Furniture of the Mind

— for Jay Fliegelman

Standing about are pots, pulleys, lids, bottles of oil, and chairs. I conjure a room of the sort conjured for us in Tristram Shandy (III.xx). The room is a fiction, a perspicuous representation, every point and particle made up of sunbeams. It is a room that we might call, hewing here to Wittgenstein more than Sterne, a “visual room,” a room inhabited by no one in particular. It is not mine, not Tristram’s.

It is in this room that we discover the author seated in his cane chair. It is here we learn that wit and judgment, are like two knobs on a chair back, stuck in their gimlet holes. Here we consider the significance of mental furniture.

Wit and judgment. But “one cannot couple any two nouns at random and be sure to produce an effective metaphor,” so claims Max Black. He continues, “If the reader doubts this, let him try to make sense of ‘a chair is a syllogism’” (23).

The chair is a syllogism. Wit will try, in spite of judgment. But no, I suppose I don’t doubt Black’s claim. And the chair cannot be both an emblem of the faculties and a syllogism; — at least not the same chair. At least not in the same paragraph.

Sterne: “an illustration is no argument—nor do I maintain the wiping of a looking-glass clean, to be a syllogism” (III.xx). How then is a chair like a syllogism? — Like a raven to a writing desk? Is a chair finely made tragic or comic? What is needed is an example, by way of illustration.

Major premise: All men are mortal.
Minor premise: Socrates is a man.
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.

This piece of text, just as Tristram Shandy, is haunted by mortality. Haunted like all text.

In his essay, “The Superannuated Man,” Charles Lamb complains, “I had grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul.” Philosophy has its furnishings, and the philosophical are invested in furniture. Melancholic and sedentary, they sit and they think and they write to the moment.

Hume conjures a room in his Treatise:

The table is beyond the paper. The walls of the chamber beyond the table. And in casting my eye towards the window, I perceive a great extent of fields and buildings beyond my chamber … I lose sight of them by shutting my eyes or turning my head, I soon find them return upon me without the least alteration. My bed and table, my books and papers, present themselves in the same uniform manner, and change not upon account of any interruption in my seeing or perceiving them. (I.iv.2)

Interiority is the aspect of an interior. This page. This desk. This chair. These knobs. These books and papers. A glimpse of something outside. A room furnished by writing to this moment. Hume’s room is as much a fiction as Tristram’s. But that syllogism, it is something else. Inexorable. I can’t lose sight of it by shutting my eyes or turning my head.

This chair. My chair. In lectures and textbooks, the chair is the ready-made illustration of Aristotle’s four causes (formal, material, efficient, and final): a chair’s form is its structure. This chair. Aristotle, who favored walking and looking about, is made available to undergraduates in the example of an armchair.

But A is B. The chair is a syllogism, of a kind. Here, come look. I will prove it. The seat, a major premise; the back, the minor; by way of conclusion we are seated. In “our armchair of an afternoon,” we murder Socrates over and over again in hopes of grasping the fatal, ineluctable logic of C is B.

What a company of chairs are here! The learned lumber and furniture of the mind, no one will pack it up when it is time to go. No one will insure it. It will not return without alteration. Who will unload it and put it where it belongs?

All chairs are syllogisms. Black: “In the absence of some specially constructed context, this must surely count as a failed metaphor” (23). Could a metaphor fail and still be a metaphor? Is my prose context enough?

When we are to be informed of the death of a loved one, we are made, first, to sit down.