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The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert
Joseph Joubert
Edited and Translated by Paul Auster
Published by North Point Press/SF in 1983

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2003


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"We need a ladder to the mind. A ladder and rungs." [from the book jacket]

[page 164, from Afterword by Maurice Blanchot ] Joubert had this gift. He never wrote a book. He only prepared to write one, resolutely seeking the exact conditions that would allow him to write it. Then he forgot even his plan. More precisely, what he was seeking this source of writing, this space in which to write, this light to circumscribe in space demanded of him, affirmed in him inclinations that made him turn away from it. In this he was one of the first completely modern writers, preferring the center of the sphere, sacrificing results to the discovery of their conditions, and writing not in order to add one book to another but to take command of the point from which it seemed to him all books issued, the point which, once it was found, would relieve him of the need to write any books.

This is an amazing book of quotations taken from Joseph Joubert's notebooks. He was born in 1754 and died in 1824 without ever writing or publishing anything. He was always preparing to write and found the trip more satisfying than the destination so he kept on traveling without a thought to arriving. He was a friend of many writers who later became famous and he thought a lot about the task, the chore, but mainly the joys of writing. He was deeply spiritual and his insights into the powers of the imagination and the soul startle us with their brilliance. He sees logic and reason as useful as the tail-chasing of a dog and says so in many ways. "What we write with difficulty is written with more care, engraves itself more deeply," he wrote in 1803.

Another example that illuminates the purpose of his writing: to observe himself and his experiences.

[page 92, 93] Lightning flashes that cross the mind and illuminate so quickly they are hardly noticed. In such cases, more is seen than retained. Thus, whoever does not observe himself carries within him some experience he does not know about.

For the rest of this review I will give you some selected quotes from the fine selection made by the editor and translator, Paul Auster. I hope this introduction to Joseph Joubert will endear him to you as my reading his Notebook selections endeared him to me. My few comments interspersed below are denoted by RJM and the page number they were scribbled onto in the margins of my copy of this book.

"Do you want to know how thought functions, to know its effects? Read the poets. Do you want to know about morality, about politics? Read the poets. What pleases you in them, deepen: it is the truth." [page 3]

"A work of genius, whether poetic or didactic, is too long if it cannot be read in one day." [page 9]

"Everything that has wings is beyond the reach of the law." [page 14]

"The soul paints itself in our machines." [page 19]

"All truths are double or doubled, or they all have a front and a back." [page 19]

"Roundness. This shape guarantees matter a long life. Time does not know where to take hold of it." [page 20]

"Like pebbles on a beach,
We are rounded by every wave
by every life
by every lifetime
Until time does not know
where to take hold of us from now on." RJM [page 20]

"Dreams. Their lantern is magical." [page 21]

"Nimbleness. Agility of mind. These works are no more than perilous leaps into space." [page 21]

"Joseph Joubert had a certain agility of mind." RJM

"Pleasures are always children, pains always have wrinkles." [page 24]

"Lovers. Whoever does not have their weaknesses cannot have their strengths." [page 28]

"The imagination has made more discoveries than the eye." [page 30]

"Don't cut what you can untie." [page 32]

" 'Yes, please cut up the pieces for me,' he said, 'but don't chew them.' " [page 33]

"Do not say the word that completes the symmetry of your sentence and rounds it off when the reader will inevitably think of it and say it to himself after having read the words that precede it." [page 33]

"Our arms are canes of flesh with which the soul reaches and touches." [page 33]

"When we hug, our souls mesh." RJM

"Remember to let your ink grow ripe." [page 34]

"Let your ink grow ripe and your books will write themselves." RJM This is essentially what Joubert did he wrote no books. After his death his notebooks were published by others - in effect, his books wrote themselves.

"Sexes. One has the look of a wound, the other of something skinned." [page 35]

"Music embroiders time, Architecture embroiders space." [page 39]

". . . This spark that unexpectedly fell on my childhood and burned my entire youth." [page 40]

"To reason, to argue. It is to walk in crutches in search of the truth. We come to it with a leap. We must use reasoning to make sure we have reached the end and that we have covered the whole path. Likewise in the stadium, the runner touches the stone with his hands and steps back to see the barrier in front of the goal.

"These false rules only serve to persuade those who observe them that they have attained what they cannot attain.

