29 September 2012

Books and Buttered Muffins

Charles Lamb to S. T. Coleridge on 11 October 1802, quoted in Holbrook Jackson's Bookman's Holiday (London: Faber & Faber, 1945), p. 192:
A book reads the better, which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog's-ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins, or over a pipe, which I think is the maximum.

27 September 2012

A Mere Article of the World's Furniture

Henri Frédéric Amiel, Journal Intime, trans. Mrs. Humphry Ward (New York: A. L. Burt, c. 1895), pp. 144-5:
The man who has no refuge in himself, who lives, so to speak, in his front rooms, in the outer whirlwind of things and opinions, is not properly a personality at all; he is not distinct, free, original, a cause -- in a word, some one. He is one of a crowd, a taxpayer, an elector, an anonymity, but not a man. He helps to make up the mass -- to fill up the number of human consumers or producers; but he interests nobody but the economist and the statistician, who take the heap of sand as a whole into consideration, without troubling themselves about the uninteresting uniformity of the individual grains. The crowd counts only as a massive elementary force -- why? because its constituent parts are individually insignificant: they are all like each other, and we add them up like the molecules of water in a river, gauging them by the fathom instead of appreciating them as individuals. Such men are reckoned and weighed merely as so many bodies: they have never been individualized by conscience, after the manner of souls.
He who floats with the current, who does not guide himself according to higher principles, who has no ideal, no convictions -- such a man is a mere article of the world's furniture -- a thing moved, instead of a living and moving being -- an echo, not a voice. The man who has no inner life is the slave of his surroundings, as the barometer is the obedient servant of the air at rest, and the weathercock the humble servant of the air in motion. 

26 September 2012

The Sons of Joy

Robert Louis Stevenson, "A Letter to a Young Gentleman Who Proposes to Embrace the Career of Art," Scribner's Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 3, September 1888, p. 379:
The first duty in this world is for a man to pay his way; when that is quite accomplished, he may plunge into what eccentricity he likes; but emphatically not till then. Till then, he must pay assiduous court to the bourgeois who carries the purse. And if in the course of these capitulations he shall falsify his talent, it can never have been a strong one, and he will have preserved a better thing than talent -- character. Or if he be of a mind so independent that he cannot stoop to this necessity, one course is yet open: he can desist from art, and follow some more manly way of life.
I speak of a more manly way of life, it is a point on which I must be frank. To live by a pleasure is not a high calling; it involves patronage, however veiled; it numbers the artist, however ambitious, along with dancing girls and billiard markers. The French have a romantic evasion for one employment, and call its practitioners the Daughters of Joy. The artist is of the same family, he is of the Sons of Joy, chose his trade to please himself, gains his livelihood by pleasing others, and has parted with something of the sterner dignity of man.
Ibid, p. 380:
If you adopt an art to be your trade, weed your mind at the outset of all desire of money. What you may decently expect, if you have some talent and much industry, is such an income as a clerk will earn with a tenth or perhaps a twentieth of your nervous output. Nor have you the right to look for more; in the wages of the life, not in the wages of the trade, lies your reward; the work is here the wages. It will be seen I have little sympathy with the common lamentations of the artist class. Perhaps they do not remember the hire of the field labourer; or do they think no parallel will lie? Perhaps they have never observed what is the retiring allowance of a field officer; or do they suppose their contributions to the arts of pleasing more important than the services of a colonel? Perhaps they forget on how little [Jean-François] Millet was content to live; or do they think, because they have less genius, they stand excused from the display of equal virtues?

