20 April 2017

Childish and Silly

Charles Ritchie, entry for 8 November 1941, The Siren Years: A Canadian Diplomat Abroad 1937-1945  (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001), p. 131:
I have been reading with singularly little pleasure some modern poetry in Horizon magazine. What can you expect of poets who keep on thinking about the “happiness of the common people”, as if happiness could be an “ideal”. They remind me of those thick-headed Babbitts who drew up the American Declaration of Independence and who announced the “pursuit of happiness” as a political aim. The poets’ contemporary left-wing opinions have no real political significance; they have not faced up to the fact that the new world for which they are rooting will be just as immoral and selfish as the old. They still believe in Santa Claus. To me that makes all the they have to hint about the future childish and silly. The only hope for the future is that more political intelligence will be applied to our problems so that the machine will not break down again. It is first of all a technical problem. But that it will be a better world for poetry to flourish in is poisonous nonsense.

18 April 2017

Epitaph for a Career in Journalism

George du Maurier, Trilby (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1901), p. 23:
As some things are too sad and too deep for tears, so some things are too grotesque and too funny for laughter.

12 April 2017

In All Humility

Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Whistler: The Friend (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1930), p. 40:
Whatever their training, whoever their master, they [the Parisian art students of the mid 19th century] were not taught to despise the past. No valiant cry from youth then of "Down with the Louvre! Down with the Old Masters!" Youth went reverently to the Louvre to worship, to copy, to endeavour to learn at least a little of what the old Masters had to teach.... The youth of that earlier generation, in their simplicity, visited the Louvre in all humility and hoped by studying its masterpieces to become masters in their turn.

Winslow Homer, Art-students and Copyists in the Louvre Gallery
(Harper’s Weekly, January 11, 1868)

11 April 2017

Travelling Companions

Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence mentioned a while ago that he collects stories of reading in extremis. This put me in mind of an old post on Le Blog du Bibliophile which transcribed a couple of handwritten notes found inside a 1530 edition of Petrarch.

The first, signed Edmund Parsons, dates from 1913 and reads: "To buy this book I sold a sleeved pullover". The second note is dated 1944 and unsigned: "Bought Verona Autumn 1944 when being deported into Germany".

Hugues' blog post ends (my translation):
A friend said to me recently: "When things are not going well, it does a world of good to immerse oneself in a book." He is right, whether we struggle, make unreasonable sacrifices, or take distant journeys [in order to acquire them], books are travelling companions that bring us moments of happiness and comfort which are often unsurpassed.
You'd need to give up more than your sweater for a copy today: the 1558 edition is selling for $943.50. The 1552 edition has been scanned and is available on Archive.org.

9 April 2017

The Old Lie

Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est," Poems of Wilfred Owen (London: Chatto and Windus, 1933), p. 66:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Related posts:

4 April 2017

Birthday Thoughts

Blaise Pascal, Pensées 205 (tr. W. F. Trotter)
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been alloted to me? Memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis.
Quand je considère la petite durée de ma vie absorbée dans l’éternité précédente et suivante, memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis, le petit espace que je remplis et même que je vois abîmé dans l’infinie immensité des espaces que j’ignore et qui m’ignorent, je m’effraie et m’étonne de me voir ici plutôt que là, car il n’y a point de raison pourquoi ici plutôt que là, pourquoi à présent plutôt que lors. Qui m’y a mis? Par l’ordre et la conduite de qui ce lieu et ce temps a‑t‑il été destiné à moi?

31 March 2017

Literature Exists to Please

Augustine Birrell, "The Office of Literature," The Collected Essays & Addresses of the Rt. Hon. Augustine Birrell, Vol. 3 (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1922), pp. 55-56:
Cooks, warriors, and authors must be judged by  the effects they produce: toothsome dishes, glorious victories, pleasant books — these are our demands. We have nothing to do with ingredients, tactics, or methods. We have no desire to be admitted into the kitchen, the council, or the study. The cook may clean her saucepans how she pleases — the warrior place his men as he likes — the author handle his material or weave his plot as best he can — when the dish is served we only ask, Is it good? when the battle has been fought, Who won? when the book comes out. Does it read?

