30 April 2012

Pretentious Obscurity

Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle; An Essay Against Modern Superstition (Washington: Counterpoint, 2000), p. 69:
The cult of progress and the new, along with the pressure to originate, innovate, publish, and attract students, has made the English department as nervously susceptible to fashion as a flock of teenagers. The academic "profession" of literature seems now to be merely tumbling from one critical or ideological fad to another, constantly "revolutionizing" itself in pathetic imitation of the "revolutionary" sciences, issuing all the while a series of passionless, jargonizing, "publishable" but hardly readable articles and books, in which a pretentious obscurity and dullness masquerade as profundity.
I see (via Michael Gilleland) that Berry gave the 41st Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities last week.

27 April 2012

Books Are the Departed Souls of Men

The philosopher Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach (1804-1872), from his collection of aphorisms Abälard und Heloise (Ansbach: Carl Brügel, 1834), p. 2. My own translation:
Books awaken the same emotions in us as people, and are only abstract in the impressions they make. Why? Because books are the departed souls of men, or perhaps even something more. They certainly have at least as much life and vigour in them as living humans because they are spiritual individuals, just like real people, repulsing or attracting us.

To deal with books is to deal with spirits. The higher the spirit and the life, the more fleeting the medium in which they express themselves. More spirit and life live in the ephemeral petals of the flower than in thick granite blocks, despite the fact they are a thousand years old.

The fates of some books are so strange, the way they maintain themselves, so extraordinarily, that a providential angel must be watching over them. But the guardian angel working upon them is not external, but rather an indwelling power, its own good, its own excellence, and the necessity of existence that is bound up with it.

It is with books as it is with maidens. The best and most worthy often remain sitting for the longest time. But at last someone comes who recognizes their worth and draws them out from dark obscurity and into a bright, beautiful sphere of activity.

26 April 2012

A Morbid Growth

Cyril Connolly in an essay on Arthur Symons, reprinted in The Evening Colonnade (London: David Bruce & Watson, 1973), p. 196:
To some natures Baudelaire is not an inspiration but a disease, a morbid growth affecting the will. The godlike youth, the inspired poet of modern times crumbles before our eyes into the prematurely decrepit, shiftless parasite, driven out of his dignity by debt and out of his mind by syphilis, and some readers who come under his spell re-enact his fall or find excuses for their own inertia or take up the cudgels to avenge him, and incur the wrath of society. He can set one back a lifetime.

25 April 2012

A Higher and Nobler Key

James Anthony Froude in The Science of History, from Short Studies on Great Subjects (London: Longmans Green & Co., 1903):

p. 23-4
It is in this marvelous power in men to do wrong (it is an old story, but none the less true for that), -- it is in this power to do wrong -- wrong or right, as it lies somehow with ourselves to choose -- that the impossibility stands of forming scientific calculations of what men will do before the fact, or scientific explanations of what they have done after the fact. If men were consistently selfish, you might analyze their motives; if they were consistently noble, they would express in their conduct the laws of the highest perfection. But so long as two natures are mixed together, and the strange creature which results from the combination is now under one influence and now under another, so long you will make nothing of him except from the old-fashioned moral -- or, if you please, imaginative -- point of view.  
p. 37
The address of history is less to the understanding than to the higher emotions. We learn in it to sympathize with what is great and good; we learn to hate what is base. In the anomalies of fortune we feel the mystery of our mortal existence; and in the companionship of the illustrious natures who have shaped the fortunes of the world, we escape from the littlenesses which cling to the round of common life, and our minds are tuned in a higher and nobler key. 

24 April 2012


Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Oeuvres complètes de Chamfort, Vol. I (Paris: Chaumerot Jeune, 1824), p. 431. My own translation:
Economists are surgeons who have an excellent scalpel and a damaged bistoury, operating marvellously on the dead and torturing the living.

23 April 2012


George Gissing, Born in Exile (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1896), p. 271:
In youth one marvels that men remain at so low a stage of civilisation. Later in life, one is astonished that they have advanced so far.

