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The Notebooks of Samuel Butler (1835-1902)
Edited by Henry Festing Jones

Samuel Butler

ART Chapter: Evolution of Consciousness
Published by Hogarth Press/UK in 1985
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2010


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Writing is a curious invention. In our age we take writing for granted it has been around long before our modern age began. It is an invention which came to us at the advent of history for without writing, there would be no history thus history began when writing began. It is flat-out wrong to think of time before humans appeared when we say "prehistorical times". Humans existed for eons before writing began. Before humans learned to write things down, they seemed to do feats of incredible memory, such as reciting long poetic epics of Homer by heart. We say "by heart" to imply a feat of rote memory, but we have perforce no records made by those who actually performed these feats of recital. The only records we have were written by those who no longer possessed those abilities, and absent such abilities, they were forced to write down the epics of Homer and others. Some wise person wrote about the invention of writing, paraphrasing Plato, "The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality."(1)

Writing is a specific in that it is "something peculiarly adapted to its purpose, use or situation" (Webster's Unabridged). Plato lived in close proximity to the age when Homeric epics were being converted into writing which can be seen as an invention suitably adapted to replace the fading of ability to perceive epics and other realities in the spiritual world. This fading ability would make most humans unable to perform those epics today without flaw(2). Likely such performances only became public during the transitional time when the majority of humans had lost this so-called ability of memory why perform what anyone can see on their own? This is what led Plato to write in his work, Phaedrus, "For this invention [writing] will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practise their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them." Either writing was the cause of this loss of memory, as Plato hints, or writing was adaptation to the loss of memory. The latter is how I understand it, and one can only decide in one's own mind which one it was. To me, Plato was railing against the "dying of the light" in himself and was forced to express his displeasure using the very invention he was caviling against.

It is at best disingenuous for a human to decry the action of writing while writing, so there must have been some deep truth that Plato sought to pass on to future generations about a pervasive change in human nature, some evolution of consciousness which he could still perceive and which he hoped to describe to future generations who would likely have become inured to their new condition and otherwise unable to understand the way humans thought before the invention of writing. The very word "other-wise" seem to imply we can become "other than wise" about our own origins.

Writing is what Samuel Butler did in his notebooks and this book is an edited collection of his vast collection of notes written in these books over the years. After reading and enjoying the notebooks of Joseph Joubert so much, I bought this book and read it right away. Like Joubert in his notebooks, Butler provides us with "a ladder of the mind, a ladder with rungs." (3)

To me, as a child, the act of catching a bird by putting salt on its tail seemed ludicrous, and no one could tell me why such a saying existed. A bird could fly away so fast that one couldn't get close enough with a salt shaker to sprinkle salt on its tail. Finally I decided that if one could get close enough to put salt on a bird's tail, one could just grab it, and that reality was what the old saying was designed to convey. If I had read Butler's notebook during my search for understanding, I would have acquired a step up because he provides a ladder with a rung, "One's thoughts fly so fast that one must shoot them; it is no use trying to put salt on their tails." This describes his reason for writing notes.

[page i, Preface] Early in his life Samuel Butler began to carry a notebook and to write down in it anything he wanted to remember; it might be something he heard some one say, more commonly it was something he said himself.

In one of his notes, Butler writes, "A man may make, as it were, cash entries of himself in a day-book, but the entries in the ledger and the balancing of the accounts should be done by others." His notes were transcribed into his day-book or journal and found their way, carefully edited, into this book, a ledger of sorts. A man may make, as it were, cash entries of himself in a day-book, but the entries in the ledger and the balancing of the accounts will be done later by others.

Some of his entries drink like clear spring water, "My days run through me as water through a sieve" and some linger on the palate like a vintage wine, "Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises"; some are humorous, "Lizards generally seem to have lost their tails by the time they reach middle life. So have most men." and some talk about humor, "A sense of humor keen enough to show a man his own absurdities, as well as those of other people, will keep him from the commission of all sins, or nearly all, save those that are worth committing." (Page 11 quotes)

Physicists in our time bandy the word "universe" around as if it were a shuttlecock or a billiard ball, one of their academic playthings about which laymen are incapable of having important opinions. The universe is entirely made of atoms, for example, one might hear, or perhaps, there are multiple universes. Reading physics today in popular books is like a trip with Alice down the Rabbit Hole where anything you believe is possible becomes possible and you might hear of "six impossible things before breakfast", like cutting off a bit of the universe and putting it in some place outside of the universe.

