30 April 2013

The Gift of Reading

Robert Louis Stevenson, "Books Which Have Influenced Me," in Essays in the Art of Writing (London: Chatto & Windus, 1905), pp. 87-89:
The gift of reading, as I have called it, is not very common, nor very generally understood. It consists, first of all, in a vast intellectual endowment — a free grace, I find I must call it — by which a man rises to understand that he is not punctually right, nor those from whom he differs absolutely wrong. He may hold dogmas; he may hold them passionately; and he may know that others hold them but coldly, or hold them differently, or hold them not at all. Well, if he has the gift of reading, these others will be full of meat for him. They will see the other side of propositions and the other side of virtues. He need not change his dogma for that, but he may change his reading of that dogma, and he must supplement and correct his deductions from it. A human truth, which is always very much a lie, hides as much of life as it displays. It is men who hold another truth, or, as it seems to us, perhaps, a dangerous lie, who can extend our restricted field of knowledge, and rouse our drowsy consciences. Something that seems quite new, or that seems insolently false or very dangerous, is the test of a reader. If he tries to see what it means, what truth excuses it, he has the gift, and let him read. If he is merely hurt, or offended, or exclaims upon his author’s folly, he had better take to the daily papers; he will never be a reader.

29 April 2013

Too Much Concerned About a Little Poverty

Robert Louis Stevenson, "The Morality of the Profession of Letters," in Essays in the Art of Writing (London: Chatto & Windus, 1905), pp. 50-51:
Literature, like any other art, is singularly interesting to the artist; and, in a degree peculiar to itself among the arts, it is useful to mankind. These are the sufficient justifications for any young man or woman who adopts it as the business of his life. I shall not say much about the wages. A writer can live by his writing. If not so luxuriously as by other trades, then less luxuriously. The nature of the work he does all day will more affect his happiness than the quality of his dinner at night. Whatever be your calling, and however much it brings you in the year, you could still, you know, get more by cheating. We all suffer ourselves to be too much concerned about a little poverty; but such considerations should not move us in the choice of that which is to be the business and justification of so great a portion of our lives; and like the missionary, the patriot, or the philosopher, we should all choose that poor and brave career in which we can do the most and best for mankind.
Some related posts:
Afraid to Be Poor
The Sons of Joy
The Surest Foundation 

24 April 2013

An Exquisite Mistress

George Moore, Memoirs of My Dead Life (London: Heinemann, 1906), p. 45:
[By] acquiring a fatherland more ideal than the one birth had arrogantly imposed, because deliberately chosen, I have doubled my span of life. Do I not exist in two countries? Have I not furnished myself with two sets of thoughts and sensations? Ah! the delicate delight of owning un pays ami — a country where you may go when you are weary to madness of the routine of life, sure of finding there all the sensations of home, plus those of irresponsible caprice. The pleasure of a literature that is yours without being wholly your own, a literature that is like an exquisite mistress, in whom you find consolation for all the commonplaces of life!
Illustration from the Gazette du bon ton (April 1914)

22 April 2013

Not a Reasonable Life

Henry George (1839-1897), The Crime of Poverty; An Address Delivered in the Opera House, Burlington, Iowa, April 1, 1885 (Cincinnati: The Joseph Fels Fund, 1910), pp. 12-13:
Here is a man working hour after hour, day after day, week after week, in doing one thing over and over again, and for what? Just to live. He is working ten hours a day in order that he may sleep eight, and may have two or three hours for himself when he is tired out and all his faculties are exhausted. That is not a reasonable life; that is not a life for a being possessed of the powers that are in man, and I think every man must have felt it for himself. I know that when I first went to my trade I thought to myself that it was incredible that a man was created to work all day long just to live. I used to read the Scientific American, and as invention after invention was heralded in that paper, I used to think to myself that when I became a man it would not be necessary to work so hard. But, on the contrary, the struggle for existence has become more and more intense. People who want to prove the contrary get up masses of statistics to show that the condition of the working classes is improving. Improvement that you have to take a statistical microscope to discover does not amount to anything.

