Exquisite and Expansive: I

images-7 I always like Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker pieces. Reading his recent ruminations on Max Beerbohm is no exception. Gopnik touches on the fragility of Jewish and gay identities as they were negotiated in the ‘30s in America and in Britain, on the importance of voice in writing, and on Beerbohm’s great popularity between the wars.

And something else jumped from the page. Gopnik makes an extraordinary generalization, marked by pithiness and grip. There are two kinds of extended sentences:

“The first [kind of sentence] is argumentative, the second is exquisite.”

I’m taken aback by the simplicity of the division: an either/or, with no third or seventh option. Aren’t there an infinite variety of images-9extended sentences?

But then, I decided, birds at my feeder are either rasping or silent. Cardinals speak between their pecks; assorted others don’t. So maybe the world sometimes divides neatly in two.

But still, what is it about an exquisite sentence that rules out its being argumentative? Gopnik doesn’t help, he moves on.

Maybe the incompatibility rests on this: if I hear an argument I will assert my agreement, disagreement, or puzzlement. I’ll get into the mode of mastery, of critical assessment. I become notably active. This evaporates if I let myself encounter the exquisite. Then I succumb to another part of my sensibility.

Unpresuming, retiring, I become infinitely available — as you might, scanning the images to your right. They don’t argue for anything, and don’t demand an assertive response. You can idle with them.

exquisite-3d-butterfly-tattooOn hearing or reading something exquisite I bath in its beauty, loveliness, elegance, or ornamentation; in its perfection, delicacy, fragility, or subtlety. I’m struck by its discernment, sensitivity, fastidiousness, or refinement. And the exquisite can be tonally piercing, agonizing, harrowing, unbearable, unendurable. (Thank my thesaurus for this packing list.)

So the upshot is that there are two ways to receive sentences (or the world): first, as something to assertively tackle, decipher, evaluate, or critique; second, as something to yieldingly absorb, something to unassertively relish, savor, or celebrate (or sometimes to flee from in terror or revulsion).

If I hear an argument I become presumptively active;if I’m struck by the exquisite, I become infinitely available.

There’s a difference between making a case for a person or a position, and yielding to beauty, the sublime, or the exquisite.  Perhaps our sentences and lives oscillate between these two ways of being in the world, and accessing it.

(To be continued . . .)

Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

Credits: Adam Gopnik, “The Comparable Max,” The New Yorker, August 3, 2015; images displaying modes of subjectivity from Google Images, under “exquisite.”


  1. William Eaton

    Very nice, and the purple allée. I am curious as to what the sequel will be, and also as to third and seventh options. On beyond dichotomizing?

    You have reminded my tangential mind of a line from Cole Porter’s wife. Apparently, or according to legend, once when asked if her jewels were real, she snapped back, “Real WHAT?” Is a feature of the exquisite that, at least for a moment, for its moment of exquisiteness, it defies or blocks explanation?

    Are you exploring philosophy beyond the discursive or wisdom that is immune to philosophy?


  2. Ed Mooney

    Thanks, William,

    — Ah, the sequel will appear next week, and who knows what the 7th or 3rd option might be.
    Yes, dichotomizing is pernicious.

    And I am interested in that moment of surprise and awe and sometimes disgust that at least initially defies explanation and reminds us how much we are (often legitimately)in a pre- analytical dance with the world. I think philosophy and wisdom both need to be aware of the primal pre-discursive.

    Is this getting too “heavy”?


  3. Steve Webb

    Not heavy enough! The prospect of your third or seven options, Ed, immediately reminded me of William James, whose by-word, you remember, was ‘Pluralism.’ Variety, range, individuality, difference, spontaneity, intimacy, freshness, and indistinct boundaries — these were the things for him. But he was also quite the arguer; not your 1, 2, 3, QED scholastic workhorse, to be sure, but a tough polemicist nonetheless. His great bugbear, the polar opposite that his Pluralism was designed to combat, was of course Monism; and the nearest representative of that abhorrent ideology was his colleague and best philosophical friend, Josiah Royce. While James could describe his own philosophy as “a turbid, muddled, gothic sort of affair, without a sweeping outline and with little pictorial nobility,” he could not just leave at that. He had to defend his attitude, or at least show why its nearest competitor was wrong. “What distinguishes a philosopher’s truth,” James said, “is that it is reasoned truth.” He went on to say, “…emotional appeals of any kind sound amateurish in the business that concerns us. Impressionistic philosophizing, like impressionistic watchmaking or land-surveying, is intolerable to experts.” (Business? Experts? William James? Say it ain’t so!) What followed was a swords drawn, take-no-prisoners assault on Absolute Idealism — not at all what you’d expect of a nominally tender-hearted philosopher. However, I’m sure Royce gave as much as he got. A decade before “A Pluralistic Universe” (from which I’ve been quoting), James wrote to Royce a precious testament to the spirit of philosophy, which, despite the red light, I’d like to share now: “When I compose my Gifford lectures mentally, it is with the design exclusively of overthrowing your system, and ruining your peace. I lead a parasitic life upon you, for my highest flight of ambitious ideality is to become your conqueror, and to go down into history as such, you and I rolled in one another’s arms and silent (or rather loquacious still) in one last death-grapple of an embrace.” So there you have it: sharp dichotomy, vigorous writing, and comradely love, all in the one good-natured go.


  4. Ed Mooney

    An echt exquisite sentence, nothing to dispute, just a bluster of images: we bathe in the delicious absurdity of a parasite-turned-conqueror tumbling down hill in an upward flight of ambition, embracing his adversary-love in a silent-loquacious death-grapple! Ah, purple, purple!


  5. Steve Webb

    Bombast, you mean? Seriously, Ed, that’s a great response. Break it into lines and title it “Jimmy Loves Joey” or “Give Peace a Chance?” Not exactly Cavafy, but a good start. P.S. Poetry is one thing, philosophy is another. You can do one or the other or both, but not at the same time. That’s too much like dancing in a sitting posture. It’s bad on the back. And by the way, you, enviable you, can do both! A friendly disagreement, that’s all; I won’t bring it up again. (Said Napoleon, with his fingers crossed behind his…wait, another back?)


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