Map illustration showing the locations of St Brendan’s Island and Mt Atlas.
“While many admit the abstract probability that a falsity had usually a nucleus of verity, few bear this abstract probability in mind when passing judgment on the opinion of others.”
~ Herbert Spencer, First Principles
“William Hunter (1718-1783), brother of the famous surgeon [John Hunter], was of the opinion that surgeons’ daily contact with bodies lying at their mercy ‘may render them less able to bear contradiction.'”
~ F. Gonzalez-Crussi, A Short History of Medicine
“I do not know if your Paternity will recognize the handwriting of one whom you once knew very well. The letter is soiled and ill-written; because the writer has only one finger of his right hand left entire, and cannot prevent the blood from his wounds, which are still open, from staining the paper. His ink is gunpowder mixed with water, and his table is the earth.”
~ Joseph Bressani in a letter to the General of the Jesuits in Rome, 1644, from the country of the Iroquois
“When a book and a head collide and there is a hollow sound, is it always in the book?”
~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Aphorisms
Searching our public library’s catalog, my wife discovered that the author of a book she was looking for, on the Vietnam War, had also written Hollywood biographies of Walter Matthau and Vivian Vance. I don’t know why, but for some reason we expect a man’s work to be all of a piece. When we find, to the contrary, that the interests of strangers are often as diverse as our own, we are surprised. Strange combinations in ourselves we accept without question, but the imagination needed to look for the unexpected in others eludes us.
For example, I am now reading Max Beerbohm’s Seven Men (a dandyish bit of satire on the arts culture of the 1890s) and at the same time John Tanner’s The Falcon (an account of the author’s captivity among the Ojibwa in the late eighteenth century). Some may find it curious that one person’s library, or one brain, should contain artifacts of such mismatched interests. I am less surprised, however, since my own curiosity is the effective point of commonality between them.
“I contain multitudes,” Whitman said, and though the phrase has always reminded me of the Gerasene demoniac’s “My name is Legion,” something like this is true of us all. We play host to diverse spirits. Like the world itself, we are populated with jostling contradictions. The grandmother knitting in her window is a connoisseur of horror movies. The boy obsessed with video games is no less excited by butterflies. Montaigne was right, I think, when he said that we differ as much from ourselves as we do from others. But this is perhaps another way of saying we’re all more alike than we imagine.