that's what he said, by Frank Wilson

An illusion of precision

No Gravatar

I have been remiss in attending to this column, though for the best of reasons: I had lost faith in it.

I had pretty much run out of quotations that had been on the tip of my tongue for decades, and searching around for others seemed somehow contrary to the spirit of the venture, which had to do with examining, up close and personal, the way Montaigne did, notions I had been subscribing to for years.

Looking around for new ones just to have something to write about didn’t seem the same. But then, a few weeks ago, I happened to notice that I was … searching for a quotation to use on my blog for a daily feature labelled “Something to think on.” I would end up choosing one quote and not some others, if there were any others, and I would be choosing — why? I could never simply post just any quote.

What I post every day is usually something written or said by someone of some note, usually an author, who was either born on that date or died on it. On those dates when no one of note seems to have said anything, I just look for something by one of my favorite quipsters — Chesterton, Emerson, Meister Eckhart. My latest favorite is Nicolás Gómez Dávila, the Colombian aphorist known as Don Colacho. The most recent of his that I used was this: “Relativism is the solution of one who is incapable of putting things in order.” Not bad.

At any rate, things people have said well and to the point are interesting precisely because they tend to take on a life of their own, apart from their original context. Anyone who reads a lot is bound to spend a good deal of time thinking over what others have said. A good deal of thought is subliminal conversation.

And that is how my faith in this column returned. Which brings me to a morning some weeks ago. I was looking up something Hilaire Belloc had said about the Catholic Church, during which search I came upon something else he had said. The quote I was looking for was this: “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.” The one I found while looking for that one was this: “Statistics are the triumph of the quantitative method, and the quantitative method is the victory of sterility and death.”

This reminded me of something W. H. Auden wrote about in one of his essays. He tells of responding to a questionnaire regarding the kind of society he would like to live in. One of his answers included a preference for “irregular systems of measurement.” I guess he was thinking of ells and furlongs and acres. No decimal system for him.

I immediately agreed. The decimal system gives an illusion of precision. Mathematics itself is not always precise. The area of a circle is arrived at by multiplying Pi by the radius squared. But Pi is an infinite decimal. So the area can only be approximated. The artist’s eye and brush are more accurate than any scientist’s slide rule, because they depict what is manifested, not measured, and they depict it in the very terms of its manifestation.

The quantity of something certainly has bearing on its quality. The sheer size of a mountain contributes to its grandeur, but grandeur and size are hardly identical. Grandeur encompasses much more than mere size — color, shape, shade, and setting, among others.

The quantitative method Belloc refers to is a pledge of allegiance to the lowest common denominator of certainty, size and weight. But the height and heft of Michelangelo’s David scarcely address its grandeur, let alone exhaust it.

To elevate quantity above quality, nuance, and uniqueness is cynical in precisely the sense Oscar Wilde had in mind when he defined a cynic as one who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” This is vulgarity raised to the level of ontology.

E. E. Cummings captured perfectly the sterility and death Belloc referred to as inherent to the quantitative method:

While you and I have lips and voices which
Are for kissing and to sing with
Who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch
Invents an instrument to measure spring with?

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

Latest posts by Frank Wilson (Posts)

Print This Post Print This Post

Discussion Area - Leave a Comment