Reinventing the wheel

I’m fascinated by hinges of technological transition—moments when the modern world realizes, almost a little too late, that it’s saying good-bye to the traditional one. Years ago, while reading Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft, a book about finding work that feels meaningful (which, Crawford believes, often turns out to be work with one’s hands, and in his own case was motorcycle repair), I came across a reference to a book about the lost art of making wooden wheels and wagons, and jotted down the author and title.

It wasn’t until years later, however, that I found a copy of George Sturt’s The Wheelwright’s Shop, and it wasn’t until last month that I finally read it. Sturt’s book is indeed about how to make wheels and wagons, or rather, how to make them without using machines or any power other than human and equine muscle. It is so comprehensively about this that by the time a reader reaches the end, he will likely feel that—except for the small matter of lacking the tools, skills, experience, and enough physical strength—he could probably build a wagon out of a few fallen trees himself.

In 1884, Sturt began working in a wheelwright’s shop that had been in his family for three-quarters of a century. He gave up schoolteaching for it; having read Ruskin, he had come to believe that “man’s only decent occupation was in handicraft.” Unfortunately, a month after he started work, his father became sick, and five months later, died. Even in 1884, Sturt writes, to call the business old-fashioned was “to understate the case.” But in spite of knowing almost nothing about the business, and in spite of the threat that the industrial manufacture of wagons posed even then to the artisanal manufacture of them, Sturt didn’t sell out. Instead he set about learning the trade from the eight workmen and apprentices he suddenly found himself the employer of, seeking to acquire the difficult, intricate knowledge that, according to tradition, only came to an apprentice after seven years, if not more.

Sturt’s book about what he learned, first published in 1923, almost four decades later, is ruminative and even scholarly about the vanished working-class world it describes. In the back there’s a glossary of wheelwright vocabulary, and at least a few of the words aren’t in the Oxford English Dictionary. Exbed (an axle-bed) and jarvis (a tool for shaving spokes), for example. From Sturt you may learn that the base of a tree—the part where it spreads out its roots like a settling octopus—is called a stamm.

Sturt’s sequence of description is methodical. He begins with the title-deeds to his family’s shop, which date back to 1706. He next describes the floor-plan: the timber-shed stood next to the smithy, and the lathe-house looked across the courtyard at the strake chimney (not that the reader knows yet what any of these things are). In the shop’s early days, there was no glass in the windows. “With so much chopping to do one could keep fairly warm,” Sturt writes; “but I have stood all aglow yet resenting the open windows, feeling my feet cold as ice though covered with chips.” The workday was twelve hours long, a span that included half an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner (which was a mid-day meal), but if the shop went into overtime, the hours could number as many as fourteen (another half an hour of which was in that case set aside for tea). The schedule wasn’t as oppressive as it sounds, Sturt argues:

In those days a man’s work, though more laborious to his muscles, was not nearly so exhausting yet tedious as machinery and “speeding up” have since made it for his mind and temper. “Eight hours” today is less interesting and probably more toilsome than “twelve hours” then.

A labor historian might demur. Sturt is probably correct, though, that wheelwrighting was more cognitively engaging than work on an assembly line was to be. A wheelwright, Sturt explains, had to “live up to the local wisdom of our kind.” He had to know, for example, that in his part of the country, ruts were traditionally five foot ten and a half inches apart, and that the wheels of a new wagon therefore had to be spaced the same, as rigorously as the wheels of a train have to match the gap between the rails it travels on. A new wagon that didn’t fit into the old ruts wouldn’t be able to get down a muddy road on a wet day. Sturt can wax a little mystical about this kind of lore: “A wheelwright’s brain had to fit itself to this by dint of growing into it.”

Experience eventually gave a wheelwright a faculty of judgment so fine, and so incarnated (for lack of a better word), that it couldn’t be transmitted via writing. Trees look different, Sturt explains, to someone who has spent a lifetime making wagons out of them with hand tools:

Under the plane (it is little used now) or under the axe (it is all but obsolete) timber disclosed qualities hardly to be found otherwise. My own eyes know because my own hands have felt, but I cannot teach an outsider, the difference between ash that is “tough as whipcord,” and ash that is “frow as a carrot,” or “doaty,” or “biscuity.”

