Dan Chiasson did not crib from Isaiah Berlin.

Hedgehogs are to lingerers…

[post updated and expanded]

Dan Chiasson did not crib from Isaiah Berlin. The title of this post was posed as a question before, and it was meant to provoke readers, to see what I see as a similarity among two critics’ ideas about writers’ primary tendencies.


It all starts with Chiasson’s ecstatic review of the decidedly un-ecstatic Timothy Donnelly‘s latest book, when he writes that “poets tend to be either lingerers or barrellers.”

Lingerer poets are “contemplatives,” Chiasson writes; they work to “stop the clock” and work from a position of “interiority.” Barrellers poets “ride the tide” in a “frenzied” dash across stimuli and interests.  One problem common to both impulses, Chiasson writes, is the ‘passing of time’ in a poem.

It’s an interesting idea, and it looked very familiar to me. Isaiah Berlin begins his own ur-text dichotomy study, The Hedgehog and the Fox, with a liberally translated saying from Archilochus: “The fox knows many little things. The hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Berlin uses these rough parameters as a jumping-off point to explore Tolstoy as a fox, Dostoevsky a hedgehog. Writers see the world two different ways of approaching or knowing reality, Berlin says: as the jack-of-all-trades generalist or obsessive specialist.

I’ll quote Berlin’s explanation in full.

Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defence. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side,who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle. These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.

Chiasson’s barreller-lingerer lede-conceit focuses on both subject matter and, shrewdly and correctly, poetry’s temporality.

“It used to be the that contemplatives were all, by nature, lingerers,” Chiasson writes, turning to the Donnelly book. “But ours is an age of inner barrellers, poets of ultrafast interiority.” These inner barrellers, he writes tongue-tyingly, “find meaning inside the data stream.” Donnelly is “the barreller-in-chief of younger American poets,” with a style akin to a “game-show shopping spree.”

Berlin, too, concentrates on that certain frisson that comes from mixing two competing visions.

Which camp, hedgehog or fox, Berlin asks, does Tolstoy belong to? It isn’t clear whether he belongs in either camp, as a “monist or a pluralist, whether his vision is of one or of many, whether he is of a single substance or compounded of heterogeneous elements who perceived reality in its multiplicity, as a collection of separate entities round and into which he saw with a clarity and penetration scarcely ever equaled, but he believed only in one vast, unitary whole.”

“Tolstoy was by nature a fox,” Berlin writes, “but believed in being a hedgehog.”

Donnelly’s “inner barreller” coinage is the rough correlate here.

Chiasson’s rather un-mellifluous coinages, it seems to me, could have simply been replaced by the Berlin and started from there. I am left wondering if he consciously decided give a nod to Berlin in the interest of coming up with his own names for poetic schools of Barrellers and Lingerers.  (That hurts just to type.)

Donnelly, the “barreller-in-chief,” “demonstrates why the critical cliché of “mixing high and low” is “pushing retirement age.” Here’s the abstract for the review:

What do those categories mean for an American, born in Rhode Island and living in Brooklyn, who, in a given day, reads some Shelley, gets despondent about the news, spends some time thinking about his childhood (Childcraft books, “The Beverly Hillbillies”), takes care of his infant, and has something stiff to drink. You might expect, from contents so miscellaneous, a kind of amorphous blob of a style, phrases splayed across the page. Instead, Donnelly is an acrobatic formalist, albeit one on fast-forward. Donnelly’s style must be withstood before it is enjoyed. The title poem of “The Cloud Corporation” reimagines the Biblical story of Noah, only with the cogs and wheels of corporate machinery where we would expect a rainbow. The language of faith has been transformed into the slogans of commerce. These poems are full of old vocabularies now repurposed for commercial use.