Authors ought not to be above being reminded that it is their first duty to write agreeably — some very disagreeable men have succeeded in doing so, and there is therefore no need for anyone to despair. Every author, be he grave or gay, should try to make his book as ingratiating as possible. Reading is not a duty, and has consequently no business to be made disagreeable. Nobody is under any obligation to read any other man's book.

Literature exists to please — to lighten the burden of men's lives; to make them for a short while forget their sorrows and their sins, their silenced hearths, their disappointed hopes, their grim futures — and those men of letters are the best loved who have best performed literature's truest office.

27 March 2017


Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 363:
Individuals whose life is without meaning hate themselves, for their weakness, and hate life, for making them weak. This hatred manifests itself in absolute identification with destructive power, in its mythological, historical and biological manifestations; manifests itself in the desire for the absolute extinction of existence. Such identification leads man to poison whatever he touches, to generate unnecessary misery in the face of inevitable suffering, to turn his fellows against themselves, to intermingle earth with hell – merely to attain vengeance upon God and his creation.
Cf. Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, "J.-K. Huysmans," Le Roman contemporain (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1902), pp. 281-282:
«Après les Fleurs du mal, — dis-je à Baudelaire, — il ne vous reste plus, logiquement, que la bouche d'un pistolet ou les pieds de la croix.» Baudelaire choisit les pieds de la croix. Mais l'auteur d'À Rebours les choisira-t-il?
       My translation:
I told Baudelaire that, after Les Fleurs du mal, the only logical choice left to him was between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the cross. Baudelaire chose the foot of the cross. But will the author of À Rebours make the same choice?

Décadence: It's not all beer and skittles

24 March 2017

Everything He Touches Turns to Ashes

Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 263:
Denial of the heroic promotes decadence, equally – absolute rejection of the order of tradition; absolute rejection of order itself. This pattern of apprehension and behavior seems far removed from that of the fascist – but the decadent is just as arrogant as his evidently more rigid peer. He has merely identified himself absolutely with no thing, rather than with one thing. He is rigidly convinced of the belief that nothing matters – convinced that nothing is of value, despite the opinions of (clearly-deluded, weak and despicable) others; convinced that nothing is worth the effort. The decadent functions in this manner like an anti-Midas – everything he touches turns to ashes.
 Ibid., p. 268:
The decadent says, “there is no such thing as to know” – and never attempts to accomplish anything. Like his authoritarian counterpart, he makes himself “immune from error,” since mistakes are always made with regards to some valued, fixed and desired end. The decadent says “look, here is something new, something inexplicable; that is evidence, is it not, that everything that I have been told is wrong. History is unreliable; rules are arbitrary; accomplishment is illusory. Why do anything, under such circumstances?” But he is living on borrowed time – feeding, like a parasite, on the uncomprehended body of the past. If he works sufficiently hard, and saws off the branch on which he is sitting, then he will fall, too, into the jaws of the thing he ignored.
A related post: Decadence

20 March 2017

The Sad Fact That They Are Slaves

William Morris in The Art of Authorship, ed. George Bainton (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1890), p. 61:
If I may venture to advise you as to what to advise [young people who are interested in becoming authors], it would be that you should warn them off art and literature as professions, as bread-winning work, most emphatically. If I were advising them, I should advise them to learn as soon as possible the sad fact that they are slaves, whatever their position may be, so that they might turn the whole of their energies towards winning freedom, if not for themselves, yet for the children they will beget. Under such conditions art and literature are not worth consideration.
Edward Burne-Jones, illustration for A Dream of John Ball (1888) 