When a wheelwright considered buying a tree, he took into account not only the species but also the soil it had grown from, the season of the year when it was “thrown” (that is, cut down), and its natural curves, which were to be made use of. “Trees were rarely crooked in more ways than one,” Sturt writes; “and the object was so to open them that this one curve, this one crookedness, was preserved.”

The opening of a tree was done by sawyers, that is, by men who sawed for a living. Without the help of gas-powered engines, sawing was laborious. It required dexterity, muscular strength, a fine sense of rhythm, an intuitive understanding of how to section differently shaped volumes, and a stoic capacity for hours of persistent attention. “The least deviation from the straight line might spoil the timber,” Sturt warns. Sawyers, who worked in pairs—a top-sawyer yoked to a bottom-sawyer—were usually alcoholic and often quarrelsome. Sturt saw them as sorrowful, somewhat noble figures; by the time he wrote his book, they had almost completely vanished.

What was it that at last caused the disappearance of the sawing craft? For although there may be a few sawyers left, I do not personally know of one, where of old there were several couple. Of old you might catch sight of a sawyer—perhaps at a winter night-fall on a Saturday—trailing off with his saws and axes for some remote village. Long before he could get home he would be benighted—the country lanes would be dark; yet sawyers never hurried. They dragged their legs ponderously, and they looked melancholy—I do not remember seeing a sawyer laugh. A sort of apathy was their usual expression. They behaved as if they felt they were growing obsolete.

There’s a whole world in the sentence “Sawyers never hurried.” I am reminded for some reason of writers.

The next step was to season the sawn timber. Here I’m going to digress: what reminded me that I owned Sturt’s book, and what got me to read it, finally, was that I had been reading George Chapman’s translation of the Iliad, and there I came across this beautiful, almost architectural description of the killing of Simoeisios, son of Anthemion, by Ajax:

He [Ajax] strook him at his breast’s right pap, quite through his shoulder-bone,
And in the dust of earth he fell, that was the fruitfull soil
Of his friends’ hopes; but where he sow’d he buried all his toil.
And as a poplar shot aloft, set by a river side,
In moist edge of a mighty fen, his head in curls implied,
But all his body plain and smooth, to which a wheelwright puts
The sharp edge of his shining axe, and his soft timber cuts
From his innative root, in hope to hew out of his bole
The fell’ffs, or out-parts of a wheel, that compass in the whole,
To serve some goodly chariot; but (being big and sad,
And to be hal’d home through the bogs) the useful hope he had
Sticks there, and there the goodly plant lies withring out his grace:
So lay, by Jove-bred Ajax’ hand, Anthemion’s forward race

It’s one of the first deaths narrated in the poem. In the Greek, as near as I can tell, the fallen Simoeisios is indeed likened to a fallen poplar, as Chapman has it, but Chapman seems to have made Homer’s epic simile a little more epic than it originally was. It’s Chapman who adds the suggestion that Simoeisios’s “head in curls” resembles the leafy top of the fallen tree, and whereas Homer simply leaves the imaginary poplar where the imaginary wheelwright threw it down (“and the tree lies hardening by the banks of a river,” is how Richmond Lattimore translates the line), Chapman further imagines an explanation: the timber has had to be abandoned where it fell because it’s too “big and sad” to haul home across a marsh—a danger mentioned by Sturt, by the way: “It behoved the wheelwright buyer to refuse if, as sometimes happened, a tree had fallen in an inaccessible place. . . . The tree must rot where it lay.”

