Quixotic Good

Pursuing Soaring Pinnacles of harmless eccentricity

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Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
Gautama Buddha (via manakahandmade)


(Source: purplebuddhaproject, via octopusenvy)

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A) I was joking about our conversations, no worries! We agree more than we disagree - it’s just that we do end up at odds often enough that I find it kind of funny!


C-1) I still don’t really get what you’re going for here??? Sorry, dude. Those definitions of precise and imprecise/ambiguous don’t really make sense to me!

That said, “He’s always seemed extremely good at conveying sentiments, atmospheres, experiences and certain specific kinds of ideas, but he’s seemed very sloppy in other ways. He’s always struck me as a writer who shapes his worldview in opposition to what he sees and likes or (more often) dislikes about his surroundings, and not so much on the merits of those ideas themselves.”

Yes, I suppose that’s somewhat true? I guess I don’t see why it’s a failing, though. And Wilde was also quite devoted to his particular principles - the old Keatsian refrain of Art, Truth, Beauty, blah blah blah. These come through in his work again and again, and I assume have merit on the scale you’re judging this by! 

C-2) The author is dead except when you’re talking about him, man. We’re not talking about a specific work; we’re talking about patterns of thought within his works, and that requires an understanding of the historical context, I think. That’s why I keep harping on the Aesthetic Movement, etc., etc.

But I don’t really…get what point you’re making here? That he’s a sloppy expresser? Okay, he’s a sloppy expresser, in this particular way. The rest of it is falling into intellectual history territory and I do not know enough about it/do not care enough about it in this context to have an opinion. Your argument sounds legit to me, though depressingly cynical.

(However, I will say, re: I’m not really impressed by Wilde critiquing the idea of morality by using Victorian England as his counterexample, that wonderful impeccable paragon of virtue that gave us the Opium Wars and the twenty million death toll thereof - yeah, obviously, but Wilde was a well-off, fairly privileged dude safe in his own bubble in 19th century England; he did not have tumblr to provide him with a privilege checklist. What else was he supposed to do?)

C-3) I don’t know how else to say this. Um––Wilde being misleading means people talked about his work. This was, presumably, Wilde’s goal. Later on, it meant people kept talking about his work. If Wilde were straightforward, people would have not have kept talking about his work and all the ideas under its surface. Therefore, Wilde being misleading is at least equally important as the ideas he was expressing, because what use are ideas if no one’s talking about them?

I find your response both fascinating and baffling! Re: Precision, I’m not really sure how to clarify it more? Like, if I roll a twenty sided die with my eyes closed and then say the outcome is between 1-20 inclusive, that’s imprecise in the sense that it’s not specific, but it’s precise in the sense that it’s accurate based on the available data. I literally have NO idea why that might be unclear. But we should skype about it soon!

Other stuff: I mean, yeah, I respect sincere adherence to deeply held beliefs, but that can only go so far when you don’t respect the beliefs themselves? At least, not the beliefs as stated. As you said, there’s a lot of classism and Eurocentrism there, and the problems I have with Wilde are pretty much the problems I have with English Romanticism. But I think insofar as we’re disagreeing, we’re pretty much disagreeing a) about taste, and b) about how much certain failings weigh in the scales of a person’s merits as both an artist and an individual.

As far as the point I’m making: Basically that sloppy expression leads to inaccurate and/or crappy beliefs that cause harm when acted upon. Or that it leads to sloppy reasoning, which in turn leads to inaccurate and/or crappy beliefs.

I’m also not really sure why in particular my argument would come off as depressing or cynical, but I’m REALLY INTRIGUED.

Finally, about Wilde being misleading— I understand now! But also, being misleading in ways that attract attention is pretty much my definition of propaganda? Which in its own way can have usefulness and merit in certain situations. Like, I think of Dickens as maybe an example of a noble propagandist. But the ways in which Dickens was misleading had their own fallout— for example, Oliver Twist, by depicting Oliver as a Mary Sue and by depicting characters like the Artful Dodger (A CHILD) as expendable or blameworthy, depends heavily on and reinforces the idea of deserving vs. undeserving poor, which in my opinion is a really shitty and destructive idea. And Dickens may well have made his book more palatable and added to his odds of inspiring social reform by appealing to that idea, but doing so had consequences. I guess I’m saying similar things about Wilde?

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Warwick Goble (22 November 1862 – 22 January 1943) was an illustrator of children’s books. He specialized in Japanese and Indian themes.

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quixoticgood said:

Serious talk though, why is imprecision at all attractive in and of itself? Like, I totally get “all art is useless” as this quasi poetic expression of a range of ideas but the statement as such is a falsehood, if not a lie. That doesn’t bug you?

LOLOLOL I cannot believe I’m having this argument/discussion with you on my fandom-oriented tumblr. Also, I’m pretty sure this can only end the way most of our arguments/discussions do - agreeing to disagree because of how fundamentally differently we approach a topic. BUT OKAY, HERE WE GO.

