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.

30 April 2012

Pretentious Obscurity

Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle; An Essay Against Modern Superstition (Washington: Counterpoint, 2000), p. 69:
The cult of progress and the new, along with the pressure to originate, innovate, publish, and attract students, has made the English department as nervously susceptible to fashion as a flock of teenagers. The academic "profession" of literature seems now to be merely tumbling from one critical or ideological fad to another, constantly "revolutionizing" itself in pathetic imitation of the "revolutionary" sciences, issuing all the while a series of passionless, jargonizing, "publishable" but hardly readable articles and books, in which a pretentious obscurity and dullness masquerade as profundity.
I see (via Michael Gilleland) that Berry gave the 41st Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities last week.

27 April 2012

Books Are the Departed Souls of Men

The philosopher Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach (1804-1872), from his collection of aphorisms Abälard und Heloise (Ansbach: Carl Brügel, 1834), p. 2. My own translation:
Books awaken the same emotions in us as people, and are only abstract in the impressions they make. Why? Because books are the departed souls of men, or perhaps even something more. They certainly have at least as much life and vigour in them as living humans because they are spiritual individuals, just like real people, repulsing or attracting us.

To deal with books is to deal with spirits. The higher the spirit and the life, the more fleeting the medium in which they express themselves. More spirit and life live in the ephemeral petals of the flower than in thick granite blocks, despite the fact they are a thousand years old.

The fates of some books are so strange, the way they maintain themselves, so extraordinarily, that a providential angel must be watching over them. But the guardian angel working upon them is not external, but rather an indwelling power, its own good, its own excellence, and the necessity of existence that is bound up with it.

It is with books as it is with maidens. The best and most worthy often remain sitting for the longest time. But at last someone comes who recognizes their worth and draws them out from dark obscurity and into a bright, beautiful sphere of activity.

26 April 2012

A Morbid Growth

Cyril Connolly in an essay on Arthur Symons, reprinted in The Evening Colonnade (London: David Bruce & Watson, 1973), p. 196:
To some natures Baudelaire is not an inspiration but a disease, a morbid growth affecting the will. The godlike youth, the inspired poet of modern times crumbles before our eyes into the prematurely decrepit, shiftless parasite, driven out of his dignity by debt and out of his mind by syphilis, and some readers who come under his spell re-enact his fall or find excuses for their own inertia or take up the cudgels to avenge him, and incur the wrath of society. He can set one back a lifetime.

25 April 2012

A Higher and Nobler Key

James Anthony Froude in The Science of History, from Short Studies on Great Subjects (London: Longmans Green & Co., 1903):

p. 23-4
It is in this marvelous power in men to do wrong (it is an old story, but none the less true for that), -- it is in this power to do wrong -- wrong or right, as it lies somehow with ourselves to choose -- that the impossibility stands of forming scientific calculations of what men will do before the fact, or scientific explanations of what they have done after the fact. If men were consistently selfish, you might analyze their motives; if they were consistently noble, they would express in their conduct the laws of the highest perfection. But so long as two natures are mixed together, and the strange creature which results from the combination is now under one influence and now under another, so long you will make nothing of him except from the old-fashioned moral -- or, if you please, imaginative -- point of view.  
p. 37
The address of history is less to the understanding than to the higher emotions. We learn in it to sympathize with what is great and good; we learn to hate what is base. In the anomalies of fortune we feel the mystery of our mortal existence; and in the companionship of the illustrious natures who have shaped the fortunes of the world, we escape from the littlenesses which cling to the round of common life, and our minds are tuned in a higher and nobler key. 

24 April 2012


Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Oeuvres complètes de Chamfort, Vol. I (Paris: Chaumerot Jeune, 1824), p. 431. My own translation:
Economists are surgeons who have an excellent scalpel and a damaged bistoury, operating marvellously on the dead and torturing the living.

23 April 2012


George Gissing, Born in Exile (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1896), p. 271:
In youth one marvels that men remain at so low a stage of civilisation. Later in life, one is astonished that they have advanced so far.

