31 March 2012

A Choice of Black

Victor Hugo in William Shakespeare, I, 5, 1, 1864, my own translation:
The man who does not think deeply lives in blindness, the man who thinks deeply lives in darkness. We have only a choice of black. 
L'homme qui ne médite pas vit dans l'aveuglement, l'homme qui médite vit dans l'obscurité. Nous n'avons que le choix du noir.

30 March 2012

Blessed Be the Dictionary-Makers

From Letters on the Study and Use of History, by Viscount Henry St. John Bolingbroke, in The Works of Lord Bolingbroke, Vol II (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1841), p. 174:
The motives that carry men to the study of history are different. Some intend, if such as they may be said to study, nothing more than amusement, and read the life of Aristides or Phocion, of Epaminondas or Scipio, Alexander or Caesar, just as they play a game at cards, or as they would read the story of the seven champions. 
Others there are, whose motive to this study is nothing better, and who have the further disadvantage of becoming a nuisance very often to society, in proportion to the progress they make. The former do not improve their reading to any good purpose; the latter pervert it to a very bad one, and grow in impertinence as they increase in learning. I think I have known most of the first kind in England, and most of the last in France. The persons I mean are those who read to talk, to shine in conversation, and to impose in company; who having few ideas to vend of their own growth, store their minds with crude unruminated facts and sentences; and hope to supply, by bare memory, the want of imagination and judgment. 
But these are in the two lowest forms. The next I shall mention are in one a little higher; in the form of those who grow neither wiser nor better by study themselves, but who enable others to study with greater ease, and to purposes more useful; who make fair copies of foul manuscripts, give the signification of hard words, and take a great deal of other grammatical pains. The obligation to these men would be great indeed, if they were in general able to do any thing better, and submitted to this drudgery for the sake of the public: as some of them, it must be owned with gratitude, have done, but not later, I think, than about the time of the resurrection of letters. When works of importance are pressing, generals themselves may take up the pick-axe and the spade; but in the ordinary course of things, when that pressing necessity is over, such tools are left in the hands destined to use them -- the hands of common soldiers and peasants. I approve, therefore, very much the devotion of a studious man at Christ Church, who was overheard in his oratory entering into a detail with God, as devout persons are apt to do, and, amongst other particular thanksgivings, acknowledging the divine goodness in furnishing the world with makers of dictionaries! 

29 March 2012

We May Carry our Books in our Heads

James Boswell, Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, Vol. 3 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1887), p. 312-3:
Having fallen into a very serious frame of mind, in which mutual expressions of kindness passed between us, such as would be thought too vain in me to repeat, I talked with regret of the sad inevitable certainty that one of us must survive the other.
JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, that is an affecting consideration. I remember Swift, in one of his letters to Pope, says, "I intend to come over, that we may meet once more; and when we must part, it is what happens to all human beings."' 
BOSWELL. 'The hope that we shall see our departed friends again must support the mind.' 
JOHNSON. 'Why yes, Sir.' 
BOSWELL. There is a strange unwillingness to part with life, independent of serious fears as to futurity. A reverend friend of ours (naming him) tells me, that he feels an uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his house, his study, his books.
JOHNSON. This is foolish in *****. A man need not be uneasy on these grounds; for as he will retain his consciousness, he may say with the philosopher, Omnia mea mecum porto
BOSWELL. True, Sir, we may carry our books in our heads; but still there is something painful in the thought of leaving for ever what has given us pleasure. I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in a melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakspeare's poetry did not exist. A lady whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humoured my fancy, and relieved me by saying, "The first thing you will meet in the other world, will be an elegant copy of Shakspeare's works presented to you." 
Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion.
A footnote says this reverend friend was Thomas Percy, Bishop of Dromore.