20 April 2012

Books as People

The philosopher Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach (1804-1872), from his collection of aphorisms Abälard und Heloise (Ansbach: Carl Brügel, 1834), p.1. My own translation:
It is with books as it is with people. While we make numerous acquaintances, we only choose a few of them to be our friends, our true companions on life's journey. 
Acquaintances come and go. Friends do not. Books that we have befriended never disgust us. They are not worn out through use; they create themselves afresh, like life; the pleasure we get from them is inexhaustible.
We first allow ourselves to form an opinion of competent people after we have dealt with them for a long time. But in innumerable instances we judge people as soon as we have set eyes on them, saying that there is no way we could get along with them, and we do not want to make their acquaintance at all. It is the same way for us with innumerable texts: even after the first few pages we have had enough. We can no more enjoy them than we could enjoy picking up dead mice and rats, or licking up other people's spittle. And we should also, like those monks who have lost their way, believe that we can gain our eternal salvation through such acts of penance. In these matters the verdict of antipathy: "I can't, I don't like it" is often the most thorough verdict of all, the verdict of reason. 

As far as I can tell, this little gem sat untranslated for 178 years. If I had known earlier I would have jumped at the chance, but someone beat me to it and an English edition (which I have not seen) appeared two months ago. Ah well. It is such a delight that I may continue to translate and post my favourite parts. Feuerbach Fridays?

Punctuate the Calamities

Henry Miller on working as a proofreader at the Paris Tribune, from Tropic of Cancer (New York: Grove Press, 1961), pp. 146-7
I must say, right at the start, that I haven't a thing to complain about. It's like being in a lunatic asylum, with permission to masturbate for the rest of your life. The world is brought right under my nose and all that is requested of me is to punctuate the calamities. There is nothing in which these slick guys upstairs do not put their fingers: no joy, no misery passes unnoticed. They live among the hard facts of life, reality, as it is called. It is the reality of a swamp and they are like frogs who have nothing better to do than to croak. The more they croak the more real life becomes. Lawyer, priest, doctor, politician, newspaper man -- these are the quacks who have their fingers on the pulse of the world. A constant atmosphere of calamity. It's marvellous. It's as if the barometer never changed, as if the flag were always at half-mast. One can see now how the idea of heaven takes hold of men's consciousness, how it gains ground even when all the props have been knocked from under it. There must be another world beside this swamp in which everything is dumped pell-mell. It's hard to imagine what it can be like, this heaven that men dream about. A frog's heaven, no doubt. Miasma, scum, pond lilies, stagnant water. Sit on a lily-pad unmolested and croak all day. Something like that, I imagine. 
They have a wonderful therapeutic effect upon me, these catastrophes which I proofread. Imagine a state of perfect immunity, a charmed existence, a life of absolute security in the midst of poison bacilli. Nothing touches me, neither earthquakes nor explosions nor riots nor famine nor collisions nor wars nor revolutions. I am inoculated against every disease, every calamity, every sorrow and misery. It's the culmination of a life of fortitude. Seated at my little niche all the poisons which the world gives off each day pass through my hands. Not even a finger-nail gets stained. I am absolutely immune. I am even better off than a laboratory attendant, because there are no bad odors here, just the smell of lead burning. The world can blow up -- I'll be here just the same to put in a comma or a semi-colon. I may even touch a little overtime, for with an event like that there's bound to be a final extra. When the world blows up and the final edition has gone to press the proofreaders will quietly gather up all commas, semi-colons, hyphens, asterisks, brackets, parentheses, periods, exclamation marks, etc., and put them in a little box over the editorial chair. Comme ça tout est réglé....

19 April 2012

Solemn and Serious

Gottfried Keller in a letter to Wilhem Baumgartner on 27 March 1851, from Jacob Baechtold's Gottfried Kellers Leben, Seine Briefe und Tagebücher, Vol. 2 (Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta, 1903), p. 168. My own translation:
How trite the opinion now seems to me that all poetry and elevated moods would disappear from the earth with the abandonment of so-called religious ideas! To the contrary! The world has become infinitely more beautiful and deep, life more valuable and intense, and death more solemn and serious now that it is challenging me for the first time with all its power to fulfil my role, and to purify and satisfy my conscience. For I have no prospect of making up for missed opportunities in any corner of the world. 
Wie trivial erscheint mir gegenwärtig die Meinung, daß mit dem Aufgeben der sogenannten religiösen Ideen alle Poesie und erhöhte Stimmung aus der Welt verschwinde! Zum Gegenteil! Die Welt ist mir unendlich schöner und tiefer geworden, das Leben ist wertvoller und intensiver, der Tod ernster und bedenklicher und fordert mich nun erst mit aller Macht auf, meine Aufgabe zu erfüllen und mein Bewußtsein zu reinigen und zu befriedigen, da ich keine Aussicht habe, das Versäumte in irgend einem Winkel der Welt nachzuholen.