A related post: Three Hours of Leisure

15 March 2017

Exceptionally Dear to the Heart of the Recluse

Thomas Seccombe, "The Work of George Gissing; An Introductory Survey," The House of Cobwebs (London: Constable, 1906), p. ix:
Upon the larger external rings of the book-reading multitude it is not probable that Gissing will ever succeed in impressing himself. There is an absence of transcendental quality about his work, a failure in humour, a remoteness from actual life, a deficiency in awe and mystery, a shortcoming in emotional power, finally, a lack of the dramatic faculty, not indeed indispensable to a novelist, but almost indispensable as an ingredient in great novels of this particular genre. In temperament and vitality he is palpably inferior to the masters (Dickens, Thackeray, Hugo, Balzac) whom he reverenced with such a cordial admiration and envy. A 'low vitality' may account for what has been referred to as the 'nervous exhaustion' of his style. It were useless to pretend that Gissing belongs of right to the 'first series' of English Men of Letters. But if debarred by his limitations from a resounding or popular success, he will remain exceptionally dear to the heart of the recluse, who thinks that the scholar does well to cherish a grievance against the vulgar world beyond the cloister.

9 March 2017

I've Always Liked Beans on Toast

Seneca, "Letter XVIII," Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, tr. Richard M. Gummere, Vol. I (Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1917), pp. 119-121:
I shall give you also a lesson: Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: "Is this the condition that I feared?" It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes. Such is the course which those men have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

You need not suppose that I mean meals like Timon's, or "paupers' huts," or any other device which luxurious millionaires use to beguile the tedium of their lives. Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man's peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.

There is no reason, however, why you should think that you are doing anything great; for you will merely be doing what many thousands of slaves and many thousands of poor men are doing every day. But you may credit yourself with this item, – that you will not be doing it under compulsion, and that it will be as easy for you to endure it permanently as to make the experiment from time to time. Let us practise our strokes on the "dummy"; let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard. We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden.
Related posts:

7 March 2017

Misanthropy Is the Result

Arthur Schopenhauer, "Antimoral Incentives," The Basis of Morality, tr. Arthur Brodrik Bullock (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1903), pp. 155-156:
Ill-will, in its lower degrees, is very frequent, indeed, almost a common thing; and it easily rises in the scale. Goethe is assuredly right when he says that in this world indifference and aversion are quite at home. — (Wahlverwandtschaften, Part I., chap. 3.) It is very fortunate for us that the cloak, which prudence and politeness throw over this vice, prevents us from seeing how general it is, and how the bellum omnium contra omnes is constantly waged, at least in thought. Yet ever and anon there is some appearance of it: for instance, in the relentless backbiting so frequently observed; while its clearest manifestation is found in all outbreaks of anger, which, for the most part, are quite disproportional to their cause, and which could hardly be so violent, had they not been compressed — like gunpowder — into the explosive compound formed of long cherished brooding hatred. Ill-will usually arises from the unavoidable collisions of Egoism which occur at every step. It is, moreover, objectively excited by the view of the weakness, the folly, the vices, failings, shortcomings, and imperfections of all kinds, which every one more or less, at least occasionally, affords to others. Indeed, the spectacle is such, that many a man, especially in moments of melancholy and depression, may be tempted to regard the world, from the aesthetic standpoint, as a cabinet of caricatures; from the intellectual, as a madhouse; and from the moral, as a nest of sharpers. If such a mental attitude be indulged, misanthropy is the result.
The original can be found in the third section of Schopenhauer's Preisschrift über die Grundlage der Moral, specifically on p. 199 of Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1891).

Related posts:

3 March 2017

More Books and Fewer Clothes

A. Edward Newton, The Amenities of Book Collecting and Kindred Affections (London: John Lane at The Bodley Head, 1920), p. 123:
There is a joy in mere ownership [of books]. It may be silly, or it may be selfish; but it is a joy, akin to that of possessing land, which seems to need no defense. We do not walk over our property every day; we frequently do not see it; but when the fancy takes us, we love to forget our cares and responsibilities in a ramble over our fields. In like manner, and for the same reason, we browse with delight in a corner of our library in which we have placed our most precious books. We should buy our books as we buy our clothes, not only to cover our nakedness, but to embellish us; and we should buy more books and fewer clothes.