28 March 2012

Paul Léautaud

A few descriptions of the French writer and theatre critic Paul Léautaud (1872-1956), from an essay in Mavis Gallant's Paris Notebooks (Toronto: Stoddart, 1988).

p. 143:
He was mean, slanderous, and cruel; he could also display generosity and great delicacy in his judgments. Even at his most caustic there was a simplicity, an absence of vanity, rare in a writer. He talked about death and love, authors and actors, Paris and poetry, without rambling, without moralizing, without a trace of bitterness for having fallen on hard times. He was sustained, without knowing it, by the French refusal to accept poverty as a sign of failure in an artist. Léautaud, at rock bottom, still had his credentials. 
p. 145:
He would not stand for any form of grandiloquence where writing was concerned, and words such as "inspiration" were shot down rapidly: "When I see my father dying and write about his death I am not inspired, I am describing." Asked why he had been his dreadful father's deathbed at all, he said, "It was only curiosity. Cu-ri-o-si-té."
pp. 146-7:
He hated the pompous Comédie Française delivery and thought nothing of bawling objections in the middle of a classical tirade. If no notice was taken of his protest, he simply went to sleep. When he admired a play he put off writing about it because he wanted to take time and thought. As a result the best productions were never mentioned. Often he wrote about something else entirely (his most quoted non-review is about the death of a dog called Span) with one dismissive sentence for play and author.
pp. 147-8:
He had been with Mercure de France for most of his adult life. Only once had he ever thought of going, and that was in 1936, when Georges Duhamel became director and committed several sacrilegious acts: he got rid of the gas lamps and had the offices wired for electric light; he installed one telephone, ordered one typewriter and hired one female secretary. Léautaud, who preferred candlelight to any other, was bothered by the reforms: "Why change something that suits me?" 
p. 148:
During a radio interview he remarked that he had always wanted a pair of checked trousers. A young boy immediately wrote that his father, a tailor, would be glad to make them for nothing. Léautaud took it as an insult and snapped, on the air, "Do these people imagine I go around bare-arsed?"
p. 151:
He wanted to say before he died, "I regret everything," words, he said, "that will sum up my life." The last thing he did say before dying in his sleep was, "Foutez-moi la paix," ["Leave me the hell alone."] which was more typical.

27 March 2012

Dead Rats

From Antonio Tabucchi's novel Indian Nocturn, via Eric Poindron's blog (always a source of interesting things). My own translation from the French version:
As a profession, I do something different, I look for dead rats...
I dig around in old records, I look for ancient chronicles, for things that have been swallowed up by time. 
This is my profession, this is what I call dead rats.

26 March 2012

Applause, Envy, Respect?

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin (Toronto: Seal Books, 2001), p. 119:
Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we are still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas, our silver-plated cups; we monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It's all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? Applause, envy, respect? Or simply attention, of any kind we can get? 
At the very least we want a witness. We can't stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like a radio running down. 

23 March 2012

The Genesis of Modernism

Philip Larkin in the introduction to All What Jazz (London: St. Martin's Press, 1970):
I am sure there are books in which the genesis of modernism is set out in full. My own theory is that it is related to an imbalance between the two tensions from which art springs: these are the tension between the artist and his material and between the artist and his audience, and that in the last seventy-five years or so the second of these has slackened or even perished. In consequence the artist has become over-concerned with his material (hence an age of technical experiment), and, in isolation, has busied himself with the two principal themes of modernism, mystification and outrage. Piqued at being neglected, he has painted portraits with both eyes on the same side of the nose, or smothered a model with paint and rolled her over a blank canvas. He has designed a dwelling-house to be built underground. He has written poems resembling the kind of pictures typists make with their machine during the coffee break, or a novel in gibberish, or a play in which the characters sit in dustbins. He has made a six-hour film of someone asleep. He has carved human figures with large holes in them. And parallel to this activity ("every idiom has its idiot," as an American novelist has written) there has grown up a kind of critical journalism designed to put it over. The terms and the arguments vary with the circumstances, but basically the message is : Don't trust your eyes, or ears, or understanding. They'll tell you this is ridiculous, or ugly, or meaningless. Don't believe them. You've got to work at this after all, you don't expect to understand anything as important as art straight off, do you? I mean, this is pretty complex stuff: if you want to know how complex, I'm giving a course of ninety-six lectures at the local college, starting next week, and you'd be more than welcome. The whole thing's on the rates, you won't have to pay. After all, think what asses people have made of themselves in the past by not understanding art -- you don't want to be like that, do you? Keep the suckers spending.