19 April 2013

Oh, for a Place in the Country!

Martial, Epigram 2.38:
Quid mihi reddat ager quaeris, Line, Nomentanus?
Hoc mihi reddit ager: te, Line, non video.
Translated by James Michie:
You ask me what I get
Out of my country place.
The profit, gross or net,
Is never seeing your face.

18 April 2013

Monkey Business

Guy de Maupassant visits Algernon Charles Swinburne and his friend George Powell in Dieppe and describes the life they lived there in the late 1860s, from Julian Barnes' article "An Unlikely Lunch," in The Public Domain Review:
Yes, they lived there together, satisfying themselves with monkeys or with young servant lads of fourteen or fifteen, sent out to Powell from England every three months or so: little servant boys of exquisite cleanness and freshness. The monkey that slept in Powell’s bed and shat in it every night was hanged by the servant boy, partly out of jealousy but also out of annoyance at having to change the sheets all the time. The house was full of strange noises and the shadows of sadism; one night, Powell was seen and heard firing a revolver in the garden at a black man. Those two were real Sadeian heroes, who wouldn’t have held back even from crime. Then this house, so full of living mystery, was suddenly silent, suddenly empty. Powell just disappeared, and no one knew how he had got away. No carriage was ever called for him, and no one had met him on the roads.
As for the lunch menu:
Maupassant’s later versions also elaborate on the suspicious protein the Englishmen served. In his 1882 account, he strongly suspects that it might have been monkey, not least because it was said to be common knowledge in Etretat that “this Englishman [Powell] ate only monkey – boiled, roasted, sautéed, or in a confit”. By the time of the 1891 account, Maupassant claims he had knowingly eaten spit-roasted monkey – indeed, the joint had been ordered in his honour from a purveyor of exotic meats in Le Havre. However, “The mere smell of the dish as I entered the house made me feel queasy, and the dreadful taste of the animal permanently removed all subsequent desire ever again to repeat such a meal.” 
This gastronomic queasiness did not imply any broader moral or social revulsion; quite the contrary. Maupassant, doubtless hoping to provoke readers of Le Gaulois, concluded his 1882 account thus: “The world would be a lot jollier if one came across ménages like that one a little more often.”

16 April 2013

Cheese After Six Courses

William Johnson Cory (1823-1892) in a letter to Rev. E. D. Stone (Oct. 4, 1882), from Extracts from Letters and Journals, ed. Francis Warre Cornish (Oxford: Privately Printed, 1895), p. 486:
Our enjoyment of German music is unforced; our enjoyment of German poetry is a sort of cheese after six courses; our enjoyment of German prose is mere ἐθελοδουλεία [voluntary slavery].
I scout and hiss the notion of German being equivalent to Greek because of its copiousness, or because of its making the student use every muscle of the mind by compelling him to deal with varieties of style. Greek is not commensurate with German, because it contains about twenty several kinds of style or method, whilst in German there is only the difference between childishly simple verse structure and monstrously clumsy prose structure...

15 April 2013

The Defeat of Despair

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973), p. 199:
The defeat of despair is not mainly an intellectual problem for an active organism, but a problem of self-stimulation via movement. Beyond a given point man is not helped more by "knowing," but by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection, and we are brutes.
The quote from Goethe is found in the Prelude to Faust, tr. Bayard Taylor:
Grasp the exhaustless life that all men live!
Each shares therein, though few may comprehend:
Where'er you touch, there 's interest without end. 
The original:
Greift nur hinein ins volle Menschenleben!
Ein jeder lebt's, nicht vielen ist's bekannt,
Und wo Ihr's packt, da ist's interessant.

