Friday, February 26, 2010


Kafka’s “The Top” is a story about a philosopher who spends his spare time around children so he can grab their tops in spin. To catch a top still spinning makes him happy for a moment in his belief “that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things.” Disgust follows delight almost at once and he throws down the top, walks away. Yet hope of understanding continues to fill him each time top-spinning preparations begin among the children: “as soon as the top began to spin and he was running breathlessly after it, the hope would turn to certainty but when he held the silly piece of wood in his hand he felt nauseated.”

The story is about the delight we take in metaphor. A meaning spins, remaining upright on an axis of normalcy aligned with the conventions of connotation and denotation, and yet: to spin is not normal, and to dissemble normal uprightness by means of this fantastic motion is impertinent. What is the relation of impertinence to the hope of understanding? To delight?

… I [do not] believe this philosopher really runs after understanding. Rather, he has become a philosopher (that is, one whose profession is to delight in understanding) in order to furnish himself with pretexts for running after tops.

— Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay 1

Out of curiosity, I did a count of the unpublished posts in my workspace this evening. Not counting this one, there are 70 fragmentary posts, in various stages of completion, stacked up in my virtual lumber room. Some of these are nearly finished and ready to go, but I have held them back because I reworked them and published them in different form. Some are in limbo because I started writing and lost the plot, or found myself tangled in thickets of unresolved or contradictory thought. Some argue for positions I have subsequently renounced or discovered, after many tedious hours at the keyboard, that I disagree with. Some are utter crap.

Most of my unfinished posts are more fragmentary than this, though: a paragraph or two of argumentation, a thought-provoking quote I am saving to illustrate a topic to be addressed later, an amusing picture just waiting for the proper light of day. Some are simply titles. I have lots of great blog post titles in here, in addition to those jotted down on the curling post-it notes scattered about my office. I’m good at picking titles. It’s one of my true talents. (Too bad they don’t give out MacArthur Foundation grants for title picking. I’d be on a tropical island somewhere right now, leafing through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and sucking down a mojito.)

* * *

I started writing one of these selfsame unfinished posts yesterday evening, in response to some small kerfuffle kicked up in the blogosphere over the Wall Street blog listicle this very site had been included in just the other day. I intended to give a magisterial exposition of my view and philosophy of the blogosphere, and the proper form and function of each and every blog and blog author in it. But then, halfway through, I was pulled up short and hard by two sudden realizations: one, I was nearly out of single malt scotch (without which my characteristic eloquence is as sere and barren as the Mojave Desert), and two, who the fuck cares?

There may be some small number of you among my Dear and Long-suffering Readers who might actually be interested in my views on this subject, but I bet you could be counted on one hand. Do you really want to know that I think not only is the blogosphere big enough and varied enough to contain all sorts of material—serious, whimsical, scathing, satirical, professional, amateurish, foolish, inane—but also that the vast quantities of unadulterated crap which demonstrably exist do not weaken or demean the good and serious stuff, but rather exalt it by comparison? You might, but I seriously doubt it. I mean really: Who. The fuck. Cares.

Not me.

Which neatly illustrates one major reason why, at the end of the day, I write this blog. Sitting down to keyboard with cigar and libation in hand does wonders to clarify not only my own thoughts on any particular subject, but also whether it rises to the level of something I might find interesting from another pen. If not, back to the woodpile it goes, where I can scavenge it for useful material later or consign it to the fireplace for fuel. The false starts, dead ends, and inchoate beginnings embodied in my unpublished oeuvre represent the very essence of active thought. Too bad I’ll never let you see them in all their messy glory. If you did, you just might begin to believe that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.2

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to chasing those tops. I’ll get back to you if I catch an interesting one.

1 Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986, pp. xi–xii.
2 Don’t start getting all superior on me, though. This is exactly how your own brain works most of the time, too: you figure out what you “know” and what you believe by consciously thinking about it. Put that in your epistemological pipe and smoke it.

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