28 February 2013

The Beginning of Wisdom

Nicolas de Chamfort (1741-1794), The Cynic's Breviary, tr. William G. Hutchison (London: Elkin Mathews, 1902), p. 21:
I cannot conceive of a wisdom that lacks distrust: according to the Scriptures the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God — I believe it is rather the fear of men.
Some of my translations from Chamfort's maxims:
The Instinct or Pride of the Elephant
What Should One Think of Humanity?
Misery and Futility
Not Quite So Foolish

27 February 2013

A Glorious Golden Thing

Roland Leighton in a letter to Vera Brittain, quoted in the entry for Sept. 14th, 1915 in Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary (London: Gollancz, 1981):
The dug-outs have been nearly all blown in, the wire entanglements are a wreck, and in among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country's Glory or another's Lust of Power. Let him who thinks that War is a glorious golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country with as thoughtless and fervid a faith as inspired the priests of Baal to call on their slumbering deity, let him look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been it's ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, supported on one arm, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence.
Leighton was shot by a sniper outside of Hébuterne, France and died of his wounds two days before Christmas, 1915.

26 February 2013

Full to the Brim

A. C. Benson, From a College Window (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1906), pp. 46-47
I think that as one grows older one may take out a licence, so to speak, to read less. One may go back to the old restful books, where one knows the characters well, hear the old remarks, survey the same scenes. One may meditate more upon one's stores, stroll about more, just looking at life, seeing the quiet things that are happening, and beaming through one's spectacles. One ought to have amassed, as life goes on and the shadows lengthen, a good deal of material for reflection. And, after all, reading is not in itself a virtue; it is only one way of passing the time; talking is another way, watching things another. Bacon says that reading makes a full man; well, I cannot help thinking that many people are full to the brim when they reach the age of forty, and that much which they afterwards put into the overcharged vase merely drips and slobbers uncomfortably down the side and foot.
I should name my blog "Drips and Slobbers"; I turn forty in April, and won't read any less.

22 February 2013

They Will Find Me

Mrs. Rudolf Dircks in the introduction to her translation of the Essays of Schopenhauer (London: Walter Scott, 1890), p. vii:
When Schopenhauer was asked where he wished to be buried, he answered, “Anywhere; they will find me;” and the stone that marks his grave at Frankfurt bears merely the inscription “Arthur Schopenhauer,” without even the date of his birth or death. Schopenhauer, the pessimist, had a sufficiently optimistic conviction that his message to the world would ultimately be listened to — a conviction that never failed him during a lifetime of disappointments, of neglect in quarters where perhaps he would have most cherished appreciation; a conviction that only showed some signs of being justified a few years before his death. Schopenhauer was no opportunist; he was not even conciliatory; he never hesitated to declare his own faith in himself, in his principles, in his philosophy; he did not ask to be listened to as a matter of courtesy but as a right — a right for which he would struggle, for which he fought, and which has in the course of time, it may be admitted, been conceded to him.
Arthur Schopenhauer was born on this day in 1788.

Arthur Schopenhauer, from a daguerreotype taken in 1842
Source: The Goethe University Frankfurt Archives

Dr. Wilhelm Gwinner was Schopenhauer's friend, lawyer, and executor. His biography Arthur Schopenhauer aus persönlichem Umgange dargestellt (Arthur Schopenhauer Depicted from Personal Acquaintance) is an important primary source but, as far as I can tell, it has remained untranslated for more than 150 years. Why is this so? Rather than launch into a diatribe about all that is wrong with the publishing business, I'll just stake my claim — I am translating the book and intend to publish it myself. I would like to set aside everything else and focus on it exclusively, but that may be unreasonable.

21 February 2013

The Only Substitute for Happiness

Arthur Symons, in the introduction to The Poems of Ernest Dowson (London: John Lane, 1909), pp. xvii-xviii:
To unhappy men, thought, if it can be set at work on abstract questions, is the only substitute for happiness; if it has not strength to overleap the barrier which shuts one in upon oneself, it is the one unwearying torture.

20 February 2013

The Sight of the Full Moon

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, tr. R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp, Vol. III (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1909), p. 136:
Why has the sight of the full moon such a beneficent, quieting, and exalting effect? Because the moon is an object of perception, but never of desire:
“The stars we yearn not after
Delight us with their glory.” — G.
Further, it is sublime, i.e., it induces a lofty mood in us, because, without any relation to us, it moves along for ever strange to earthly doings, and sees all while it takes part in nothing. Therefore, at the sight of it the Will, with its constant neediness, vanishes from consciousness, and leaves a purely knowing consciousness behind. Perhaps there is also mingled here a feeling that we share this sight with millions, whose individual differences are therein extinguished, so that in this perception they are one, which certainly increases the impression of the sublime.
The quote marked "— G." comes from Goethe's poem Trost in Tränen (Comfort in Tears),
Die Sterne, die begehrt man nicht,
Man freut sich ihrer Pracht,
Und mit Entzücken blickt man auf
In jeder heitern Nacht.
Translated by E. A. Bowring:
The stars we never long to clasp,
We revel in their light,
And with enchantment upward gaze,
Each clear and radiant night.
A related post: Absolutely Safe

