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In Plato’s Gorgias Socrates accuses Polus of trying to frighten him: “You are trying to make my flesh creep,” he says (473d), all of which is expressed in Greek by the single word mormoluttēi (μορμολύττῃ), a form of the curious verb mormoluttomai (μορμολύττομαι).[1] Its first element is from Mormō (or Mormōn, Μορμώ(ν)), a female hobgoblin invoked by nurses and mothers to scare children—a practice condemned in the Republic, where Socrates says that mothers should not “terrify their children with harmful tales,” such at least as speak evil of the gods (381e, trans. Shorey). The second element of the verb suggests, and possibly derives from, the root lutt– or luss-, which means rage or madness.

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In Whose Body?, the first of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels, the hero sees the solution all at once:

       And then it happened—the thing he had been half-unconsciously expecting. It happened suddenly, surely, as unmistakably, as sunrise. He remembered—not one thing, nor another thing, nor a logical succession of things, but everything—the whole thing, perfect, complete, in all its dimensions as it were and instantaneously; as if he stood outside the world and saw it suspended in infinitely dimensional space. He no longer needed to reason about it, or even to think about it. He knew it.

       There is a game in which one is presented with a jumble of letters and is required to make a word out of them, as thus:


       The slow way of solving the problem is to try out all the permutations and combinations in turn, throwing away impossible conjunctions of letters, as:




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In the third book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that just as poets ought to present character that is worthy of emulation, so also craftsmen (painters, sculptors, architects) should produce such works that “our young men, dwelling as it were in a salubrious region, may receive benefit from all things about them, whence the influence that emanates from works of beauty may waft itself to eye or ear like a breeze that brings from wholesome places health, and so from earliest childhood insensibly guide them to likeness, to friendship, to harmony with beautiful reason.” (Republic 401c–d, trans. Paul Shorey.) The breeze is aura (αὔρα), a word which elsewhere in Plato occurs in the phrase “the breeze of fortune,” which bloweth where it listeth.

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There is what there is, and there isn’t what there isn’t—so much for what; as for where, consider the things that are there, but not here. They are behind, or around the corner, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, imperceptible, inaccessible, ideal, suggested. How influential they may be! Democritean atoms (constitutive of the world); Platonic forms (casting a world of shadows); things in themselves (responsible for things natural); empty physical fields (space qualitative and quantitative). The past (gone, inescapable) and the future (not come, inevitable): what presses us behind, where we don’t see, or draws us ahead, where we’re not looking.  Whatever is under the surface, pictures for the mind’s eye, matter for intuition,….  “That which is properly thought, image, sentiment is always, in some way, a production of absent things.”

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An untitled poem of 1854 by A. A. Fet, literally translated, goes something like this.

How cool it is here under the thick linden-tree—
the intense heat of midday has not been penetrating hither,
and hanging over me, thousands
of fragrant fans are swinging.

But there, in the distance, the burning air glitters,
wavering, as if drowsing.
So sharp and dry is the soporific and grating
ceaseless ringing of the grasshoppers.

Beyond the shadows of the branches the vault of heaven shows blue,
as if lightly shrouded in haze,
and, like dreams of slumbering nature,
wavy clouds pass by.

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