August 24, 2003
What I've Been Reading

There's nothing like a collection of epigrams, aphorisms, or apophthegms when you don't have time to read a real book. Lately I've been browsing in the Penguin translation of the Aphorisms of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799). Here are some samples from the first four of his twelve notebooks ('A' to 'D'), jotted down in 1765-1775:

Whenever he was required to use his reason he felt like someone who had always used his right hand but was now required to do something with his left. (B 1)

It requires no especially great talent to write in such a way that another will be very hard put to it to understand what you have written. (D 59)

That there are a hundred with wit for one with understanding is a true proposition with which many a witless Dummkopf consoles himself, when he should reflect -- if that is not too much to ask of a Dummkopf -- that there are also a hundred people possessing neither wit nor understanding for every one possessing wit. (C 12)

It is easy to construct a landscape out of a mass of disorderly lines, but disorderly sounds cannot be made into music. (A 40)

Anyone who had from childhood on known the masterpieces of the human mind would make an incredulous face if he read some of our moderns. It would seem to him like music played on an out-of-tune piano or on pots, pans and plates. (D 7)

Little did Lichtenberg know that musicians would one day write music for "prepared", i.e. intentionally out-of-tune, piano -- not to mention pots, pans and plates.

His most famous aphorism is probably this one:

The ass seems to me like the horse translated into Dutch. (H 37)

The Penguin translation, by R. J. Hollingdale, is readable and seems accurate, so far as I can judge, but has one huge flaw: instead of giving the numbers of the German editions, he has renumbered his selection sequentially. Only Notebook A is on the web (here), but anyone who wants to look up the German text of a particular aphorism there or in a book will have trouble finding it. For instance, A 40, quoted above, is A 141 in the German, and only easy to find because it is the last one in both text and translation. This is too bad, because aphorisms and epigrams are particularly useful in improving one's knowledge of a language.

An interesting side note is that Lichtenberg was one of a surprising number of eminent hunchbacks in western literature. One of my college teachers once observed that it was a remarkable coincidence that two of the greatest writers of the early 19th century were both hunchbacks. (Click on 'More' to see which two.) If I had any artistic talent, I would have made him a set of 'Great Hunchbacks of the Western World' trading cards, featuring those two, plus Quasimodo (of course) and Alexander Pope. Only later did I realize that Aesop and Lichtenberg (whom I never heard of until much later) could be added to make a set of six. There may be others.

(Mr. B. was referring to Kierkegaard and Leopardi.)

Posted by Dr. Weevil at August 24, 2003 10:43 PM

Actually, a "prepared piano" isn't ordinarily tuned any differently; various objects (bolts, screws, erasers, pieces of paper) are stuck between the strings in specified places to alter the timbres of particular notes. Not that it affects your point.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak on August 25, 2003 11:53 AM

I have read many explanations for the Schwarzenegger name. According to linguists it menas raker of negroes. So a slave trade in the ancestors.
egge means rake, egger raker schwarzen of negroes Many of the explanations are just grammatically incorrect. g. m

Posted by: grete m. on October 7, 2003 06:35 PM