November 21: Recycled, or maybe vintage, insights

I think I found a mascot.

How do newspaper columnists do it? Here I was all set to type up some fresh insight about Voltaire, and at the last minute I remembered it was an insight I'd had two months ago. That insight was probably not all that fresh then, either, but my lack of knowledge about Voltaire prevents me from knowing who's had what insights about him. (The reason ignorance is bliss is that the ignorant brain always has that morning-fresh feeling.)

Of course, when it comes to recycling insights, I observe that newspaper columnists seem to be washed clean of shame. Maureen Dowd's been writing the same column for fifteen years. At this point, all she has to do is hit F6 and the column is extruded -- shitty pop-culture metaphors gently circling, one atop another, like the coils of a McDonald's shake. The Internet is unfair.

You could say that Voltaire's "English Letters" recycle the same insight -- which was that England equals progress, and guess what French-speaking nation does not -- but at least he makes himself find fresh examples. Today it's inoculation; the English have had the good sense to steal this disease-fighting practice from the Turks, who (Voltaire says) did it to make sure the pipeline of good-looking prostitutes would continue to flow. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who seems like an extremely interesting person, brought it to England, and Voltaire, who seems like a guy who knows how to kiss up, manages to credit someone higher-ranking:
Lady Wortley her return to England, communicated the experiment to the Princess of Wales, now Queen of England. It must be confessed that this princess, abstracted from her crown and titles, was born to encourage the whole circle of arts, and to do good to mankind. She appears as an amiable philosopher on the throne, having never let slip one opportunity of improving the great talents she received from Nature, nor of exerting her beneficence...The moment this princess heard of inoculation, she caused an experiment of it to be made on four criminals sentenced to die.
See how enlightened she is? She performs medical experiments on prisoners! (My understanding, however, is that by the standards of the House of Hanover this is enlightened.)

The only other insight I'm going to dust off from the inoculation story is the notion that Western Civilization, so called, is largely a collection of stuff from other civilizations that we stole and then repurposed. Like how a bunch of John Philip Sousa instruments got turned into jazz. Recycling can be fun!

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