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

25 February 2021

A Minimalist State

Fumio Sasaki, Goodbye Things, tr. Eriko Sugita (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017):

Anyone can imagine the invigorating feeling that comes with de-cluttering and minimizing, even if there are mountains of things lying around at home right now. It’s because we’ve all been through something like it at one time or another. Think, for example, of going away on a trip. 

Before you head out, you’re probably busy packing at the last minute. You go through your checklist of items to take with you and although everything looks fine, you can’t help feeling that there’s something that you’ve forgotten. But the clock is ticking, and it’s time to go. You give up, get up, lock the door behind you, and start rolling your suitcase along the pavement — with a strange sense of freedom. You think then that yes, you can manage to live for a while with this one suitcase. Maybe you’ve forgotten to bring something along, but hey, you can always get whatever you need wherever you’re going. 

You arrive at your destination and lie down on the freshly made bed — or the tatami mat if it happens to be a Japanese-style inn. It feels good. The room is clean and uncluttered. You aren’t surrounded by all the things that usually distract you, the stuff that takes up so much of your attention. 

That’s why travel accommodations often feel so comfortable. You set down your bag and step out for a walk around the neighborhood. You feel light on your feet, like you could keep walking forever. You have the freedom to go wherever you want. Time is on your side, and you don’t have the usual chores or work responsibilities weighing you down.

This is a minimalist state, and most of us have experienced it at one time or another.

I was reminded of this book when I saw Solzhenitsyn's exhortation to “own only what you can always carry with you” on Laudator Temporis Acti yesterday.

Yosa Buson, Lone Traveler in Wintry Mountains (c. 1778)

23 February 2021

Why Do I Sigh?

Franz Grillparzer, “Aesthetische Studien,” in Sämtliche Werke, Vol. 9 (Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta’sche Buchhandlung, 1872), pp. 70-71 (my translation):

The imitation of Nature has been set up as the supreme law of art. But I ask: Can one imitate Nature? Sculpture gives it form, but the highest charm, movement, and colour are lacking. Painting gives us landscapes, and the most it can accomplish is to render the outward appearance of the trees, grasses, and clouds as cleverly as possible. But can it also reproduce the rustling of these trees, the swaying of these grasses, the drifting of these clouds, which is precisely what constitutes the primary appeal of the actual scene? Where is the singing of the birds, the murmuring of the brook, the ringing of the bells? A landscape can be depicted in such a way as to express movement, albeit flatly, but in terms of vividness there can be no comparison with the real thing.

And yet monochrome, motionless Nature as it is painted and described in landscape art is able to move people who are left cold by reality. How is it, then, that a dull copy appeals more strongly than the living original? Technically perfect imitation cannot call forth any emotion — at most it may create astonishment, the sort of feeling that is aroused by the feats of so-called strong men, or at the sight of the countless tiny faces that one sees carved into cherry stones in our museums. What's more, does Nature (apart from being a way for us to satisfy our needs) truly have a direct effect on us? Why does it not also have an effect on animals? Why does it not move all human beings in the same way?

What is there in the redness of the clouds, in the fading of the light, in the falling shadows at sunset that is so touching that it brings tears to my eyes? Why do I pass the fresh, green trees and stop in front of the one struck by lightning to contemplate it, stand there absorbed, and finally turn away with a sigh? What am I sighing at? The tree? It does not feel its injury. Or do I sigh, half unconsciously, at the fall of all that is great, at the withering of all that blooms, at “the lot of the beautiful on earth”? 1 Do I transfer my feelings to the tree, and is it only a representation of what I am thinking? If this is so, and it is, then it can be understood why Nature only moves those who think and feel more deeply, while other people who are distracted by random, incidental things are not at all conscious of the forces that are really at work. 

But if someone who is capable of grasping and reproducing the natural things that appeal to the mind sits down to represent his sensations permanently — recording them from natural observations and leaving aside whatever is immaterial or disturbing — he portrays the effect that it had upon him. In this way the attention of the more shallow observer will also be stimulated and, since the extraneous, secondary elements have been cut away, he will be drawn to the actual point — the connection that previously escaped him will become clear. Standing before the work of art, he will feel something he never would never have felt in Nature — nor would have ever noticed without the artist, since it was not so much the object that communicated it to the observer as it was the observer who communicated it to the object. He will recognize the artist's idea and the imitation of the object will only have been the means by which he came to understand it. 