11 April 2013

Unprofitable Conversation

Joachimus Fortius Ringelbergius (c.1499 - c.1536), De Ratione Studii, tr. G. B. Earp (London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1830), pp. 64-65:
Should any one court your society, who is more desirous to embrace the follies and vanities of youth than to excel in literary pursuits, avoid his company and fly immediately to your studies; for it is better that such an one stigmatize you with a want of politeness, than that you should waste your time. Regard not what indolent or unthinking men may say of you; but always keep in view the opinion of posterity. How many useful volumes might we not write during those hours which are too often devoted to idle and unprofitable conversation! If we were to keep an account of the time so wasted but for a year, we should find it to amount to a very considerable portion of the whole. There is no portion of time so brief that we might not make some advancement towards excellence. The space of life remaining even to young men is but short, perhaps ten, twenty, or thirty years at most; and yet, they almost invariably live as though they were certain of surviving a thousand.
Thomas De Quincey did not think highly of Ringelberg's work. From a footnote to "Letters to a Young Man Whose Education Has Been Neglected," in The Art of Conversation and Other Papers (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1863), p. 29:
It is one of those books which have been written most evidently not merely by a madman (as many thousands have), but by a madman under a high paroxysm of his malady; and, omitting a few instances of affectation and puerilty, it is highly affecting. It appears that the author, though not thirty years of age at the date of his book, was afflicted with the gravel — according to his belief, incurably; and much of the book was actually written in darkness (on waxen tablets, or on wooden tablets, with a stylus formed of charred bones), during the sleepless nights of pain consequent upon his disease.
Gravel: kidney stones

9 April 2013

The Religion of Smug Ease

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom (§ 338), in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, tr. Thomas Common (New York: Macmillan, 1911), pp. 265-267:
That from which we suffer most profoundly and personally is almost incomprehensible and inaccessible to every one else: in this matter we are hidden from our neighbour even when he eats at the same table with us. Everywhere, however, where we are noticed as sufferers, our suffering is interpreted in a shallow way; it belongs to the nature of the emotion of pity to divest unfamiliar suffering of its properly personal character: — our "benefactors" lower our value and volition more than our enemies. In most benefits which are conferred on the unfortunate there is something shocking in the intellectual levity with which the compassionate person plays the role of fate: he knows nothing of all the inner consequences and complications which are called misfortune for me or for you! The entire economy of my soul and its adjustment by "misfortune," the uprising of new sources and needs, the closing up of old wounds, the repudiation of whole periods of the past — none of these things which may be connected with misfortune preoccupy the dear sympathiser. He wishes to succour and does not reflect that there is a personal necessity for misfortune; that terror, want, impoverishment, midnight watches, adventures, hazards and mistakes are as necessary to me and to you as their opposites, yea, that, to speak mystically, the path to one's own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one's own hell. No, he knows nothing thereof. The "religion of compassion" (or "the heart") bids him help, and he thinks he has helped best when he has helped most speedily! If you adherents of this religion actually have the same sentiments towards yourselves which you have towards your fellows, if you are unwilling to endure your own suffering even for an hour, and continually forestall all possible misfortune, if you regard suffering and pain generally as evil, as detestable, as deserving of annihilation, and as blots on existence, well, you have then, besides your religion of compassion, yet another religion in your heart (and this is perhaps the mother of the former) — the religion of smug ease. Ah, how little you know of the happiness of man, you comfortable and good-natured ones! — for happiness and misfortune are brother and sister, and twins, who grow tall together, or, as with you, remain small together!
The original:
Das, woran wir am tiefsten und persönlichsten leiden, ist fast allen anderen unverständlich und unzugänglich: darin sind wir dem Nächsten verborgen, und wenn er mit uns aus einem Topfe ißt. Überall aber, wo wir als Leidende bemerkt werden, wird unser Leiden flach ausgelegt; es gehört zum Wesen der mitleidigen Affektion, daß sie das fremde Leid des eigentlich Persönlichen entkleidet – unsre »Wohltäter« sind mehr als unsre Feinde die Verkleinerer unsres Wertes und Willens. Bei den meisten Wohltaten, die Unglücklichen erwiesen werden, liegt etwas Empörendes in der intellektuellen Leichtfertigkeit, mit der da der Mitleidige das Schicksal spielt: er weiß nichts von der ganzen inneren Folge und Verflechtung, welche Unglück für mich oder für dich heißt! Die gesamte Ökonomie meiner Seele und deren Ausgleichung durch das »Unglück«, das Aufbrechen neuer Quellen und Bedürfnisse, das Zuwachsen alter Wunden, das Abstoßen ganzer Vergangenheiten – das alles, was mit dem Unglück verbunden sein kann, kümmert den lieben Mitleidigen nicht: er will helfen und denkt nicht daran, daß es eine persönliche Notwendigkeit des Unglücks gibt, daß mir und dir Schrecken, Entbehrungen, Verarmungen, Mitternächte, Abenteuer, Wagnisse, Fehlgriffe so nötig sind wie ihr Gegenteil, ja daß, um mich mystisch auszudrücken, der Pfad zum eigenen Himmel immer durch die Wollust der eigenen Hölle geht. Nein, davon weiß er nichts: die »Religion des Mitleidens« (oder »das Herz«) gebietet zu helfen, und man glaubt am besten geholfen zu haben, wenn man am schnellsten geholfen hat! Wenn ihr Anhänger dieser Religion dieselbe Gesinnung, die ihr gegen die Mitmenschen habt, auch wirklich gegen euch selber habt, wenn ihr euer eigenes Leiden nicht eine Stunde auf euch liegen lassen wollt und immerfort allem möglichen Unglücke von ferne her schon vorbeugt, wenn ihr Leid und Unlust überhaupt als böse, hassenswert, vernichtungswürdig, als Makel am Dasein empfindet: nun, dann habt ihr, außer eurer Religion des Mitleidens, auch noch eine andere Religion im Herzen, und diese ist vielleicht die Mutter von jener – die Religion der Behaglichkeit. Ach, wie wenig wißt ihr vom Glücke des Menschen, ihr Behaglichen und Gutmütigen! denn das Glück und das Unglück sind zwei Geschwister und Zwillinge, die miteinander großwachsen oder, wie bei euch, miteinander – klein bleiben
A related post: Comfort-Loving Vulgarity