18 February 2013

The Ink-Stained World

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft  (London: Archibald Constable, 1912), pp. 45-46:
I dare not think of those I have left behind me, there in the ink-stained world. It would make me miserable, and to what purpose? Yet, having once looked that way, think of them I must. Oh, you heavy-laden, who at this hour sit down to the cursed travail of the pen; writing, not because there is something in your mind, in your heart, which must needs be uttered, but because the pen is the only tool you can handle, your only means of earning bread! Year after year the number of you is multiplied; you crowd the doors of publishers and editors, hustling, grappling, exchanging maledictions. Oh, sorry spectacle, grotesque and heart-breaking!

15 February 2013

Books Have Their Fate

Joseph Conrad, Notes on Life and Letters (London: J. M. Dent, 1921), pp. 5-6:
It has been said a long time ago that books have their fate. They have, and it is very much like the destiny of man. They share with us the great incertitude of ignominy or glory — of severe justice and senseless persecution — of calumny and misunderstanding — the shame of undeserved success. Of all the inanimate objects, of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us, for they contain our very thought, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent leaning towards error. But most of all they resemble us in their precarious hold on life. A bridge constructed according to the rules of the art of bridge-building is certain of a long, honourable and useful career. But a book as good in its way as the bridge may perish obscurely on the very day of its birth. The art of their creators is not sufficient to give them more than a moment of life. Of the books born from the restlessness, the inspiration, and the vanity of human minds, those that the Muses would love best lie more than all others under the menace of an early death. Sometimes their defects will save them. Sometimes a book fair to see may — to use a lofty expression — have no individual soul. Obviously a book of that sort cannot die. It can only crumble into dust. But the best of books drawing sustenance from the sympathy and memory of men have lived on the brink of destruction, for men’s memories are short, and their sympathy is, we must admit, a very fluctuating, unprincipled emotion.
No secret of eternal life for our books can be found amongst the formulas of art, any more than for our bodies in a prescribed combination of drugs. This is not because some books are not worthy of enduring life, but because the formulas of art are dependent on things variable, unstable and untrustworthy; on human sympathies, on prejudices, on likes and dislikes, on the sense of virtue and the sense of propriety, on beliefs and theories that, indestructible in themselves, always change their form — often in the lifetime of one fleeting generation.
A related post: Books Are the Departed Souls of Men

14 February 2013

Equality of Contempt

A few selections from Karl Kraus' Sprüche und Widersprüche (München: Albert Langen, 1909), my translation:
Nothing is more petty than chauvinism or racism. All people are the same to me. There are idiots everywhere and I hold them all in equal contempt. Let there be no mean little prejudices!
The world is a prison in which solitary confinement is preferable.
If I knew for certain that I would have to share eternity with certain people, I would opt for a separate oblivion.
The originals:
Nichts ist engherziger als Chauvinismus oder Rassenhaß. Mir sind alle Menschen gleich, überall gibt's Schafsköpfe und für alle habe ich die gleiche Verachtung. Nur keine kleinlichen Vorurteile!
Die Welt ist ein Gefängnis, in dem Einzelhaft vorzuziehen ist.
Wenn ich sicher wüßte, daß ich mit gewissen Leuten die Unsterblichkeit zu teilen haben werde, so möchte ich eine separierte Vergessenheit vorziehen.
If you enjoy reading Chamfort, Schopenhauer, or Léautaud you will probably enjoy Kraus' aphorisms. I haven't seen a copy, but Jonathan McVity translated them into English for the University of Illinois Press in 2001.

13 February 2013

It Would Have Been Better So

Anatole France, The Garden of Epicurus, tr. Alfred Allinson (London: John Lane, 1908), pp. 47-48:
If I had created man and woman, I should have framed them on a type widely different from that which has actually prevailed, that of the higher mammifers. I should have made men and women, not to resemble the great apes as they do, but on the model of the insects which, after a lifetime as caterpillars, change into butterflies and for the brief final term of their existence have no other thought but to love and be lovely. I should have set youth at the end of the human span. Some insects, in their last metamorphosis, have wings and no stomach. They are reborn in this purified form only to love an hour and die. 
If I were a god, or rather a demiurge — for the Alexandrine philosophers teach that these minor works of creation are rather the business of the demiurge or simply of some journeyman demon, — well, if I were demiurge or demon, it is these insects I should have chosen as models whereon to fashion mankind. I should have preferred man to accomplish, like them, in the preliminary larva stage the disgusting functions necessary to nutrition. In this phase, the sexes would not have been distinguished, and hunger would not have degraded love. Then I should have so arranged that, in a final metamorphosis, man and woman, unfurling glittering wings, lived awhile on dew and desire and died in a rapturous kiss. Thus I should have added love as crown and recompense of their mortal existence. Yes, it would have been better so. However, I did not make the world, and the demiurge who undertook the task did not take advice from me. I have my doubts, between you and me, if he ever consulted the philosophers and men of parts at all. 