Here’s the first couple of paragraphs:

Berlin on that fox-who-thinks-he’s-a-hedgehog Tolstoy:

This, then, is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events. Those who believe this turn out to be dreadfully mistaken. And side by side with these public faces – these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid the bleak truths – side by side with all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness lies the real world, the stream of life which men understand, the attending to the ordinary details of daily existence. When Tolstoy contrasts this real life – the actual, everyday, ‘live’ experience of individuals –with the panoramic view conjured up by historians, it is clear to him which is real, and which is a coherent, sometimes elegantly contrived, but always fictitious construction. Utterly unlike her as she is in almost every other respect, Tolstoy is, perhaps, the first to  propound the celebrated accusation which Virginia Woolf half a century later levelled against the public prophets of her own generation – Shaw and Wells and Arnold Bennett – blind materialists who did not begin to understand what it is that life truly consists of, who mistook its outer accidents, the unimportant aspects which lie outside the individual soul – the so-called social, economic, political realities – for that which alone is genuine, the individual experience, the specific relation of individuals to one another, the colours, smells, tastes, sounds and movements, the jealousies, loves, hatreds, passions, the rare flashes of insight, the transforming moments, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data which constitute all there is – which are reality. [emphases mine]

It might be rather unfair to compare Chiasson’s 1000-word review to Berlin’s tome.

As I say in the comments below, tropes are there for a reason.

But when one attempts to copy ape them without acknowledgement or indebtedness or even investigating or reading one’s dichotomic forbears-the fox, whose skeptical perceptions of the “ordinary day-to-day succession of private data,” to the barreller who “gets despondent over the news”–things get kind of tangled. And to replace them hedgehog and fox, with verbs no less (one slang, the other intransitive, respectively), and without any images behind them, all for the sake of a reductionist lede laying claim to one’s own idea? Safe to say we won’t be using barellers and lingerers in the future. Oh wait–we’re doing it here.

But a comparison of these two rhetorical dualities is at least worth bringing up, yes?


28 Replies to “Dan Chiasson did not crib from Isaiah Berlin.”

  1. “Fable”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    The mountain and the squirrel
    Had a quarrel;
    And the former called the latter “Little Prig.”
    Bun replied,
    “You are doubtless very big;
    But all sorts of things and weather
    Must be taken in together,
    To make up a year
    And a sphere.
    And I think it no disgrace
    To occupy my place.
    If I’m not as large as you,
    You are not so small as I,
    And not half so spry.
    I’ll not deny you make
    A very pretty squirrel track;
    Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;
    If I cannot carry forests on my back,
    Neither can you crack a nut.”

      1. Why is the quality of this video so exceptional? I mean seriously. Stuff on MTV looks worse than this.

      2. It’s a Vevo video or something. They’re sort of embedded in YouTube, often with a short commercial. I don’t know what Vevo is, but I’ve never been able to embed them. It surprised me that it worked in this instance. But then again, it is Oran “Juice” Jones we’re talking about, and so magical things will happen.

  2. whoa. this is crazy. i loved that song as a kid and had it on a Rap’s Greatest Hits comp.

    also, good timing, Daniel Nester.

  3. Wow! Busted! Good job sniffing out perhaps the most famous and overused distinction in journalistic prose. Some other little known sources I plagiarized:

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. (Charles Dickens)
    Happy Families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Leo Tolstoy)

    1. @Dan What about Sharks and Jets? Tropes are there for a reason, but when one attempts to copy them without acknowledgement or indebtedness it gets kind of tangled. And to replace hedgehog and fox, with verbs no less, and without any images behind them (one slang, the other intransitive), just for the sake of a reductionist lede? Safe to say we won’t be using barellers and lingerers in the future.

  4. I’m not sure why I’m replying to this, because, really, who could conceivably care? I will point out though that I didn’t write the paragraph of mine you quote above: you assembled it from several non-consecutive sentences in the piece, perhaps to make me seem incoherent (there you succeeded), perhaps to create an echo of Isiah Berlin (I still don’t hear it). Anyway, what you’ve succeeded in doing is making yourself seem like a meretricious jerk. At the risk of joining you, I’m going to go silent now. Have fun!

    1. Dan — If you’re talking about the block-quote paragraph, it’s taken verbatim from the abstract on this page of the New Yorker. I hear more than an echo of Berlin, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing–nor do I think it’s jerky or meretricious to bring such a topic up. Have fun re-reading that Timothy Donnelly book.

