31 May 2012

Instinctive Horror

George Orwell in Pleasure Spots, an As I Please essay that appeared in the Tribune on 11 January 1946:
Much of what goes by the name of pleasure is simply an effort to destroy consciousness. If one started by asking, what is man? what are his needs? how can he best express himself? one would discover that merely having the power to avoid work and live one’s life from birth to death in electric light and to the tune of tinned music is not a reason for doing so. Man needs warmth, society, leisure, comfort and security: he also needs solitude, creative work and the sense of wonder. If he recognised this he could use the products of science and industrialism eclectically, applying always the same test: does this make me more human or less human? He would then learn that the highest happiness does not lie in relaxing, resting, playing poker, drinking and making love simultaneously. And the instinctive horror which all sensitive people feel at the progressive mechanisation of life would be seen not to be a mere sentimental archaism, but to be fully justified. For man only stays human by preserving large patches of simplicity in his life, while the tendency of many modern inventions -- in particular the film, the radio and the aeroplane -- is to weaken his consciousness, dull his curiosity, and, in general, drive him nearer to the animals.

30 May 2012

Unintelligible Darkness

From the preface to the second edition of W. Hale White's Autobiography of Mark Rutherford (London: T. F. Unwin, 1881):
Metaphysics and theology, including all speculations on the why and the wherefore, optimism, pessimism, freedom, necessity, causality, and so forth, are not only for the most part loss of time, but frequently ruinous. It is no answer to say that these things force themselves upon us, and that to every question we are bound to give or try to give an answer. It is true, although strange, that there are multitudes of burning questions which we must do our best to ignore, to forget their existence; and it is not more strange, after all, than many other facts in this wonderfully mysterious and defective existence of ours. One fourth of life is intelligible, the other three-fourths is unintelligible darkness; and our earliest duty is to cultivate the habit of not looking round the corner.

29 May 2012

In the Sweat of Their Own Brows

William Dean Howells in The Man of Letters as a Man of Business, an essay that appeared in Scribner's Magazine in 1893:
[I]s the man of letters ever a business man? I suppose that, strictly speaking, he never is, except in those rare instances where, through need or choice, he is the publisher as well as the author of his books. Then he puts something on the market and tries to sell it there, and is a man of business. But otherwise he is an artist merely, and is allied to the great mass of wage-workers who are paid for the labor they have put into the thing done or the thing made; who live by doing or making a thing, and not by marketing a thing after some other man has done it or made it. The quality of the thing has nothing to do with the economic nature of the case; the author is, in the last analysis, merely a workingman, and is under the rule that governs the workingman's life. If he is sick or sad, and cannot work, if he is lazy or tipsy and will not, then he earns nothing. He cannot delegate his business to a clerk or a manager; it will not go on while he is sleeping. The wage he can command depends strictly upon his skill and diligence. 
I myself am neither sorry nor ashamed for this; I am glad and proud to be of those who eat their bread in the sweat of their own brows, and not the sweat of other men's brows; I think my bread is the sweeter for it. In the meantime I have no blame for business men; they are no more of the condition of things than we workingmen are; they did no more to cause it or create it; but I would rather be in my place than in theirs, and I wish that I could make all my fellow-artists realize that economically they are the same as mechanics, farmers, day-laborers. It ought to be our glory that we produce something, that we bring into the world something that was not choately there before; that at least we fashion or shape something anew.

28 May 2012

One of Those True Book-Lovers

Johan Huizinga, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), p. 63:
From Bologna, in October 1507, Erasmus addressed a letter to the famous Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius, in which he requested him to publish, anew, the two translated dramas of Euripides, as the edition of Badius was out of print and too defective for his taste. What made Aldus attractive in his eyes was, no doubt, besides the fame of the business, though it was languishing at the time, the printer's beautiful type -- "those most magnificent letters, especially those very small ones". Erasmus was one of those true book-lovers who pledge their heart to a type or a size of a book, not because of any artistic preference, but because of readableness and handiness, which to them are of the very greatest importance. 
I believe Bembo is based on the typeface Erasmus admired.