The original:
Si j'avais créé l'homme et la femme, je les aurais formés sur un type très différent de celui qui a prévalu et qui est celui des mammifères supérieurs. J'aurais fait les hommes et les femmes, non point à la ressemblance des grands singes comme ils sont en effet, mais à l'image des insectes qui, après avoir vécu chenilles, se transforment en papillons et n'ont, au terme de leur vie, d'autre souci que d'aimer et d'être beaux. J'aurais mis la jeunesse à la fin de l'existence humaine. Certains insectes ont, dans leur dernière métamorphose, des ailes et pas d'estomac. Ils ne renaissent sous cette forme épurée que pour aimer une heure et mourir.
Si j'étais un dieu, ou plutôt un démiurge, — car la philosophie alexandrine nous enseigne que ces minimes ouvrages sont plutôt l'affaire du démiurge, ou simplement de quelque démon constructeur, — si donc j'étais démiurge ou démon, ce sont ces insectes que j'aurais pris pour modèles de l'homme. J'aurais voulu que, comme eux, l'homme accomplît d'abord, à l'état de larve, les travaux dégoûtants par lesquels il se nourrit. En cette phase, il n'y aurait point eu de sexes, et la faim n'aurait point avili l'amour. Puis j'aurais fait en sorte que, dans une transformation dernière, l'homme et la femme, déployant des ailes étincelantes, vécussent de rosée et de désir et mourussent dans un baiser. J'aurais de la sorte donné à leur existence mortelle l'amour en récompense et pour couronne. Et cela aurait été mieux ainsi. Mais je n'ai pas créé le monde, et le démiurge qui s'en est chargé n'a pas pris mes avis. Je doute, entre nous, qu'il ait consulté les philosophes et les gens d'esprit.

12 February 2013

Does it Pay?

Arthur Machen, Far Off Things (London: Martin Secker, 1922), pp. 93-96:
For if we start at the beginning of things, or at what seems to us to be the beginning of things, we are met by the question as to why there should be any such thing as poetry in the universe. I need not say how much wider this question is than it seems; how it must be asked about all the arts, about fugues and cathedrals and romances and dances. It is an immense question; immense when one considers that with nine people out of ten the great criterion is, "Does it pay?" That is, will it result in a larger supply of fine champagne, four ale, roast legs of pork, and mousses royales to the population? Will this scheme of things enable Sir John to keep a fifth motor-car, or will it get Bill meat three times a day? That is, at last, the test by which we judge all things. It is an old and approved British test; by it Macaulay condemned the whole of Greek philosophy, because that philosophy did not lead up to the invention of the steam engine. Now, it is quite clear that poetry, speaking generally, pays neither the producer nor the consumer of it; it does not lead to motor-cars, beefsteaks, vintage clarets, or four ale. It is not even moral; not a single man has ever been induced to drink ginger-beer instead of beer by reading Keats.
I must pause for a moment; I fear that it may be thought that I am trying to be funny or — more injurious accusation! — trying to be clever. I am not trying to be either; I am stating the simple facts of the case. Hardly a month passes by without some indignant person pointing out in the Press that Engineering and Commercial Chemistry are infinitely more useful — i.e., lead to more beefsteaks — than Latin and Greek; and that when Oxford and Cambridge find out that obvious truth they may become of some service to the State. Indeed, it is only a few weeks ago since a gentleman wrote to a paper showing that military training was better for a boy — i.e., would make him the better soldier — than "silly old" Greek plays. And let me acknowledge that these contentions are perfectly true; just as it is perfectly true that fur coats are much warmer than Alcaics. So, I say, here is the problem: the common, widely accepted test of the right to existence of everything: does it pay, does it add to the physical comforts of life, is quite clearly opposed to the existence of poetry, and yet poetry exists. Therefore, either the poets and the lovers of poetry are mad, or else the common judgment is ... let us say, mistaken. 
...
For I firmly hold the doctrine that the natural, the arch-natural expression of man, so far as he is to be distinguished from pigs and dogs and goats, is in the arts, and through the arts and by the arts. It is not by reason, as reason is commonly understood, that man is distinguished from the other animals; but by art. I can quite well conceive the Black Ants sending the message "Hill 27 fell before the Red Ant attack early this afternoon," but I cannot conceive either Red or Black Ants writing odes or building miniature cathedrals. The arts, then, are man's difference, that which makes him to be what he is; and when he speaks through them he is using the utterance which is proper to him, as man. For, if we once set aside the "does it pay" nonsense, which is evidently nonsense and pestilent nonsense at that, we come clearly and freely to the truth that man is concerned with beauty, and with the ecstasy or rapture that proceeds from the creation of beauty and from the contemplation of it.