25 September 2012

Don't Make Your House in My Mind

Percy Lubbock in the introduction to A. C. Benson's Diary (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1926), p. 18:
"Don't make your house in my mind" -- that was a phrase [Benson] used to quote from Aristophanes, and one could see how instinctively he put out his hands and warded off the danger of encroachment. Nobody must invade his mind, force his inclination, "hustle" him -- it was a frequent word of his, he ruffled and bristled at the suggestion. He clutched his liberty; he never surrendered a jot of it -- and not only that, but if ever on any pretext it was threatened, in love or strife, he lost all scruple in protecting himself, he thought of nothing but to rout and disable the intruder. Why should people desire to press in upon him, when he was always so ready to meet them in the doorway and talk agreeably on the threshold? It was not as though he was stiff with them out there, or distant in his greeting; far from it indeed -- he talked with the utmost freedom, he would frankly answer any question they liked to ask. Less than anybody was he disposed to make a secret of his privacy; it was for all who cared to hear him tell about it. But that must suffice -- and why should it not? He thought it might suffice, as in the lives of others it was all he dreamed ot demanding for himself. Anyhow he could not admit the kind of interference which asks for more than can be told upon the threshold; and if more was insisted on, if a place and a lodging was required in the seclusion of his mind -- then there was likely to be trouble. 

24 September 2012

Honest Diversion

Michel de Montaigne, "On Books," Essays, trans. Charles Cotton, Vol. II (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1913), p. 87:
I seek, in the reading of books, only to please myself by an honest diversion; or, if I study, 'tis for no other science than what treats of the knowledge of myself, and instructs me how to die and how to live well.  
The original:
Je ne cherche aux livres qu'à m'y donner du plaisir par un honnête amusement : ou si j'étudie, je n'y cherche que la science qui traite de la connaissance de moi-même, et qui m'instruise à bien mourir et à bien vivre.

20 September 2012

Cui Bono

Thomas Carlyle, Critical and Miscellaneous EssaysVol. I (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1881), p. 471:
What is Hope? A smiling rainbow
Children follow through the wet;
’Tis not here, still yonder, yonder:
Never urchin found it yet.

What is Life? A thawing iceboard
On a sea with sunny shore; --
Gay we sail; it melts beneath us;
We are sunk, and seen no more.

What is Man? A foolish baby,
Vainly strives, and fights, and frets;
Demanding all, deserving nothing; --
One small grave is what he gets.

19 September 2012

Peculiarly Attractive to a Half-Baked Mind

E. M. Forster, Howards End (New York: Vintage Books, 1921), pp. 50-51:
And the voice [of John Ruskin] rolled on, piping melodiously of Effort and Self-Sacrifice, full of high purpose, full of beauty, full even of sympathy and the love of men, yet somehow eluding all that was actual and insistent in Leonard's life. For it was the voice of one who had never been dirty or hungry, and had not guessed successfully what dirt and hunger are.
Leonard listened to it with reverence. He felt that he was being done good to, and that if he kept on with Ruskin, and the Queen's Hall Concerts, and some pictures by Watts, he would one day push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe. He believed in sudden conversion, a belief which may be right, but which is peculiarly attractive to a half-baked mind. It is the bias of much popular religion: in the domain of business it dominates the Stock Exchange, and becomes that "bit of luck" by which all successes and failures are explained. "If only I had a bit of luck, the whole thing would come straight. . . . He's got a most magnificent place down at Streatham and a 20 h.p. Fiat, but then, mind you, he's had luck. . . . I'm sorry the wife's so late, but she never has any luck over catching trains." Leonard was superior to these people; he did believe in effort and in a steady preparation for the change that he desired. But of a heritage that may expand gradually, he had no conception: he hoped to come to Culture suddenly, much as the Revivalist hopes to come to Jesus.

18 September 2012

Washing Vegetables

Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, tr. Robert Drew Hicks, Vol. I (London: Heinemann, 1925):
Diogenes, washing the dirt from his vegetables, saw [Aristippus] passing and jeered at him in these terms, "If you had learnt to make these your diet, you would not have paid court to kings," to which his rejoinder was, "And if you knew how to associate with men, you would not be washing vegetables."

