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DoubleQuoting the French Revolution

[ by Charles Cameron — I was thinking of France yesterday, writing this in a happier mood before the evening’s news broke — up next, and tricky to write, a first response to the Paris outrage ]



One of the great pleasures of my work on DoubleQuotes and the HipBone and Sembl Games is the discovery of earlier analogues to what I’m doing. My purpose, after all, is to take a common human cognitive practice and formalize it, thus sharpening it from a somewhat haphazard activity into a tool, a practice.

We have all had the thought, “and that reminds me” — it crops up without any special prompting whenever something happening in current time calls up the memory of something similar experienced in the past, and our store of memories is pretty significant. On that last point, the great American poet Robert Frost once said:

Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge? but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic? poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.

Thyat’s from Frost’s essay, The Figure A Poem Makes, and it’s fascinating to me how much of that essay seems to apply not just to poems but equally to DoubleQuotes, HipBone and Sembl. Frost continues:

Knowledge of the second kind is much more available in the wild free ways of wit and art. A schoolboy may be defined as one who can tell you what he knows in the order in which he learned it. The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic.

I’d remembered Frost’s remark about knowledge sticking to people “like burrs where they walk in the fields” because it’s the most concise statement I know that explains the extraordinary amount of knowledge, in the sense of available-if-required-memory, that each and every human, not just the university-credentialed kind, acquires across a lifetime — some people know gang colors, tats, and graffiti, or sexual hanky code as others know Herodotus and Ibn Khaldun, or the different colored scarves of the Oxford colleges.

I don’t believe that I’d read Frost’s whole essay before today, although I may have — but you can see how closely his artist who “snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order” corresponds with my basic cognitive motion of DoubleQuotes as described it above, when “something happening in current time calls up the memory of something similar experienced in the past” and its qualifying remark, “without any special prompting”!

GMTA, or just GTA — thought, or theft? Who knows.


One other quote from Frost’s essay amplifies the unexpected nature of a single HipBone or DoubleQuotes play:

For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.

The passage continues, extending Frost’s description of the poem from a single initial linkage to the sort of web of linkages that characterize HipBone and Sembl games:

There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may Want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere.


The natural response to the sequence from crown to guillotine at the head of this post is found in the motto “the king is dead; long live the king”. The sentiment is best known in French, as these two books attest:

chateaubriand monardhie republicaine

The Vicomte Chateaubriand was a monarchist. Charbonneau and Guimier speak of a “republican monarchy” — “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, perhaps?

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