22 March 2012

Magnificent Monotony

Friedrich Nietzsche on the role of schools in society, from The Will to Power, Vol. II, translated by Anthony M. Ludovici (Edinburgh: T. N. Foulis, 1910), pp. 321-2:
The object is to make man as useful as possible, and to make him approximate as nearly as one can to an infallible machine: to this end he must be equipped with machine-like virtues (he must learn to value those states in which he works in a most mechanically useful way, as the highest of all: to this end it is necessary to make him as disgusted as possible with the other states, and to represent them as very dangerous and despicable). 
Here is the first stumbling-block: the tediousness and monotony which all mechanical activity brings with it. To learn to endure this -- and not only to endure it, but to see tedium enveloped in a ray of exceeding charm: this hitherto has been the task of all higher schools. To learn something which you don't care a fig about, and to find precisely your "duty" in this "objective" activity: to learn to value happiness and duty as things apart; this is the invaluable task and performance of higher schools. It is on this account that the philologist has, hitherto, been the educator per se: because his activity, in itself, affords the best pattern of magnificent monotony in action; under his banner youths learn to "swat"; the first prerequisite for the thorough fulfilment of mechanical duties in the future (as State officials, husbands, slaves of the desk, newspaper readers, and soldiers).

21 March 2012

The Retrospection of Events

Ely Bates in Rural Philosophy (London: Longman and Rees, 1804), p. 261:
The pleasure we derive from the perusal of ancient history is partly because it is ancient. The mind, being formed for what is infinite, is naturally delighted with an image of unlimited duration as well as of unbounded space. The retrospection of events, which are faintly discerned in the depth of past ages, is not less pleasing than the view of an extensive prospect, where the dusky hills in the extremity of the horizon are scarcely distinguishable from the clouds.

20 March 2012

And suddenly it stands beside you

What follows is my own translation of a poem by Joachim Ringelnatz (1883-1934). It's not very good but it may be the best one available, since a search on Google Books turned up no other English version:

And suddenly it stands beside you 
And suddenly you look out and realize:
How much sorrow has come to you,
How much friendship has quietly slipped away,
Taking all laughter from you. 
In the days you ask, bewildered.
But the days echo emptily.
Then you stifle your complaints...
You don't ask anyone anymore. 
Finally you learn to fall in line,
Tamed by worries.
You don't want to deceive yourself,
And you choke down what grieves you. 
Senseless and poor is how life seems,
It has gone on far too long. ---
And suddenly -- it stands beside you,
Leaning on you --
What you had longed for, for so long. 

Und auf einmal steht es neben dir 
Und auf einmal merkst du äußerlich:
Wieviel Kummer zu dir kam,
Wieviel Freundschaft leise von dir wich,
Alles Lachen von dir nahm. 
Fragst verwundert in die Tage.
Doch die Tage hallen leer.
Dann verkümmert Deine Klage...
Du fragst niemanden mehr. 
Lernst es endlich, dich zu fügen,
Von den Sorgen gezähmt.
Willst dich selber nicht belügen
Und erstickst, was dich grämt. 
Sinnlos, arm erscheint das Leben dir,
Längst zu lang ausgedehnt. – – –
Und auf einmal – –: Steht es neben dir,
An dich angelehnt – –
Das, was du so lang ersehnt.

