“Big books are big sins,” David Krell observes in his study Postponements: Woman, Sensuality, and Death in Nietzsche, “but big books about Nietzsche are a far more pernicious affair: they are breaches of good taste.”

– William H. Gass, Finding a Form (1996)


There had always been – let us face it – a suspicion of vulgarity about the Old Master. Just as the tiny colloquialism was sometimes hidden unnoticeably away in the intricate convolutions of his sentences, so one was sometimes fleetingly aware of small clouds – difficult to detach in the bland wide sunlit air of his later world – of something closely akin to the vulgar.

– Graham Greene, “The Plays of Henry James,” Collected Essays (1969)

It is impossible to replicate relations whenever they’re wanted (I can father my firstborn but once), or refasten properties like trousers or stamps, or mimic postures, or picture places upon our ease and inclination. It is equally hard to reenact responses by making heartfelt promises, to restore the past like dry skin, or reproduce whatever qualities might be in question (2 pigs, 3 sisters, 30,000 kroner); so we must bring in our names and numbers, our scales and tables, glottals, grammars, our languages and all our computations, and they—what do they bring?—they bring along all of their private paraphernalia; they bring their freak shows and their friends, their camp followers, babies, baggage, dogs—the poets Plato warned us of, speechifiers, preachers, lectures like this one—their brassy bands, their quarrels, their ambiguities like dirty pots and pans; they attract the criminal element; they pitch their tents in our yards (and you can’t bargain with King Zeno); they leave us the mess I’ve just made us wade through: a sodomous love of limits and a thirst for contradiction like a thirst for wine, a potpourri of worlds perceived by peering between subject and predicate like the shutters of a window (yet who can overcome the pronounced pushiness of the letter p or the pop of the pursed lip when producing it?); then in addition they encourage us to conceive the relations between material things as if they were elements in a valid argument, to imagine Perfect Beings and immaculate contraceptions, to confuse middle terms and causes, to entertain the quaint idea that the Universe is a grandfather’s clock, or hold onto the monstrous notion that it’s someone thinking, dreaming, screaming, or is the process of thought, dream, scream, itself, or tells a story, or exhibits a plan, or celebrates a value, or is fastened together by the mind the way words are clenched in the fist of any judgment, or that such judgments themselves may be logical pictures, or to believe that certain symbols may have the power—how amazing!—to represent their own representational skills, and in signs which are both other and the same as the signified, to picture the very act of that picturing itself.

– William H. Gass, The World Within the Word (1978)

Happiness is great. There’s every reason to seek it. There’s every reason for psychiatrists to try to instil it, and no reason for them to mould the kinds of people natural selection “wants.” But therapists will be better equipped to make people happy once they understand what natural selection does “want,” and how, with humans, it “tries” to get it. What burdensome mental appliances are we stuck with? How, if at all, can they be defused? And at what cost — to ourselves and to others? Understanding what is and isn’t pathological from natural selection’s point of view can help us confront things that are pathological from our point of view.

– Robert Wright, The Moral Animal (1994)

One definition of beauty is: aptness to purpose. Whether it is a good definition or not, you can readily see that a good deal of bad criticism has been written by men who assume that an author is trying to do what he is not trying to do.

– Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (1934)

The point about a beauty competition is that everyone who enters for it has, if they are not to cause profound embarrassment, to be beautiful […]. Who actually wins a beauty competition is not, for our investigation, of any great significance, and an eventual winner is certainly not to be thought of seriously as being more beautiful than the other competitors: the boundary between beauty and absence of it is not between the winner and the others, but between those qualified to enter in the first place and those not so qualified.

– Arthur Marwick, It: A History of Human Beauty (2004)

In front of temples and at the doors of Athenian homes there stood a herm, a square column with a man’s head and an erect penis at the front, but without limbs. Herms stood not only in front of homes, but also at city gates, outside citadels, in markets and in gymnasiums.

They were everywhere in Ancient Greece. The herm was wreathed in green and had olive oil poured over it. During worship people put their hand on its head, or took hold of it by the beard or the phallus. The latter action particularly would not be possible nowadays.

But wait a minute! In Piazza Signoria in Florence there is a Neptune in the middle of a pool, around which are a number of seated bronze fauns all naked and with erect penises. Although for the most part the fauns have the familiar colour of oxidized bronze, the phalluses are like brass, due to the countless hands that have taken them by that part of the body and stroked them. Florentine women believe that this increases their chances of becoming pregnant. But what a difference: while the touching in Florence takes place in secret, in Ancient Greek it happened freely and publicly.

– Mels van Driel, Manhood: The Rise and Fall of the Penis (2009)

For every human passion or desire of every part of our nature, for our thousand necessities or wishes, a fetich can be made, its operation being directed to the attainment of one specified wish, and limited in power only by the possible existence of some more powerful antagonizing spirit. […]

If of the charge at Balaklava it was said, “This is magnificent, but it is not war,” I may say of these heathen, “Such faith is magnificent, though it be folly.” The hunter going out, certain of success, returns empty-handed; the warrior bearing on his breast a fetich panoply, which he is confident will turn aside a bullet, comes back wounded; every one is some day foiled in his cherished plan. Do they lose their faith? No, not in the system,—their fetichism; but in the special material object of their faith—their fetich—they do. Going to the oganga whom they had paid for concocting that now disappointing amulet, they tell him of its failure. He readily replies: “Yes, I know. You have an enemy who possesses a fetich containing a spirit more powerful than yours, which made your bullet miss its mark, which caused your opponent’s spear to wound you. Yours is no longer of use; it’s dead. Come, pay me, and I will make you a charm containing a spirit still more powerful.”

– Robert Hamill Nassau, Fetichism in West Africa (1904)

The future is so vague that in the thought of most tribes it contains neither heaven nor hell; there is no certain reward or rest for goodness, nor positive punishment for badness. The future life is to each native largely a reproduction, on shadowy and intangible lines, of the works and interests and passions of this earthly life. In his present life, with its savagery and oppression and dominance of selfish greed and right of might, goodness has no reward. It is badness which in his personal experience makes the largest gains. From this point of view, while some acts are indeed called “good” and some “bad” (conscience proving its simple existence by the use of these words in the record of language), yet conscience is not much troubled by its possessor’s badness. There is little sense of the sinfulness of sin. There is only fear of possible human injury by human or subsidized spiritual enemies. This is all the salvation that is sought.

– Robert Hamill Nassau, Fetichism in West Africa (1904)

African societies of the pre-colonial era – a mosaic of lineage groups, clans, villages, chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires – were formed often with shifting and indeterminate frontiers and loose allegiances. Identities and languages shaded into one another. At the outset of colonial rule, administrators and ethnographers endeavoured to classify the peoples of Africa, sorting them out into what they called tribes, producing a whole new ethnic map to show the frontiers of each one. Colonial administrators wanted recognisable units they could control. ‘Each tribe must be considered as a distinct unit,’ a provincial commissioner in Tanganyika told his staff in 1926. ‘Each tribe must be under a chief.’ In many cases, tribal labels were imposed on hitherto undifferentiated groups. The chief of a little-known group in Zambia once ventured to remark: ‘My people were not Soli until 1937 when the Bwana D.C. [District Commissioner] told us we were.’

– Martin Meredith, The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence (2005)