12 April 2021

A Lack of Fine Feeling and Good Judgment

Anthony Ludovici, “The English Aristocrat as a Failure in the Art of Protecting and Guiding the Ruled,” A Defence of Aristocracy (Boston: LeRoy Phillips, 1915), p. 49:

The rule of the machine, or of a system of commerce and industry such as the one termed capitalistic, does not come from Heaven. It is not a visitation of Providence. If it comes at all, if it prevails at all, its ultimate triumph must be due to a deliberate act of taste and judgment on the part of some portion of the nation. The contention that it would have been in the interest of all concerned, and particularly of the landed aristocracy, to resist the ultimate complete triumph of the vulgar tradesman's taste, I for one heartily uphold; and when I look around me to-day and see the ugliness and appalling squalor of our large cities, when I realise that the growing mass of useless dregs in the population, the growing unsavouriness and repulsiveness of mankind, are almost entirely the outcome of a change which is barely 150 years old, I cannot help thinking that those of the governing classes who allowed this change to come about showed a lack of fine feeling and of good judgment, for which they deserve to perish in the general Nemesis which threatens to overtake all societies that allow themselves to become the victims of the engineer's, the shopkeeper's and the stupid person's democratic mind.


Francisco Goya, You Will Not Escape (c. 1798)

7 April 2021

Houellebecq on Euthanasia

Michel Houellebecq, “Une civilisation qui légalise l’euthanasie perd tout droit au respect," [A Civilization That Legalizes Euthanasia Loses All Right to Respect] Le Figaro (5 April, 2021), my translation:

The Catholics will resist [the legalization of euthanasia in France] as best as they can but, it is sad to say, we have grown more or less accustomed to seeing the Catholics lose every time. The Muslims and the Jews think exactly the same thing as the Catholics on this matter, as they do on many other “societal” (a terrible word) issues; the media are generally very good at hiding this. I have few illusions. In the end these religions will roll over and submit to the yoke of  “republican law”; their priests, rabbis, or imams will accompany those who are to be euthanized, telling them that it's not so bad, that tomorrow things will be better, and that even if they have been abandoned by men, God will look after them. Let's admit it.

From the Buddhist lamas' point of view, the situation is doubtless much worse. For any serious reader of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the moment before death is a very important one in a man's life, since it offers him a last chance, even in the presence of bad karma, to free himself from the wheel of suffering and end the cycle of reincarnation. Cutting off these final hours is therefore an utterly criminal act; unfortunately, Buddhists seldom intervene in public discourse.

Would Schopenhauer agree with his student? Schopenhauer did describe suicide as a “clumsy experiment” — if there is a subsequent state of being, a pessimist is bound to wonder if bringing the present one to an abrupt end might result in circumstances that are even worse.

Houellebecq's concluding paragraph:

When a country — a society, a civilization — reaches the point of legalizing euthanasia, in my eyes it has lost all right to be respected. From that moment it becomes not only legitimate, but desirable, that it should be destroyed so that something else — another society, another civilization — might have an opportunity to emerge.

Schopenhauer's gilded statue of the Buddha

Image taken from Robert Wicks, “Arthur Schopenhauer’s Bronze Buddha: Neither Tibetan nor Thai, but Shan,” Schopenhauer Jahrbuch (2011) 307-316.

6 April 2021

Avoid Crowds

Gabriel Tarde, L'Opinion et la foule (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1910), pp. 55-56 (my translation):

Crowds are not only credulous, but crazed. We note that they have several traits in common with asylum inmates: an inflated sense of pride, intolerance, and immoderation in all things. Like the insane, they are constantly moving between the two extreme poles of excitement and depression — sometimes they rage heroically, and other times they are overcome with panic. They have real collective hallucinations: grouped together, men believe that they are seeing and hearing things that, when isolated, they no longer see nor hear. And, when they believe they are being pursued by an invisible enemy, their faith is founded upon a deranged line of reasoning. We find a good example of this in Taine [specifically in Les Origines de la France contemporaine]. Towards the end of July 1789, under the influence of the national commotion which had sprung up everywhere, feverish crowds formed in the streets and public squares. A clamour spread from one person to the next, and soon invaded all of the Angoumois region, from Perigord to Auvergne: It was said that 10,000 or 20,000 bandits were on their way. People had seen them, the cloud of dust they generated was visible on the horizon, and they were coming to kill everyone. “Entire parishes down in that area ran to hide in the woods, abandoning their homes and carrying their furniture away with them.” Then the truth came to light [i.e., that there were no bandits], and the people returned to their towns. But then they yielded themselves up to exactly the same kind of thinking as those who suffer from persecutory delusions — since they observed a morbid anxiety within themselves, they imagined enemies to justify it.  “We rose up because there was danger,” these groups of people told themselves. “And if we were not menaced by bandits, then it was because we were menaced by something else.” That “something else” being supposed conspirators. And from there they went on to persecutions that were all too real.