17 September 2012

The Kingdom of Chance and Error

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, tr. E. F. J. Payne, Vol. I (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), p. 324:
Anyone who has awakened from the first dreams of youth; who has considered his own and others' experience; who has looked at life in the history of the past and of his own time, and finally in the works of the great poets, will certainly acknowledge the result, if his judgement is not paralysed by some indelibly imprinted prejudice, that this world of humanity is the kingdom of chance and error. These rule in it without mercy in great things as in small; and along with them folly and wickedness also wield the scourge. Hence arises the fact that everything better struggles through only with difficulty; what is noble and wise very rarely makes its appearance, becomes effective, or meets with a hearing, but the absurd and perverse in the realm of thought, the dull and tasteless in the sphere of art, and the wicked and fraudulent in the sphere of action, really assert a supremacy that is disturbed only by brief interruptions. On the other hand, everything excellent or admirable is always only an exception, one case in millions; therefore, if it has shown itself in a lasting work, this subsequently exists in isolation, after it has outlived the rancour of its contemporaries. It is preserved like a meteorite, sprung from an order of things different from that which prevails here. But as regards the life of the individual, every life-history is a history of suffering, for, as a rule, every life is a continual series of mishaps great and small, concealed as much as possible by everyone, because he knows that others are almost always bound to feel satisfaction at the spectacle of annoyances from which they are for the moment exempt; rarely will they feel sympathy or compassion. But perhaps at the end of his life, no man, if he be sincere and at the same time in possession of his faculties, will ever wish to go through it again. Rather than this, he will much prefer to choose complete non-existence.

14 September 2012

Sic tu recoli merearis!

by A. C. Benson

O soul, my soul, before thou comst to die,
  Set one deep mark upon the face of time,
  Let one absorbing laughter, one grave rhyme
Ring in the heedless wind that hurries by.

Yon smooth-limbed beech, that hangs upon the slope
  With branching spray, with firm and shapely arm,
  Hath, could'st thou write it, a bewildering charm
Would gild thy name beyond thy utmost hope!

O soul, my soul, be true, laborious, just, --
  And some chance word, some penetrating smile,
    Flashed with no purpose, no impulsive aim,
Shall live, and breed strong thoughts, when thou art dust;
    And mount, and gather strength, and roll in flame
  Beyond the utmost Orient's utmost isle!

From The Yellow Book, VII (January, 1895), p.191.

13 September 2012

Everything Was Different

Eileen Power, Medieval People (London: Methuen, 1924), pp. 15-6:
The fact is that the Romans were blinded to what was happening to them [i.e., that the empire was collapsing] by the very perfection of the material culture which they had created. All around them was solidity and comfort, a material existence which was the very antithesis of barbarism. How could they foresee the day when the Norman chronicler would marvel over the broken hypocausts of Caerleon? How could they imagine that anything so solid might conceivably disappear? Their roads grew better as their statesmanship grew worse and central heating triumphed as civilization fell.
But still more responsible for their unawareness was the educational system in which they were reared. Ausonius and Sidonius and their friends were highly educated men and Gaul was famous for its schools and universities. The education which these gave consisted in the study of grammar and rhetoric, which was necessary alike for the civil service and for polite society; and it would be difficult to imagine an education more entirely out of touch with contemporary life, or less suited to inculcate the qualities which might have enabled men to deal with it. The fatal study of rhetoric, its links with reality long since severed, concentrated the whole attention of men of intellect on form rather than on matter. The things they learned in their schools had no relation to the things that were going on in the world outside and bred in them the fatal illusion that tomorrow would be as yesterday, that everything was the same, whereas everything was different.

12 September 2012

Perfectly Contented

Johann Georg Zimmermann, Solitude (London: Thomas Tegg, 1827), p. 37:
Solitude, indeed, affords a pleasure to an author of which no one can deprive him, and which far exceeds all the honours of the world. He not only anticipates the effect his work will produce, but while it advances towards completion, feels the delicious enjoyment of those hours of serenity and composure which his labours procure. What continued and tranquil delight flows from successive composition! Sorrows fly from this elegant occupation. Oh! I would not exchange one single hour of such private tranquility and content for all those flattering illusions of public fame with which the mind of Tully was so incessantly intoxicated. A difficulty surmounted, a happy moment seized, a proposition elucidated, a sentence neatly and elegantly turned, or a thought happily expressed, are salutary and healing balms, counter-poisons to melancholy, and belong exclusively to a wise and well formed Solitude.
To enjoy himself without being dependent on the aid of others ; to devote to employments, not perhaps entirely useless, those hours which sorrow and chagrin would otherwise steal from the sum of life, is the great advantage of an author: and with this advantage alone I am perfectly contented.