25 May 2012

Disenchantment and Melancholy

Paul Léautaud, Notes retrouvées (Paris: J. Haumont, 1942), my own translation:
The mind finds sad, painful things more beautiful and more enduring than cheerful, happy things. The word evening is more beautiful than the word morning; the word night is more beautiful than the word day; the word autumn is more beautiful than the word summer; the word farewell is more beautiful than the word hello; unhappiness more beautiful than happiness; solitude more beautiful than family, society, and groups; melancholy more beautiful than gaiety; death than birth. When talent is equal, failure is more beautiful than success. A great talent that remains unknown is more beautiful than an author whose books have run to many editions, and who is adored by the public and celebrated every day. A highly talented writer dying in poverty is more beautiful than a writer who dies a millionaire. The man, the woman, who have loved, who have been loved, and who end their lives in a garret, having no other fortune and company but their memories, are more beautiful than the grandfather surrounded by his grandchildren or the dowager who is still feted in her comfortable old age. Where does this come from, which is found in each of us to varying degrees? Is there deep inside of us, more or less, a disenchantment, a melancholy that are content there -- and that must be hated and rejected like a poison?
The original:
Les choses tristes, douloureuses, plus belles pour l'esprit, y trouvant plus de prolongements, que les choses gaies, heureuses. Le mot soir plus beau que le mot matin, le mot nuit que le mot jour, le mot automne que le mot été, le mot adieu que le mot bonjour, le malheur plus beau que le bonheur, la solitude plus belle que la famille, la société, le groupement, la mélancolie plus belle que la gaîté, la mort que la naissance. À talent égal, l'échec plus beau que le succès. Le grand talent restant ignoré plus beau que l'auteur à grands tirages, adoré du public et célébré chaque jour. Un écrivain de grand talent mourant dans la pauvreté plus beau que l'écrivain mourant millionnaire. L'homme, la femme, qui ont aimé, ont été aimés, finissant leur vie dans une chambre au dernier étage, n'ayant pour fortune et pour compagnie que leurs souvenirs, plus beau que le grand-père entouré de ses petits-enfants et que la douairière encore fêtée dans son aisance. D'où cela vient-il, qui se trouve chez chacun de nous à des degrés différents ? Y a-t-il au fond de nous, plus ou moins, un désenchantement, une mélancolie qui se satisfont là, -- et qu'il faut détester et rejeter comme un poison?
Léautaud quotes from this in an interview with Robert Mallet.

24 May 2012

Literature as a Profession

Jerome K. Jerome in My First Book (London: Chatto & Windus, 1894), p. 236:
If a man think to use literature merely as a means to fame and fortune, then he will find it an extremely unsatisfactory profession, and he would have done better to take up politics or company promoting. If he trouble himself about his status and position therein, loving the uppermost tables at feasts, and the chief seats in public places, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Master, Master, then he will find it a profession fuller than most professions of petty jealousy, of little spite, of foolish hating and foolish log-rolling, of feminine narrowness and childish querulousness. If he think too much of his prices per thousand words, he will find it a degrading profession; as the solicitor, thinking only of his bills-of-cost, will find the law degrading; as the doctor, working only for two-guinea fees, will find medicine degrading; as the priest, with his eyes ever fixed on the bishop's mitre, will find Christianity degrading. 
But if he love his work for the work's sake, if he remain child enough to be fascinated with his own fancies, to laugh at his own jests, to grieve at his own pathos, to weep at his own tragedy -- then, as, smoking his pipe, he watches the shadows of his brain coming and going before his half-closed eyes, listens to their voices in the air about him, he will thank God for making him a literary man. To such a one, it seems to me, literature must prove ennobling. Of all professions it is the one compelling a man to use whatever brain he has to its fullest and widest. With one or two other callings, it invites him -- nay, compels him -- to turn from the clamour of the passing day to speak for a while with the voices that are eternal.

23 May 2012

Dismal Hacks

James Runciman, Side Lights (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893), pp. 25-6:
As for the dismal hacks who sometimes call themselves journalists, I cannot grow angry with them; but they do test the patience of the most stolid of men. To call them writers -- écrivains -- would be worse than flattery; they are paper-stainers, and every fresh dribble of their incompetence shows how utterly written out they are. Let them have a noble action to describe, or let them have a world-shaking event given them as subject for comment, the same deadly mechanical dulness marks the description and the article. Look at an article by Forbes or McGahan or Burleigh -- an article wherein the words seem alive -- and then run over a doleful production of some complacent hack, and the astounding range that divides the zenith of journalism from the nadir may at once be seen. The poor hack has all his little bundle of phrases tied up ready to his hand; but he has no brain left, and he cannot rearrange his verbal stock-in-trade in fresh and vivid combinations. The old, old sentences trickle out in the old, old way. 