19 March 2012

An Uncomfortable Distinction

Frank Swinnerton, George Gissing; A Critical Study (London: Martin Secker, 1912), p. 85:
The sense of life as a maelstrom, resistless and inexorable, is Gissing's bugbear; failure, grief, inability to struggle against odds, sad handicaps of temperament, endless compromise with the idea of happiness; again and again we find him expressing these things, until his world seems peopled only by satisfied vulgarians and those to whom social intercourse is abhorrent. And while these preoccupations rob his work of resilience and warmth, they do at the same time lend it an uncomfortable distinction. He was a conscious malcontent, not a revolutionary, because he was just as much a social as a religious agnostic; but repelled by the superficial ugliness of active existence. He was all the time trying sincerely to express, in terms of art and morality, his own sedentary notion of life, the notion of an educated and sensitive student (never a mystic), consciously out of place: "There have always been two entities -- myself and the world, and the normal relation between these two has been hostile."

16 March 2012

Within the Limits of his Instrument

Sir Cecil Parrott in the introduction to Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1974), p. xxi, on the difficulties of translating the novel into English:
A further complication is the richness of Czech 'bad language' as compared with our own. In common with other Slavic languages and with German, Czech can boast a wide range of words of abuse in all shades of intensity. We cannot match these in Britain, where -- no doubt under the influence of puritanism -- the bulk of our own terms of abuse are too mild and our strong expressions are limited to one or two hackneyed obscenities. Czech words of abuse generally involve domestic animals, excrement or the parts of the body connected with it. The English relate mainly to sexual functions or perversions, although there is in this respect a narrow area of common ground between the two languages. If the reader finds a certain monotony in the words chosen by the translator I hope he will realize that the bandsman has to operate within the limits of his instrument.

15 March 2012

Ruptures and Farewells

From Georges Perec's novel Les choses [Things] (Paris: Éditions 10/18, 1965). My own translation:
They dreamed of living in the countryside, away from all temptation. Their lives would be frugal and unclouded. They would have a house of white stone, situated at the entrance of a village, warm corduroy pants, sturdy shoes, a heavy coat, a metal-tipped cane, a hat, and every day they would go for long walks in the forests. Then they would return and make themselves tea and toast, like the English. They would put logs on the fire, they would listen to a quartet they never tired of hearing, they would read the great novels they never had time to read, and they would receive their friends.  
These countryside escapes were frequent, but they rarely reached the stage of becoming a real project. It's true that, two or three times, they wondered what kind of work they could find in the countryside: there wasn't any. One day it occurred to them that they might become teachers, but they were instantly disgusted at the thought of overcrowded classrooms and exhausting days. They formed a vague notion of being wandering booksellers, or making pottery in a rustic, abandoned farmhouse in Provence. Then they liked to imagine that they would only live in Paris for three days a week, earning enough money to live comfortably in Yonne or Loiret the rest of the time. But these embryonic beginnings never went very far. They did not consider the real possibilities, or rather, the impossibilities.
They dreamed of abandoning their work, dropping everything, and going off on an adventure. They dreamed of starting all over again, from scratch. They dreamed of ruptures and farewells.

14 March 2012

Into the Greek Mind

Mary Watts describes G. F. Watts' self-education in George Frederick Watts; The Annals of an Artist's Life, Vol. I (New York: George H. Doran, 1913), pp. 14-5:
His health preventing him from attending, with any sort of regularity, any classes or school, he was taught, or taught himself as best he could, at home. He learnt to read fairly early, his father giving a good direction to his boy's choice of books. Later in life he could not hear without something like indignation of boys who were indifferent to and wasteful of advantages which had been withheld from him; perhaps above all that of robust health. But Poverty may also bring her gift of compensation; want of means made the books few, yet, as they were choice, the limitation had this advantage that he read them over and over again till they became a part of his world and of his being. Without the imposition of dreary tasks of grammar, he entered freely and of his own choice into the Greek mind, through such translations as were accessible to him. The Iliad perhaps the first and best beloved of all, he read and re-read until gods and heroes were his friends and acquaintances; he thought of them as such, judged critically of their words and actions, and was deeply moved by all that was noble and beautiful and restrained; he knew this to be a very living school, and every fibre of his being answered to the splendour of the great epic. And so, while ill-health held him back from all pleasures of the more active sort, there was given instead this leisure, in which his imaginative mind could roam the windy plains of Troy, or climb the heights of Olympus. Moving through the dim light of a London atmosphere, in his dull little room he saw "the bright-eyed Athene in the midst bearing the holy aegis, that knoweth neither age nor death," and dreamed that he too might be an aegis-bearer of that which cannot grow old, the utterance of the human mind in the language of an art.
An earlier post on G.F. Watts: Found Drowned