"We have led our minds astray." [page 41]

"They get certainty but not truth." RJM

"This life: the cradle of our existence. What do they matter then sickness, old age, death which are merely the various degrees of a metamorphosis that perhaps only begins here on Earth. Alas! these clarities escape us! and this is one of the insurmountable fatalities of our present lot. I would like to be able to remember, however, in that far-distant future, all the fugitive moments of my present life which by then will have been in the eternal past for such a long time. The ones who will be happiest are those who will not have a single moment from their lives that cannot be represented distinctly and with pleasure in memory.

"There as here our memories (which will be sharp) will make up the better part of what is good and bad in us. This very moment that I am speaking to you, this moment in which I am saying this, will be repeated forever. Man lets time get lost, but there are no lost moments." [page 42]

"How it happens that in searching for words we come to ideas. Words are the bodies of thoughts." [page 44]

"How it happens that only in looking for words do we find thoughts." [page 48]

"Beyond bodies, beyond worlds, beyond everything, beyond and around bodies, beyond and around worlds, beyond and around everything, there is light and there is mind. Without minds, I mean the elemental mind, everything would be full and nothing would be penetrable; there would be no movement, no circulation, no life. " [page 45]

"Newton. It is no more true that he has discovered the system of the world than it is true that someone who balances the accounts of an administration has discovered a system of government." [page 46]

"Beautiful clothes are a sign of joy." [page ]

"Like Daedalus, I am forging myself wings. I construct them little by little, adding one feather each day." [page ]

"When you want transparency, the finite, the smooth, and the beautiful, you must polish for a long time." [page 49]

"Children and people with weak minds want to know if the story true. People with healthy minds want to know if it is moral, if it is naive [RJM: without guile], if it must be believed." [page 52]

Joubert's great unanswered question[RJM]: "But in fact what is my art? What is the name that distinguishes this art from others? What end does it propose? What does it produce? What does it give birth to and make exist? What do I pretend to do and what do I want to do in doing it?

"Is it writing in general, to assure myself of being read? The one ambition of so many people! Is that all I want? Am I no more than a polymath? Or do I have a class of ideas that is easy to label and whose nature, character, merit, and use can be determined?

"This must be examined attentively, at great length, until I know the answer." [page 52]

The purpose of the Greek chorus was originally to calm the passions of the audience after emotionally laden scenes. [RJM]

"The ancients extolled music because (they said) it suppressed passions (at least earthly ones). We praise it because it gives them." [page 55]

"Our eye prevents us from seeing: it is our body that prevents us from touching. Between us and the truth there are our senses, which introduce a part of the truth in us and which also separate us from it." [page 55]

"Each man thinks not what he has been told but what he understands." [page 56]

"Children. Need models more than critics." [page 56]

"When I say 'matter is appearance,' I do not pretend to challenge its reality, but, on the contrary, to give a true idea of its real precariousness." [page 57]

Joubert's definition of a map, a model, a dogma, a theory, a religion [RJM]:

"A knowledge that corks the mind." [page 58]

The difference between a learned person and a teacher[RJM]:

"He who has the abstract idea of a thing understands it; but only he who can make it understood is able to make it imaginable." [page 59]

"Truth consists of having the same idea about something that God has." [page 60]

"There are truths that instruct, perhaps, but they do not illuminate. In this class are all the truths of reasoning. " [page 60]

"Life enters there, in the same way a lighted candle placed in a lantern also carries light." [page 62]

"We are worth more when someone looks at us. And, because of this, an eye is always watching us." [page 62]

"Politeness is the art of being bored without boredom or (if you prefer) of bearing boredom without being bored." [page 63]

"Let us not confuse what is merely intelligible, that is to say, easily understood, with what is clear." [page 65]

"To make enough space to open his wings." [page 65]

"Ideas never lack for words. It is words that lack ideas. As soon as the idea has come to its last degree of perfection, the word blossoms; or, if you like, it blossoms from the word that presents it and clothes it." [page 66]

"If a blind man asked me: "What is light?" I would answer: "What makes us see." "What is seeing?" "It is to have an idea of what is before the eyes without having to think about it." [page 67]

"But the idea of the nest in the bird's mind, where does it come from" [page 67]

"Perhaps (and probably) it would be true to say that we cannot conceive of anything except what we can see in our minds." [page 69]

"Do not choose for your wife any woman you would not choose as your friend if she were a man." [page 75]

"Beautiful works. Genius begins them, but labor alone finishes them." [page 76]

"Newton. How ripe his apple was." [page 76]

"We are all children, more or less serious, more or less filled with ourselves." [page 77]