20 April 2012

Books as People

The philosopher Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach (1804-1872), from his collection of aphorisms Abälard und Heloise (Ansbach: Carl Brügel, 1834), p.1. My own translation:
It is with books as it is with people. While we make numerous acquaintances, we only choose a few of them to be our friends, our true companions on life's journey. 
Acquaintances come and go. Friends do not. Books that we have befriended never disgust us. They are not worn out through use; they create themselves afresh, like life; the pleasure we get from them is inexhaustible.
We first allow ourselves to form an opinion of competent people after we have dealt with them for a long time. But in innumerable instances we judge people as soon as we have set eyes on them, saying that there is no way we could get along with them, and we do not want to make their acquaintance at all. It is the same way for us with innumerable texts: even after the first few pages we have had enough. We can no more enjoy them than we could enjoy picking up dead mice and rats, or licking up other people's spittle. And we should also, like those monks who have lost their way, believe that we can gain our eternal salvation through such acts of penance. In these matters the verdict of antipathy: "I can't, I don't like it" is often the most thorough verdict of all, the verdict of reason. 

As far as I can tell, this little gem sat untranslated for 178 years. If I had known earlier I would have jumped at the chance, but someone beat me to it and an English edition (which I have not seen) appeared two months ago. Ah well. It is such a delight that I may continue to translate and post my favourite parts. Feuerbach Fridays?

Punctuate the Calamities

Henry Miller on working as a proofreader at the Paris Tribune, from Tropic of Cancer (New York: Grove Press, 1961), pp. 146-7
I must say, right at the start, that I haven't a thing to complain about. It's like being in a lunatic asylum, with permission to masturbate for the rest of your life. The world is brought right under my nose and all that is requested of me is to punctuate the calamities. There is nothing in which these slick guys upstairs do not put their fingers: no joy, no misery passes unnoticed. They live among the hard facts of life, reality, as it is called. It is the reality of a swamp and they are like frogs who have nothing better to do than to croak. The more they croak the more real life becomes. Lawyer, priest, doctor, politician, newspaper man -- these are the quacks who have their fingers on the pulse of the world. A constant atmosphere of calamity. It's marvellous. It's as if the barometer never changed, as if the flag were always at half-mast. One can see now how the idea of heaven takes hold of men's consciousness, how it gains ground even when all the props have been knocked from under it. There must be another world beside this swamp in which everything is dumped pell-mell. It's hard to imagine what it can be like, this heaven that men dream about. A frog's heaven, no doubt. Miasma, scum, pond lilies, stagnant water. Sit on a lily-pad unmolested and croak all day. Something like that, I imagine. 
They have a wonderful therapeutic effect upon me, these catastrophes which I proofread. Imagine a state of perfect immunity, a charmed existence, a life of absolute security in the midst of poison bacilli. Nothing touches me, neither earthquakes nor explosions nor riots nor famine nor collisions nor wars nor revolutions. I am inoculated against every disease, every calamity, every sorrow and misery. It's the culmination of a life of fortitude. Seated at my little niche all the poisons which the world gives off each day pass through my hands. Not even a finger-nail gets stained. I am absolutely immune. I am even better off than a laboratory attendant, because there are no bad odors here, just the smell of lead burning. The world can blow up -- I'll be here just the same to put in a comma or a semi-colon. I may even touch a little overtime, for with an event like that there's bound to be a final extra. When the world blows up and the final edition has gone to press the proofreaders will quietly gather up all commas, semi-colons, hyphens, asterisks, brackets, parentheses, periods, exclamation marks, etc., and put them in a little box over the editorial chair. Comme ça tout est réglé....