11 September 2012

The Course of Obvious Wisdom

William Wallace, Epicureanism (New York: Pott, Young & Co., 1880), pp. 163-4:
The Epicurean accepts the existence of an orderly society as a condition of a satisfactory life, but he does not admit that it has a right to demand his services. "When safety on the side of man has been tolerably secured, it is by quiet and by withdrawing from the multitude that the most complete tranquillity is to be found." "A wise man will not enter upon political life unless something extraordinary should occur." "The free man," says Metrodorus, "will laugh his free laugh over those who are fain to be reckoned in the list with Lycurgus and Solon." A man ought not to make it his aim to save his country, or to win a crown from them for his abilities. Political life, which in all ages has been impossible for those who had not wealth, and who were unwilling to mix themselves with vile and impure associates, was not to the mind of Epicurus. If he be condemned for this, there are many nobler and deeper natures in the records of humanity who must be condemned on the same account. But it is hard to see why he should be charged with that as a fault which is the common practice of mankind, and which in a period of despotism, of absolute monarchy, is the course of obvious wisdom. And, above all, it is not the duty of a philosopher to become a political partisan, and spend his life in the atmosphere of avaricious and malignant passions.

10 September 2012

The Winds of Folly and Desolation

George Moore, Celibates (London: Walter Scott, 1895), pp. 364-5:
His happiness and ambitions appeared to him less than the scattering of a little sand on the sea-shore. Joy is passion, passion is suffering; we cannot desire what we possess; therefore desire is rebellion prolonged indefinitely against the realities of existence; when we attain the object of our desire, we must perforce neglect it in favour of something still unknown, and so we progress from illusion to illusion. The winds of folly and desolation howl about us; the sorrows of happiness are the worst to bear, and the wise soon learn that there is nothing to dream of but the end of desire.

7 September 2012

Dreadfully Vulnerable

Joseph Wood Krutch, Human Nature and the Human Condition (New York: Random House, 1959), p. 145:
Within a generation, our way of life was revolutionized so completely that we can hardly imagine how existence was possible before the automobile and the telephone. What is more ominous is the fact that, by now, we actually could not do without them. Technology made large populations possible; large populations now make technology indispensable. A really drastic breakdown anywhere in the chain of mutually dependent machines would soon bring the whole complex to a halt. And by comparison with the consequences of cities deprived of power and unable either to bring in the goods they consume to get rid of rubbish they discard, the Black Death would be merely an unfortunate incident. Our very power, or rather our dependence upon it, has made us dreadfully vulnerable.
Alex Colville, Horse and Train (1954)

6 September 2012

The Bones of Dreamers and Visionaries

A. C. Benson, Where No Fear Was (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1914), pp. 234-5:
Men and women do not make pilgrimages to the graves and houses of eminent jurists and bankers, political economists or statisticians: these have done their work, and have had their reward. Even the monuments of statesmen and conquerors have little power to touch the imagination, unless some love for humanity, some desire to uplift and benefit the race, have entered into their schemes and policies. No, it is rather the soil which covers the bones of dreamers and visionaries that is sacred yet, prophets and poets, artists and musicians, those who have seen through life to beauty, and have lived and suffered that they might inspire and tranquillise human hearts. The princes of the earth, popes and emperors, lie in pompous sepulchres, and the thoughts of those who regard them, as they stand in metal or marble, dwell most on the vanity of earthly glory. But at the tombs of men like Virgil and Dante, of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, the human heart still trembles into tears, and hates the death that parts soul from soul.