When I read Chapman’s version of Homer’s simile, I wondered whether Chapman, in his elaboration, was drawing on a traditional knowledge of wheelwrighting. That’s what reminded me that I possessed a book on exactly this topic, which I’d been meaning to read for a decade or so. And now that I look at the passage in Chapman’s Homer again, as I write this, it seems to me, in the light of Sturt’s book, that Chapman may in fact have the advantage over Lattimore here: if the poplar was growing in a marsh and was cut down there, as Homer says it was, then maybe a reader from the world of traditional wheelwrighting, to which both Homer and Chapman belonged, would understand that however beautiful the wood from the tree might have been, it would probably have to be left to “wither” where it fell. Lattimore’s decision to translate the word ἀζομένη as “hardening,” instead of Chapman’s choice, “withring,” may miss the point, which is waste and uselessness. The Greek word seems elsewhere to mean “being parched” or “being scorched”—to refer to kinds of drying that have a negative connotation.

Seasoning was a delicate process, by the way, that could hardly have been performed in a marsh. Planks had to be stacked in perfect alignment, so as to minimize warping, with strips of board between each plank, so that “no two planks might touch,” lest the moisture that they sweated out lead to rot. Drying took years. “A year for every inch of thickness was none too much,” Sturt says. And even with the best of care, “elm boards insisted on going curly.”

The fact that Chapman supplies a gloss for fell’ffs—the “out-parts of a wheel”—suggests to me that even in Chapman’s day, the wheelwright’s terms of art must have been specialist knowledge. By the late 19th century the word had evolved into the form felloes. Sturt gives a pronunciation tip: “In this word leave out the o. Make the word rhyme to bellies.” Felloes were the curving pieces of wood that made up a wheel’s circumference. They were mounted on the spokes and attached to each other either by strakes or a tire—the two options for “shoeing” a wheel. “A tyre was a continuous band, like a hoop, put right round a wheel,” Sturt explains. “A strake was an iron shoe, nailed across one joint only, where two felloes met.”

In the center of the spokes went the stock, or hub, which was always made of elm, just as spokes were always made of heart of oak. “A newly-turned stock was a lovely thing,” Sturt writes. “Butter-colored, smooth, slighty fragrant.” In Sturt’s father’s shop, stocks were turned on a lathe that had been created by Sturt’s grandfather. The lathe was powered by workmen turning a large old wagon wheel, which served as a pulley to drive the lathe. The stock of the large old wagon wheel, however, had not been turned on a lathe—it couldn’t have been, since it had been created before the lathe—and its hub was only “rounded up very neatly with an axe, in the old-fashioned way.” A neat symbol of technology being born out of the technology it displaces.

The "dish" of an old-fashioned wheel, a diagram in George Sturt's "The Wheelwright's Shop"

I can’t go through all the steps for making a wagon here, alas. But I can’t resist quoting Sturt’s appraisal of one of his workmen: “I think his idea was to slip through life effective and inconspicuous, like a sharp-edged tool through hard wood.” And I can’t resist relaying Sturt’s ingenious discovery—recovery?—of why wooden wagon wheels were not vertically symmetrical but instead had what was known as “dish.” (See the diagram above.) The wheels on modern automobiles are straight up-and-down, but those on the wagons of yore resembled “saucers, with the hollow side outwards,” Sturt observes. He also likens the shape to “a flattish limpet.” Sturt admits that “for years I was careful to follow the tradition, without fully seeing the sense of it.” He knew only that a wheel without “dish” was “sure to turn inside out like an umbrella in a gale.” Then one day, while Sturt was watching a cart being pulled by a horse, he noticed that the cart gently swayed from side to side, and it dawned on him: a horse doesn’t move straight ahead. It moves forward one step at a time, so its motion is also, slightly, from side to side. “Wheels were built to meet force in two directions, not in one only. Besides the downward weight of the load there was the sideways push right at the very middle of the wheel, all the time the horse was moving.” The “dish” of an old-fashioned wheel was a structural compensation to this sum of vectors.