5 April 2013

Darüber muß man schweigen

Christina Rossetti, "Life," from New Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1896), p. 169:
Oh intolerable life which all life long
   Abidest haunted by one dread of death —
   Is such life life? When one considereth,
Then black seems almost white, and discord song.
Alas this solitude where swarms a throng!
   Life slowly grows, and dwindles breath by breath —
   Slowly grows on us, and no word it saith,
Its cords made long and all its pillars strong.
Life wanes apace — a life that but deceives,
   And works and reigns like life, and yet is dead:
Where is the life that dies not but that lives?
The sweet long life immortal, ever young,
The life that wooes us with a silver tongue,
   Whither? Much said, and much more left unsaid.
Update: In an email to me, Stephen Pentz of First Known When Lost points out that the authoritative text of this poem can be found in Time Flies; A Reading Diary (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1897), pp. 214-215:
Scarce tolerable life, which all life long
   Is dominated by one dread of death, —
   Is such life, life?  if so, who pondereth
May call salt sweetness or call discord song.
Ah me, this solitude where swarms a throng!
   Life slowly grows and dwindles breath by breath:
   Death slowly grows on us; no word it saith,
Its cords all lengthened and its pillars strong.
Life dies apace, a life that but deceives:
   Death reigns as tho' it lived, and yet is dead:
Where is the life that dies not but that lives?
   The sweet long life, immortal, ever young,
   True life that wooes us with a silver tongue
Of hope, much said and much more left unsaid.
"Note her brother's omission of 'Death' at the beginning of line 7," he writes. "That makes quite a difference, doesn't it?"