1 March 2017

Twitter Would Fall Silent

Katherine E. Conway (1853-1927), "When Silence Is Golden," A Lady and Her Letters (Boston: Pilot Publishing Company, 1895), pp. 51-52:
If you have received a captious, fretful, bitter, unjust, or even spiteful and impertinent letter, the best rebuke you can possibly give the writer is absolutely to ignore it. To "talk back" with your pen puts the offender on her mettle. After she sent that letter, ten to one she would have been glad to call it back. She had a bad quarter of an hour thinking how you would receive it. But your answer comes at once, full of annoyance and pain. She begins to justify herself, and your peace of mind and dignity suffer.

Pay no apparent attention to the unjust or impertinent letter. Give its writer time to think it over, and, in all probability, she will eventually see her blunder and try to repair it. If she does not, you are still the gainer by ceasing to hold intercourse with her.

28 February 2017

Not in It for the Money

Peter Sichel, CIA station chief in Berlin after the Second World War, in an epilogue to Lucas Delattre's A Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich, tr. George A. Holoch Jr. (New York: Grove Press, 2005), p. 238:
Good intelligence sources are usually those who, for ideological reasons, do not agree with the policies of their government. They make contact with "the opposition" and volunteer their information. In this manner the Russians and we have gathered high-level intelligence over the last eighty years. Only rarely are "agents" recruited through subterfuge or the offer of money or blackmail. Ideology is still the great motivator and Fritz Kolbe is the ideal example of such a freedom fighter.
I haven't seen the original Fritz Kolbe: Un Espion au coeur du IIIe Reich (Paris: Éditions Denoël, 2003) but this is an admirable translation; it reads like a novel. The book lacks an index, but does have copious end notes.

27 February 2017

The Moral Error of Ingratitude

Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin Press, 2009):
The idea of autonomy denies that we are born into a world that existed prior to us. It posits an essential aloneness; an autonomous being is free in the sense that a being severed from all others is free. To regard oneself this way is to betray the natural debts we owe to the world, and commit the moral error of ingratitude. For in fact we are basically dependent beings: one upon another, and each on a world that is not of our making.

22 February 2017

Something of a Dinosaur

Keith Thomas, "Diary," London Review of Books,  June 10, 2010, pp. 36-37:
In the end, we all have to make excerpts from the books and documents we read. In the 16th and 17th centuries, scholars tended to read books in an extrapolatory way, selecting passages to be memorised or copied into common-place books. Sometimes they kept their excerpts in the order in which they came across them. More usually, they tried to arrange them under predetermined headings: virtues and vices, perhaps, or branches of knowledge. Properly organised, a good collection of extracts provided a reserve of quotations and aphorisms which could be used to support an argument or adorn a literary composition. As the historian Thomas Fuller remarked, ‘A commonplace book contains many notions in garrison, whence the owner may draw out an army into the field on competent warning.’
The truth is that I have become something of a dinosaur. Nowadays, researchers don’t need to read early printed books laboriously from cover to cover. They have only to type a chosen word into the appropriate database to discover all the references to the topic they are pursuing. I try to console myself with the reflection that they will be less sensitive to the context of what they find and that they will certainly not make the unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity.