Rioters sack the town hall in Strasbourg during the “Great Fear” of 1789
Image from Gallica, via retronews.fr 

2 April 2021

A Peculiar Sentiment Towards the Sun

Walter Thornbury, The Life of J. M. W. Turner  (London: Chatto & Windus, 1897), p. 360:

I am told that up to the period of his very last illness he would often rise at daybreak and with blanket or dressing-gown carelessly thrown over him go out upon the railed-in roof to see the sun rise and to observe the colour flow, flushing back into the pale morning sky. In this tenacity of the dying man to his old love there is to me something very touching, almost sublime. Him Nature could never weary. With the true humility of genius he felt how much he had to learn, and how inimitable was the beauty of the world he had tried to depict.

He died with the winter-morning sun shining upon his face as he lay in bed. The attendant drew up the window-blind, and the luminary shed its beams upon the dying artist — the sun he had been wont to regard with such love and veneration.


John Ruskin, "Letter XLV," Fors Clavigera (New York: Kelmscott Society, 1900), p. 122:

“The Sun is God,” said Turner, a few weeks before he died with the setting rays of it on his face. He meant it, as Zoroaster meant it; and was a Sun-worshipper of the old breed.”


Robert Chignell, J. M. W. Turner (London: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1902), p. 57:

Whether it be called reverence, worship, or merely an intense delight in, and feeling for, manifestations of light and colour, it is certain that Turner had a peculiar sentiment towards the sun, shared by no other of his time. If not a god to be worshipped in a religious sense, the sun was to him the one great force and influence in the universe.
J. M. W. Turner, The Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842)

31 March 2021

The Stupid Iconoclastic Rage of the Reformer

Claude Phillips, “Vandalism in Art,” Emotion in Art (London: William Heinemann, 1925), pp. 220-221:

The ravages of time we deplore, yet must sighing accept; the all-devouring rage of fire we may not, with all our precautions, wholly and for ever avert. But the stupid iconoclastic rage of the reformer, the still more hideous nihilistic rage of the destroyer, to whom all greatness and beauty are an insult — these things are surely among the vilest and most irreparable crimes that the individual, or body of individuals, can commit against the human race. For to the whole civilized world — not to the past only, or the present, but to the future — belong, surely, the grandest and most significant achievements of art that the successive ages have brought forth. To slay them, to tear out the heart of their beauty and greatness, is worse even — if we may dare to say so — than to slay the human body, which may, and in the common order of things must, perish, and be replaced. Thus is destroyed, indeed, and obliterated the outcome, the embodiment of man's immortal part, his genius, his soul.

Ivan Alexeyevich Vladimirov, Soldiers Burning Paintings (1917)

When Phillips writes of people “to whom all greatness and beauty are an insult”, I am reminded of a line in Ernst Jünger's Auf den Marmorklippen: “Tief ist der Haß, der in den niederen Herzen dem Schönen gegenüber brennt.” (Deep is the hatred that burns in base hearts in the presence of beauty.)

23 March 2021

No Opinion

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.52, tr. George Long (London: Macmillan, 1914), p. 205:

It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgments. 


Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Pompeian Scene or The Siesta (1868)

15 March 2021

L'Inconnue de la Seine

Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (New York: Bantam Books, 1973), pp. 128-130 (with his footnote):

During the 1920s and early 1930s, all over the Continent, nearly every student of sensibility had a plaster cast of her death mask: a young, full, sweetly smiling face which seems less dead than peacefully sleeping. The girl was in fact genuinely inconnue. All that is known of her is that she was fished out of the Seine and exposed on a block of ice in the Paris Morgue, along with a couple of hundred other corpses awaiting identification. (On the evidence of her hair style, Sacheverell Sitwell believes this happened not later than the early 1880s.) She was never claimed, but someone was sufficiently impressed by her peaceful smile to take a death mask. 

It is also possible that it never happened at all. In another version of the story a researcher, unable to obtain information at the Paris Morgue, followed her trail to the German source of the plaster casts. At the factory he met the Inconnue herself, alive and well and living in Hamburg, the daughter of the now-prosperous manufacturer of her image. 

There is, however, no doubt at all about the cult around her. I am told that a whole generation of German girls modeled their looks on her.* She appears in appropriately aroused stories by Richard La Gallienne, Jules Supervielle and Claire Goll, and oddly enough, since the author is a Communist, was the moving spirit behind the heroine of Aurélian, a long novel which Louis Aragon considers his masterpiece. But her fame was spread most effectively by a sickly though much-translated best seller, One Unknown, by Reinhold Conrad Muschler. He makes her an innocent young country girl who comes to Paris, falls in love with a handsome British diplomat — titled, of course — has a brief but idyllic romance and then, when milord regretfully leaves to marry his suitably aristocratic English fiancee, drowns herself in the Seine. As Muschler's sales show, this was the style of explanation the public wanted for that enigmatic, dead face. 