One last recovery: Years ago, I was puzzled by a line of Emerson’s, in which he praises transcendental love as “extinguishing the base affection, as the sun puts out the fire by shining on the hearth.” I understood the Platonic idea—a higher and impersonal love displaces lust, or is supposed to—but I didn’t understand the metaphor. How could the sun be said to put out a fire? It turns out that Emerson was referencing a blacksmiths’ saying. Smiths need to be able to make nice judgments of how hot their fire is, and that’s easier to do in a dim room, as one of Sturt’s workers, named Will Hammond, explained to him:

Excepting for light through the open half-door, or from the window over the bench and vice, the smithy was kept pretty dark. Will Hammond preferred it so. If the skylight did admit a splash of sunshine, as it sometimes tried to do on summer noons, he was prompt to veil it with an old sack he kept nailed for that purpose to the sooty rafters. The sunshine, he said, put his fire out; and very likely it did affect the look of the “heat,” so all-important to a blacksmith.

Hammond could have been a reader of Emerson, but the likely explanation is that both he and Emerson were drawing on a common store of folk-wisdom, now extinct.

Notes, 2018

“Je voyais tout en noir avant les élections, je vois tout en noir depuis.” [I saw everything black before the elections, I see everything black since.] —Ernst Renan, quoted by Henry James in a letter to William James, 14 March 1876

I dreamed there were two new hobo symbols, one for “You already know everything I need for you to know” and one for “Felonies.”

“I sat without stirring and gazed, gazed with effort and perplexity, as though I saw all my life before me, as though scales had fallen from my eyes. Oh, what have I done! my lips involuntarily murmured in a bitter whisper.” —Turgenev, “A Tour in the Forest”

“Is treatment, particular bad treatment, ever given to a person?
“No. It is always meted out.
“Is anything else ever meted out?
“No. The only thing that is ever meted out is treatment.” —Myles na Gopaleen, The Best of Myles

“I heard Émile Zola characterize his [Droz’s] manner sometime since as merde à la vanille [vanilla shit].” —Henry James, reporting Zola’s diss of Gustave Droz in a letter to Thomas Sergeant Perry, 2 May 1876

What could Bitcoin possibly be good for other than money laundering and tax evasion? There’s an op-ed in the NYT today that maintains that it will help the poor with their banking and help the Federal Reserve manage the money supply. Surely these are the last things on earth that it would ever do—the things that it is least likely ever to do even accidentally. Governments refuse to allow gift cards that are dischargeable in multiple currencies, so it is inconceivable that they will not eventually be obliged to criminalize cryptocurrencies.

“To fear being ridiculous—is not to love truth.” —Turgenev, “A Correspondence”

equipollent (adj.): possessing equal power, identical in meaning

The two narratives are not equipollent.

—Gareth Dale, Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market

“It appears that my stuff has been over the heads of the readers. Imagine their stature!” —Henry James to Arthur George Sedgwick, 29 September 1876

“I believe fully, in spite of sneers, in interpreting the French Revolution by anecdotes, though not every diner out can do it.” —Emerson, journal, August 1849

“Eizenstat famously rebuked [Alfred Kahn] for publicly suggesting that rising inflation could result in a ‘very serious depression.’ Kahn responded by continuing to issue warnings of inflation-induced depression, but with the word ‘depression’ replaced with ‘banana.'” —Stephanie Mudge, Leftism Reinvented

At first depression seems to make one’s vision of the world sharpen. After all, narrowing the aperture for light increases the depth of field.

punnet (n.): small, light basket for strawberries, mushrooms, etc.

But there is a much more overwhelming sense of the strange beauty of tiny moments, such as [Oliver] Sacks’s response when Hayes dropped a punnet of cherry tomatoes on the kitchen floor (“How pretty! Do it again!”).

—Alex Clark, reviewing Bill Hayes’s Insomniac City in the TLS, 16 March 2018

semibreve: a whole note (under this terminology, a half-note is a minim, a quarter note is a crotchet, and an eighth note is a quaver)

The vaults and arches seem really to swing above you in great semibreves of rhythm.

—A. S. G. Butler, Recording Ruin

rani (n.): a Hindu queen, a rajah’s wife or widow

She had been there, unrememberingly, before, when she was small enough to ride in a backpack, little ranee on a jogging elephant, her view of the paintings relieved by the back of her father’s neck.