19 April 2012

Solemn and Serious

Gottfried Keller in a letter to Wilhem Baumgartner on 27 March 1851, from Jacob Baechtold's Gottfried Kellers Leben, Seine Briefe und Tagebücher, Vol. 2 (Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta, 1903), p. 168. My own translation:
How trite the opinion now seems to me that all poetry and elevated moods would disappear from the earth with the abandonment of so-called religious ideas! To the contrary! The world has become infinitely more beautiful and deep, life more valuable and intense, and death more solemn and serious now that it is challenging me for the first time with all its power to fulfil my role, and to purify and satisfy my conscience. For I have no prospect of making up for missed opportunities in any corner of the world. 
Wie trivial erscheint mir gegenwärtig die Meinung, daß mit dem Aufgeben der sogenannten religiösen Ideen alle Poesie und erhöhte Stimmung aus der Welt verschwinde! Zum Gegenteil! Die Welt ist mir unendlich schöner und tiefer geworden, das Leben ist wertvoller und intensiver, der Tod ernster und bedenklicher und fordert mich nun erst mit aller Macht auf, meine Aufgabe zu erfüllen und mein Bewußtsein zu reinigen und zu befriedigen, da ich keine Aussicht habe, das Versäumte in irgend einem Winkel der Welt nachzuholen.

17 April 2012

On the Folly of Fearing Death

Morley Roberts, in his thinly disguised biography of George Gissing, The Private Life of Henry Maitland (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1912), p. 291:
For ever on looking backwards one is filled with regrets, and one thing I regret greatly about Henry Maitland is that, though I might perhaps have purchased his little library, the books he had accumulated with so much joy and such self-sacrifice, I never thought of this until it was too late. Books made up so much of his life, and few of his had not been bought at the cost of what others would consider pleasure, or by the sacrifice of some sensation which he himself would have enjoyed at the time. Now I possess none of his books but those he gave me, save only the little "Anthologia Latina" which Thérèse [i.e., Gabrielle Fleury, Gissing's French translator and later his companion] herself sent to me. This was a volume in which he took peculiar delight, perhaps even more delight than he did in the Greek anthology, which I myself preferred so far as my Greek would then carry me. Many times I have seen him take down the little Eton anthology and read aloud. 
I assume this was the anthology compiled by the Rev. Francis St. John Thackeray (1832-1919), since he was assistant master at Eton. Flipping through the fifth edition on Archive.org (London: George Bell & Sons, 1889), I found a passage from the third book of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura under the heading On the Folly of fearing Death. As I noted earlier, it was in this spirit that Gissing faced his own end:
Denique si vocem rerum natura repente
mittat et hoc alicui nostrum sic increpet ipsa:
'quid tibi tanto operest, mortalis, quod nimis aegris
luctibus indulges? quid mortem congemis ac fles?
nam si grata fuit tibi vita ante acta priorque                 935
et non omnia pertusum congesta quasi in vas
commoda perfluxere atque ingrata interiere;
cur non ut plenus vitae conviva recedis
aequo animoque capis securam, stulte, quietem?
sin ea quae fructus cumque es periere profusa            940
vitaque in offensost, cur amplius addere quaeris,
rursum quod pereat male et ingratum occidat omne,
non potius vitae finem facis atque laboris?
nam tibi praeterea quod machiner inveniamque,
quod placeat, nihil est; eadem sunt omnia semper.     945
si tibi non annis corpus iam marcet et artus
confecti languent, eadem tamen omnia restant,
omnia si perges vivendo vincere saecla,
atque etiam potius, si numquam sis moriturus',
quid respondemus, nisi iustam intendere litem            950
naturam et veram verbis exponere causam? 
John Selby Watson's translation, from On the Nature of Things (London: George Bell & Sons, 1893), p. 139:
Furthermore, if Universal Nature should suddenly utter a voice, and thus herself upbraid any one of us: "What mighty cause have you, O mortal, thus excessively to indulge in bitter grief? Why do you groan and weep at the thought of death? For if your past and former life has been an object of gratification to you, and all your blessings have not, as if poured into a leaky vessel, flowed away and been lost without pleasure, why do you not, unreasonable man, retire, like a guest satisfied with life, and take your undisturbed rest with resignation? But if those things of which you have had the use have been wasted and lost, and life is offensive to you, why do you seek to incur further trouble, which may all again pass away and end in dissatisfaction? Why do you not rather put an end to life and anxiety? For there is nothing further which I can contrive and discover to please you; everything is always the same. If your body is not yet withered with years, and your limbs are not worn out and grown feeble, yet all things remain the same, even if you should go on to outlast all ages in living, and still more would you see them the same if you should never come to die." What do we answer to this, but that Nature brings a just charge aguinst us, and sets forth in her words a true allegation?
Thomas Charles Baring's translation, from The Scheme of Epicurus (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co, 1884), pp 152-3:
Moreover, if the gift were ours to hear and understand
The voice of Nature suddenly thus scolding one of us;
"What, mortal, is so much amiss, that so lugubrious
To sickly grief thou yieldest ? Why bemoanest thou in tears
Thy death? If joy companioned thee in all the bygone years,
If thine advantages in life were never found to fail,
Nor perished thankless, run to waste as through a riddled pail,
Why art thou such a fool as not, like some well-plenished guest,
To make thy bow to life, and hie content to careless rest?
But if thy life be but offence, if all thy garnered store
Of weal be spent and finished, why yet seekest thou for more,
To end again in evil case, like seed on thankless soil?
Were it not best to shorten life, and with it shorten toil?
For I have nothing left unused, nor any scheme can frame,
Or find, to give thee pleasure. All things always are the same.
Yea, though with years thy body did not wither, even though
Thy limbs grew never faint nor weak, all things would still be so;
E'en if thy life should be prolonged to see go rolling by
Age after age, nay even if thou never wert to die!"
What should we have to answer, save to own that Nature's laws
Were just, and her indictment showed a true and rightful cause?  

