ABSORBING ART, 1941
By Ludwig Börne, written in 1823
"There can be found today men and works which offer instruction in how
to learn such things as Latin, Greek, and French in a mere three days, and
such things as accounting in a mere three hours. How one might become in
three days a truly original writer has, however, yet to be indicated. And yet
it is such a simple thing! To do it there is nothing one needs to learn, only
much one needs to unlearn. There is nothing new one need to experience,
only much that one need forget.
In today’s world, the minds and works of the learned might be compared
to ancient manuscripts where one must scrape away the boring disputes
of would-be Church Fathers and the ranting of inﬂamed monks to catch a
glimpse of the Roman classic lying beneath. With the birth of every new
mind comes the birth of beautiful new thoughts. With every individual, the
world is reborn. And yet, somehow, the unnecessary and distracting scrawl
of life and teaching conceals and obscures these original texts.
One can arrive at a fairly precise view of this state of affairs if one thinks
of the following. We recognize an animal, a piece of fruit, a ﬂower, and things
of this sort as what they are. Could one, however, say that someone who
knew partridges, raspberry bushes, or roses only by means of partridge
pie, raspberry juice, or rose oil had a full and accurate understanding of
these things? And yet, this is how the arts and sciences—and indeed all
realms in which we ﬁrst approach things through thought rather than the
senses—proceed. These things are laid before us prepared and transformed
and, in truth, in such fashion that we never come to know them in their raw
and naked form. Opinion is the kitchen in which all truths are slaughtered,
plucked, minced, stewed, and spiced. We are in need of nothing so much
as books without reason—books, namely, that present to us actual things and
not mere opinions.
There are but a tiny number of original writers and the best of them differ
from those less good not nearly so much as we might, after a superficial
consideration of the matter, think. One creeps, another runs, one limps,
another dances, one drives, another rides to his destination. But route and
destination are in every case the same. Only in solitude can one arrive at
new and great thoughts.
The question is: how can one arrive at solitude? One might ﬂee his fellow
man—but then one ﬁnds oneself in the noisy market of books. One can throw
one’s books away, but how does one free oneself from all the conventional
knowledge that schooling has stuffed in one’s head? In the true art of self-education,
what is most needed and most beautiful, but also rarest and often poorly accomplished,
is the art of making oneself ignorant. Just as in a million men, only a thousand are thinkers,
in a thousand thinkers only one truly thinks for himself"...
Read the rest of Börne's essay here.