On the Shape and Form of Thoughts

‘One morning, as I was strolling through the grounds of my suburban home, an idea took hold of the trapeze that I used to carry about in my head. Once it had taken hold, it flexed its arms and legs and began to do the most daring acrobatic feats one can possibly imagine. I just stood and watched it. Suddenly it made a great leap, extended its arms and legs until it formed an X, and said, “Decipher me or I devour thee”.’ (Macado De Assis, from Epitaph of a Small Winner)

This marvellous passages compares the conception and early growth of an idea to the movements of a high-flying acrobat. Though vastly superior in many ways, it is not unlike metaphors I have used myself. Ideas, thoughts, notions: they come to me, as to de Assis, in bounds and leaps; in twirls and rolls; in swings and swoops. I often liken a thought to the stylish spring of an antelope, or the graceful hop of a jungle frog. A thought emerges, as if from nowhere, flexes its muscles briefly before jumping off to another spot. To catch it completely one must be a dab hand with a butterfly net. More often than not it is gone before you got the chance.

It is often said that my prose owes a lot to my late mentor, Professor Johannes Speyer. This may be true. When I think of the way in which he described thoughts, however, there is a definite difference in our approaches. Ideas rarely leapt into Speyer’s mind. No, the process was far more organic than that – and, as usual, he resorted to watery metaphors to put it into words. Consider the title of one of his most famous works: The Waves of Thought. Or another: The Ebb and Flow of Ideas. These titles sum it up neatly. Different thoughts, of course, take different shapes, but the general pattern was constant. A thought might break upon the shore of his mind, or it might lap at the summery sands of his psyche. In either case, a thought took a liquid, rather than a solid, form.


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