One of the two books I am presently wasting my time reading is Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books. The word “waste” comes not from garbage, as you might suspect, but from the business practice of jotting down transactions in real time, only to organize them later in a more formal ledger. Thus, any ideas that came into Lichtenberg’s constantly buzzing head would land in his “waste” book, which is anything but and, in truth, shows some polished, ledger-like thought.
The version I am reading comes from nyrb’s estimable paperback series (an addiction that could prove costly, so readers beware). In the back, on a blank page, I am writing down letters and numbers, as The Waste Book is set up by the letters Lichtenberg assigned to his collected books in the order they were written. Some of my favorite thoughts are as follows:
C14: “Diogenes, filthily attired, paced across the splendid carpets in Plato’s dwelling. Thus, said he, do I trample on the pride of Plato. Yes, Plato replied, but only with another kind of pride.” This resonates with me because I’ve found that, often in life, playing the role of anti-anything amounts to the same hubris as the opposed sentiment to begin with. For instance, to be overly vocal in your disdain for the wealthy and their laughable pride in materialism is, in itself, a sort of “materialism” — the riches of “anti-materialism,” or the pride in ostentatious poverty, if you will. Look at me, at how I wear my pride in despising the laughable pride of others. As Plato might say, it’s all one, and thus do opposites recognize parts of themselves in each other.
C24: “Every observer of human nature knows how hard it is to narrate experiences in such a way that no opinion or judgment interferes with the narration.” Is there such a thing as complete objectivity? I think not, and this aphorism speaks to that.
C47: “A principal rule for writers, and especially those who want to describe their own sensations, is not to believe that their doing so indicates they possess a special disposition of nature in this respect. Others can perhaps do it just as well as you can. Only they do not make a business of it, because it seems to them silly to publicize such things.” Here we have Lichtenberg anticipating blogs (I write, therefore I am somebody). And yet, if we look back at C14, we see that Lichtenberg is guilty himself — knowingly so and with a wink. As for my blog, if you read it, please assume the winking behind its “specialness.”
D6: “Many things about our bodies would not seem to us so filthy and obscene if we did not have the idea of nobility in our heads.” Mark Twain often sneered at “the damned human race” and held up animals as the superior breed. Maybe it’s that abject “nobility,” a near neighbor of “pride,” that manifests itself in our ideas about our bodies, our modesty, our high sense of decorum — this despite the fact that our bodies are, in one sense, no different than the bodies of animals (who really don’t obsess about the covering of their mortal coils the way we do). That said, I am most grateful that most people do cover their coils. “Mortality” is the least of these coils’ problems.
D8: “We are only too inclined to believe that if we possess a little talent work must come easily to us. You must exert yourself, man, if you want to do something great.” We are only too fond of short cuts and of letting ourselves off the hook by way of excuses. One of our favorites: I can’t do that or do that as well because I lack the talent that x has.
D21: “You can take the first book you lay your hands on and with your eyes closed point to any line and say: A book could be written about this. When you open your eyes, you will seldom find you are deceived.” Who needs prompts? Just take Lichtenberg’s advice. And yet, despite this, there is nothing new under the sun. The wisdom of Lichenberg meets the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Amazing.
D38: “The individual often praises what is bad, but the whole human race praises only the good.” What I most admire about Lichtenberg is his affinity for irony.
D58: “That man is the noblest creature may also be inferred from the fact that no other creature has yet contested this claim.” See what I mean?
D59: “It requires no especially great talent to write in such a way that another will be very hard put to it to understand what you have written.” This aphorism should be posted above the desk of every poet — and every poetry journal editor.
D64: “We have the often thoughtless respect accorded ancient laws, ancient usages and ancient religion to thank for all the evil in the world.” One need only read the front section of the newspaper to reveal the wisdom in this thought.
D102: “It is impossible to have bad taste, but many people have none at all. Most people have no ideas, says Dr. Price, they talk about a thing but they don’t think: this is what I have several times called having an opinion.” And this should be posted above the entrance to the U.S. Capitol — a Congress of no ideas, of talking about things without thinking. Or, simply tune to Fox News or CNN, two other lairs of empty, heated air.
E6: “It is very much in the order of nature that toothless animals should have horns: is it any wonder that old men and women should often have them?” File under the category, “Older and bolder.”
E30: “From love of fatherland they write stuff that gets our dear fatherland laughed at.” Another thought for our posturing, prattling politicians. Or ugly Americans wherever you may find them.
I am only on p. 68 of this 234-page book, but you can see why I revel in it so — thinking leads to thinking, which in turn seeps into reflection. This is time well spent, not a waste at all.