17 February 2017

A Double Wall of Centuries

James Russell Lowell, "Library of Old Authors", My Study Windows (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913), pp. 290-291:
What a sense of security in an old book which Time has criticised for us! What a precious feeling of seclusion in having a double wall of centuries between us and the heats and clamors of contemporary literature! How limpid seems the thought, how pure the old wine of scholarship that has been settling for so many generations in those silent crypts and Falernian amphorae of the Past! No other writers speak to us with the authority of those whose ordinary speech was that of our translation of the Scriptures; to no modern is that frank unconsciousness possible which was natural to a period when yet reviews were not; and no later style breathes that country charm characteristic of days ere the metropolis had drawn all literary activity to itself, and the trampling feet of the multitude had banished the lark and the daisy from the fresh privacies of language. Truly, as compared with the present, these old voices seem to come from the morning fields and not the paved thoroughfares of thought.

16 February 2017

An Inner Richness of the Soul

Lin Yutang, "The Importance of Loafing," The Importance of Living (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1938), p. 155:
No, the enjoyment of an idle life doesn't cost any money. The capacity for true enjoyment of idleness is lost in the moneyed class and can be found only among people who have a supreme contempt for wealth. It must come from an inner richness of the soul in a man who loves the simple ways of life and who is somewhat impatient with the business of making money. There is always plenty of life to enjoy for a man who is determined to enjoy it. If men fail to enjoy this earthly existence we have, it is because they do not love life sufficiently and allow it to be turned into a humdrum routine existence.

13 February 2017

Valentine's Day

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960), p. 169:
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, and irredeemable.
Not unrelated:

10 February 2017

To What End Wouldst Thou Live Longer?

Robert Dodsley, The Economy of Human Life (DeLand, Florida: Clifford Anderson Owens, 1910), pp. 78-79:
Complain not with the fool of the shortness of thy time. Remember that with thy days thy cares are shortened. Take from the period of thy life the useless parts of it, and what remaineth? Take off the time of thine infancy, the second infancy of age, thy sleep, thy thoughtless hours, thy days of sickness, and even at the fullness of years, how few seasons hast thou truly numbered! He who gave thee life as a blessing, shortened it to make it more so. To what end would longer life have served thee? Wishest thou to have had an opportunity of more vices? As to the good, will not he who shortened thy span, be satisfied with the fruits of it?

To what end, O child of sorrow! wouldst thou live longer? To breathe, to eat, to see the world? All this thou hast done often already. Too frequent repetition, is it not monotonous? Or is it not superfluous? Wouldst thou improve thy wisdom and virtue? Alas! what are thou to know? Or who is it that shall teach thee? Badly thou employest the little thou hast; dare not therefore to complain that more is not given thee.

8 February 2017

Gathering Nectar

Madame Guyon, A Short Method of Prayer,  tr. A. W. Marston (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, & Searle, 1875), pp. 6-7:
Take the truth which has presented itself to you, and read two or three lines, seeking to enter into the full meaning of the words, and go on no further so long as you find satisfaction in them; leave the place only when it becomes insipid. After that, take another passage, and do the same, not reading more than half a page at once.

It is not so much from the amount read that we derive profit, as from the manner of reading. Those people who get through so much do not profit from it; the bees can only draw the juice from the flowers by resting on them, not by flying round them.
The original from the Moyen court et très-facile de faire oraison (Lyon: A. Briasson, 1686), pp. 7-8:
Vous prendrez votre vérité telle que vous la voudrez choisir, & vous en lirez ensuite deux ou trois lignes pour les digérer & goûter, tâchant d'en prendre le suc , & de vous tenir arrêté à l'endroit que vous lisez tant que vous y trouvez du goût, & ne passant point outre que cet endroit ne vous soit rendu insipide.

Après cela il faut en reprendre autant, & faire demême, ne lisant pas plus de demi-page à la fois. Ce n'est pas tant la quantité de la lecture qui profite que la manière de lire. Ces gens qui courent si fort, ne profitent pas, non plus que les abeilles ne peuvent tirer le suc des fleurs qu'en s'y reposant, & non en les parcourant.