16 April 2012

Compromise and Hedging

Charles Oman, Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History (Oxford: Clarendon, 1906), pp. 12-13:
In sober fact it is impossible to write history that every man, whatever his race, creed, or politics, can accept -- unless indeed we are dealing with ages and problems so remote from our own that the personal element does not appear. Conceivably it may be possible to talk of Khammurabi or Rameses or some statesman of China of the seventh century b.c. without offending any man. It is not possible to do so with Pericles or Caesar -- much less with Hildebrand or Calvin, Napoleon or Bismarck. The historian whose verdict on any one of those crucial personages is to be equally satisfactory to everybody, must perform a sort of tour de force of compromise and hedging, or confine himself to the bald statement of facts accomplished. The moment that he dares to draw a deduction or point a moral, the personal element inevitably makes itself felt. Imagine an appreciation of Bismarck that equally pleased a patriotic Frenchman and a patriotic German! 
Therefore I am practically driven to concede to Froude that history must be subjective. No great book ever has been or ever will be written by a historian who suppressed self as he wrote each word: what such a book may conceivably gain in accuracy it loses in spontaneity and conviction. The passionless scientist chronicling the antics of puppets with whom he feels no sympathy, for whom he has no moral like or dislike, does not tend to produce a readable literary output. I can safely leave the view of those who hold that history has nothing to do with literature -- any more than it has anything to do with morals -- and the view advocated by Froude to fight out their duel in the public arena, little doubting which will be the winner.
I have seen a summary of James Anthony Froude's inaugural lecture on the study of history (made in October 1892 when he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford) in Julia Markus' biography, but I have not been able to find the original text online or in the university library.

15 April 2012

Ephemeral Wrappers

Richard de la Mare (1901-1986), executive with Faber & Faber, in A Publisher on Book Production (London: J. M. Dent, 1936), p. 41:
The history of the book jacket is a strange one. The wretched thing started as a piece of plain paper, wrapped round the book to protect it during its sojourn in the bookseller's shop; but it has now become this important, elaborate, not to say costly and embarrassing affair that we know today, and of which we sometimes deplore the very existence. How much better might this mint of money that is emptied on these ephemeral wrappers -- little works of art though many of them may be -- be spent on improving the quality of the materials that are used in the making of the book itself!
Some publishing trivia: According to this article, it was de la Mare who suggested adding the second Faber to the company name even though there wasn't one.