      1. So, you’re quoting an abstract of my piece to prove what? An abstract gives the (potential) reader a preview of the piece’s content. You’re making an accusation about style–namely that I cribbed mine from Isaiah Berlin. Quote an actual paragraph I wrote, not one assembled by the magazine staff. But this is pointless, since even the doctored paragraph you quote to demonstrate “cribbing” sounds NOTHING like the Berlin paragraph. Why don’t you just go ahead and write the “cribbed” paragraph you wish I’d written? Then you can call “me” on it.

      2. Here we go, Grumpy Gus. I put a screenshot of the lede in the post. Let the reader decide. Interiority = hedgehog? Frank O’Hara = fox?

  5. Indeed. Also let the reader decide who manufactured a National Examiner-style “scandalous” headline that also served as a nifty tweet, retrofitted his piece after he was called out on it, then blustered his way through a phony argument about slang, hedghogs, intrasitives, and tropes. You do this kind of thing why?

    1. Headlines are supposed to be provocative, Dan, and made to be tweetable. That’s a reality, even outside National Enquirer. Blustered? I dunno. I’m just pointing out how these ideas are similar. Maybe cribbed lite or influenced or echoes would be more accurate? You’re denying indebtedness entirely, which I think is sort of … why?

      My point about slang/intransitive is merely to point out that your version of fox and hedgehog is clunky. I wouldn’t have mentioned my opinion on said clunkiness if you didn’t step up into the comment box all overly defensive-like.

  6. Uh, really, Dan The New Yorker Writer, barreller and lingerer doesn’t remind you of Berlin’s fox and hedgehog? Your actual article goes on to mention lingerers who sometimes barrel and barrellers sometimes linger, which seems similar to Berlin’s analysis of a fox that wants to be hedgehog and vice versa. At any rate, I can’t see how in 2010 one could divide writers into two groups and not expect readers to say that it reminds them of the famous essay.

    Also, to leave a comment and then say that you don’t know why you’re bothering to do so, and to criticize the writer for quoting an abstract (that seems to accurately summarize your article and which, for all Mr. Nester knows you could well have written or approved), come on, man!

    If you want to pick a fight with someone over whom your position gives you a profound advantage, at least, fight fair. All Mr. Nester did was point out a similarity between your idea and one put forward by another writer. At first, you seem to argue that, of course, you drew on an idea so familiar that your source needn’t be pointed out (at least that’s what I take your Dickens and Tolstoy quotations to mean), then you later say you don’t see any connection between your idea and Berlin’s. And to the point you make about the familiarity of the idea, I’m sure if you reviewed a book that put forward as its central premise an idea that reminded you of Tolstoy’s happy/unhappy families lines, and the writer didn’t acknowledge Tolstoy in some way, you’d call them on it.

  7. “cribbed” was your hedged, non-actionable, version of “stole”; by tweeting it and then spending your entire piece retracting it, you were essentially tweeting “Did Dan Chiasson Sexually Abuse The Neighbor’s Dog” then, for those who actually follow your link (a small minority in twitter land) saying “In fact, no.” Do I have a profound advantage over somebody making these kinds of accusations in this way, whatever my publishing venues? I don’t think so. By the way: is every formulation “X is either a or b; a wants to be b, b wants to be a” indebted to Isaiah Berlin?

    1. Oh, Christ. I didn’t retract or hedge or retrofit. I said what I meant to say. I don’t think you stole; I do think you were influenced strongly, or frankly you should have been. The ideas you present are very similar to Berlin’s; it’s not just x = a or b. When we let “X” equal “writer” and “a” represents a “natural inclination to view the world obsessively” and b is or “a wide-ranging view of interest,” then we’re entering anxiety-of-influence territory.

  8. Wow! Now this is getting to be fun. Bestiality! In a literary blog comment box! Pointing out a possible, and certainly unacknowledged, source for an idea in a prominently published article seems an accusation of an entirely different order than animal sexual abuse. So, a tweet structured “Did X verb Y” might as well be a scandalous National Enquirer headline? I’m sure that the choice of the word crib was carefully thought out. The term makes the writer’s observation more gentle.

    I’m also confused by your characterization of the term crib as “non-actionable”. If Mr. Nester had written, “plagiarize” how would that be actionable? Do you mean that if you ever met Mr. Nester you would slap his cheek and challenge him to a duel?