21 May 2012

Prosperity and Happiness

James Anthony Froude in The Times of Erasmus and Luther (Lecture III), from Short Studies on Great Subjects (London: Longmans Green & Co., 1903), pp. 115-6:
The forces of nature pay no respect to what we call good and evil. Prosperity does not uniformly follow virtue; nor are defeat and failure necessary consequences of vice. Certain virtues -- temperance, industry, and things within reasonable limits -- command their reward. Sensuality, idleness, and waste, commonly lead to ruin. 
But prosperity is consistent with intense worldliness, intense selfishness, intense hardness of heart; while the grander features of human character -- self-sacrifice, disregard of pleasure, patriotism, love of knowledge, devotion to any great and good cause -- these have no tendency to bring men what is called fortune. They do not even necessarily promote their happiness; for do what they will in this way, the horizon of what they desire to do perpetually flies before them. High hopes and enthusiasms are generally disappointed in results; and the wrongs, the cruelties, the wretchednesses of all kinds which for ever prevail among mankind -- the shortcomings in himself of which he becomes more conscious as he becomes really better -- these things, you may be sure, will prevent a noble-minded man from ever being particularly happy.

18 May 2012

Hic Jacet

Today's post on Stephen Pentz's blog, First Known When Lost, deals with epitaphs. It brought to mind a passage from one of my favourite books, namely George Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (London: Constable, 1903), pp. 183-4:
I always turn out of my way to walk through a country churchyard; these rural resting-places are as attractive to me as a town cemetery is repugnant. I read the names upon the stones, and find a deep solace in thinking that for all these the fret and the fear of life are over. There comes to me no touch of sadness; whether it be a little child or an aged man, I have the same sense of happy accomplishment; the end having come, and with it the eternal peace, what matter if it came late or soon? There is no such gratulation as Hic jacet. There is no such dignity as that of death.  In the path trodden by the noblest of mankind these have followed; that which of all who live is the utmost thing demanded, these have achieved. I cannot sorrow for them, but the thought of their vanished life moves me to a brotherly tenderness. The dead, amid this leafy silence, seem to whisper encouragement to him whose fate yet lingers: As we are, so shalt thou be; and behold our quiet!
What would I choose to have carved on my headstone? I've always admired the sentiment and brevity of NFFNSNC, short for non fui, fui, non sum, non curo ("I was not, I was, I am not, I do not mind"). Or perhaps...

As for last words, I look to Paul Léautaud.

So Great Are the Defects

From the second book of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, translated by H. A. J. Munro (Cambridge: Deighton Bell & Co., 1864), p. 59:
For when they suppose that the gods designed all things for the sake of men, they seem to me in all respects to have strayed most widely from true reason. For even if I did not know what first-beginnings are, yet this, judging by the very arrangements of heaven, I would venture to affirm, and led by many other circumstances to maintain, that the nature of the world has by no means been made for us by divine power: so great are the defects by which it stands encumbered. 
                              quorum omnia causa
constituisse deos cum fingunt, omnibus rebus         175
magno opere a vera lapsi ratione videntur.
nam quamvis rerum ignorem primordia quae sint,
hoc tamen ex ipsis caeli rationibus ausim
confirmare aliisque ex rebus reddere multis,
nequaquam nobis divinitus esse creatam
naturam mundi: tanta stat praedita culpa.                180

17 May 2012

How to Fail in Literature

Andrew Lang, How to Fail in Literature (London: Field & Tuer, 1890), pp. 46-7:
The young author generally writes because he wants to write, either for money, from vanity, or in mere weariness of empty hours and anxiety to astonish his relations. This is well, he who would fail cannot begin better than by having nothing to say. The less you observe, the less you reflect, the less you put yourself in the paths of adventure and experience, the less you will have to say, and the more impossible will it be to read your work.  Never notice people's manner, conduct, nor even dress, in real life. Walk through the world with your eyes and ears closed, and embody the negative results in a story or a poem. 