13 April 2012

A Minestrone of Self-Pity

From a speech given by the British psychiatrist Anthony Daniels (better known under his pen name, Theodore Dalrymple) at a meeting of the Property and Freedom Society in Bodrum, Turkey in May of last year:
As I have said, resentment can, and indeed often does, last a lifetime; and this is because it has certain sour satisfactions. Among these is the satisfaction of being morally superior to the world while remaining -- objectively speaking -- in a grossly subordinate, inferior or undesirable position. Resentment satisfactorily explains all one's own failures and failings; ‘I would have been a success in some respect or other, if only I had had the same opportunities as...’ And here you need only fill in the name of the person or persons more fortunately placed than you to succeed in that respect. 
Resentment is a universal human emotion. It is a permanent possibility for all of us, and it takes an effort to control it. I doubt whether any reader, if he examines himself candidly, has failed ever to feel it. I suspect that those who have never felt resentment are as rare as those who have never felt pain. 
Unfortunately resentment, though universal, at least potentially so, is not only a useless, but a harmful emotion: for it encourages him who feels it to dwell not on what he can do -- that is to say his opportunities -- but on what he cannot do, that is to say his lack of opportunities. From the moment of one’s birth, there are many things one is destined not to become; how easy, and I should add pleasurable, it is to blame others for this fact, while vegetating in a soup, a minestrone, of self-pity.
Daniels has also discussed resentment in essays for The New English Review and Psychology Today.

12 April 2012

The Refuge of a Moody Solitude

George Gissing, Born in Exile (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1896), p. 54:
Self-assertion is the practical complement of self-esteem. To be largely endowed with the latter quality, yet constrained by a coward delicacy to repress it, is to suffer martyrdom at the pleasure of every robust assailant, and in the end be driven to the refuge of a moody solitude.

11 April 2012

No Poses, Sentimentalities, or Bromides

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 239:
The one writer who does not appeal at all to Americans -- who offers nothing for our Marxist, Freudian, feminist, deconstructionist, or structuralist critics to mangle, who provides no poses, sentimentalities or bromides that appeal to our young -- is Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who best expresses how life looks to a man facing up to what we believe or don't believe. He is a far more talented artist and penetrating observer than the much more popular Mann or Camus. Robinson, the hero he admires in Journey to the End of the Night, is an utterly selfish liar, cheat, murderer for pay. Why does Ferdinand admire him? Partly for his honesty, but mostly because he allows himself to be shot and killed by his girlfriend rather than tell her he loves her. He believes in something, which Ferdinand is unable to do. American students are repelled, horrified by this novel, and turn away from it in disgust. If it could be force-fed to them, it might motivate them to reconsider, to regard it as urgent to think through their premises, to make their implicit nihilism explicit and examine it seriously.

10 April 2012

The Larval Form of a Bore

Cyril Connolly in a review of Ellen Moers' The Dandy, reprinted in The Evening Colonnade (London: David Bruce & Watson, 1973), p. 171:
Eternal inferiority of the dandy -- this is my regretted conclusion; for, being committed to clothes and externals, he is committed to stupidity and physical ageing; spiritually opaque, he reigns for ten years and decays for forty more, while mind and body rust. The dandy is but the larval form of a bore.

4 April 2012

The Anger of an Imbecile

A letter from the painter René Magritte to Richard Dupierreux, art critic at the Le Soir newspaper (via Eric Poindron), my translation:

Brussels, 3 May 1936 
Dear Mr. Dupierreux, 
Foolishness is a very painful sight to behold, but there is something comforting about the anger of an imbecile. So I must thank you for the few lines you devoted to my exhibition.
Everyone tells me that you are a shitty old man and that you do not deserve the slightest attention. It goes without saying that I do not believe a word of it, and remain, 
Yours truly, 

La reproduction interdite (1937)

3 April 2012


Edward Everett Hale, What career? (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1878), pp.162-163:
The word character is true still to its derivation. It is a Greek word wholly unchanged which the Greeks derived from the word which we pronounce harass which they pronounced charass but which had the meaning then that it has now. They spoke then of a coin in the mint which was hammered and tortured by the sharp edges of the die as being stamped upon indeed as a poor charassed thing -- as bearing a character. Its character came to it because it was beaten, pounded by this tremendous hammer. The more it was beaten the more distinct character it had. I believe all our words of similar import have a similar derivation. Thus when we say a man is of this "type" of manhood or that "type" of manhood the original meaning is that he has been beaten into that shape by the blows of life which have passed over him. And it is true that a man's character begins when he is born and changes or does not change accordingly as he bears the pounding which life gives him. Burns says "The rank is but the guinea's stamp." This means, at bottom, that a "pound" is metal which has been pounded. And there are metals which improve in quality all the time you stamp and hammer them. Just the same is true of man, if he have the true heat, the true life, and make himself master of the circumstance instead of slave.

