The Nature of the Beast

My slow, steady progress through Donald Sassoon’s monumental but unfailingly fascinating The Culture of the Europeans continues to throw up extraordinary snippets of information.

Today, for instance, I learned that at the beginning of the 20th century Tolstoy was published by a Socialist press in Italy, and so was generally regarded as a socialist by Italians. In France, on the other hand, his work had primarily been taken up by conservative Catholic commentators, and so he was generally regarded as conservative and, if not Catholic, at least Christian.

It makes you wonder how much of our view of particular books and authors is guided by things that are extraneous to the text. To take a banal but perhaps instructive example: the program I use for databasing my library pulls down information from a wide variety of sources ranging from the British Library and the Library of Congress to Amazon. More often than not, this can produce some very strange results. I have, for instance, seen novels by Iain Banks categorized as ‘Food and Health’, and novels by Ursula K. Le Guin categorized as ‘Business’. In all probability, these are just slips by somebody bored, though you do wonder what it was about the books per se that led to such curious mistakes.

How much are our own views shaped by things that are nothing to do with the work we’re supposedly thinking about?


Art as Inheritance, part 3: Reverse Chronology

I’ve been doing some research into reverse chronology (for the follow-up to my post “From ‘Doom House’ to ‘Mood House'”), and I thought I’d compile the results here.

Reverse chronology is probably as old as narration itself. Once one has the idea of telling a story forward, it’s a simple enough matter to tell it backwards:

There was an old lady who swallowed a cow.
I don’t know how she swallowed a cow!
She swallowed the cow to catch the goat…
She swallowed the goat to catch the dog…
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat…
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird …
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
That wiggled and wiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
But I dunno why she swallowed that fly
Perhaps she’ll die.

How far back does this idea go?

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