The “lot of the beautiful on earth” (das Los des Schönen auf der Erde) comes from a line in Schiller's Wallenstein, where he says that beauty is bound to be trampled under the hooves of fate.

Grillparzer has been in his grave for a century and a half but, as far as I can tell, his Aesthetische Studien remain untranslated. The harvest is plentious, but the labourers are few...

Caspar David Friedrich, Eiche im Schnee (1827)

15 February 2021

The Stupidity of Demos

Henri-Frédéric Amiel, Journal Intime, tr. Mrs. Humphry Ward (New York: A. L. Burt, c. 1895), p. 237:

Wisdom, which means balance and harmony, is only met with in individuals. Democracy, which means the rule of the masses, gives preponderance to instinct, to nature, to the passions — that is to say, to blind impulse, to elemental gravitation, to generic fatality. Perpetual vacillation between contraries becomes its only mode of progress, because it represents that childish form of prejudice which falls in love and cools, adores, and curses, with the same haste and unreason. A succession of opposing follies gives an impression of change which the people readily identify with improvement, as though Enceladus was more at ease on his left side than on his right, the weight of the volcano remaining the same. The stupidity of Demos is only equaled by its presumption. It is like a youth with all his animal and none of his reasoning powers developed.

Adriaen van de Venne, A Fight Between Beggars (c. 1635)

9 February 2021

The Man Whom I Would Most Envy

Charles Hare Plunkett, pseudonym of A. C. Benson, "The Landscape Painter," The Letters of One; A Study in Limitations (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1907), pp. 133-135:

He showed me a lot of charming sketches and pictures, and told me frankly that he could not sell them. “But my tastes are very simple, and I can get along.” I can’t tell you what a refreshment it was to talk to a man who lives so joyfully and serenely in his art. I tried to penetrate his secret, but he did not seem to have any. I have always thought that the landscape-painter is on the whole the man whom I would most envy, even more than the musician. He lives face to face with nature in all its moods. He is much in the open air; his mind is free to meditate. I said to him, when he was describing the sort of life he led, “But what is your aim, your object, in all this?” “I don’t know that I ever asked myself the question,” he said, with his great quiet smile; “I like the sight of beautiful things; I like trying to render them. I suppose one ought to have a sense of artistic vocation, but I have never had any doubt as to what I wanted to do. I try not to get mannerised; I vary my subjects. I try to see what is there, and to paint it.” “But,” I said, “there is a great deal more than that in your pictures; there is sense of the place, the scene, the hour, the spirit of the thing, selected from a thousand effects, and given permanence; and then there is the feeling of something great and tender and hopeful behind it all, the secret of the sunset and the wind, the moorland and the lake.” He mused a little, and then he said, “Well, if you see that in my pictures — and I am glad you do — it is not because I put it there, but because it is there, and because I have seen it and rendered it; it is like music to me, the motif of the scene, moving through harmonies of colour and line. Of course it is very baffling sometimes, because the sun will come and transpose the key, so to speak, of your picture; and then one has to wait. But I am no good,” he said, “at explaining all this; it is very vague to me. I seem only content to look and record.” 


Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878), Le soir

3 February 2021

Let Us Talk of Something Else

Lord Chesterfield, Letters to His Son (October 16, 1747), number XVII in this elegant edition published in Washington by M. Walter Dunne in 1901 (at p. 27):

Never maintain an argument with heat and clamour, though you think or know yourself to be in the right; but give your opinion modestly and coolly, which is the only way to convince; and if that does not do, try to change the conversation, by saying, with good humour, “We shall hardly convince one another, nor is it necessary that we should, so let us talk of something else.”

Rembrandt, Two Scholars Disputing (1628)

28 January 2021

Albin Egger-Lienz (1868 – 1926)

Der Sämann (1903)

Bergmäher (1907)

Mittagessen (1910)

Mann und Weib (1910)

Den Namenlosen (1916)

Lorli im Garten (1919)

Die Quelle (1924)

I've put Josef Soyka's book about Egger-Lienz on my list of monographs to translate.

