Reasonable Words: “Aristotle looked Askance”

The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski on why he’s a poet and not a philosopher:

I realized early on that I’d probably never be a real scholar, an archivist, an academic. I didn’t read my way scrupulously through the assigned texts—which weren’t just Soviet, hence scarred from birth by the sins of shoddiness, duplicity, and monotony—but also included classics of philosophy. I didn’t stroll slowly and sedately through the lanes of printed pages, snaring key quotes with the aid of a pencil before transferring them to a notebook or index cards, the indispensable carapace of the true student. I daydreamed, dropped the book, forgot it, and drifted on to something new, and when I came to, I found myself in another place and time, in Portugal or Chile, on the shores of the Mediterranean, in the Middle Ages or the first decade of the nineteenth century.

And so my assigned reading dragged on at a snail’s pace. I never finished anything. I wasn’t a good student. Descartes lost patience, Aristotle looked askance. They already knew that this was no young philosopher poring for hours over the pages of their immortal tracts. It was only a poet, a dabbler who couldn’t refine a concept or elaborate new nuances in existing categories if his life depended on it. The poet is the philosopher’s older brother. Older, but treated for all that with a certain indulgent hauteur; men of learning view him as frivolous, flighty. A person who doesn’t spend ten hours a day in stuffy reading rooms can’t possibly be taken seriously. A person who makes things up as he goes along. Writes out of thin air instead of cobbling new books from old quotes, footnotes, rereadings of ancient texts. He sits in front of the typewriter with eyes closed, like a clairvoyant. Closer to astrology than to science. He’s prone to dubious enthusiasms; at times he sings, laughs, or cries while shut in his own room. True scholars wouldn’t do that. Scholars don’t close their eyes at their computers. Just the opposite—they prop them open.

From his notebook-like memoir, Another Beauty. Daydreaming while you are supposed to be reading philosophy is something I know well. No scholar myself, either, but every few pages of his beautiful book, I come across a passage that makes me get out my pencil and journal to copy it down.

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