1) We might be conflating two different definitions of “precise” and “imprecise” (appropriate, considering the topic of this discussion!), but I’m not quite sure I understand your delineation between “specificity” and “the ways in which meanings and expressions relate to each other.” Going by your later discussion of Wilde and Shakespeare, I’m assumingyou mean “word-level imprecision” and “idea-level imprecision.” But I think Wilde wields both word-level imprecisions and idea-level imprecisions quite skillfully. 

I already discussed at length how “all art is quite useless” is not, in fact, categorically false, or at least it isn’t in my reading of it. I don’t think it’s worth taking the phrase out of context because we all already know that art isn’t useless; Wilde especially, who devoted his life to pleasure and art, knew that art wasn’t useless; this is not a surprise. It’s not Wilde’s fault if people quote him out of context. 

I wouldn’t say that most of the things Wilde wrote were casual or glib, no matter how funny they might be or how casual and glib the characters who say them are being. As far as I know, everything was fairly deliberate, specifically designed to manipulate both emotional and intellectual reactions in his audience. But I also don’t care about “sloppy thinking” within literature nearly as much as you do because, again, I don’t much care about a work’s place in intellectual history, so that’s probably why it doesn’t bother me.

I also don’t agree that “sloppy thinking” is always a bad thing, but I think that should probably be an argument for a different day.


2) Yeah, I still don’t think taking the phrase out of context is worth much.

I don’t really know what else to say here. Sorry Oscar Wilde was an asshole? Um, take everything he ever said about himself with a grain of salt? Recognize that the Aesthetic Movement’s political stances were basically to be obnoxiously apolitical and amoral AS COMPARED TO Victorian London?


3) BRO I DO NOT THINK YOU HAVE ANY KIND OF THESIS. I am not that invested in this argument. 

You said, “Like, I’m glad he said it. But I’m glad because the things he’s expressing are more important than the ways in which he’s misleading.” And I disagreed that the things he was expressing were more important than the ways in which he was misleading. That’s all.

Hey! Sorry for delayed reply. Work keeping me busy and exhausted.

So… to be honest I’m not crazy about that fatalistic view of our conversations? For one thing I’m pretty sure we’ve conceded many points to each other and just not noticed it because we both pretty readily concede points to each other (or so it’s seemed so far). But also, if I value our ability to disagree with each other intelligently, it’s because it usually ends up in illuminating discussions that challenge my beliefs and force me to examine them more closely, not because it makes it easier for us to throw up our hands and walk away (which obviously we have to do sometimes, especially considering jobs and such. And also, as you can plainly see from the length of my response below, because shit is getting out of hand. Also also, I think Wilde is a wonderful writer, and if you think authors are dead and also don’t care about ideas, I’m not sure what we’re debating?) But that said:

1) I think you’re missing the somewhat self-effacing subtext of my responses? Though to be fair it’s pretty understated and probably more so because in text. I already said I agree with “all art is useless”, all context and layers of meaning considered. Like, I get that I’m being a certain kind of pedantic curmudgeon by being so concerned with the literal interpretation of Wilde’s words, and I don’t actually think Oscar Wilde’s possible lack of a specific kind of intellectual rigor was a scourge laying waste to the earth. But I do think it’s maybe a reflection of something that is, to a degree.

Before I go on though, let me clarify what I mean by my two definitions of precision. When you were talking about how you like imprecision in language because it reflects the ambiguity of life at large, it sounded like you were talking about imprecision in the sense of specificity vs. ambiguity. In other words, you like imprecision because it could refer to any one or more of a wide range of things in a given context, and are meh about precise language because it can only refer to one or a couple of things. A language designed to be optimally precise in this sense doesn’t really do a good job of capturing life, except in the context of like, math, philosophy or scientific study (varying by hardness of discipline), where controlling for variables and interpretations is indispensable to the pursuit of those specific kinds of knowledge.

BUT. What I’m arguing is that a language that is optimally precise in the other sense will do just fine for your purposes. Like, let’s say I roll a twenty-sided die and then turn away before I see the result, and you ask me to express what the result of that dice roll is. If I say “it’s somewhere between one and twenty inclusive”, that’s an optimally precise description of the results, in the sense that the language I’m using corresponds with the idea I’m expressing. And it’s precise because it’s ambiguous. Because the result of the roll is ambiguous.

What I’m saying is that Julius Caesar is optimally precise in this latter sense, because it precisely expresses the uncertainty of politics and of political intrigue, with all of the specific and weird mixture of hubris, presumption and idealism that drives it, and with a splash of true and terrifying psychopathy for flavor. 

As far as whether or not this latter type of precision is something Wilde is good at, I guess he’s never struck me that way? He’s always seemed extremely good at conveying sentiments, atmospheres, experiences and certain specific kinds of ideas, but he’s seemed very sloppy in other ways. He’s always struck me as a writer who shapes his worldview in opposition to what he sees and likes or (more often) dislikes about his surroundings, and not so much on the merits of those ideas themselves.