27 January 2021

Live Each Day as If It Were the Last

William Drummond  (1585–1649), “Death’s Last Will,” The Poems of William Drummond of HawthorndenVol. 2 (London: Lawrence and Bullen, 1894), p. 31:

More oft than once Death whisper’d in mine ear,
Grave what thou hears in diamond and gold,
I am that monarch whom all monarchs fear,
Who hath in dust their far-stretch’d pride uproll’d;
All, all is mine beneath moon's silver sphere,
And nought, save virtue, can my power withhold:
This, not believ’d, experience true thee told,
By danger late when I to thee came near.
As bugbear then my visage I did show,
That of my horrors thou right use might'st make,
And a more sacred path of living take:
Now still walk armed for my ruthless blow,
    Trust flattering life no more, redeem time past,
    And live each day as if it were the last.


Albert Besnard, Dans la foule (1900)

24 January 2021

A Good Teaching

Ajahn Jayasaro, Stillness Flowing; The Life and Teachings of Ajahn Chah (Pakchong: Panyaprateep Foundation, 2017), pp. 189-190:

As the human body does not vary from one culture to another, humour derived from it is more universal. Ajahn Sumedho recalls the time that Luang Por [Chah] took him to visit some of the great masters of the Luang Pu Mun tradition. In Udon Province, they paid their respects to one elderly master, believed to be an arahant, who was confined to a wheelchair and rarely spoke. Luang Por had recently been offered a cassette recorder and was using it to record Dhamma teachings. It was placed in front of the venerable old monk who sat there quietly smiling at them. After a suitable time had elapsed and it was clear that the he was not going to speak, they prepared to bow to him and leave. At that moment, the great master farted. Back in the car, Luang Por replayed the tape. The sound of the fart was clearly audible. Luang Por looked at Ajahn Sumedho and said:

That was a good teaching.


Odilon Redon, Le Buddha (1895)

17 January 2021

Sounds Like a Nice Place

Ajahn Jayasaro describes the people of Isan (northeastern Thailand) in Stillness Flowing; The Life and Teachings of Ajahn Chah (Pakchong: Panyaprateep Foundation, 2017), p. 19:

The idea of persecuting others for holding beliefs different from their own has always been incomprehensible to them. They are not particularly cerebral – abstract theories and philosophies rarely excite them – but they are skilful pragmatists with a considerable talent for compromise; the bamboo bending in strong winds has always been one of their favourite images. They avoid open confrontation wherever possible and consider the unfiltered expression of strong feeling to be uncouth and immature. They admire the ability to remain calm and unruffled under stress, and they aspire to ‘a cool heart’.


Buddhist monk in Phu Kradung National Park (image from Wikipedia)

14 January 2021

Half Rations

Sir William Slim, Defeat into Victory (London: Cassell and Company, 1957), p. 195:

When any of the forward formations had to go on half rations, as throughout the campaign they often did, I used to put my headquarters on half rations too. It had little practical effect, but as a gesture it was rather valuable, and it did remind the young staff officers with healthy appetites that it was urgent to get the forward formations back to full rations as soon as possible.

Slim as commander of the Fourteenth Army, c. 1945
Slim as commander of the Fourteenth Army, c. 1945

12 January 2021

Blend in With the Rest of the Chimps

James Clear, Atomic Habits (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), p. 120:

The normal behavior of the tribe often overpowers the desired behavior of the individual. For example, one study found that when a chimpanzee learns an effective way to crack nuts open as a member of one group and then switches to a new group that uses a less effective strategy, it will avoid using the superior nut cracking method just to blend in with the rest of the chimps.

Humans are similar. There is tremendous internal pressure to comply with the norms of the group. The reward of being accepted is often greater than the reward of winning an argument, looking smart, or finding truth. Most days, we’d rather be wrong with the crowd than be right by ourselves.

The human mind knows how to get along with others. It wants to get along with others. This is our natural mode. You can override it — you can choose to ignore the group or to stop caring what other people think — but it takes work. Running against the grain of your culture requires extra effort.