16 May 2012

The High Value of Books

Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach (1804-1872), from his collection of aphorisms Abälard und Heloise (Ansbach: Carl Brügel, 1834), p. 4. My translation:
Of course there are innumerable things that we understand, either solely or at least more easily and infinitely better, by means of sensory experience rather than by reading. But it is absurd to deny the essence and the high value of books on these grounds. In both reading and writing, a person is free from of a range of unimportant impressions and affections which influence his senses and cloud the clarity of his judgment; his soul becomes more dispassionate, quieter, and as a result he is better able to discern and judge a thing as it is.

15 May 2012

Caelum Non Animum Mutant

C. H. Middleton (1886-1945), Village Memories (London: Cassell, 1941):
Choosing a holiday is always something of a problem; in most cases the family opinions and desires have to be taken into account, but in my case economic considerations narrow down the choice somewhat, and this year I found it more difficult than usual to make up my mind. Should I go abroad? I could probably find a cheap ten-day tour to some uninteresting place or other, get a number of impressive looking labels stuck on my suitcase, and come back worn out and kidding myself I had had a marvellous time; but somehow the idea didn't appeal to me. I stood on the main road and saw and smelt the roaring procession of cars making for the sea; I watched the stream of sweating cyclists with their heads bent low and their coat-tails flying; I pictured the crowded beach, shimmering in the glare of the sun, and smelt the cockle stalls and the peppermint rock; and a feeling of laziness came over me. Any kind of travel seemed to demand a greater measure of energy than I possessed, so why, I reasoned with myself, should I do anything at all? 
I possess a pleasant garden, complete with shady trees, a hammock and comfortable chairs, and rarely do I get the opportunity to enjoy them for more than an hour or so at a time; and the more I pondered the more the garden called me, until at last I decided to stay at home and rest — to enjoy a good book or two in the company of my beloved roses; perhaps to work or play a little as the spirit moved me. To forget the clock and be absolutely free — free to follow my own immediate impulses; free from the daily grind and the restraining hand of time and convention — and thus it came to pass.

14 May 2012

Let the Abyss Alone

Allen Tate in his novel The Fathers, quoted in Paul Murphy's The Rebuke of History; The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), p. 83:
Excessively refined persons have a communion with the abyss; but is not civilization the agreement, slowly arrived at, to let the abyss alone?

11 May 2012

The Good Life

Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History 12.13.02, from C. H. Oldfather's 1946 translation for the Loeb Classical Library:
What man, indeed, could compose a worthy laudation of the knowledge of letters? For it is by such knowledge alone that the dead are carried in the memory of the living and that men widely separated in space hold converse through written communication with those who are at the furthest distance from them, as if they were at their side; and in the case of covenants in time of war between states or kings the firmest guarantee that such agreements will abide is provided by the unmistakable character of writing. Indeed, speaking generally, it is writing alone which preserves the cleverest sayings of men of wisdom and the oracles of the gods, as well as philosophy and all knowledge, and is constantly handing them down to succeeding generations for the ages to come. Consequently, while it is true that nature is the cause of life, the cause of the good life is the education which is based upon reading and writing.