5 September 2012

A Thing to Cherish

Edward Tyas Cook, The Life of John Ruskin, Vol. I (London, George Allen, 1912), p. 147:
The great books, some one has said, are those which come home with a personal appeal, making the reader feel that they were written expressly for him. Such was the effect which Ruskin's book produced upon [William] Holman Hunt in his early days. A fellow-student, he said, " one Telfer -- with whom wherever he wanders, be everlasting peace! -- spoke to me of Modern Painters; and when he recognised my eagerness to learn of its teachings all he could tell me, he gained permission from Cardinal Wiseman, to whom it belonged, to lend it to me for twenty-four hours. To get through the book I sat up most of the night, and I had to return it ere I made acquaintance with a quota of the good there was in it. But of all its readers none could have felt more strongly than myself that it was written expressly for him. When it had gone, the echo of its words stayed with me, and they gained a further value and meaning whenever my more solemn feelings were touched." It is a thing to cherish in the literary and artistic history of the Victorian era, this picture of the great Pre-Raphaelite painter burning the midnight oil over a borrowed copy of Modern Painters.

3 September 2012

The Crime of Bringing a Being Into the World

George Moore, Confessions of a Young Man (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1904), pp. 270-1:
You say that no ideal illumines the pessimist's life, that if you ask him why he exists, he cannot answer, and that Schopenhauer's arguments against suicide are not even plausible causistry. True, on this point his reasoning is feeble and ineffective. But we may easily confute our sensual opponents. We must say that we do not commit suicide, although we admit it is a certain anodyne to the poison of life -- an absolute erasure of the wrong inflicted on us by our parents -- because we hope by noble example and precept to induce others to refrain from love. We are the saviours of souls. Other crimes are finite; love alone is infinite. We punish a man with death for killing his fellow; but a little reflection should make the dullest understand that the crime of bringing a being into the world exceeds by a thousand, a millionfold that of putting one out of it. 

1 September 2012

Comfort-Loving Vulgarity

A. C. Benson, Where No Fear Was (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1914), pp. 83-85:
Greedy vanity in the more robust, lack of moral courage and firmness in the more sensitive, with a social organisation that aims at a surface dignity and a cheap showiness, are the ingredients of this devil's cauldron [of plodding, conventional home life]. The worst of it is that it has no fine elements at all. There is a nobility about real tragedy which evokes a quality of passionate and sincere emotion. There is something essentially exalted about a fierce resistance, a desperate failure. But this abject, listless dreariness, which can hardly be altered or expressed, this miserable floating down the muddy current, where there is no sharp repentance or fiery battling, nothing but a mean abandonment to a meaningless and unintelligible destiny, seems to have in it no seed of recovery at all. 
The dark shadow of professional anxiety is that it has no tragic quality; it is like ploughing on day by day through endless mud-flats. One does not feel, in the presence of sharp suffering or bitter loss, that they ought not to exist. They are there, stern, implacable, august; stately enemies, great combatants. There is a significance about their very awfulness. One may fall before them, but they pass like a great express train, roaring, flashing, things deliberately and intently designed; but these dull failures which seem not the outgrowth of anyone's fierce longing or wilful passion, but of everyone's laziness and greediness and stupidity, how is one to face them? It is the helpless death of the quagmire, not the death of the fight or the mountain-top. Is there, we ask ourselves, anything in the mind of God which corresponds to comfort-loving vulgarity, if so strong and yet so stagnant a stream can overflow the world? The bourgeois ideal! One would rather have tyranny or savagery than anything so gross and smug. 
And yet we see high-spirited and ardent husbands drawn into this by obstinate and vulgar-minded wives. We see fine-natured and sensitive women engulfed in it by selfish and ambitious husbands. The tendency is awfully and horribly strong, and it wins, not by open combat, but by secret and dull persistence. And one sees too -- I have seen it many times -- children of delicate and eager natures, who would have flourished and expanded in more generous air, become conventional and commonplace and petty, concerned about knowing the right people and doing the right things, and making the same stupid and paltry show, which deceives no one.