepts, events, places, individual people, and groups of people. It is a completely acceptable statement in Philadelphia to ask someone to “remember to bring that jawn to the jawn.”

"Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert."

Norman Mailer interviewed by William F. Buckley Jr., on a 1968 episode of Firing Line: "There's such a thing as a great cop, and there's such a thing as a great criminal. And the way I work -- it's very hard to explain this to people -- I don't think in categories, I think, rather, in this way: that the world is better off if every so-called type in the world, is better. It's a better world if the cops get better and the criminals get better. It's a poorer world when the cops are dull and the criminals are dull. In other words, as an existentialist what I believe is that what really is important in the world is how much life there is, how much psychic life, how much spiritual life, how much physical life, imagination, vitality, brilliance. I'm not going to carry this into every ridiculous extreme, but: you know, a mass murderer is not necessarily a criminal. One of the best remarks that Marx ever made -- or maybe this was Engels, in fact -- is that quantity changes quality. You see, a man who kills one man may be moral or immoral; we can't know, we need to know intimately what happened. Generally, the assumption is that he was immoral. Greivously immoral. At the very least, we know that he has changed his life profoundly, and that he has now (if you believe in a mortal soul, as I do, which you can gain or lose) so endangered his soul that we cannot look upon his condition as a light one. I would not presume to judge him too quickly. A man who murders four or five people is already a man of a totally different sort. A man who murders millions is a man who defies our conception of what it is to be a man. And so, for that reason, I would be perfectly willing to let my hypothesis dwindle and die long before we get to the man who kills three or four people. You see, we have to have a little wit when we speak of these matters ... Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert. That's the key to keep in mind. That's Voltaire."

"Was Socrates a Greek at all?"

"By birth, Socrates belonged to the lowest class: Socrates was plebeian. We are told, and can see in sculptures of him, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation. Was Socrates a Greek at all?" Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, the third of the Maxims and Arrows sequence.

Heine and forgiveness

As quoted in Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents: "Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one's enemies -- but not before they have been hanged."

"Half-artist, half-bird, half-metaphysician"

"And how many new ideals are not, at bottom, still possible? Here is a little ideal that I seize upon every five weeks, while upon a wild and lonely walk, in the azure moment of a blasphemous joy. To spend one's life amid delicate and absurd things; a stranger to reality; half-artist, half-bird, half-metaphysician; without a yea or a nay for reality, save that from time to time one acknowledges it, after the manner of a good dancer, with the tips of one's toes; always tickled by some happy ray of sunlight; relieved and encouraged even by sorrow -- for sorrow preserves the happy man; fixing a little tail of jokes even to the most holy thing: this, as is clear, is the ideal of a heavy spirit, a ton in weight -- of the spirit of gravity." Friedrich Nietzsche: The Will to Power — §1039.

"Poor Polidori"

If you have any interest in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or vampires or Romantic poets or, who knows, Swiss tourism, you've most likely read Polidori’s name. He’s a curio, Polly Dolly, most notable not for what he wrote but for being nearby when other people wrote things. It’s a strange afterlife; to think you've landed a leading role, and then there you are, on stage, sure, and with big names too, but fixed to a mark far upstage and over to the left, near the wings, in the half-dark where the spotlight doesn't quite reach. “Poor Polidori.” That’s how Mary Shelley referred to him, writing years later. And he was. Here is how he creeps into letters, like this one written by Byron: “Dr. Polidori is not here, but at Diodati, left behind in hospital with a sprained ankle, which he acquired in tumbling from a wall—he can’t jump.” It was John Polidori’s misfortune to be comic without having a sense of humor, to wish to be a great writer but to be a terrible one, to be unusually bright but surrounded for one summer by people who were titanically brighter, and to have just enough of an awareness of all of this to make him perpetually uneasy. Also, he couldn't jump. Poor Polidori.

Authoritative typography and the soft underbelly of reason

An excerpt from a study (and conversation) by and with writer and filmmaker Errol Morris, published in the New York Times:

Until about 150 years ago most people wrote out documents by hand. Since the advent of typewriters (from John J. Pratt’s pterotype in the 1860s to word processors in the 1980s), few people write by hand anymore, and we now have a vast array of typefaces available to us. It is an easy matter to change an entire document from Bembo to Garamond to Caslon to Palatino. We forget that written manuscripts, letters and journals were once unique objects often containing clues about the writer and the context of when and how they were written. [...]