11 February 2013

The Truest and Most Actual Thing

A. C. Benson, "Optimism," At Large (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1908), pp. 292-293:
If the beauty and the joy of the world gave one assurance in dark hours that all was certainly well, the pilgrimage would be an easy one. But can one be optimistic by resolving to be? One can, of course, control oneself, one can let no murmur of pain escape one, one can even enunciate deep and courageous maxims because one would not trouble the peace of others, waiting patiently till the golden mood returns. But what if the desolate conviction forces itself upon the mind that sorrow is the truer thing? What if one tests one's own experience, and sees that, under the pressure of sorrow, one after another of the world's lights are extinguished, health, and peace, and beauty, and delight, till one asks oneself whether sorrow is not perhaps the truest and most actual thing of all? That is the ghastliest of moments when everything drops from us but fear and horror, when we think that we have indeed found truth at last, and that the answer to Pilate's bitter question is that pain is the nearest thing to truth because it is the strongest. If I felt that, says the reluctant heart, I should abandon myself to despair. No, says sterner reason, you would bear it, because you cannot escape from it. Into whatever depths of despair you fell, you would still be upheld by the law that bids you be. 

7 February 2013

A Special Training

George Gissing in The Art of Authorship, ed. George Bainton (New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1890), pp. 83-84:
I believe there are persons extant who undertake to instruct young men in the art of journalistic composition. Without irony, it would interest me much to be present at such a lesson. Does the teacher select a leading article from, say, The Daily Telegraph, and begin: 'Come now, let us note the artifices of style whereby this writer recommends himself to the attention of the public'? Well, if a man of ripe intelligence could have taken me at the age of twenty, and have read with me suitable portions of Sir Thomas Browne, of Jeremy Taylor, of Milton's prose, of Steele, De Quincey, Landor, Ruskin — to make a rough list of names — that, I think, would have been a special training valuable beyond expression.
....
You know, of course, the little volume of selections from Landor, in the 'Golden Treasury' series. Could a young man whose thoughts are running on style do better than wear the book out with carrying it in his side pocket, that he might ponder its exquisite passages hour by hour?

6 February 2013

The Proper Occupation of Man

Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist," in Intentions (New York: Brentano's, 1905), pp. 169-170:
Society, which is the beginning and basis of morals, exists simply for the concentration of human energy, and in order to ensure its own continuance and healthy stability it demands, and no doubt rightly demands, of each of its citizens that he should contribute some form of productive labour to the common weal, and toil and travail that the day’s work may be done. Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer. The beautiful sterile emotions that art excites in us are hateful in its eyes, and so completely are people dominated by the tyranny of this dreadful social ideal that they are always coming shamelessly up to one at Private Views and other places that are open to the general public, and saying in a loud stentorian voice, ‘What are you doing?’ whereas ‘What are you thinking?’ is the only question that any single civilised being should ever be allowed to whisper to another. They mean well, no doubt, these honest beaming folk. Perhaps that is the reason why they are so excessively tedious. But some one should teach them that while, in the opinion of society, Contemplation is the gravest sin of which any citizen can be guilty, in the opinion of the highest culture it is the proper occupation of man.

5 February 2013

This Incredulous Century

Aloysius Bertrand, "To a Bibliophile," Gaspard de la nuit (Paris: Mercure de France, 1920), pp. 142-143. My translation:
Children, there are no more knights, except in books.
A Grandmother's Tales [George Sand]
Why restore worm-eaten and dusty histories from the Middle Ages when chivalry is gone for ever, along with the songs of its wandering minstrels, its fairy enchantments, and the glory of its knights?
What do our marvellous legends matter to this incredulous century: St. George breaking a lance against Charles VII in a tournament in Luçon, the Holy Spirit descending in full view at the Council of Trent, and the Wandering Jew approaching Bishop Gotzelin near the city of Langres to tell him of the Passion of Our Lord.
The three knightly sciences are held in contempt today. No one cares to know the age of the gyrfalcon you are training, how the bastard pieces together his coat of arms, nor at what time of night Mars is conjoined with Venus.
All tradition of war and love is being forgotten, and my fables will not even share the fate of Genevieve of Brabant's lament, the beginning of which the picture seller can no longer remember, and the end of which he never knew.