The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   18


by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

translated with an introduction and notes by R. J. Hollingdale

Penguin Books, 1990
Lichtenberg (1742--1799) was a competent but entirely undistinguished physicist at Göttingen, back before Göttingen was the world's center for mathematics and physics. He putzed around with electricity, but never found anything very significant. He lectured well enough that people "came to hear Lichtenberg" (doubtless being one of the first to add demonstrations with apparatus to his lectures helped), and apparently talked very well. He wrote on just about everything, especially Hogarth; like many recipients of the Enlightenment on the Continent, he was a pronounced Anglophile; his sex life is described by his translator as "very irregular," and today would almost certain have put him in jail.

Undoubtedly it would've been interesting to know him, but this is not the sort of thing which preserves a person from oblivion, not after two hundred years. That trick has been done by his astonishing talent as an aphorist, the aphorisms having been mined by generations of posthumous editors from a set of highly disorganized notebooks he called "waste-books". These are gems of the aphorist's art, endlessly quotable and very trenchant, but strangely little-known in English (the last translation before Hollingdale's was in 1959, and has long been out of print). A few quotations of the shorter ones may give some idea of the flavor of the whole.

He marvelled at the fact that cats had two holes cut in their fur at precisely the spot where their eyes were.
Certain rash people have asserted that, just as there are no mice where there are no cats, so no one is possessed where there are no exorcists.
We must not seek to abstract from the busts of the great Greeks and Romans rules for the visible form of genius as long as we cannot contrast them with Greek blockheads.
Courage, garrulousness and the mob are on our side. What more do we want?
Why are young widows in mourning so beautiful? (Look into it.)
Not only did he not believe in ghosts, he wasn't even afraid of them.
The construction of the universe is certainly very much easier to explain than is that of a plant...
The most perfect ape cannot draw an ape; only man can do that; but, likewise, only man regards the ability to do this as a sign of superiority.
Two leading themes are of course the badness and unoriginality of most books — one of these plaints is actually fairly well known —
There can hardly be stranger wares in the world than books: printed by people who do not understand them; sold by people who do not understand them; bound, reviewed and read by people who do not understand them; and now even written by people who do not understand them.
and, naturally, book-reviewers: "Whenever he composes a critical review, I have been told, he gets a tremendous erection." There's a lot more — Kant, aesthetics, manners, physiognomy, drinking, methodology, religion, life in the republic of letters, the French Revolution, the Germans, etc. — but it's probably much better to discover it for yourself. The only problem with doing so by means of this edition is that there is no index.
203 pp.
Currently in print as a paperback, US$10.95, ISBN 0-14-044519-6, PT2423.L4 A813 1990 [buy from Powell's]
6 August 1997