17 April 2012

On the Folly of Fearing Death

Morley Roberts, in his thinly disguised biography of George Gissing, The Private Life of Henry Maitland (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1912), p. 291:
For ever on looking backwards one is filled with regrets, and one thing I regret greatly about Henry Maitland is that, though I might perhaps have purchased his little library, the books he had accumulated with so much joy and such self-sacrifice, I never thought of this until it was too late. Books made up so much of his life, and few of his had not been bought at the cost of what others would consider pleasure, or by the sacrifice of some sensation which he himself would have enjoyed at the time. Now I possess none of his books but those he gave me, save only the little "Anthologia Latina" which Thérèse [i.e., Gabrielle Fleury, Gissing's French translator and later his companion] herself sent to me. This was a volume in which he took peculiar delight, perhaps even more delight than he did in the Greek anthology, which I myself preferred so far as my Greek would then carry me. Many times I have seen him take down the little Eton anthology and read aloud. 
I assume this was the anthology compiled by the Rev. Francis St. John Thackeray (1832-1919), since he was assistant master at Eton. Flipping through the fifth edition on Archive.org (London: George Bell & Sons, 1889), I found a passage from the third book of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura under the heading On the Folly of fearing Death. As I noted earlier, it was in this spirit that Gissing faced his own end:
Denique si vocem rerum natura repente
mittat et hoc alicui nostrum sic increpet ipsa:
'quid tibi tanto operest, mortalis, quod nimis aegris
luctibus indulges? quid mortem congemis ac fles?
nam si grata fuit tibi vita ante acta priorque                 935
et non omnia pertusum congesta quasi in vas
commoda perfluxere atque ingrata interiere;
cur non ut plenus vitae conviva recedis
aequo animoque capis securam, stulte, quietem?
sin ea quae fructus cumque es periere profusa            940
vitaque in offensost, cur amplius addere quaeris,
rursum quod pereat male et ingratum occidat omne,
non potius vitae finem facis atque laboris?
nam tibi praeterea quod machiner inveniamque,
quod placeat, nihil est; eadem sunt omnia semper.     945
si tibi non annis corpus iam marcet et artus
confecti languent, eadem tamen omnia restant,
omnia si perges vivendo vincere saecla,
atque etiam potius, si numquam sis moriturus',
quid respondemus, nisi iustam intendere litem            950
naturam et veram verbis exponere causam? 
John Selby Watson's translation, from On the Nature of Things (London: George Bell & Sons, 1893), p. 139:
Furthermore, if Universal Nature should suddenly utter a voice, and thus herself upbraid any one of us: "What mighty cause have you, O mortal, thus excessively to indulge in bitter grief? Why do you groan and weep at the thought of death? For if your past and former life has been an object of gratification to you, and all your blessings have not, as if poured into a leaky vessel, flowed away and been lost without pleasure, why do you not, unreasonable man, retire, like a guest satisfied with life, and take your undisturbed rest with resignation? But if those things of which you have had the use have been wasted and lost, and life is offensive to you, why do you seek to incur further trouble, which may all again pass away and end in dissatisfaction? Why do you not rather put an end to life and anxiety? For there is nothing further which I can contrive and discover to please you; everything is always the same. If your body is not yet withered with years, and your limbs are not worn out and grown feeble, yet all things remain the same, even if you should go on to outlast all ages in living, and still more would you see them the same if you should never come to die." What do we answer to this, but that Nature brings a just charge aguinst us, and sets forth in her words a true allegation?
Thomas Charles Baring's translation, from The Scheme of Epicurus (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co, 1884), pp 152-3:
Moreover, if the gift were ours to hear and understand
The voice of Nature suddenly thus scolding one of us;
"What, mortal, is so much amiss, that so lugubrious
To sickly grief thou yieldest ? Why bemoanest thou in tears
Thy death? If joy companioned thee in all the bygone years,
If thine advantages in life were never found to fail,
Nor perished thankless, run to waste as through a riddled pail,
Why art thou such a fool as not, like some well-plenished guest,
To make thy bow to life, and hie content to careless rest?
But if thy life be but offence, if all thy garnered store
Of weal be spent and finished, why yet seekest thou for more,
To end again in evil case, like seed on thankless soil?
Were it not best to shorten life, and with it shorten toil?
For I have nothing left unused, nor any scheme can frame,
Or find, to give thee pleasure. All things always are the same.
Yea, though with years thy body did not wither, even though
Thy limbs grew never faint nor weak, all things would still be so;
E'en if thy life should be prolonged to see go rolling by
Age after age, nay even if thou never wert to die!"
What should we have to answer, save to own that Nature's laws
Were just, and her indictment showed a true and rightful cause?  