"We still know how to mark the hours, but no longer how to ring them. The carillon of our clocks is missing." [page 77]

"Floods of passions. It would nevertheless be better to raise the dikes for them." [page 78]

"All beings come from little, and little is needed for them to come to nothing." [page 79]

In the word "almost" below lies the essence of the concept of primary property as promulgated by Andrew J. Galambos . The entire passage deals with the process Mortimer Adler calls, "coming to terms with an author." RJM

"You say that books are soon read, but they are not soon understood. To digest them, etc. To understand a beautiful or great thought perhaps requires the same amount of time it takes to have it, to conceive of it. To penetrate a thought and to produce a thought are almost the same action." [page 79]

"Speak more softly to be better heard by a deaf public." [page 82]

"Happy people strike me as children; people who are too serious and especially those who are proud strike me as dwarfs. Or rather, those who are vain strike me as children; those who are prideful strike me as dwarfs. Children and dwarfs. Their difference: a dwarf is the size of a child, but with a man's face." [page 84]

"If I vanish from your view, it is because I travel with another." RJM 4-15-1985

This next passage was written some 100 years before the process he discusses will be illuminated by the ability to take snapshots. Before the advent of the Brownie Camera, most photos were posed and required holding one's feature fixed for several seconds to minutes. When snapshots arrived on the scene, it became possible to capture spontaneous facial features that had not be seen before, such as genuine smiles. Nevertheless, this aspect of modern day photography has been lost on some well-meaning people who insist on saying, "SMILE!" which action creates the semblance of a real smile because the person is required to hold the feature artificially long. RJM

"The same feature that is agreeable when it is fleeting becomes hideous when it remains fixed. That is because mobility is the essence of what is agreeable." [page 89]

"Then there comes into languages a facility and an overabundance that, if you want to become a great writer, you must oppose with difficulties, with a sure taste, a meditated choice. When you find a torrent, obstacles must be placed in it." [page 97]

"The useless phrases that come into the head. The mind is grinding its colors." [page 97]

"Descartes. His imaginary world is not an imaginable world. In it the mind finds matter everywhere, and figures rather than form. (For the form is the figure of the figure, and the figure is the body of the form, the form is the exterior soul of a body.) Descartes has thus made the imagination do what it does not like to do. He has made it arrange stones. It wants to be an architect: he has restricted it to being a mason." [page 100]

"Once we have tasted the juice of words, the mind can no long pass them by. We drink thought from them." [page 105]

"We are afraid of having and showing a small mind and we are not afraid of having and showing a small heart." [page 110]

"All gardeners live in beautiful places because they make them so." [page 117]

"This line (the line of beauty) must unfold without breaking in our head, but it is not possible for the hand to trace it without interruption and without stopping and starting several times." [page 125]

"If you want property to be sacred, bring heaven into it. Nothing is sacred where God is not." [page 126]

Primary property, rightly understood, is a gift from God a gift which contains God within it and as such it is sacred. RJM

"The great inconvenience of new books is that they prevent us from reading old books." [page 130]

"The talkative person is someone who speaks more than he thinks. Someone who thinks a great deal and who talks a great deal is never considered a talkative person. The talkative man speaks from his mouth, the eloquent man speaks from his heart." [page 133]

The next passage resembles what Jane Roberts says in her book, The Individual and the Nature of Mass Events: [RJM]

"All cries and all complaints exhale a vapor, and from this vapor a cloud is formed, and from these heaped-up clouds come thunder, storms, the inclemencies that destroy everything." [page 134]

"Fortunately, when he lacks reasons he also lacks words." [page 138]

"Words. Magic utterances by which we enthrall one another in everyday trances." RJM 4/13/1985

"Silence. Joys of silence. Thoughts must be born from the soul and words from silence. An attentive silence." [page 140]

"Almost all men prefer danger to fear. Some prefer death to danger and to pain. This is because fear, danger, and pain disturb reason. The horse throws himself into the precipice to escape the spur." [page 144]

"Our life is of woven wind." [page 146]

"When you no longer love what is beautiful, you can no longer write." [page 151]

"In such times, if you want neither to lie nor to wound, you are reduced to being silent." [page 151]

"When everything becomes unbearable . . . That is the rule. Then necessity makes the law, or changes it." [page 151]

"And there is perhaps no advice to give a writer more important than this: Never write anything that does not give you great pleasure." [page 158]

For more quotes by other famous writers, be sure to check out my Treasury of Famous and Interesting Quotes.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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