—Alan Hollinghurst, The Sparsholt Affair

“I don’t want to do so difficult a thing as dying without any chance of applause after having done it.” —Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, quoted in Edna Longley, ed., Annotated Collected Poems

“The high, thin nose was a little lonely, a little sad, but the bud of her lips opened and closed smoothly, like a beautiful little circle of leeches.” —Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, trans. E. G. Seidensticker

shaw (n.): a thicket; the strip of trees or bushes forming the border of a field

. . . a law
Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how
A thousand years might dust lie on his brow
Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw.

—Edward Thomas, “February Afternoon”

stook (n.): a shock; a group of twelve sheaves placed upright to support each other as the grain dries and ripens

The wheat, tawny with ripeness, had been cut and stood in tented stooks about the fields.

—Iris Murdoch, The Bell

“You make me want to bound about you and about the idea of you like an excited dog.” —Iris Murdoch to Michael Oakeshott, 4 November 1958

“One more step, and he would bid the dying gladiator be comforted by the stanzas of Childe Harold.” —Edward Thomas, critiquing the aestheticized “spectatorial attitude” of Walter Pater, quoted in Edna Longley, ed., Annotated Collected Poems

cagoule (n.): a thin waterproof hoodie

Both were swaddled in layers of fat, shiny nylon—what Alan now thought of as engorged cagoules.

—James Wood, Upstate

Believing in the Kool-Aid does not make it a good idea to drink it.

“Compared with a true artist’s conscience, Tamerlane is tenderhearted.” —Walter de la Mare, foreword to Edward Thomas’s Collected Poems (1920)

Butterflies must sometimes wish they could go back to being caterpillars.

thrawn (adj.): perverse, contrary, cross-grained, ill-tempered

He had some bread and cheese in his pocket, and this he began furtively to toss to the dogs, singling out for his favors those that seemed most thrawn in appearance.

—Gavin Maxwell, The Rocks Remain

“Inside the hall, the faces of the students and the lecturer were equally indistinct, which made everything somehow mystical, like eating a bean jam bun in the dark.” —Natsume Soseki, Sanshiro

What does it say about me that when I play fetch with the dog indoors, instead of saying, “Fetch,” I say, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist.”

Philosophy is a representation in language of what it is like and what it means to be in the world. Therefore it will always be impossible finally to distinguish it from literature and it will never be finished.

daedal (adj.): inventive, ingenious; rich, variously adorned; complex

. . . all the living things
that dwell within the daedal earth.

—Shelley, “Mont Blanc”

“And my relatives, moreover, were beginning to feel that this oldness in him was abnormal, excessive, shameful, and the sort of thing bachelors deserve, as do all those of whom it seems that the great day that has no day after is longer than it is for others because for them it’s empty, the moments in it adding up, from morning onward, without ever having to be divided later with children.” —Proust, Du côté de chez Swann

Listening to Nina Simone, I realize that I miss hearing people ask God to damn something.

How far away is Joan Didion from the character in Play It as It Lays who talks about “third-string faggots”?

Oh, ’tis a joy divine on summer days
When not a breeze is stirring, not a cloud,
To sit within some solitary wood,
Far in some lonely wood, and hear no sound
Which the heart does not make, or else so fit
To its own temper that in external things
No longer seem internal difference.
All melts away, and things that are without
Live in our minds as in their native home.

—Wordsworth, fragment 3 from the Christabel notebook

solatium (n.): a sum of money given to make up for loss, inconvenience, or injured feelings

The master in Osaka (Okubata’s older brother) had given him a modest solatium upon his being disinherited, and he had been eating into his capital ever since.

—Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters

To revisit the past is to say good-bye to it again, which is unbearable.

“Is it possible that any editor should endure any inconvenience without meditating an article?” —Trollope, Phineas Redux

A friend’s counsel to Phineas Finn, after he is slimed by Quintus Slide, the 19th-century version of an internet troll: “I don’t see what you can do. You have encountered a chimney sweeper, and of course you get some of the soot.”