DAVID DUNNING: Baskerville seems to be the king of fonts. What I did is I pushed and pulled at the data and threw nasty criteria at it. But it is clear in the data that Baskerville is different from the other fonts in terms of the response it is soliciting. Now, it may seem small but it is impressive.

ERROL MORRIS: I am completely surprised by this. If you asked me in advance, I would have guessed Georgia or Computer Modern, something that has the imprimatur of, I don’t know, truth — truthiness. DAVID DUNNING: The word that comes to my mind is gravitas. There are some fonts that are informal — Comic Sans, obviously — and other fonts that are a little bit more tuxedo. It seems to me that Georgia is slightly tuxedo. Computer Modern is a little bit more tuxedo and Baskerville has just a tad more starchiness. I would have expected that if you are going to have a winner in Baskerville, you are also going to have a winner in Computer Modern. But we did not. And there can be a number of explanations for that. Maybe there is a slight difference in how they are rendered in PCs or laptops that causes the starch in Computer Modern to be a little softer than the starch in Baskerville.

ERROL MORRIS: Starchiness?

DAVID DUNNING: Fonts have different personalities. It seems to me that one thing you can say about Baskerville is that it feels more formal or looks more formal. So that may give it a push in terms of its level of authority. This is, of course, speculation. I don’t really know. What one would do with, when you get surprising results is you now have to think about, O.K., what do we do to take that back-ended speculation and support it with data?

ERROL MORRIS: How surprised are you by this?

DAVID DUNNING: I’m surprised that the damn thing worked at all — because you are conducting an experiment in an uncontrolled environment. Who knows what’s going on at the other end of a computer screen? Their kids could be screaming in the background for all we know. It could be two a.m. It could be two p.m. They’ve had their coffee. They haven’t had their coffee… The font is on their desktops. There is just a ton of stuff out there that could obscure any results whatsoever. That’s why I made sure to have those six levels of confidence —


DAVID DUNNING: Because, basically, there are two different types of questions you can ask in a survey. You can ask yes/no. Do you agree with X? And that is a rather crude question, because if a person says yes, you don’t know if they are saying, “Yes, God damn it,” or if they are saying, “Ye-es.” [in a meek voice]. They both qualify as yes. However, if you ask about gradations of the “yes” (or gradations of agreeing), then if there is a more subtle phenomenon going on you have a better chance of catching it. You catch people going from “Ye-es” to “Yeah.”

ERROL MORRIS: And what did you learn from this data?

DAVID DUNNING: That people either agree or they disagree. They are not hovering around the middle at all. They choose a decisive yes or no. But I thought that some fonts would be rejected rather than that one font was going to be the winner.

ERROL MORRIS: For example, Comic Sans would be a loser.


ERROL MORRIS: The loser font.

DAVID DUNNING: The inappropriate font. What is this font doing here? [laughter] But no. That doesn’t seem to have been the case. And that’s why you do the studies. Sometimes you get exactly what you expect. O.K., great. You publish them. The fun happens when you do a study that comes out in a way that no one would ever have expected. Now you’ve got to sit back and say, how do I explain that? Can I explain that?

The writer's technique in thirteen theses (Benjamin)

I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next. II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

III. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.

IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.

V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.

VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.

VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

IX. Nulla dies sine linea — but there may well be weeks.

X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.

XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.

XII. Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.

XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.

"To be a really lousy writer takes energy."

Clive James in the London Review of Books — "To be a really lousy writer takes energy. The average novelist remains unread not because he is bad but because he is flat. On the evidence of Princess Daisy, Judith Krantz deserves her high place in the best-seller lists. This is the second time she has been up there. The first time was for a book called Scruples, which I will probably never get around to reading. But I don’t resent the time I have put into reading Princess Daisy. As a work of art it has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks, but as best-sellers go it argues for a reassuringly robust connection between fiction and the reading public. If cheap dreams get no worse than this, there will not be much for the cultural analyst to complain about. Princess Daisy is a terrible book only in the sense that it is almost totally inept. Frightening it isn’t."