13 March 2012


Ichabod Artichoke writing in The Opal; A Monthly Periodical of the State Lunatic Asylum (Utica, NY: The Asylum, 1858), p. 136. (Google Books link here)
Some bores do not seem to be aware that they are trespassing upon people's time and patience; that they are trespassing upon the good nature of others which they have no right to do, and that they cause insanity. I have for forty-six years been the victim of bores, and have the disease in a chronic form. As sure as my name is Artichoke, my good nature has well nigh been the ruin of me: they should be requested to retire to their rooms till they can control themselves, and only present themselves again till they have put a buckwheat cake, some eye-salve, or a postage stamp over their labial and dental developments.
I cannot tell whether Mr. Artichoke was genuinely disturbed, or some kind of running joke among The Opal's editorial staff. No matter, as his prescription for dealing with bores is sound.

Note: The postnomial E.P. in the byline stands for "Ex-Patient".

12 March 2012

Young Schopenhauer

William Wallace describes Schopenhauer's affection for his dog Butz in The Life of Arthur Schopenhauer (London: Walter Scott, 1890), p. 174:
Of this dog he was very fond, noting its looks and movements with philosophic eye, and so attentive to its wants, that if, for example, a regimental band passed the house, he would get up in the midst of an earnest conversation, to put a seat by the window in a convenient position for his little friend to gaze out. The children of the neighbourhood soon came to know the poodle, and when they came home from their play on the Main-Quai they would, among other experiences, recount to their parents how they had seen "young Schopenhauer" sitting at his window.

9 March 2012


William Penn in Fruits of Solitude; Reflections and Maxims Relating to the Conduct of Human Life (London: Harvey and Darton, 1841), p. 58:
Remember the proverb Bene qui latuit, bene vixit; They are happy that live retiredly. If this be true, princes and their grandees, of all men, are the unhappiest: for they live least alone; and they that must be enjoyed by every body, can never enjoy themselves as they should. It is the advantage little men have upon them; they can be private, and have leisure for family comforts, which are the greatest worldly contents men can enjoy. But they that place pleasure in greatness, seek it there; and, we see, rule is as much the ambition of some natures, as privacy is the choice of others.

8 March 2012

Facebook Is a Kind of Self-Prostitution

Ernst Pöppel, Professor of Medical Psychology at Munich University, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. My translation:
Multitasking is utter nonsense and, strictly speaking, impossible; in a window of time that lasts a few minutes, it is only possible to do several things in rapid succession. If I do this all day long, I have allowed myself to become an instrument of the information, and I do not really know what I have done. 
That is everyday life for most people. Should they come to terms with it?
No, they must learn to distance themselves from it. The ability to do so has, unfortunately, been lost in recent years. Ten minutes into a 45 minute lecture, many students are no longer receptive and shut down. 
What they can do about it?
It would help if phones in Germany were turned off for one hour a day. Apart from this, we need some ego strength: the ability to not always go to the phone when it rings, to not respond to every e-mail immediately, even though it may be expected. 
But if one holds back one can become isolated on social networking sites.
Sure, there are fears about losing membership in a particular group, of being excluded. However,  on these networks self-dramatization often plays a larger role than communication. 
In what way?
Facebook, for example, is a kind of self-prostitution, intimate disclosure without commitment. One does not really open up, but one wants to display oneself. It is to some extent self-communication -- a public diary that simply appears to be communication. 

