Mind on Fire

It's great to have lots of ideas for your work-in-progress, says Scott McLemee. It's also a major pain.

June 14, 2005

The pioneering American literary theorist and philosophical wild-man Kenneth Burke once opened an essay with a line that has lately been echoing around the inside of my skull -- in that half-remembered form such things have 20 years after you've read them, and in the wake of many a brain cell's destruction. A hunch suggested that it might have been reprinted in his collection The Philosophy of Literary Form.

For a bookworm entering middle age, it comes as a relief to discover that such a vague recollection is accurate, after all. It's also comforting, somehow, that the hardback edition of Burke's volume first published by Louisiana State University Press in 1941 is actually much sturdier, after all this time, than the more recent reprints of it from the University of California Press.

It took only a minute to find the passage in question. "The colyumist's dream," writes Burke, "is of a book that lays down its thesis in the opening sentence, expands it through the entire introduction, repeats it with variations through several hundred pages, and winds up by summarizing it in an epilogue."

Two thoughts: (1) Yes, that does sound quite a bit like a description of Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, and (2) No, "colyumist" is not a typographical error, on Burke's part on or mine.

Reading that passage long ago in a paperback copy that has long since disintegrated, I scribbled a marginal annotation from some dictionary which defined "colyumist" as the writer of short, satirical items of commentary for newspapers. (Hence it overlaps with, yet is not quite identical to, "columnist.")
But now, a check of the Oxford English Dictionary, magnifying glass in hand, turns up no entry for colyumist. Nor did I find any trace of it in the online resources gathered in a reference librarian's secret stash of bookmarked research tools.

In fact, "colyumist" would seem like a Loch Ness monster of word, if I hadn't found it defined (in more or less the sense I recalled ) in Gilbert Seldes's The Seven Lively Arts (1924) -- the book that, for all practical purposes, founded cultural studies in the United States, long before anyone had a name for it. (A succinct overview of the grounds for that claim can be found here, in a news article about Michael Kammen, the author of a biography of Seldes.)

Burke's account of a book that stays relentlessly on-message comes to mind, lately, for a couple of reasons. Maybe I should be clear that he did not mean it to be a recommendation. His point is that such a volume would have little use except as fodder. And in fact, he's using that description as a
foil for writing about someone he calls  "a colyumist's nightmare," William Empson, the author of Seven Types of Ambiguity, whose work Burke says he finds something new in each time he rereads it.

A new biography of Empson has come out recently (or rather, the first of two volumes of a biography, which might just be overdoing it).

So that might be part of what's stirred up the memory. But there is also the fact that I'm at the early stage of writing a book -- and at the other extreme from anything resembling the monotonous lucidity Burke describes.

Each fact, each idea, every dim intuition seems to connect to all the others. At times this is exciting. The brain blazes; hours of concentration prove effortless.

And sometimes it's a pain in the ass. The problem being that you cannot write a book out of a pure intuition of possible linkages. (Not unless you are a novelist, or the author of one of those fictions of cohesive personal identity known as a memoir.) For a work of nonfiction prose, you have to gather a lot of information -- and then control it.

So it's disconcerting to find that your ideas are swarming without a center They keep running to the bookshelves to prove themselves. And if it turns out -- as I'm finding it often does -- that no scholar has written anything on some topic absolutely essential to the project, then a kind of panicky weariness kicks in. It feels like being obliged to reinvent the wheel without knowing what a circle looks like.

Well, come what may, the roller coaster shuts down at least twice a week -- for the duration of work on this column. Which ordinarily covers topics far removed from my navel.

Indeed, I can't help thinking, at this point, of Don Marquis, a newspaperman who "always had a good
second-rate talent for verse, and a good first-rate understanding of humanity," as Gilbert Seldes put it in 1924. In "A Colyumist's Prayer," Marquis wrote

Make me (sometimes at least) discreet;
Help me to hide my self-conceit,
Give me courage now and then
To be as dull as are most men.
And give me readers quick to see
When I am satirizing Me....

Amen to that, brother! Amen to that.


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