2 April 2012

Philosophers and Poets

Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Oeuvres complètes de Chamfort, Vol. I (Paris: Chaumerot Jeune, 1824), p. 430. My own translation:
It is almost impossible for philosophers and poets not to be misanthropes. First of all, this is because their inclinations and talents lead them to observe society, which is a constantly heartrending study. Secondly, their talent is hardly ever rewarded by society (indeed, they are lucky not to be punished for it) and, subject to this affliction, their tendency towards melancholy only increases.

31 March 2012

A Choice of Black

Victor Hugo in William Shakespeare, I, 5, 1, 1864, my own translation:
The man who does not think deeply lives in blindness, the man who thinks deeply lives in darkness. We have only a choice of black. 
L'homme qui ne médite pas vit dans l'aveuglement, l'homme qui médite vit dans l'obscurité. Nous n'avons que le choix du noir.

30 March 2012

Blessed Be the Dictionary-Makers

From Letters on the Study and Use of History, by Viscount Henry St. John Bolingbroke, in The Works of Lord Bolingbroke, Vol II (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1841), p. 174:
The motives that carry men to the study of history are different. Some intend, if such as they may be said to study, nothing more than amusement, and read the life of Aristides or Phocion, of Epaminondas or Scipio, Alexander or Caesar, just as they play a game at cards, or as they would read the story of the seven champions. 
Others there are, whose motive to this study is nothing better, and who have the further disadvantage of becoming a nuisance very often to society, in proportion to the progress they make. The former do not improve their reading to any good purpose; the latter pervert it to a very bad one, and grow in impertinence as they increase in learning. I think I have known most of the first kind in England, and most of the last in France. The persons I mean are those who read to talk, to shine in conversation, and to impose in company; who having few ideas to vend of their own growth, store their minds with crude unruminated facts and sentences; and hope to supply, by bare memory, the want of imagination and judgment. 
But these are in the two lowest forms. The next I shall mention are in one a little higher; in the form of those who grow neither wiser nor better by study themselves, but who enable others to study with greater ease, and to purposes more useful; who make fair copies of foul manuscripts, give the signification of hard words, and take a great deal of other grammatical pains. The obligation to these men would be great indeed, if they were in general able to do any thing better, and submitted to this drudgery for the sake of the public: as some of them, it must be owned with gratitude, have done, but not later, I think, than about the time of the resurrection of letters. When works of importance are pressing, generals themselves may take up the pick-axe and the spade; but in the ordinary course of things, when that pressing necessity is over, such tools are left in the hands destined to use them -- the hands of common soldiers and peasants. I approve, therefore, very much the devotion of a studious man at Christ Church, who was overheard in his oratory entering into a detail with God, as devout persons are apt to do, and, amongst other particular thanksgivings, acknowledging the divine goodness in furnishing the world with makers of dictionaries! 