6 February 2017

Substituting the Hovel for the Palace

Ralph Adams Cram, Walled Towns (Boston: Marshall Jones, 1919), p. 20:
The nineteenth-century superstition that life proceeds after an inevitable system of progressive evolution, so defiant of history, so responsible in great degree for the many delusions that made the [First World] war not only possible but inevitable, finds few now to do it honour. The soul is not forever engaged in the graceful industry of building for itself ever more stately mansions; it is quite as frequently employed in defiling and destroying those already built, and in substituting the hovel for the palace.

3 February 2017

Wilderness Survival

Maurice Francis Egan, Confessions of a Book-Lover (Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1922), p. 61:
Who is more amusingly cheerful than Montaigne, who more amusingly wise, who so well bred and attractive, who knew the world better and took it only as the world? Give me the old volume of Montaigne and a loaf of bread — no Victrola singing to me in the wilderness ! — a thermos bottle, and one or two other things, and I can still spend the day in any wild place!

1 February 2017

A Fragmentary Ability

Albert Schweitzer, The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization, tr. C. T. Campion (London: A. & C. Black, 1923), pp. 21-22:
Human labour is organized and co-ordinated so that specialization may enable individuals to make the highest and most effective possible contribution. The results obtained are amazing, but the spiritual significance of the work for the worker suffers. There is no call upon the whole man, only upon some of his faculties, and this has a reflex effect upon his nature as a whole. The faculties which build up personality and are called out by comprehensive and varied tasks are ousted by the less comprehensive ones, which from this point of view are, in the general sense of the word, less spiritual. The artisan of to-day does not understand his trade as a whole in the way in which his predecessor did. He no longer learns, like the latter, to work the wood or the metal through all the stages of manufacture; many of these stages have already been carried out by men and machines before the material comes into his hands. Consequently his reflectiveness, his imagination, and his skill are no longer called out by ever varying difficulties in the work, and his creative and artistic powers are atrophied. In place of the normal self-consciousness which is promoted by work into the doing of which he must put his whole power of thought and his whole personality, there comes a self-satisfaction which is content with a fragmentary ability which, it may be admitted, is perfect, and this self-satisfaction is persuaded by its perfection in mastering details to overlook its imperfection in dealing with the whole.
A related post: Anonymous and Impersonal Serfdom

27 January 2017

Actively Suppressing Your Own Ability to Think

Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), p. 81:
My efforts to read, comprehend, and write abstracts of twenty-eight academic journal articles per day required me to actively suppress my own ability to think, because the more you think, the more the inadequacies in your understanding of an author’s argument come into focus. This can only slow you down. The quota demanded that I suppress as well my sense of responsibility to others — not just the author of an article but also the hapless users of InfoTrac, who might naïvely suppose that my abstract reflects the contents of that article. So the job required both dumbing down and a bit of moral reeducation. Now, it is probably true that every job entails some kind of mutilation. Working as an electrician, you breathe a lot of unknown dust in crawl spaces, your knees get bruised, your neck gets strained from looking up at the ceiling while installing lights or ceiling fans, and you get shocked regularly, sometimes while on a ladder. Your hands are sliced up from twisting wires together, handling junction boxes made out of stamped sheet metal, and cutting metal conduit with a hacksaw. But none of this damage touches the best part of yourself.
A related post: Hack Writers

26 January 2017

Not a Profession or a Trade

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), p. 200:
Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.
Related posts:

25 January 2017

In Praise of Travel

Thomas Coryat, Coryat's Crudities, Vol. I (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1905), pp. 139-140:
[S]uch is the sweetnesse of travelling and seeing the world, such the pleasure, such the delight, that I thinke that man voyde of all sense, and of a stony hardnes, which cannot be said to be moved with so great pleasure, that he had rather remaine in his owne house, as it were in a prison or gaole, then to converse in the most beautifull Theatre of nature, and the full court of all delights. O sluggish, abject, servile, and most dejected minde of all, which includeth it selfe within the narrow bounds of his owne house, and doth in a manner banish it selfe into an Island. Truely I know not what greater punishment of deportation there can be, and of condemnation to eternal fetters, or to the mettall mines, then to be deprived and spoyled of all those things, which are to be seene by the admirable workmanship of nature in the heaven, earth and sea, and for whose sakes these spheares of our eyes, these lights, this sharpnes of sight, these senses were given unto us, that we might survay and contemplate all these things: these feete, these ankles, these motions, and faculties of running were graunted unto us, that we might goe unto and seeke for the most remote places: these handes, these fingers, these sinews were given unto us that we might touch and feele the miracles of the Omnipotent; and being knowen unto us by his workmanshippe, might magnifie that high Architect, and Artificer of all things.
Ibid., p. 146:
But what answer shall we make to those that complaine that money is spent by travell? Pray what are they that object this? Surely such as thinke nothing blessed, nothing glorious, nothing fortunate, nothing to be desired but onely riches. Verily they are most unworthy to whom nature should give any other sense, who had rather want those true and eternal riches, vertue, wisdome, and the knowledge of most worthy and profitable matters which are purchased by travel, then money. They are worthy to remaine for ever lame and blinde with their Mammon, and most unworthy to enjoy the benefites of nature, or and other pleasures which are procured by travell. As though the dice and dicing boxe, domesticall idlenesse, domesticall luxury, and the gulfe of domesticall gormandising, doth not farre exceed the necessary charges of travell. Surely the same gulfe of prodigality is at home that is abroad, the same occasion of wasting our fortunes and patrimony, the same good fellowship, the same diet, the same dishes.

cf. They Will Follow Thee at an Inch

24 January 2017

No Tools to Lend

"No Tools to Lend and My Reasons For It", a circular popular with tradesmen in Boston in the 1880s, from The Carpenter, Feb. 15, 1888, p. 7, col. 4:
  1. That one man is enough to use one set of tools.
  2. That no two men use the same tools alike, and by an inexperienced man using the tools of any mechanic, will never have tools in order to use himself.
  3. That the more I lend to a person who calculates to live by borrowing, the more I countenance a bad practice.
  4. That the tools and labor of the mechanic are his capital; with them he earns his bread.
The man who borrows my tools and does his work himself injures me in a twofold point of view, — he becomes a competitor with me at my expense, and returns my tools unfit for use. I worked hard for the money to purchase my tools and the benefit belongs to me. Would you make the mechanic poor, take from him his capital stock and get rich at his expense? If he is not worthy of your patronage, do not rob him; if he is dishonest, handle not his tools for fear of infection. Ye who are rich, blame not the man who asserts his rights. Remember that you do not like to be wronged; why, then, should you wrong your neighbor? When men get so as to give away their money, meat, stock, lumber, grain, and let their lands, houses, shops, horses and carriages, etc. gratuitously and live and support their families, then, and then only, can I lend my tools without sustaining an injury. The man who can prove the above untrue, is cordially invited to the trial.

Suitable for framing. Image from Positive Rake

19 January 2017

The Stoic Ideal

Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), p. 34:
Since manual work has been subject to routinization for over a century, the nonroutinized manual work that remains, outside the confines of the factory, would seem to be resistant to much further routinization. There still appear developments around the margins; for example, in the last twenty years prefabricated roof trusses and stairways have eliminated some of the more challenging elements from the jobs of framers who work for large tract developers, and pre-hung doors have done the same for finish carpenters generally.  But still, the physical circumstances of the jobs performed by carpenters, plumbers, and auto mechanics vary too much for them to be executed by idiots; they require circumspection and adaptability. One feels like a man, not a cog in a machine. The trades are then a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction but also of the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life. Freedom from hope and fear is the Stoic ideal.

