Quiddity, Quixotic, Quibbles, and Quillets
While living in Berlin, Vladimir Nabokov wrote his final novel in Russian -- The Gift -- about (and partly by) his main character, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, also a Russian writer living in Berlin. He's a wonderfully complex and irritating figure to me (though such is the way it is with my relationship to Nabokov, an author I want to hug and slap at the same time) whose interests range quite wildly. So much so, in fact, that at one point Nabokov remarks about their "genuine quiddity."
Quiddity has two meanings, and stack them together as you like: the first is the essential quality of a thing, the second is that thing's trifling, inessential, and trivial nature. Better, the first is its essence, the second its in-essence. Each is interesting on its own, but together they appear somewhat contradictory. Which then means, what are Fyodor's interests? Definition one or two? All things essential and meaningful, or the opposite, a mix of so much trivia and inconsequence that you're afforded the rare chance to describe one q-word with another: where their genuine quiddity actually reduces them to nothing more than an insignificant jumble of quibbles.
Act V, Scene i. Hamlet -- one of literature's greatest wonderers -- in a churchyard, standing with Horatio, watching afar as gravediggers exhume bodies, and questioning aloud the lives they once held: "Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures?" And should you ask, like I did, about the definition of quillets, the answer is easy: one might just as easily say quibbles.
Back to the question, then: what are Hamlet's interests? Definition one or two? Quiddities or quillets? Essential or trifling?
What I've done, I suppose, is arrive at a potentially meaningless question after miles of roaming. Like don Quixote (the world's most famous Q-character, and origin of one of the most potentially lucrative scrabble words: "quixotic") -- one of literature's greatest wanderers -- might have done: what really is the difference between both definitions? And though there's an element of truth to it, I think it would be wasteful to travel all this way to simply arrive at the idea that what's important to you may be insignificant to me, so let's sidestep that.
Instead, what I'd prefer to do is mention the video below. It's about four o'clock in the morning, and to me it's one of the best examples of how there really isn't a distinction between the two, of how something can plausibly be at once profoundly shallow and deeply profound. And, you could also say, depending on how you much you want to explore something -- be it quidditch or lunch -- you can find both definitions in everything. A step further, and how about this: the beauty of everything can depend on the proportion of one definition to the other.
Perhaps the nicest example of this is the lovely Zen Buddhist story:
Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, “What is the difference between before and after?” He said, “No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground.”
Or, things just are. Then something affects them and they no longer are just those things. And then, they just are again -- their angles maybe a degree or two softer.
I recently read an essay where a woman was reading a book where a giraffe started talking and in the margin, she wrote, "The giraffe speaks!" How simple, and yet, how incredibly profound! A giraffe speaking? But here they are again, we have the two definitions of quiddity, side-by-side. The significance of a talking giraffe right up against the absurdity of it. It’s essence and inconsequence. How we should always clap for these moments, noting them proudly and with much exclamation wherever we find them.
She went on to explain why she wrote what she did: "In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?" And, if pressed on what she was trying to hear, might it be that the “great weirdness” is no more than a beautifully individual mark in the ground -- somewhere between definition one and two -- where we look and hope and smile and wonder and ask about the world? Perhaps sitting somewhere aloft, our feet a little bit off the ground.
I’m not sure, so I did what seemed most fitting: I reached for a pen and wrote in my margin, "Yes!"