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In the preface to the novel Penguin Island (L’Île des Pingouins. Calmann-Lévy, 1908) by Nobel prize laureate Anatole France, a scholar is drowned by an avalanche of index cards which formed a gigantic whirlpool streaming out of his card index (Zettelkasten)!
France, Anatole. Penguin Island. Translated by Arthur William Evans. 8th ed. 1908. Reprint, New York, NY, USA: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1922.
Small changes in the translation by me, comprising only adding the word “index” in front of the occurrences of card to better represent the historical idea of fiches used by scholars in the late 1800s and early 1900s, are indicated in brackets.
The walls of the study, the floor, and even the ceiling were loaded with overflowing bundles, paste board boxes swollen beyond measure, boxes in which were compressed an innumerable multitude of small [index] cards covered with writing. I beheld in admiration mingled with terror the cataracts of erudition that threatened to burst forth.
“Master,” said I in feeling tones, “I throw myself upon your kindness and your knowledge, both of which are inexhaustible. Would you consent to guide me in my arduous researches into the origins of Penguin art?”
“Sir,” answered the Master, /“I possess all art, you understand me, all art, on [index] cards classed alphabetically and in order of subjects. I consider it my duty to place at your disposal all that relates to the Penguins. Get on that ladder and take out that box you see above. You will find in it everything you require.”
I tremblingly obeyed. But scarcely had I opened the fatal box than some blue [index] cards escaped from it, and slipping through my fingers, began to rain down.
Almost immediately, acting in sympathy, the neighbouring boxes opened, and there flowed streams of pink, green, and white [index] cards, and by degrees, from all the boxes, differently coloured [index] cards were poured out murmuring like a waterfall on a mountain-side in April. In a minute they covered the floor with a thick layer of paper. Issuing from their in exhaustible reservoirs with a roar that continually grew in force, each second increased the vehemence of their torrential fall. Swamped up to the knees in cards, Fulgence Tapir observed the cataclysm with attentive nose. He recognised its cause and grew pale with fright.
“ What a mass of art! ” he exclaimed.
I called to him and leaned forward to help him mount the ladder which bent under the shower.
It was too late. Overwhelmed, desperate, pitiable, his velvet smoking-cap and his gold-mounted spectacles having fallen from him, he vainly opposed his short arms to the flood which had now mounted to his arm-pits . Suddenly a terrible spurt of [index] cards arose and enveloped him in a gigantic whirlpool. During the space of a second I could see in the gulf the shining skull and little fat hands of the scholar; then it closed up and the deluge kept on pouring over what was silence and immobility. In dread lest I in my turn should be swallowed up ladder and all I made my escape through the topmost pane of the window.
Les murs du cabinet de travail, le plancher, le plafond même portaient des liasses débordantes, des cartons démesurément gonflés, des boîtes où se pressait une multitude innombrable de fiches, et je contemplai avec une admiration mêlée de terreur les cataractes de l’érudition prêtes à se rompre.
—Maître, fis-je d’une voix émue, j’ai recours à votre bonté et à votre savoir, tous deux inépuisables. Ne consentiriez-vous pas à me guider dans mes recherches ardues sur les origines de l’art pingouin?
—Monsieur, me répondit le maître, je possède tout l’art, vous m’entendez, tout l’art sur fiches classées alphabétiquement et par ordre de matières. Je me fais un devoir de mettre à votre disposition ce qui s’y rapporte aux Pingouins. Montez à cette échelle et tirez cette boîte que vous voyez là-haut. Vous y trouverez tout ce dont vous avez besoin.