I guess I should add the caveat here that my experience of Wilde is way more limited than yours. To date, I’ve read/seen Earnest and Windermere twice each, read various quotes and read snippets of Dorian Grey and De Profundis. And I don’t think he’s casual or glib in general. Lady Windermere and Earnest are both deathly serious on a certain level and I love that about both of them, because I love deathly serious humor. (Vonnegut <3 <3 <3) (Also Shakespeare obvs <3 <3 <3)

2) Well, okay, yes. Death of the author, etc. etc. But that kind of reinforces my point, in a way? Like, whether he’s imprecise type 2 because he doesn’t know or doesn’t care, it doesn’t really matter since it’s reflected in his work either way, and that’s kind of my point.

Like, in point 1) above I mention how my issues with Wilde are curmudgeonly and pedantic. But to add a caveat to my caveat, I honestly do think that particular brand of pedantry and curmudgeonliness is not something to be discounted lightly. To give you a better sense of where I’m coming from, let’s talk about Social Darwinism.

So, people have always read this really strong normative subtext in the idea of Darwinism, in no small part because reading into the normative subtext of things is a big part of human nature. The idea that evolution is this forward march and that we should encourage it, enable it etc. are intuitively appealing ideas, but ones that have a really vacuous intellectual foundation.

Like, the laws of natural selection don’t have any prescriptions underlying them. All you’re saying when you say something is ‘fit’ to survive is that it can survive given certain conditions, and given that definition, people are MUCH more of an evolutionary success now than they were in the state of nature even if we’re somewhat flabbier. Sure, there’s merit to thinking about the survivability of individuals, practices etc. because you’re concerned about their sustainability, but the fact is that sustainability is just one of a constellation of merits that a thing can have.

But if Social Darwinism is such a DAMN RESILIENT idea and one that lends itself a veneer of scientific legitimacy, it is in no small part because people are not good at parsing ideas and meanings, and separating the literal from the figurative, or the text from the subtext. We are SO BAD at peeling apart the almost tautological idea that things survive in conditions amenable to their survival, and the much more ambitious but also dumber idea that we should all be mean to each other because science. And for all of the rhetoric throughout theology and the arts about how rationality and science are reductive, the reductiveness of scientists and rationalists has always seemed so much less dangerous than this other kind of reductiveness.

I remember a former professor of mine telling me a joke: “What do economists and fashion photographers have in common? They both fall in love with their models”. When scientists (hard and social both) are reductive, it’s because they’ve conflated the things they’ve invented to measure the world with the world itself. Ultimately, the alleged reductiveness of science is just another form of human error. But the sort of reductiveness that comes out of history’s reactions to science and rationality—from theology, poetry, postmodernism, whatever else— fogs up ideas, and has always seemed so much more dangerous to me on those grounds. It discards or reinforces, en masse, big, amorphous clouds of vaguely formed ideas that deserve to be clarified and examined carefully and individually instead of just being tossed around in this ocean of flag waving and bumper stickering and outgrouping.

My readings of Oscar Wilde, to date—again, admittedly not as thorough or as invested as yours, and I’m willing to admit I’m wrong if I’m wrong—have always struck me as representing these sorts of intellectual failings in some ways. Literally speaking, the whole quote surrounding “all art is useless” seems as just as false. It’s pretty patently true that people don’t need to be forgiven for making useful or useless things, whether they admire them or not. But we don’t have to talk about that example. Let’s talk about the other thing.

Like, in my mind the words “Victorian” and “moral” exist a few light years apart, for reasons that I probably don’t need to explain. So I’m not really impressed by Wilde critiquing the idea of morality by using Victorian England as his counterexample, that wonderful impeccable paragon of virtue that gave us the Opium Wars and the twenty million death toll thereof. And as much as I admire his work, I don’t think I’m being ungenerous to him by saying he’s an imprecise thinker on those grounds. (Or an imprecise expresser, or it doesn’t matter which because let’s agree for the sake of this argument that he’s both literally and figuratively dead.)

And OBVIOUSLY the enemy of my enemy is my friend etc. etc., but we’re still living with the cultural fallout, for better or worse, of a century of Western academic and artistic culture that decided to discard the concept of morality because it fought two world wars that were beginning to be as bloody as the fallout of its colonial ventures. Like, there is a very real and tangible sense in which the conflation of conventional morality with any morality worth fuck all is a direct cultural progenitor of the political apathy and narcissism that brought about America’s present status quo, and eagerly left the last traces of anything resembling moral rhetoric in the hands of shitty fanatics.

I mean, that’s obvs an extremely simplistic picture of our last few decades of political history but I genuinely do believe it’s a component of it. There is a sense in which Frank Miller’s Batman and the gross floodgate of misogynistic antiheroes he opened are a direct result of the same fallacy that Wilde fell prey to and cultivated, however much other good Wilde’s writing may have done. And it was the sort of fallacy that could have easily been avoided by making some allegedly petty and pedantic distinctions that are super easy to make.

3) I… still don’t really get it? Like I get how being misleading could be a good thing in the sense of like, if Anne Frank is in your attic don’t go blabbing about it, etc. But I’m not sure how that applies to Wilde?

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she had curves in all the right places, and all the left places, also, and in places forgotten by time, and in places known only by dwarven scholars

The curves betrayed Isildur, to his death. And some curves that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, those curves passed out of all knowledge.

(via therosesoftheday)