The cult of the Inconnue seemed to attract young people between the two world wars in much the same way as drugs call them now: to opt out before they start, to give up a struggle that frightens them in a world they find distasteful, and to slide away into a deep inner dream. Death by drowning and blowing your mind with drugs amount, in fantasy, to the same thing: the sweetness, shadow and easy release of a successful regression. So the cult flourished in the absence of all facts, perhaps it even flourished because there were no facts. Like a Rorschach blot, the dead face was the receptacle for any feelings the onlooker wished to project into it. And like the Sphinx and the Mona Lisa, the power of the Inconnue was in her smile — subtle, oblivious, promising peace. Not only was she out of it all, beyond troubles, beyond responsibilities, she had also remained beautiful; she had retained the quality the young most fear to lose — their youth. Although Sitwell credits to her influence an epidemic of suicide among the young people of Evreaux, I suspect she may have saved more lives than she destroyed. To know that it can be done, that the option really exists and is even becoming, is usually enough to relieve a mildly suicidal anxiety. In the end, the function of the Romantic suicide cult is to be a focus for wandering melancholy; almost nobody actually dies.

* I owe this information to Hans Hesse of the University of Sussex. He suggests that the Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s. He thinks that German actresses like Elisabeth Bergner modelled themselves on her. She was finally displaced as a paradigm by Greta Garbo.

L'Inconnue  appears on plate 53 of Charles Bargue's Cours de dessin, where she is described simply as a jeune femme. Goupil & Cie. published Bargue's series of lithographs between 1868 and 1871, so if she did drown it must have been before then.

11 March 2021

The Last Survivor of a Vanished Race

A note on Arnold Böcklin’s painting Villa am Meer, from the Bates and Guild Company Masters in Art Series of Illustrated Monographs, Part 75, No. 7 (March 1906) 38:

The Villa by the Sea, painted in Rome in 1864, after Böcklin's visit to Naples and Capri, is one of the artist's most beautiful renderings of nature in a minor key. Upon a rocky shore stands an old Italian villa, its marble walls and the statues which once adorned its garden almost hidden by dark cypress-trees whose tops are swayed by the wind. Lower down, upon the beach, stands a woman clad from head to foot in mourning garments, leaning against the rocks as she gazes sorrowfully over the water which breaks in waves at her feet. A leaden sky enhances the indescribable sadness which pervades the picture and imparts itself to the spectator. 

“In the measured beating of the waves upon the shore,” writes Henri Mendelsohn, “we seem to hear the swan-song of a mighty past. May not this mourning woman be some Iphigenia yearning for the lost land of Greece? Such a thought was in the artist's mind, for he says that in this melancholy figure he wished to represent the last survivor of a vanished race.”


Arnold Böcklin, Villa am Meer II (1865)

“Henri” Mendelsohn was the art historian Henriette Mendelsohn (1853-1928). The quote mentioned above can be found on pages 76-77 of her biography of Arnold Böcklin (Berlin: Ernst Hofmann & Co., 1901), which is the 40th volume in Hofmann's Geisteshelden series.

3 March 2021

Removing Problematic Literature

Bob Le Sueur, Growing Up Fast: An Ordinary Man’s Extraordinary Life in Occupied Jersey (Jersey: Seeker Publishing, 2020), p. 42:

I clearly remember one day a group of Germans coming in and informing the librarian that they were to search the shelves for any material that was thought hostile to German interests. While they were polite they were also very thorough, and climbed up to the highest alcoves in their quest to uncover literature to which the Reich might object. Their progress was marked by a series of thumps as books were flung to the floor, to be gathered up and disposed of. I’m sure there were many books there which were critical of the Nazi regime and it was hardly surprising that they were to be destroyed, but I found it very, very hurtful. It was a clear reminder that free information was something not to be countenanced. 

I do remember thinking that any German soldier who was intellectually alive could not have done that job.


Wartime poster designed by S. Broder
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942
Image from the Library of Congress

2 March 2021

Cold, Implacable Surveillance

John Lewis, A Doctor's Occupation (Jersey: Starlight, 1997):

Later, when wireless sets were forbidden, they [German soldiers] would go up to any pair of civilians whom they saw in close conversation on the street, separate them out of ear-shot of each other, and demand to know what they were talking about. If the details of the conversation did not tally, both civilians would be taken away for interrogation. Very soon we learned not to talk to each other in the street, and only passed the time of day, though we might be the best of friends. After curfew, when no one was abroad, the Gestapo even stood with their ears glued to the window of an occupied room, either to catch details of conversation or even, if they were lucky, the tones of an illicit radio. This cold, implacable surveillance induced a feeling of dread in many people who had any sort of guilty secret, and many radios were either destroyed or handed in.


A homemade crystal radio used during the occupation
From Jersey Heritage, # JERSM/1984/00166