16 April 2012

Compromise and Hedging

Charles Oman, Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History (Oxford: Clarendon, 1906), pp. 12-13:
In sober fact it is impossible to write history that every man, whatever his race, creed, or politics, can accept -- unless indeed we are dealing with ages and problems so remote from our own that the personal element does not appear. Conceivably it may be possible to talk of Khammurabi or Rameses or some statesman of China of the seventh century b.c. without offending any man. It is not possible to do so with Pericles or Caesar -- much less with Hildebrand or Calvin, Napoleon or Bismarck. The historian whose verdict on any one of those crucial personages is to be equally satisfactory to everybody, must perform a sort of tour de force of compromise and hedging, or confine himself to the bald statement of facts accomplished. The moment that he dares to draw a deduction or point a moral, the personal element inevitably makes itself felt. Imagine an appreciation of Bismarck that equally pleased a patriotic Frenchman and a patriotic German! 
Therefore I am practically driven to concede to Froude that history must be subjective. No great book ever has been or ever will be written by a historian who suppressed self as he wrote each word: what such a book may conceivably gain in accuracy it loses in spontaneity and conviction. The passionless scientist chronicling the antics of puppets with whom he feels no sympathy, for whom he has no moral like or dislike, does not tend to produce a readable literary output. I can safely leave the view of those who hold that history has nothing to do with literature -- any more than it has anything to do with morals -- and the view advocated by Froude to fight out their duel in the public arena, little doubting which will be the winner.
I have seen a summary of James Anthony Froude's inaugural lecture on the study of history (made in October 1892 when he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford) in Julia Markus' biography, but I have not been able to find the original text online or in the university library.

15 April 2012

Ephemeral Wrappers

Richard de la Mare (1901-1986), executive with Faber & Faber, in A Publisher on Book Production (London: J. M. Dent, 1936), p. 41:
The history of the book jacket is a strange one. The wretched thing started as a piece of plain paper, wrapped round the book to protect it during its sojourn in the bookseller's shop; but it has now become this important, elaborate, not to say costly and embarrassing affair that we know today, and of which we sometimes deplore the very existence. How much better might this mint of money that is emptied on these ephemeral wrappers -- little works of art though many of them may be -- be spent on improving the quality of the materials that are used in the making of the book itself!
Some publishing trivia: According to this article, it was de la Mare who suggested adding the second Faber to the company name even though there wasn't one.

13 April 2012

A Minestrone of Self-Pity

From a speech given by the British psychiatrist Anthony Daniels (better known under his pen name, Theodore Dalrymple) at a meeting of the Property and Freedom Society in Bodrum, Turkey in May of last year:
As I have said, resentment can, and indeed often does, last a lifetime; and this is because it has certain sour satisfactions. Among these is the satisfaction of being morally superior to the world while remaining -- objectively speaking -- in a grossly subordinate, inferior or undesirable position. Resentment satisfactorily explains all one's own failures and failings; ‘I would have been a success in some respect or other, if only I had had the same opportunities as...’ And here you need only fill in the name of the person or persons more fortunately placed than you to succeed in that respect. 
Resentment is a universal human emotion. It is a permanent possibility for all of us, and it takes an effort to control it. I doubt whether any reader, if he examines himself candidly, has failed ever to feel it. I suspect that those who have never felt resentment are as rare as those who have never felt pain. 
Unfortunately resentment, though universal, at least potentially so, is not only a useless, but a harmful emotion: for it encourages him who feels it to dwell not on what he can do -- that is to say his opportunities -- but on what he cannot do, that is to say his lack of opportunities. From the moment of one’s birth, there are many things one is destined not to become; how easy, and I should add pleasurable, it is to blame others for this fact, while vegetating in a soup, a minestrone, of self-pity.
Daniels has also discussed resentment in essays for The New English Review and Psychology Today.