Humans vs. AI: Our disadvantage is that we’re all essentially programmed the same, but we’re building many different AIs. There’s only one kind of “us” to be figured out, but every day someone puts together a new kind of “them.”

Arthur Russell sings in the key of heterosexuality with the same acceptance of generic constraint that ABBA sings in the language of English. One’s appreciation is in both cases heightened by the awareness that it isn’t natural.

“In a world where we are all transparent—unable to deceive each other—it might be rational to deceive ourselves about rationality.” —Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons

“She began crying and laughing. This conflict of tears and laughter always reminds me of the flickering and spluttering of a brightly burning candle when one sprinkles it with water.” —Chekhov, “The Privy Councillor”

“It feels ominous to drive through West Texas with a clean windshield. Road trips always used to be accompanied by the incessant splatter of death. . . . The absence of insects seems to be part of a general diminution of life.” —Lawrence Wright, God Save Texas

clout (adj.): cloth, rag

But whenever did a pan or a clout—when kept clean and tidy—refuse to do its duty, or rebel against its lady?”

—T. F. Powys, Unclay

Music continued for a decade or two after it ended, but unless you already knew the provenance of one of these later songs, you couldn’t figure out when it had been recorded. You couldn’t even write an algorithm that could figure it out. The songs were already outside of music’s history.

After one has learned to manage the isolation and poverty, there is still the challenge of writing itself.

slane, or slean (adj.): a long-handled spade, with a wing or two wings on the blade, used for cutting peat

The men-folk were going to the turf-bogs with their sleans on their shoulders.

—Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool

barm (vi.): mix with yeast or leaven; rise in froth or fermentation

The porter was beginning to barm in bellies.

—Kavanagh, Green Fool

creel (n.): large wicker basket

The pot of potatoes was turned out on a creel.

—Kavanagh, Green Fool

Bassani captures perfectly the way that the mere visibility of a victim or former victim spurs in a fascist (or a fascist-leaning bystander) the impression of being unfairly attacked.

The word “mother” is always to some extent in the vocative.

The sonorous, etymologically spurious second “o” in the word “reportorial” is the reason one likes to say it so often.

“Be nice,” the man growled to his dog.

limber (n.): detachable, two-wheeled forepart of a gun-carriage, used for transporting ammunition

“And also, your honour, Artemyev got drunk yesterday, and the lieutenant ordered him to be put in the limber of a spare gun-carriage.”

—Chekhov, “The Kiss”

“And certainly this doesn’t mean that M. Legrandin was insincere when he thundered against snobs. He was incapable of knowing—on his own, at least—that he was one, because we only ever know the passions of other people, and insofar as we manage to know of our own, it’s only from others that we’re able to learn it. On us the passions only act in a secondary way, through the imagination, which substitutes for primary motives intermediate ones that are more decent. Legrandin’s snobbery never advised him to go see a duchess frequently. It charged his imagination with making this duchess appear to be arrayed with all the graces.” —Proust, Du côté de chez Swann; the passage also seems to describe the operation of unconscious racism

“The ferocity of the financial crisis in 2008 was met with a mobilization of state action without precedent in the history of capitalism. Never before outside wartime had states intervened on such a scale and with such speed. It was a devastating blow to the complacent belief in the great moderation, a shocking overturning of prevailing laissez-faire ideology. To mobilize trillions of dollars on the credit of the taxpayer to save banks from the consequences of their own folly and greed violated maxims of fairness and good government. But given the risk of contagion, how could states not act? Having done so, however, how could they ever go back to the idea that markets were efficient, self-regulating and best left to their own devices? It was a profound challenge to the basic idea that had guided economic government since the 1970s. It was all the more significant for the fact that the challenge came not from the outside. It was not motivated by some radical ideological turn to the Left or the Right. There was precious little time for thought or wider consideration. Intervention was driven by the financial system’s own malfunctioning and the impossibility of separating individual business failure from its wider systemic repercussions. Martin Wolf, the Financial Times‘s esteemed chief economic commentator, dubbed March 14, 2008, ‘the day the dream of global free-market capitalism died.'” —Adam Tooze, Crashed