[page 84] The idea of an indivisible, ultimate atom is inconceivable by the lay mind. If we can conceive an idea of the atom at all, we can conceive it as capable of being cut in half; indeed, we cannot conceive it at all unless we so conceive it. The only true atom, the only thing which we cannot subdivide and cut in half, is the universe. We cannot cut a bit off the universe and put it somewhere else. Therefore, the universe is a true atom and, indeed, is the smallest piece of indivisible matter which our minds can conceive; and they cannot conceive it any more than they can the indivisible: ultimate atom.

If you put something off long enough, you don't have to do it. Those words resonated immediately with me in the summer 1961 when my German professor shared her ad hoc philosophy of procrastination with our class. Over the years, I have often thought about her adage, and finally embodied it, some forty years later, as one of my basic rules.(4)

Gradually I came to understand that this rule was a way that my Cajun ancestors lived their lives, and I was imbued with processes based on it. For example, somebody dumps a big bag of hot, steaming boiled crawfish on the table in the middle of you and your four brothers. Do you act polite and eat the smallest, puniest crawfish first or do you pick out the largest, tastiest ones first, leaving the scrawny ones till last? Clearly, we Cajuns always go for the largest or best looking crawfish first. Similarly when eating cherries out of a bowl, do you eat the plumpest, dark red, one first? Naturally at least it was to me. So it tickled me to find Butler talking about that process which I found so valuable a part of my life: eat the best and biggest first, and put off unpleasant jobs as long as possible. After all, you might not survive to eat the best cherries or to ever tackle the dirty jobs. The ultimate of this process was epitomized for me by a very old man I heard proclaim, "I've stopped buying green bananas."

[page 99] Always eat grapes downward that is, always eat the best grape first; in this way there will be none better left on the bunch, and each grape will seem good down to the last. If you eat the other way, you will not have a good grape in the lot. Besides, you will be tempting Providence to kill you before you come to the best. . . . In New Zealand for a long time I had to do the washing-up after each meal. I used to do the knives first, for it might please God to take me before I came to the forks, and then what a sell [RJM: disappointment] it would have been to have done the forks rather than the knives!

Someone once said, "A scholar is someone who remembers one's sources." Unfortunately, that was before I became a scholar and I didn't catch the name. Attributing sources in writing is a lot easier than in music, because of the very nature of quoting: in writing one can attribute the source of the quote in writing because one is already writing(5), but in music one can only quote in music itself and cannot interrupt the music to provide a footnote or easily attribute the quote in writing, speaking, or whatever. Butler noticed this phenomenon and wrote cogently on it as it applies to music and painting:

[page 123] In books it is easy to make mention of the forgotten dead to whom we are indebted, and to acknowledge an obligation at the same time and place we incur it. The more original a writer is, the more pleasure will he take in calling attention to the forgotten work of those who have gone before him. The conventions of painting and music, on the other hand, while they admit of borrowing no less freely than literature does, do not admit of acknowledgment; it is impossible to interrupt a piece of music, or paint some words upon a picture to explain that the composer or painter was at such and such a point indebted to such and such a source for his inspiration, but it not less impossible to avoid occasionally borrowing, or rather taking, for there is no need of euphemism, from earlier work(6). Where, then, is the line to be drawn between lawful and unlawful adoption of what has been done by others? This question is such a nice one that there are almost as many opinions upon it as there are painters and musicians.

While pondering this dilemma a few decades ago, I began a series of poems in which I endeavored to record at the bottom of each poem, the date I wrote it, where I was at the time, and every source of inspiration I was aware of at the time(7). For myself, I am not sure whether the poetic form worked or not, but it had a charm which yet attracts me, if no one else. Somehow I managed to incorporate the sources of inspiration into the art work of poetry itself. At times, poems broke out in the middle of my descriptive notes about a poem! Perhaps it is the attributing of sources for musicians and painters that Butler was thinking of when he said, "entries in the ledger and the balancing of the accounts should be done by others". If a painter had to attribute the sources for how she blends her oils to form the color of the Baltic Sea, it could require an interruption of her painting to write a treatise likely long enough to cause her to have amnesia for her reason for painting that sea in the first place!

For a long time I had posted a cartoon showing a blonde floozy being shown a prospective home by a real estate agent. She stared at empty bookshelves on all the walls and asked, "What kind of a freak lived here?" On another shelf edge I had posted this sign, Caveat Homo Unis Libri, which I understand to mean Beware of the Man of One Book, sort of a counterweight to the attitude of the blonde of the cartoon. Butler was called by Trübner, his book agent, "a homo unis libri," (Page 155) referring to the one book Butler had written by then, Erewhon. Butler's view towards writing is a lot like my own. When Trübner said he was in a very solitary position, Butler said it suited him.