    Also, in my reading of the piece he doesn’t retract anything, just expands on his observation.

    Your publishing venue doesn’t give you an advantage over someone making an “accusation”? Dan, you write for the fucking New Yorker. Come the fuck on! I’m not saying that that David R. is going to let you attack a literary blog in the pages of his magazine, but being well-connected is everything in the literary world (as previous article by Mr. Nester on editorial shenanigans in another well-regarded magazine suggested). I say this as someone who has benefited (in modest ways) from connections and as someone who knows personally many, many others who have.

  9. Yeah, like, I should really just chill out about this and not be so, like, grumpy. ‘Cause plagiarism’s no biggie, right, especially if you write for The New Yorker?

    The piece itself is just amazingly lame, and any fair-minded person will see that there is no correspondence of tone or argument between me and Berlin. But the tweet–an unsupported assertion, phrased, a la Fox News, in the interrogative, so as to dodge accountability–comes close to being libelous. Trust me: I checked.

  10. Nester, this is really as stupid as it gets. Writers (real writers, I mean) adopt well-known phrases all the time. I suppose if I wrote that a poet “contains multitudes,” you’d expect me to add, “in Walt Whitman’s famous phrase,” & if I didn’t, you’d write a post accusing me of plagiarism. Except that the real point that needs making is that the similarity between Dan’s phrase & Berlin’s exists only in yr tiny, ressentiment-filled mind.

    1. M@ Robbins. Well, there’s that, which is kind of a silly example, and then there’s the un-acknowledgment of the influence of having read it at all, and denying any similarity of Berlin’s and Chiasson’s breakdowns of artistic impulses, which is what Dan’s doing. If Dan said, well, yeah, I love that Berlin book, I love how he sets up these two tendencies of writers and I figured I would try to come up with a notion of my own, that would be that. And if I said to you, hey, nice Whitman crib/sample/allusion, and you said, how dare you accuse me of doing such a thing, I did no such cribbing, I made up that multitude-containing phrase all by my lonesome, and on top of all that, I’m really, foot-stompingly angry that you would write such a thing, then we’d be heading into the territory we’re in now. You should know there’s a difference between plagiarism and cribbing, a term of art in the writing world which means to copy and make one’s own.

  11. It is curious that a blog post that is “as stupid as it gets” has inspired six posts by the author of the article under discussion and another in his defense by an M. Robbins. If the post was simply stupid or “amazingly lame,” if “any fair-minded person will see that there is no correspondence of tone or argument” between Berlin and the piece, why respond? To convince people who aren’t fair-minded? To make sure your opinion is heard by connoisseurs of “lame” or “stupid” pieces of writing?
    There’s a missing of the point so significant that, as Mr. Nester suggests above, it almost seems the result of unacknowledged anxieties. Yeah, writers steal, borrow, and alter other writers’ ideas and phrases all the time. That type of transformation is how new work gets made. And, often, critics, essayists–even “real writers”–point out the source of other writers’ ideas and similarities to the work of older, better-known writers. Sometimes, these same critic/essayists/bloggers will even say, I think I see a possible source of this idea, and I’m not sure that the new writer does improves or to advance the original concept. That’s just what happens. People criticize what you write. And, if you think they’re wrong, great, say so, but to suggest there is something wrong with making this type of criticism is absurd. To go after Mr. Nester and imply that he’s “meretricious” and not a “real” writer because he commented on an article in a way that’s done all the time, that’s really not fair.

  12. “Cribbing” is a “term of art”—I don’t believe there can be any point in arguing with someone capable of making such a guffaw-inducing claim, but I’ll note that, actually, what Dan is doing in these comments, with far too much patience by my lights, is attempting to explain to you that the connection you seek to establish between his phrase & Berlin’s is so tenuous that yr strangely defensive insistence upon it, after he has denied having the Berlin in mind, is simply bizarre. &, for what it’s worth, you misunderstand Bloom’s anxiety thesis, which has zero to do w/ anxiety produced in or felt by the poet.