4 April 2013

Having Reached the Age of Forty

Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Oeuvres complètes de Chamfort, Vol. I (Paris: Chaumerot Jeune, 1824), pp. 406-407. My translation:
When I was young I was driven by passions, and they drew me into the world. I was forced to look, in society and in pleasures, for a little respite from painful aches. People used to preach to me about the joys of leading a retired life, of work, and they bored me to tears with pedantic sermons on the subject. Having reached the age of forty and having lost the passions that made society bearable, I now see only misery and futility in it. I do not need people to escape from aches that no longer exist. I have developed a very strong taste for solitude and work, and it has replaced all the rest; I have ceased to go out into the world. Now people will not cease tormenting me and saying that I should return; I have been accused of being a misanthrope and so on. What to make of this strange difference? Men have a need to find fault with everything.
The original:
Quand j'étais jeune, ayant les besoins des passions, et attiré par elles dans le monde, forcé de chercher, dans la société et dans les plaisirs, quelques distractions à des peines cruelles, on me prêchait l'amour de la retraite, du travail, et on m'assommait de sermons pédantesques sur ce sujet. Arrivé à quarante ans, ayant perdu les passions qui rendent la société supportable, n'en voyant plus que la misère et la futilité, n'ayant plus besoin du monde pour échapper à des peines qui n'existaient plus, le goût de la retraite et du travail est devenu très vif chez moi, et a remplacé tout le reste; j'ai cessé d'aller dans le monde: alors, on n'a cessé de me tourmenter pour que j'y revinsse; j'ai été accusé d'être misantrope, etc. Que conclure de cette bizarre différence? Le besoin que les hommes ont de tout blâmer. 

3 April 2013

Some Strictly Determined Law

A. C. Benson, The Silent Isle (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1910), pp. 104-105:
Who does not remember friends of college days, graceful and winning creatures, lost in the sense of their own significance, who had nothing, it may be, particular to say, no great intellectual grip, no suggestiveness, yet moving about in a mysterious paradise of their own, full of dumb emotion, undefined longing, and with a deep sense of the romantic possibilities of life. Alas, as the days move on and the crisis delays, as life brings the need of labour, the necessity of earning money, as love and friendship lose their rosy glow and settle down into comfortable relations, the disillusionment spreads and widens. I do not say that the nearer view of life is not more just, more wholesome, more manly. It is but the working of some strictly determined law. The dreams fade, become unreal and unsubstantial; though not rarely, in some glimpse of retrospect, the pilgrim turns, ascends a hillock by the road, and sees the far-off lines, the quiet folds, of the blue heights from which he descended in the blithe air of the morning, and knows that they were desirable. Perhaps the happiest of all are those who, as the weary day advances, can catch a sight of some no less beautiful hills ahead of him, their hollows full of misty gold, where the long journey may end; and then, however wearily the sun falls on the dusty road and the hedged fields to left and right, he knows that the secrets of the earlier day are beautiful secrets still, and that the fine wonder of youth has yet to be satisfied. 

1 April 2013

The Only Safe Rule

Arthur Schopenhauer, The Art of Controversy, tr. T. Bailey Saunders:
The only safe rule, therefore, is that which Aristotle mentions in the last chapter of his Topica: not to dispute with the first person you meet, but only with those of your acquaintance of whom you know that they possess sufficient intelligence and self-respect not to advance absurdities; to appeal to reason and not to authority, and to listen to reason and yield to it; and, finally, to cherish truth, to be willing to accept reason even from an opponent, and to be just enough to bear being proved to be in the wrong, should truth lie with him. From this it follows that scarcely one man in a hundred is worth your disputing with him. You may let the remainder say what they please, for every one is at liberty to be a fool — desipere est jus gentium. Remember what Voltaire says: La paix vaut encore mieux que la vérité. Remember also an Arabian proverb which tells us that on the tree of silence there hangs its fruit, which is peace.