10 May 2012

The Contents of a Mouldy Nut

The journalist Jasper Milvain describes a day's work in George Gissing's novel New Grub Street:
'My word, what a day I have had! I've just been trying what I really could do in one day if I worked my hardest. Now just listen; it deserves to be chronicled for the encouragement of aspiring youth. I got up at 7.30, and whilst I breakfasted I read through a volume I had to review. By 10.30 the review was written -- three-quarters of a column of the Evening Budget.' 
'Who is the unfortunate author?' interrupted Maud, caustically. 
'Not unfortunate at all. I had to crack him up; otherwise I couldn't have done the job so quickly. It's the easiest thing in the world to write laudation; only an inexperienced grumbler would declare it was easier to find fault. The book was Billington's "Vagaries"; pompous idiocy, of course, but he lives in a big house and gives dinners. Well, from 10.30 to 11, I smoked a cigar and reflected, feeling that the day wasn't badly begun. At eleven I was ready to write my Saturday causerie for the Will o' the Wisp; it took me till close upon one o'clock, which was rather too long. I can't afford more than an hour and a half for that job. At one, I rushed out to a dirty little eating-house in Hampstead Road. Was back again by a quarter to two, having in the meantime sketched a paper for The West End. Pipe in mouth, I sat down to leisurely artistic work; by five, half the paper was done; the other half remains for to-morrow. From five to half-past I read four newspapers and two magazines, and from half-past to a quarter to six I jotted down several ideas that had come to me whilst reading. At six I was again in the dirty eating-house, satisfying a ferocious hunger. Home once more at 6.45, and for two hours wrote steadily at a long affair I have in hand for The Current. Then I came here, thinking hard all the way. What say you to this? Have I earned a night's repose?'
'And what's the value of it all?' asked Maud. 
'Probably from ten to twelve guineas, if I calculated.' 
'I meant, what was the literary value of it?' said his sister, with a smile. 
'Equal to that of the contents of a mouldy nut.' 
'Pretty much what I thought.' 
'Oh, but it answers the purpose,' urged Dora, 'and it does no one any harm.' 
'Honest journey-work!' cried Jasper. 'There are few men in London capable of such a feat. Many a fellow could write more in quantity, but they couldn't command my market. It's rubbish, but rubbish of a very special kind, of fine quality.'

9 May 2012

Keep the Machines Running

From the introductory statement of principles in I'll Take My Stand; The South and the Agrarian Tradition (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1930):
It is an inevitable consequence of industrial progress that production greatly outruns the rate of natural consumption. To overcome the disparity, the producers, disguised as the pure idealists of progress, must coerce and wheedle the public into being loyal and steady consumers, in order to keep the machines running. So the rise of modern advertising -- along with its twin, personal salesmanship -- is the most significant development of our industrialism. Advertising means to persuade the consumers to want exactly what the applied sciences are able to furnish them. It consults the happiness of the consumer no more than it consulted the happiness of the laborer. It is the great effort of a false economy of life to approve itself. But its task grows more difficult every day. 
It is strange, of course, that a majority of men anywhere could ever as with one mind become enamored of industrialism: a system that has so little regard for individual wants. There is evidently a kind of thinking that rejoices in setting up a social objective which has no relation to the individual. Men are prepared to sacrifice their private dignity and happiness to an abstract social ideal, and without asking whether the social ideal produces the welfare of any individual man whatsoever. But this is absurd. The responsibility of men is for their own welfare and that of their neighbors; not for the hypothetical welfare of some fabulous creature called society.

8 May 2012

The Fortunate People

The concluding paragraph of Nasturtium Villas, an essay written by Marcus Clarke in 1874 satirizing the nouveau riche, reprinted in The Literature of Australia, ed. Nicholas Jose (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), p. 188:
Here was a whole family -- a whole tribe of human beings -- whose only notion of their part in life was to obtain as much money as they could by any legal means scrape together, and spend it upon eating, drinking, and decoration of their persons. They have no aspirations and few ideas. They do not read, write, or sustain one ambition which a few bank notes cannot satisfy. Deprive them of their bank-balance, and they have no resources of consolation. Place them in any place where chaffering and huckstering are not the business of life, and they would starve. And yet -- how kind of Nature! -- they imagine themselves to be the salt of the earth -- the fortunate people worthy to be beloved by God and man.

7 May 2012

The Jungle of Free Will and Necessity

Alexander Bain (1818-1903), Practical Essays (London: Longmans, Green: 1884), pp. 30-31
The Stoics are commonly said to have started the free-will difficulty. This needs an explanation. A leading tenet of theirs was the distinction between things in our power and things not in our power; and they greatly overstrained the limits of what is in our power. Looking at the sentiment about death, where the idea is everything, and at many of our desires and aversions, also purely sentimental, that is, made and unmade by our education (as, for example, pride of birth), they considered that pains in general, even physical pains and grief for the loss of friends, could be got over by a mental discipline, by intellectually holding them not to be pains. They extolled and magnified the power of the will that could command such a transcendent discipline, and infused an emotion of pride into the consciousness of this greatness of will. In subsequent ages, poets, moralists, and theologians followed up the theme; and the appeal to the pride of will may be said to be a standing engine of moral suasion. This originating of a point of honour or dignity in connection with our Will has been the main lure in bringing us into the jungle of Free-will and Necessity.