    1. The opening track, “All We Are,” aims for Shania Twain and winds up somewhere south of Styx; “Tonight” cribs from “Missing You”-era John Waite.

      Moulin Rouge gets bogged down by increasingly leaden plot developments, and an ending that blatantly cribs from Madame Butterfly.

      Bands are always recycling sounds from previous generations, so it’s not at all surprising that a lot of artists today crib from the ’80s (and all the other decades).

      To crib from his infamous invocation of Ezekiel25:17, she was the good shepherd leading us through the valley of film. In her white-gloved hands, we moviegoers feared no evil.

      He hugs us at the table and says that he loves what we are trying to do: it is a fresh approach, built on a foundation of knowledge (unlike most filmmakers who crib a few sheets of statistics or read the usual unauthorised biographies) and he agrees to open the door to Senna family: the door to Viviane Senna, Senna’s sister, and guardian of his name.

      (“The 100 top ideas for breaking a new single by latest band signed to your label that you can crib during the brainstorming lunch with your boss”)

      Had my great original vision been cribbed after all from Steven’s folktale retelling?

      To crib an idea from Scott Heisel’s review of the album…

      Since the game shamelessly cribs from The Typing of the Dead, it’s essentially an on-rails shooter with a unique controller.

  13. Daniel, has there ever been a point you haven’t missed? I know that people use “crib” in (uh, film & music) reviews. I use it myself all the time. The point is (sigh) that as yr own feverishly compiled cento reveals, it is a slang term that can mean anything from “alludes to” to “plagiarizes.” Yr claim that it’s a “term of art,” whose precise application is obvious & could not conceivably be stretched to include a charge of plagiarism, is disingenuous.

    1. I didn’t compile the links feverishly, Michael Robbins. I just Googled and found some results. It was pretty easy. Do any of those cento-ized passages accuse the people of plagiarism? Does it matter if some or many instances elsewhere of “cribbed” mean word-for-word plagiarism? Am I responsible for all possible meanings of cribbed? Did you read my post in the first place? It says the two ideas are very similar. That Chiasson cribbed from Berlin is kind of obvious; Chiasson admits the very obviousness of that in his first comment. People crib all the time. To point out two ideas are strikingly similar is not the same as saying one was stolen from the other. The writers I pasted in are not saying these people stole, plagiarized, or lifted wholesale. They say they cribbed. No royalties exchanged, not lawsuits filed from the word’s usage. No cease-or-desist letter was issued. Some might say cribbing is shameless or blatant; the overall meaning is that to crib is to borrow, sample, invoke, be anxious over, misread. I simply raised the question of whether Chiasson cribbed from Berlin’s ideas. I didn’t say he did it yesterday, but if you want to know whether I think he did, I’ll say it now: Chiasson’s idea of lingerer/barreller poets, how barrellers sometimes linger, and lingerers sometimes barrel, is strikingly similar and owes a debt to, might have been consulted from, and maybe even, yes, was cribbed from, Isaiah Berlin’s idea of hedgehog/fox writers, and how hedgehogs try to or aspire to become foxes and foxes become hedgehogs.

      Listen: what I thought would get me in trouble or get Chiasson mad, to be honest, was not that the Berlin comparison, but that I pointed out that the terms Chiasson came up with–lingerer and barreller–are tremendously, ridiculously, tongue-tyingly awful. They remind me of the made-up movie with the awful, unmemorable title, The Rural Juror, from 30 Rock.

  14. Goodness gracious, so that we don’t bore one another anymore, Daniel Nester can you just not tweet random accusations about me? I’ve never read the damn Berlin! I really haven’t. Who has? It’s in the cultural DNA. I’ve also never hoola hooped or visited Niagra Falls.

    I couldn’t care less what you think of my prose–maybe it is godawful. Who knows. In this piece all I was proud of was that I managed to subordinate my natural impulse to draw attention to myself by praising someone else, someone exactly my age, whose work–though it competes in direct ways with mine–really blows my mind. Sorry you didn’t like it. Write something nice about someone, though, for a change.

    1. Dan Chiasson, tweets are the least of your worries. “Berlin is in the DNA” is your endnote to all this? I am glad you’re proud of yourself. Treasure that.

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