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)