[155] "I pay my way; when I was with you before, I never owed you money; you find me now not owing my publisher money, but my publisher in debt to me; I never owe so much as a tailor's bill . . . I live very quietly and cheaply, but it suits my health and my tastes, and I have no acquaintances but those I value. My friends stick by me. If I was to get in with these literary and scientific people I should hate them and they me. . . . Of course I don't expect to get on in a commercial sense at present, I do not go the right way to work for this; but I am going the right way to secure a lasting reputation and this is what I do care for. A man cannot have both, he must make up his mind which he is going for.

For myself, I cannot think of anything more boring than doing a book tour, sleeping in a different hotel room every night, facing a queue of readers eager for me to sign their book in a different city every day how much better if they and I spent that time actually reading another book than doting upon one already written. I love reading and writing too much to spend time doing other things.

[Page 157] If I die prematurely, at any rate I shall be saved from being bored by my own success.

Among the words so overused as to have become meaningless in our twenty-first century, I count "inspiration". Even the most mundane idea is tossed off as inspiration, as in, "At the last second we had an inspiration to order pizza." Butler sets the matter right for me.

[page 179] Inspiration is never genuine if it is known as inspiration at the time. True inspiration always steals on a person; its importance not being fully recognized for some time. So men of genius always escape their own immediate belongings, and indeed generally their own age.

This is particularly the case for true art which often is ugly when it first appears, betraying no sign of inspiration so much as "bad taste", as most critics of early Picasso's work would have proclaimed. Art, rightly understood, is not the process of creation, but of destruction(8). Some day that may be credited to me as an inspiration, but for my part, it is still too soon to tell.

Do not many people today think of their own death in terms of agony, sadness, and the extinction of their being, in spite of the claims of others that there is a world beyond our life in this physical existence? Butler has us go inside the perspective of a living baby in the womb and consider what birth must seem like to it.

[page 289] Refer to the agony and settled melancholy with which unborn children in the womb regard birth as the extinction of their being, and how some declare that there is a world beyond the womb and others deny this. "We must all one day be born," "Birth is certain" and so on, just as we say of death.

Much of the depression and sadness people experience as their life draws to a close at whatever age can be seen to be similar to the last stages of the gestation process, what Otto Rank called "the trauma of birth" and wrote an eponymous book on the subject(9).

In the quoted passage below is one of the greatest statements ever made about science, in my opinion, "science, after all, is only an expression for our ignorance of our own ignorance." What do we really know about the quantum mechanical world? We have equations to express our ignorance about quantum events, but they describe only the probabilities of events, not the events themselves. Our greatest scientific equations are but expressions of our ignorance of our ignorance. The happiest person in the kingdom is the fool because he is blithely unaware of his own ignorance.

[page 339] Science is being daily more and more personified and anthropomorphized into a god. By and by they will say that science took our nature upon him, and sent down his only begotten son, Charles Darwin, or Huxley, into the world so that those who believe in him, etc.; and they will burn people for saying that science, after all, is only an expression of our ignorance of our own ignorance.

Butler, like Thoreau, never strayed into a field in which he "did not find a flower worth the finding" (Page 375), and, also like Thoreau, he shared it with his day-book or Journal and us. From the bounty in this book of Butler's collected flowers, I have selected a few to place into a vase for your enjoyment. May they inspire you to take a solitary walk in the field from which I picked them.


---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. The full quotation by Plato can be read here:

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Footnote 2. Yes, someone with a photographic memory, a rare ability, might be able to recite the Iliad and Odyssey, but it would be a rote recital, and not a direct perception of a spiritual reality as in Plato's time.

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Footnote 3. Paraphrased from the book jacket of Joubert's Notebook,

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Footnote 4. See Matherne's Rule #22 here: .

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Footnote 5.

And one can always insert a footnote, isn't that true?

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Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


Footnote 6. Modern technology, such as music videos and other multimedia presentations, allow for simultaneous display of composers' image with the quoted piece of music, but this is rarely done for credit. If done, it is usually for some dramatic effect.

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Footnote 7. The collection of about 500 poems was called "Yes, and Even More" and examples of them can be read in this Good Mountain Press Digest, digest104.

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Footnote 8. Read my essay, Art is the Process of Destruction, online and decide the matter for yourself.

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Footnote 9. "The Trauma of Birth" by Otto Rank my review is here:

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