Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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January 02, 2008
the humility formula

Here are some examples of what they call the "humility     topos":

Gower (.pdf):
Likewise I beg of you, the man who reads these writings,
That you bear with them generously and not be too conscious of my faults.
Embrace the matter, not the man, and the spirit, not the bodily form in this material,
For I myself am a poor fellow.

Lazarillo de Tormes:
Because it might turn out that someone who reads about them will like what he reads, and even people who only glance lightly through this book may be entertained.

Pliny says along these lines that there is no book -- no matter how bad it is -- that doesn’t have something good in it. And this is all the more true since all tastes are not the same: what one man won’t even touch, another will be dying to get. And so there are things that some people don’t care for, while others do.

The point is that nothing should be destroyed or thrown away unless it is really detestable; instead, it should be shown to everybody, especially if it won’t do any harm and they might get some good out of it.

If this weren’t so, there would be very few people who would write for only one reader, because writing is hardly a simple thing to do.

Richard    Misyn (.pdf):
I emonge lettyrd men sympellest, and in lyfinge vnthrifyest, þhis wark has takyn to translacion of lattyn to englysh, for edificacyon of many saules.

Kyprian the Humble (.doc):
For I have suffered for many days, being drawn by my love to the true pastor and I wanted to bring a small praise to the holy man but looking at my incapacity to conceive the greatness of him I held back. On the other hand I considered it a most grievous wrong to leave this to the end and to be lazy.

And that is why . . . I took on the cause which is greater than my capacity, to speak a little of his life.

Mariana de Carvajal (see p. 16):
I offer you this little book, the useless abortion of my meager wit.

One scholar (Christina Cullhed (.pdf)) has suggested that the humility topos device served as a release of tension, after the agonizing internal struggles suffered by some authors, at some points in history, as a necessary precursor to the assertion of a public persona through writing.

The formulas often appeared in prologues and epilogues. One supposes that they acted as preemptive or closing apologies to potentially offended strangers, or as professions to the unknown reader of the author's good faith and pure intentions.

One further supposes that use of and experimentation with [There is more to their nuances and flexibilities than initially might meet the eye] the formulae were understandable during ages of novelty and change in the hows, whats, whys and who/whoms of human communication (e.g. invention: by Caxton (printing, books), by Chaucer (the English language itself)), when norms were not yet laid down (if ever they really are), or when the writer broached possibly controversial topics.

One could imagine how the formula would get certain increasingly ritualized objections out of the way, to focus and clear the author's neurotic mind, or at least their conscience.

More pessimistically, one wonders how many -- or how few -- arguments or flamewars (i.e. burning of pamphlets and heretics?) the topos really preempted.

[So, too, someone may argue:

It is exceedingly silly for anyone to think that they can ever foresee, and preemptively address, the Other's objections.

The "humble" author overlooks that the gravest offenses are the ones (s)he can and will never anticipate causing, and thereby cannot apologize for, in advance, or even prevent.

Worse, someone may continue, the "humble" author's arrogance, condescension and objectification of and dissrespect for the Other come through. The author presumes, a priori, to know the Other's mind well enough to script what its objections will be.

Worst of all, the author who resorts to a humility formula is a gutless chickensh-t. They want to deprive the Other of "agency" and the right to register their own complaints, in their own voice, in a face to face encounter, directly with the writer. Creeping totalitarianism!

By taking this rationale to its logical conclusion, perhaps, we could be led to believe that one should never try, in advance, to think of others' feelings and perspectives. One should instead go through life always being as heedless, insulting and inconsiderate of others as possible. In fact, this is the only ethically correct thing to do.

(TiR is merely playing around, and riffing, here. Pay no mind.)]

Regardless, why has the humility formula not made a comeback, in some form apropriate for the age of e-mail, texting, IMs, blogging, and (so-called) social networking? Or has it, in stunted ways (e.g., emoticons, sig quote legal disclaimers)? Maybe somebody needs subtly once to suggest its full reemergence.

Strangely and coincidentally enough, this blog's initiatory post of the year seems somehow to have ended up including several examples of the topos. Funny, that.