David Teniers the Younger, A Monkey Encampment (1633)

11 January 2021

Peevish, Petulant, Personal Comment

Richard Burton on critics and reviewers, quoted in Isabel Burton, The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, Vol. 2 (London: Chapman & Hall, 1893), p. 262:

They no longer review books; when they are incompetent they review the author, and if the author's politics and religion do not happen to agree with the office of that paper, it admits scurrilous and personal paragraphs on the authors themselves, bringing up a sort of dossier of the author, which would be considered even disgraceful in a trial in a criminal court. Thirty years ago this would never have been allowed. This may amuse the writer, it may excite the reader, but I protest against it. Nothing can be less profitable to an author or a reader than a long tirade of peevish, petulant, personal comment, and unanswerable sneer. This is only used by people who can shelter themselves under an anonymous signature, or a Critique manqué, and is quite the mark of a pretender in literature and critical art, and which seldom disfigures the style of a true or able critic.

Photo of Richard Burton from the Crewe Collection
pasted to the front flyleaf of First Footsteps (1856)

Related posts:

7 January 2021

Gentle Drops of Forgetfulness

Thomas More, Epigram 121 (On Sleep, Which Makes the Poor Man the Rich Man's Equal), The Latin Epigrams of Thomas More, tr. Leicester Bradner and Charles Arthur Lynch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 180 (note omitted):

O sleep, restful part of life, hope and comfort of the poor, whom by night you make equal to the rich, you comfort sad hearts with gentle drops of forgetfulness and drive away all recollection of woe. Generously in happy dreams you confer wealth upon the poor man. Why do you, rich man, scorn the poor man’s fancied wealth? Real wealth brings to the rich worry, pain, and grief; imagined wealth brings the poor real joy.

 The original, from pp. 56-57: 


Somne quies uitae, spes et solamen egenis,
   Diuitibus noctu quos facis esse pares.
Tristia demulces lethaco pectora rore,
   Excutis et sensum totius inde mali.
Laeta benignus opes inopi per somnia mittis.
   Quid falsas rides, diues, opes inopis?
Diuitibus uerae curas, tormenta, dolores
   Pauperibus falsae gaudia uera ferunt.

Related posts:

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Le Rêve (1883)
"Love, Glory, and Wealth appear to him in his sleep."

5 January 2021

On the Backs of the Creatives

Christopher Schwarz, one of the founders of the Lost Art Press, at the 7:05 mark in the December 28 episode of Jonathan Pritchard’s Mind Reader University podcast:

When I got thrown into the corporate world and corporate publishing, what I found out is that you can really print money. It is a licence to print money. The profit margins in corporate publishing are astonishing by most manufacturing standards, and they do that by just screwing people. It’s horrible to see. It’s on the backs of the creatives that they make their money, and creatives see very little of that money. So when I set out to make a publishing company with my partner John Hoffman, the idea was… From a quality point of view I love nicely made things, I grew up with nicely made things. It wasn’t that we were rich and were surrounded by Chippendale stuff, it was that my dad made this, my grandfather made this, it will last, and I still have these things. So whatever we’re going to make, it’s going to be nice. The second thing was that, however we run our business, it was going to be the exact opposite of the way I was trained to do it. I always thought that would be a successful model.


Image from my copy of Schwarz's Campaign Furniture
(Fort Mitchell: Lost Art Press, 2014), pp. 214-215

3 January 2021

French Critics and Dutch Painters

Vincent Van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard (undated), The Letters of a Post-Impressionist; Being the Familiar Correspondence of Vincent van Gogh (London: Constable, 1912), p. 63:
Of course the Dutch painters are too widely distributed over the Museums and collections of the world for us to be able to form any adequate idea of their work, and this is still more difficult when one knows only the Louvre. And yet it is precisely the Frenchmen, Ch. Blanc, Thoré and Fromentin, who have written the best things about them.

Eugène Fromentin, Canal Della Misericordia (1871)

2 January 2021

New Year, Old Blog

I've been reluctant to clutter up Charon's Barque with anything that is unrelated to the work at hand, and have missed having somewhere to keep my arbitrary notes, so I'm dusting off this old commonplace book. 

I still think the Blogspot platform is unwieldy, but if I am going to maintain a second web site, well, I might as well resurrect the one I already have.

From now on I'll house quotes gleaned from my personal reading here, and only use the other place to share information about The Obolus Press.

Welcome back.

Lovis Corinth, Baccants Returning Home (1898)
Lovis Corinth, Baccants Returning Home (1898)