J’obéis en tremblant. Mais à peine avais-je ouvert la fatale boîte que des fiches bleues s’en échappèrent et, glissant entre mes doigts, commencèrent à pleuvoir. Presque aussitôt, par sympathie, les boîtes voisines s’ouvrirent et il en coula des ruisseaux de fiches roses, vertes et blanches, et de proche en proche, de toutes les boîtes les fiches diversement colorées se répandirent en murmurant comme, en avril, les cascades sur le flanc des montagnes. En une minute elles couvrirent le plancher d’une couche épaisse de papier. Jaillissant de leurs inépuisables réservoirs avec un mugissement sans cesse grossi, elles précipitaient de seconde en seconde leur chute torrentielle. Baigné jusqu’aux genoux, Fulgence Tapir, d’un nez attentif, observait le cataclysme; il en reconnut la cause et pâlit d’épouvante.
—Que d’art! s’écria-t-il.
Je l’appelai, je me penchai pour l’aider à gravir l’échelle qui pliait sous l’averse. Il était trop tard. Maintenant, accablé, désespéré, lamentable, ayant perdu sa calotte de velours et ses lunettes d’or, il opposait en vain ses bras courts au flot qui lui montait jusqu’aux aisselles. Soudain une trombe effroyable de fiches s’éleva, l’enveloppant d’un tourbillon gigantesque. Je vis durant l’espace d’une seconde dans le gouffre le crâne poli du savant et ses petites mains grasses, puis l’abîme se referma, et le déluge se répandit sur le silence et l’immobilité. Menacé moi-même d’être englouti avec mon échelle, je m’enfuis à travers le plus haut carreau de la croisée.
19 thoughts on “Death by Zettelkasten!!”
One of W.G. Sebald’s masterpieces, The Rings of Saturn, an indescribable blend of fact and fiction, contains a section about one of his academic colleagues whose office was piled high with notes about Gustav Flaubert.
@chrisaldrich boy, that is funny!
This is so great. How do you even find these I do not know.
Mostly I use the third and fourth rules of Zettelkasten Club:
4. Take notes
See too: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v32/n11/keith-thomas/diary
‘It is possible to take too many notes; the task of sorting, filing and assimilating them can take for ever, so that nothing gets written. The awful warning is Lord Acton, whose enormous learning never resulted in the great work the world expected of him. An unforgettable description of Acton’s Shropshire study after his death in 1902 was given by Sir Charles Oman. There were shelves and shelves of books, many of them with pencilled notes in the margin. ‘There were pigeonholed desks and cabinets with literally thousands of compartments into each of which were sorted little white slips with references to some particular topic, so drawn up (so far as I could see) that no one but the compiler could easily make out the drift.’ And there were piles of unopened parcels of books, which kept arriving, even after his death. ‘For years apparently he had been endeavouring to keep up with everything that had been written, and to work their results into his vast thesis.’ ‘I never saw a sight,’ Oman writes, ‘that more impressed on me the vanity of human life and learning.’’
Thank you for this terrifying tale. It led me straight to the following, which you may appreciate (italics mine):
IN The Mechanical Processes of the Historian (“Helps for Students of History,” No. 50, S.P.C.K., 6d.) Mr. Charles Johnson has deliberately limited himself to the prosaic and practical, and has written on those lines a useful little book from which the beginner in historical composition may well derive valuable guidance. It has even a touch of humour in it, as when he remarks, “Saints, Popes, Kings, Jews and Welshmen may be regarded as having no surnames”; and the worst error we have detected is on the first page, where Mr. Johnson attributes the sad fate of M. Fulgence Tapir to his neglecting the mechanical side of historiography. Surely the fault of that savant was not neglect, but over-confidence in the virtue of the fiche, and the true moral is that there is no necessary salvation in the fiche and the card-index. This is a doctrine so practically important that we could have wished more than two pages of the book had been devoted to note-taking and other aspects of the “Plan and Arrangement of Collections.” Contrariwise, less space might have been given to indexing, and it is doubtful whether the short list of books at the end, though sound, is quite elaborate enough to fulfil its purpose.
T. F. T.
Source: History. New Series. Vol. 8, No. 41(October, 1923), pp. 231-237. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24399551
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