“I once heard a filmmaker say that in order to be truly creative a person must be in possession of four things: irony, melancholy, a sense of competition, and boredom.” —Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

“He who undertakes anything, thinking he is doing it out of a sense of duty, is deceiving himself and will ruin everything he touches.” —Auden, The Prolific and the Devourer

There is a charm in solitude that cheers,
A feeling that the world knows nothing of;
A green delight the wounded mind endears
After the hustling world is broken off,
Whose whole delight was crime—at good to scoff.
Green solitude, his prison, pleasure yields,
The bitch fox heeds him not; birds seem to laugh.
He lives the Crusoe of his lonely field
Whose dark green oaks his noontide leisure shield.

—John Clare, “Solitude”

Emerson in the tower of song

I get the New York Times on paper, and today I put off reading it until the end of the day—my practice during the George W. Bush years in order to retain my sanity, which I may well return to for the Trump administration. I peeked at Twitter at around 3pm, and so I read the paper, when at last I did read it, with a little less urgency than I otherwise might have, already knowing that Trump had done new horrible things that would not be mentioned in its pages, and that I was reading only to fill in the context, as it were.

Anyway, in this vague mood, I read Leon Wieseltier’s eulogy for the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, whose songs I’ve loved for years. Wieseltier quotes my favorite two lines of Cohen’s:

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

and I was interested to learn that Cohen “once told an interviewer that those words were the closest he came to a credo.” And the point of the very modest blog post that you’re currently reading is that it occurred to me, when I read this, that maybe not everyone knows that in those lines Cohen was quoting—and putting a twist on—Emerson.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed the quotation if I hadn’t come to Emerson after coming to Cohen. But that was my sequence, so I did notice it. In a journal entry for April 1837, Emerson wrote:

There is a crack in every thing God has made. Fine weather! — yes, but cold. Warm day!— ‘yes but dry.’ — ‘You look well’ — ‘I am very well except a little cold.’ The case of damaged hats — one a broken brim; the other perfect in the rim, but rubbed on the side; the third whole in the cylinder, but bruised on the crown.

As was his wont, Emerson recycled the line later in an essay, “Compensation,” though he upgraded his illustrative examples, switching out the hats for mythic heroes:

Aurora forgot to ask youth for her lover, and though Tithonus is immortal, he is old. Achilles is not quite invulnerable; the sacred waters did not wash the heel by which Thetis held him. Siegfried, in the Nibelungen, is not quite immortal, for a leaf fell on his back whilst he was bathing in the dragon’s blood, and that spot which it covered is mortal. And so it must be. There is a crack in every thing God has made.

The light, however, seems to be entirely Cohen’s.

Emerson on Occupy Wall Street

It is a sign of our times, conspicuous to the coarsest observer, that many intelligent and religious persons withdraw themselves from the common labors and competitions of the market and the caucus, and betake themselves to a certain solitary and critical way of living, from which no solid fruit has yet appeared to justify their separation. They hold themselves aloof: they feel the disproportion between their faculties and the work offered them, and they prefer to ramble in the country and perish of ennui, to the degradation of such charities and such ambitions as the city can propose to them. They are striking work, and crying out for somewhat worthy to do! . . .

Society, to be sure, does not like this very well; it saith, Whoso goes to walk alone, accuses the whole world; he declareth all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay, insulting; Society will retaliate. Meantime, this retirement does not proceed from any whim on the part of these separators; but if any one will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness, too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial,—they are not stockish or brute,—but joyous; susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. . . .

These exacting children advertise us of our wants. There is no compliment, no smooth speech with them; they pay you only this one compliment, of insatiable expectation; they aspire, they severely exact, and if they only stand fast in this watchtower, and persist in demanding unto the end, and without end, then are they terrible friends, whereof poet and priest cannot choose but stand in awe; and what if they eat clouds, and drink wind, they have not been without service to the race of man.

From “The Transcendentalist, a Lecture Read at the Masonic Temple, Boston, January, 1842.”