4 May 2012

Rhetoric and Composition

Alfred A. Knopf (1892-1984) remembers the halcyon days of publishing, when authors submitted their manuscripts and they were printed as written, without editorial fussing. From the first installment of his essay Publishing's Last 50 Years, which appeared in The Saturday Review, November 21, 1964, pp. 53-4:
So when I think of what publishing is like today I realize how spoiled we were. And not only because most of our authors trusted us to give them fair contracts but also because they were competent professionals who wrote their own books. We read their manuscripts with pleasure and admiration and they cherished our enthusiasm, but we never thought to tell them how to improve on what they had done. (Once in a while we might come up with an idea -- never for a novelist -- but somehow the resulting books were usually their authors' less successful ones. Logan Clendening's The Human Body was a notable exception.) Of course there are such writers on our list today -- the names of John Hersey, Elizabeth Bowen, Conrad Richter, Jon Godden, Ross Macdonald, Hammond Innes, John Updike, Robert Nathan, and Shirley Ann Grau come immediately to mind. These, you will notice, are all novelists. 
What about writers of nonfiction? Here the literate publisher soon becomes bored stiff by men and women (and there are so many of them) who have good material but can't organize it or write decently. I am not speaking of the public figure, say a great industrialist -- we have no right to expect him to be a writer as well -- but people who think they can write books and really want to write them but simply have not mastered competent straightforward English prose. 
Now, while I have no clear recollection of what publishers' advertising was like half a century ago, today much of it seems to be calculated to act on the reader more as an emetic than as a persuader. Everyone knows that masterpieces are few and far between. Yet the reader of Publishers' Weekly or the New York Times Book Review is asked on every hand to believe that they are a dime a dozen. No one feels embarrassed to buy Grade B rather than Grade A milk. But cows are not as vain as authors, and it is hard to imagine a publisher admitting frankly in an advertisement that one of his books by a living author is only Grade B -- as if that were not most of the time clearly the case. 
When I complained about the horrible style in which a manuscript had been written by friends of his, the late Walter P. Webb told me that these were simple folk while I was a sophisticated city slicker who wanted elegant prose. I told him he could hardly have been more mistaken, that I had given up years and years ago any hope of finding elegant prose where it didn't exist in the first place. In my insanely quixotic days I have worked over manuscripts by friends and suffered that most painful and infuriating experience of having to read sentence by sentence very slowly to make sure that the author had at least made his meaning clear. And these were manuscripts by men whose letters and speech possess all the simple good qualities that their formal writing lacks. 
How can this be so? Absence of training -- rhetoric and composition it used to be called when I was young -- the consequent lack of an ear, and laziness, sheer laziness. And above all -- and this I want to emphasize -- that ever-present editor who makes it so easy to get a book accepted for publication. The writer who can't do his job looks to his editor to do it for him, though he wouldn't dream of offering to share his royalties with that editor. However, the editor as often as not is lazy, too, has a poor ear, and is less than eager to tackle work that is boring at best and painfully slow. I have read many a book of ours with a feeling of shame for the shabby way in which the editor had dealt or rather failed to deal with the author's prose. 
On the other hand there are historians -- and people in other disciplines too; I just happen to know historians best -- who can write and with whose prose one would not dare to tamper. Samuel Eliot Morison comes immediately to mind. And Kenneth Stampp is one of the only two writers who have ever given me a typescript so letter-perfect that not a word or capitalization or punctuation mark had to be altered before the printer began to set.