12 April 2012

The Refuge of a Moody Solitude

George Gissing, Born in Exile (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1896), p. 54:
Self-assertion is the practical complement of self-esteem. To be largely endowed with the latter quality, yet constrained by a coward delicacy to repress it, is to suffer martyrdom at the pleasure of every robust assailant, and in the end be driven to the refuge of a moody solitude.

11 April 2012

No Poses, Sentimentalities, or Bromides

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 239:
The one writer who does not appeal at all to Americans -- who offers nothing for our Marxist, Freudian, feminist, deconstructionist, or structuralist critics to mangle, who provides no poses, sentimentalities or bromides that appeal to our young -- is Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who best expresses how life looks to a man facing up to what we believe or don't believe. He is a far more talented artist and penetrating observer than the much more popular Mann or Camus. Robinson, the hero he admires in Journey to the End of the Night, is an utterly selfish liar, cheat, murderer for pay. Why does Ferdinand admire him? Partly for his honesty, but mostly because he allows himself to be shot and killed by his girlfriend rather than tell her he loves her. He believes in something, which Ferdinand is unable to do. American students are repelled, horrified by this novel, and turn away from it in disgust. If it could be force-fed to them, it might motivate them to reconsider, to regard it as urgent to think through their premises, to make their implicit nihilism explicit and examine it seriously.

10 April 2012

The Larval Form of a Bore

Cyril Connolly in a review of Ellen Moers' The Dandy, reprinted in The Evening Colonnade (London: David Bruce & Watson, 1973), p. 171:
Eternal inferiority of the dandy -- this is my regretted conclusion; for, being committed to clothes and externals, he is committed to stupidity and physical ageing; spiritually opaque, he reigns for ten years and decays for forty more, while mind and body rust. The dandy is but the larval form of a bore.

4 April 2012

The Anger of an Imbecile

A letter from the painter René Magritte to Richard Dupierreux, art critic at the Le Soir newspaper (via Eric Poindron), my own translation:

Brussels, 3 May 1936 
La reproduction interdite (1937)
Dear Mr. Dupierreux, 
Foolishness is a very painful sight to behold, but there is something comforting about the anger of an imbecile. So I must thank you for the few lines you devoted to my exhibition.
Everyone tells me that you are a shitty old man and that you do not deserve the slightest attention. It goes without saying that I do not believe a word of it, and remain, 
Yours truly, 

Note to readers: I am taking some time off and won't be blogging over the Easter holidays. Regular posts will resume on Tuesday.

3 April 2012


Edward Everett Hale, who was born on this day in 1822, in What career? (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1878), pp.162-3:
The word character is true still to its derivation. It is a Greek word wholly unchanged which the Greeks derived from the word which we pronounce harass which they pronounced charass but which had the meaning then that it has now. They spoke then of a coin in the mint which was hammered and tortured by the sharp edges of the die as being stamped upon indeed as a poor charassed thing -- as bearing a character. Its character came to it because it was beaten, pounded by this tremendous hammer. The more it was beaten the more distinct character it had. I believe all our words of similar import have a similar derivation. Thus when we say a man is of this "type" of manhood or that "type" of manhood the original meaning is that he has been beaten into that shape by the blows of life which have passed over him. And it is true that a man's character begins when he is born and changes or does not change accordingly as he bears the pounding which life gives him. Burns says "The rank is but the guinea's stamp." This means, at bottom, that a "pound" is metal which has been pounded. And there are metals which improve in quality all the time you stamp and hammer them. Just the same is true of man, if he have the true heat, the true life, and make himself master of the circumstance instead of slave.

2 April 2012

Philosophers and Poets

Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Oeuvres complètes de Chamfort, Vol. I (Paris: Chaumerot Jeune, 1824), p. 430. My own translation:
It is almost impossible for philosophers and poets not to be misanthropes. First of all, this is because their inclinations and talents lead them to observe society, which is a constantly heartrending study. Secondly, their talent is hardly ever rewarded by society (indeed, they are lucky not to be punished for it) and, subject to this affliction, their tendency towards melancholy only increases.