Tuesday, June 3, 2014



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.


  1. Thank you for the essay (and for the art)! Some ungelled thoughts about Boerne's words are drifting about my noggin -- am reminded of Marianne Moore's "Originality is a by-product of sincerity" and Jane Hirshfield's observation (if i'm doing justice to it with my paraphrase) that just as we each have an induplicable fingerprint -- or way of walking or of talking; or storehouse of experiences -- so we also each possess a unique, an "original," mode of literary expression ...

    1. My favorite book about writing is If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland, who was herself an original, if not eccentric. She says we're so intent on appearing smart and clever and deep-thinking that we sit there nibbling the end of our pencil for ten years until we finally realize that what we've been trying to say all along is "The lady is fat."

  2. Thanks so much for this pithy, insightful essay, telling us to get out of the kitchen of opinion and make oneself ignorant. I may share this some time, crediting you.

    And I love that you've chosen a Kaldis painting to illustrate it. I knew him many years ago when I attended an artists' meeting every Friday night, and where he held forth––a true character, always wrapped in a long scarf––his Greek accented ideas on art.

  3. I should add that Kaldis was definitely an original artist: his paintings were freshly seen, and showed a personal delight in his memories. I especially loved his landscape paintings.

    1. Thanks, Altoon, I came across Kaldis, and "Absorbing Art," at the Barnes Foundation when I was in Philadelphia recently. It grabbed me straight off. I haven't had time to look at more of his work yet but I love that you knew him! And of course pass the essay on! .

  4. I remember reading a piece of criticism about Tolstoy's writing which singled out his technique of writing about a thing or an action as if he were seeing it for the very first time. The line in the essay about "making oneself ignorant" reminds me of this element in Tolstoy's work. I think Tolstoy may have been the self-taught master at making himself ignorant. For examples of this read the hunting scene in War and Peace or maybe the whole of Anna Karenina (or at least Fr. Sergius, Master and Man, or the funeral scene in Death of Ivan Ilych).

    1. Flannery O'Connor talks about this, too: not making ourselves stupid, of course; rather, refusing to make our intellects into idols. Matthew 25...Thanks, Herman. Just re-read Anna Karenina last year.

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