3 May 2012

Learning Without a Title

Johannes Butzbach (1477-1516) on one of his favourite teachers, Bartholomew of Cologne, from The Autobiography of Johannes Butzbach, A Wandering Scholar of the Fifteenth Century, translated by Robert Francis Seybolt and Paul Monroe (Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers, 1933), pp. 116-7:
He was very fond of industrious students, and cheerfully did for them whatever they desired. The more studious and energetic students, whom I knew, clung to him with such a strong affection, that, after they had studied for several years under so excellent a master and lecturer in the philosophical studies and then finally had to leave him, they could hardly tear themselves away. Although he was in every way worthy, still no university had honored him with the degree of Master. For this reason, he is, to this very day, a thorn in the flesh for many blockheads, who are proud of their empty titles; and his works are criticized by them as schoolboys' exercises and despised by them. Like a true and genuine philosopher, he pays no more attention to such people, whose learning consists of empty titles and certain externalities, than a camel does to the purple. Indeed it is better to possess the essence of learning than a silly title. Among the many who are now styled Masters of Arts there are only a few who have a thorough or sufficient knowledge of one single, though minor art. Of what use then is such a title without content? What are titles without possession? What is honor without merit? What is a name without truth? If, moreover, anyone has completed his period of study without industry, whether he knows something of what he has heard or not, whether he is ignorant or capable, it is easy for him to attain, by a gift, to the degree of Bachelor, Master, or Doctor. Our teacher Bartholomew, for his part, agrees with the ancients: he despises as folly this custom of modern times, and values an earnest pursuit of learning more highly than an empty display. An educated mind is worth more to him than a decorated head. Of what use is a red biretta on the head, if the mind within is clouded by the darkness of ignorance? At any rate, learning without a title is to be more highly valued than a title alone in which people ignorantly take pride.
I suppose that the line about a camel paying attention to purple means "than a camel would pay to someone wearing bishop's robes", or perhaps "to someone wearing a toga praetexta", but these are just guesses.

Someone has posted the entire book here. The English version is actually a translation of a German translation from the Latin, namely Damian Johann Becker's Chronica eines fahrenden Schülers (Regensburg: G.J. Manz, 1869), which can be found here. Butzbach's manuscript is held by the University of Bonn but, as far as I can tell, they have not made it available in their digital collection.

2 May 2012

Learning Made Easy

P. S. Allen, The Age of Erasmus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1914), pp. 42-3:
Thirty years ago in England a schoolboy of eleven found himself supplied with abridged Latin and Greek dictionaries, out of which to build up larger familiarity with these languages. Erasmus at Deventer had no such endowments. A school of those days would have been thought excellently equipped if the head master and one or two of his assistants had possessed, in manuscript or in print, one or other of the famous vocabularies in which was amassed the etymological knowledge of the Middle Ages. Great books are costly, and scholars are ever poor. The normal method of acquiring a dictionary was, no doubt, to construct it for oneself; the schoolboy laying foundations and building upon them as he rose from form to form, and the mature student constantly enlarging his plan throughout his life and adding to it the treasures gained by wider reading. A sure method, though necessarily circumscribed, at least in the beginning. We can imagine how men so rooted and grounded must have shaken their heads over 'learning made easy', when the press had begun to diffuse cheap dictionaries, which spared the younger generation such labour.
See here for an earlier post on the makers of dictionaries.

1 May 2012

Peter Lick-Lard

Charles de Rémusat explains how Peter Abelard (1079-1142) got his name in his biography Pierre Abélard, Vol. I (Paris: Ladrange, 1845), pp. 12-3. My own translation:
Abelard himself acknowledged that he was never any good at mathematics. His mind had unexpected difficulty with this kind of work, perhaps because he lacked natural ability, but this is doubtful, since dialectic resembles calculation; or it may be that, already confident and ambitious, he was only able to give divided attention to his new studies; or finally it may be that his mind, already full of learning and concerned with a thousand other things, could only scratch the surface of this new area of knowledge. It seems that his teacher believed the last explanation to be the right one because, one day, on seeing Abelard sad and indignant at being unable to make further headway in his mathematical studies, he said, laughing: "When a dog is full, what more can it do than lick the bacon fat?" The corrupted Latin word for licking sounded, when paired with the last word of the teacher's vulgar joke, like Baiolard (Bajolardus). So it was at the school of Tirric that Pierre obtained his nickname. And this name, which referred to the weak side of an unknown man, caught on. The student adopted and accepted the schoolyard sobriquet, although he changed the sound and meaning of it somewhat. He called himself Abelard (Habelardus), boasting possession of what they claimed he could not have. If we are to believe the story, this is the origin of the childish and colloquial nickname that genius, passion, and misfortune would immortalize.
In a footnote, de Rémusat says this anecdote is the only instance of the word bajare in du Cange's Glossarium.