7 March 2012

The Finest of all Intellectual Exercises

Cyril Connolly, The Condemned Playground (London: Routledge, 1945), p. 41:
Translating from one language to another is the finest of all intellectual exercises; compared to it, all other puzzles, from the bridge problem to the crossword, seem footling and vulgar.

6 March 2012

Behind an Impenetrable Shrub

Louis Blanc writing about anonymous journalism in Letters on England, Vol. II, translated by James Hutton and L. J. Trotter (London: Samson Low, Son, and Marston, 1867), p. 169:
For it is certainly not the part of a proud spirit to hide itself behind anonymity. To shirk the moral responsability of one's words is a proceeding which cannot be reconcilable with the sentiment of personal dignity. The individual is badly protected where his reputation is exposed to darts hurled by an unknown hand; neither is it comfortable to the rules of fair play that a man should be authorised to conceal himself behind an impenetrable shrub, in order to fire thence, without peril, on his enemy as he passes.

5 March 2012

The Love of Property

James Boswell, entry for February 9th, 1763 in Boswell's London Journal (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950), p. 186:
The love of property is strongly implanted in mankind. Property, to be sure, gives us a power of enjoying many pleasures which it can purchase; and as society is constituted, a man has a high degree of respect from it. Let me, however, beware of allowing this passion to take deep root. It may engross my affections and give me a meanness of spirit and a cold indifference to every manly and spirited pursuit. And when we consider what one gains, it is merely imaginary. To keep the golden mean between stinginess and prodigality is the point I should aim at. If a man is prodigal, he cannot be truly generous. His money is foolishly dissipated without any goodness on his part, and he has nothing to be generous with. On the other hand, a narrow man has a hard, contracted soul. The finer feelings are bound up, and although he has the power, he never can have the will to be generous. The character worthy of imitation is the man of economy, who with prudent attention knows when to save and when to spend, and acts accordingly.

2 March 2012

Misery and Happiness

John Donne, from Meditation XIII in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions:
We say that the world is made of sea and land, as though they were equal; but we know that there is more sea in the Western than in the Eastern hemisphere. We say that the firmament is full of stars, as though it were equally full; but we know that there are more stars under the Northern than under the Southern pole. We say the elements of man are misery and happiness, as though he had an equal proportion of both, and the days of man vicissitudinary, as though he had as many good days as ill, and that he lived under a perpetual equinoctial, night and day equal, good and ill fortune in the same measure. But it is far from that; he drinks misery, and he tastes happiness; he mows misery, and he gleans happiness; he journeys in misery, he does but walk in happiness; and, which is worst, his misery is positive and dogmatical, his happiness is but disputable and problematical: all men call misery misery, but happiness changes the name by the taste of man.

1 March 2012


For St. David's Day, here is a hymn in Welsh -- sung by Cerys Matthews:

The Varied Experiences of Life

The recently deceased philosopher and theologian John Hick, in Death and Eternal Life (London: Collins, 1976), p. 408:
Generally the varied experiences of life bring some growth in understanding of oneself, in acceptance of others, in willingness for sacrifice, and some expansion of the capacity to love and be loved. Very often, in these ways men and women take in the course of their lives a smaller or larger step towards their full humanization. But too often people are so treated by life that they never have the opportunity, or sufficient opportunity, to develop their properly human potential, and end their lives as hard, selfish, embittered personalities who have turned their backs upon the possibilities of human fellowship. Or worse, men become possessed by evil and perhaps live and die as enemies of mankind. Thus in this life a few men and women advance a great deal and may come to be recognized as saints; most perhaps advance a certain amount; whilst yet others fail to advance at all, or even degenerate towards a sub-human condition.