17 January 2017

A Thick and Stifling Curtain

William James Dawson, "What It Is That Endures," The Threshold of Manhood (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1889), pp. 87-88:
Men who spend many solitary hours with nature — men whose calling is in the great waters or the open fields — cannot help feeling something of the ghostly side of nature. For them there are presences on the solitary hills; there are voices in the wind; and there is the sense of unseen life touching them on all sides, to which the imagination is sensitive and conscious. But when men come to live in cities, they are like little children who crowd round the bright fire in a little room, and do their best to forget the illimitable mystery of the wide night that reigns without. There is no solitude; there is no time for silent communing; there is no chance for nature to find us. The veil between us and the angel-world seemed very thin in the days when the rushing of the wind over the wide moor at night seemed like the passing of many wings, and when the shimmering of the moonlight in the shadow of the trees was like the white gliding of heavenly presences. But here it is a thick and stifling curtain, and the sense of wonder slowly perishes within us. We have no sense that we are passing away.

13 January 2017

These Are Great Poems

R. S. Thomas, "Unposted," Collected Poems: 1945-1990  (London: J. M. Dent, 1993):
Dear friend unknown,
why send me your poems?
We are brothers, I admit;
but they are no good.
I see why you wrote them,
but why send them? Why not
bury them, as a cat its fæces?
You confuse charity and art.
They have not equal claims,
though the absence of either
will smell more or less the same.

I use my imagination:
I see a cramped hand gripping
a bent pen, or, worse perhaps,
it was with your foot you wrote.
You wait in an iron bed
for my reply. My letter
could be the purse of gold
you pay your way with past
the giant. Despair.

                     I lower my standards
and let truth hit me squarely
between the eyes. ‘These are great
poems,’ I write, and see heaven’s
slums with their rags flying,
cripples brandishing their crutches,
and the one, innocent of scansion,
who knows charity is short
and the poem for ever, suffering
my dark lie with all the blandness
with which the round moon suffers an eclipse.

R. S. Thomas, always ready with a kind word and a friendly smile

10 January 2017

It's Not a Race

Edward Everett Hale, "How to Travel," How to Do It (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1882), pp. 166-167:
Four or five hours [walking] on the road is all you want in each day. Even resolute idlers, as it is to be hoped you all are on such occasions, can get eight miles a day out of that, and that is enough for a true walking party. Remember all along, that you are not running a race with the railway train. If you were, you would be beaten certainly; and the less you think you are the better. You are travelling in a method of which the merit is that it is not fast, and that you see every separate detail of the glory of the world. What a fool you are, then, if you tire yourself to death, merely that you may say that you did in ten hours what the locomotive would gladly have finished in one, if by that effort you have lost exactly the enjoyment of nature and society that you started for.
A related post: A Country Walk

5 January 2017

Accepting the Worst

Lin Yutang, "The Importance of Loafing," The Importance of Living (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1938), p. 158:
Belief in our mortality, the sense that we are eventually going to crack up and be extinguished like the flame of a candle, I say, is a gloriously fine thing. It makes us sober; it makes us a little sad; and many of us it makes poetic. But above all, it makes it possible for us to make up our mind and arrange to live sensibly, truthfully and always with a sense of our own limitations. It gives peace also, because true peace of mind comes from accepting the worst. Psychologically, I think, it means a release of energy.
A related post: The Absolute Hopelessness of Everything

3 January 2017

He Is Born to Trouble

William James Dawson, "Job on Pessimism," The Threshold of Manhood (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1889), p. 184:
The old man is like a traveller who started long ago with a jocund company upon the mountain path; but as day wanes one by one his friends drop behind, and fall out of sight or hearing. One is lame and one is weary; the cloud rolls up and covers one, and the snowstorm blows and hides another: one sleeps beside some flowery hollow on the way, and one was smitten by the lightning or the avalanche: he alone is left, pressing on with failing heart to the solemn inn of death, which crowns the mountain summit, and where in awful solitude he lies down to die. He is born to trouble, and cannot escape trouble. Neither fame, nor honour, nor length of days can teach him any secret whereby he may elude that awful presence. The coin in which life pays itself to him may differ, as gold differs from silver or copper, but the mintage and superscription are the same.