TLS December 21 & 28 2007

from Matthew Cobb's review "Polymath of Style" of Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon's Oeuvres, edited by Stephane Schmitt and Cedric Cremiere:

This year marked the tercentenary of the birth of two of the greatest naturalists of the eighteenth century - the Swede Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) and the Frenchman Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-88). In April, Linnaeus's 300th birthday was celebrated in the scientific journals, museums put on special exhibits, newspapers published articles about his influence. But for Buffon's birthday, in September, there were no candles on the cake. Even in France, not much fus was made - a conference in Dijon, a few displays at the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle, a flurry of publishing, and that was it.


Buffon had a long-running dispute with Linnaeus over the validity of the multi-level classification outlined in Systema Naturae, which permeated the whole of L'Histoire naturelle. Buffon argued that only species were real, and that the rest of Linnaeus's system (kingdoms, orders, classes and genera) was entirely fictitious. We now know that, strictly speaking, Buffon was right - taxonomists have since supplemented Linnaeus's list by a growing set of phyla, sub-phlya, domains and other interpretative frameworks, which they cheerfully accept do not exist in nature. But Linnaeus's classification not only helped impose order on the natural world, it containe within it the implicit logic of evolution, of a path of development, which would be put to such devastating use by Darwin. For simple heuristic reasons, Linnaeus's system triumphed, and Buffon's criticism are now forgotten.


from Joyce Carol Oates's review of Philip Davis's biography "Bernard Malamud: A writer's life":

One of the surprises of this biography is a virtual treasure trove of writerly pensees, scattered through 570-plus pages, that might one day be gathered and reissued as a writer's diary of sorts, to set beside such a gem of the sub-genre as Leonard Woolf's Virginia Woolf: A writer's diary. Here Bernard Malamud emerges as a tireless craftsman, trusting not to rushes of inspiration but to "so much labor":

What I can't add or develop, I refine or twist. Can't you see that in my work?

Rewriting tends to be pleasurable, in particular the enjoyment of finding new opportunities in old sentences, twisting, tying, looping structure tighter, finding pegs to tie onto that were apparently not there before, deepening meanings, strengthening logicality in order to infiltrate the apparently illogical, the apparently absurd, the absurdly believable.

Today I worked in mosaics, sentences previously noted, and put together in many hours. . . . Today I invented sunshine; I invented it in the book and the sky of the dark day broke.

I must experiment. I must express myself - my belief in life. I must work to handle material originally - original form. I must try symbolism. I must work for art. I must try harder. I must hit my highest possible level.


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