29 March 2012

We May Carry our Books in our Heads

James Boswell, Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, Vol. 3 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1887), p. 312-3:
Having fallen into a very serious frame of mind, in which mutual expressions of kindness passed between us, such as would be thought too vain in me to repeat, I talked with regret of the sad inevitable certainty that one of us must survive the other.
JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, that is an affecting consideration. I remember Swift, in one of his letters to Pope, says, "I intend to come over, that we may meet once more; and when we must part, it is what happens to all human beings."' 
BOSWELL. 'The hope that we shall see our departed friends again must support the mind.' 
JOHNSON. 'Why yes, Sir.' 
BOSWELL. There is a strange unwillingness to part with life, independent of serious fears as to futurity. A reverend friend of ours (naming him) tells me, that he feels an uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his house, his study, his books.
JOHNSON. This is foolish in *****. A man need not be uneasy on these grounds; for as he will retain his consciousness, he may say with the philosopher, Omnia mea mecum porto
BOSWELL. True, Sir, we may carry our books in our heads; but still there is something painful in the thought of leaving for ever what has given us pleasure. I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in a melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakspeare's poetry did not exist. A lady whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humoured my fancy, and relieved me by saying, "The first thing you will meet in the other world, will be an elegant copy of Shakspeare's works presented to you." 
Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion.
A footnote says this reverend friend was Thomas Percy, Bishop of Dromore.

28 March 2012

Paul Léautaud

A few descriptions of the French writer and theatre critic Paul Léautaud (1872-1956), from an essay in Mavis Gallant's Paris Notebooks (Toronto: Stoddart, 1988).

p. 143:
He was mean, slanderous, and cruel; he could also display generosity and great delicacy in his judgments. Even at his most caustic there was a simplicity, an absence of vanity, rare in a writer. He talked about death and love, authors and actors, Paris and poetry, without rambling, without moralizing, without a trace of bitterness for having fallen on hard times. He was sustained, without knowing it, by the French refusal to accept poverty as a sign of failure in an artist. Léautaud, at rock bottom, still had his credentials. 
p. 145:
He would not stand for any form of grandiloquence where writing was concerned, and words such as "inspiration" were shot down rapidly: "When I see my father dying and write about his death I am not inspired, I am describing." Asked why he had been his dreadful father's deathbed at all, he said, "It was only curiosity. Cu-ri-o-si-té."
pp. 146-7:
He hated the pompous Comédie Française delivery and thought nothing of bawling objections in the middle of a classical tirade. If no notice was taken of his protest, he simply went to sleep. When he admired a play he put off writing about it because he wanted to take time and thought. As a result the best productions were never mentioned. Often he wrote about something else entirely (his most quoted non-review is about the death of a dog called Span) with one dismissive sentence for play and author.
pp. 147-8:
He had been with Mercure de France for most of his adult life. Only once had he ever thought of going, and that was in 1936, when Georges Duhamel became director and committed several sacrilegious acts: he got rid of the gas lamps and had the offices wired for electric light; he installed one telephone, ordered one typewriter and hired one female secretary. Léautaud, who preferred candlelight to any other, was bothered by the reforms: "Why change something that suits me?" 
p. 148:
During a radio interview he remarked that he had always wanted a pair of checked trousers. A young boy immediately wrote that his father, a tailor, would be glad to make them for nothing. Léautaud took it as an insult and snapped, on the air, "Do these people imagine I go around bare-arsed?"
p. 151:
He wanted to say before he died, "I regret everything," words, he said, "that will sum up my life." The last thing he did say before dying in his sleep was, "Foutez-moi la paix," ["Leave me the hell alone."] which was more typical.

27 March 2012

Dead Rats

From Antonio Tabucchi's novel Indian Nocturn, via Eric Poindron's blog (always a source of interesting things). My own translation from the French version:
As a profession, I do something different, I look for dead rats...
I dig around in old records, I look for ancient chronicles, for things that have been swallowed up by time. 
This is my profession, this is what I call dead rats.

26 March 2012

Applause, Envy, Respect?

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin (Toronto: Seal Books, 2001), p. 119:
Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we are still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas, our silver-plated cups; we monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It's all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? Applause, envy, respect? Or simply attention, of any kind we can get? 
At the very least we want a witness. We can't stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like a radio running down. 

23 March 2012

The Genesis of Modernism

Philip Larkin in the introduction to All What Jazz (London: St. Martin's Press, 1970):
I am sure there are books in which the genesis of modernism is set out in full. My own theory is that it is related to an imbalance between the two tensions from which art springs: these are the tension between the artist and his material and between the artist and his audience, and that in the last seventy-five years or so the second of these has slackened or even perished. In consequence the artist has become over-concerned with his material (hence an age of technical experiment), and, in isolation, has busied himself with the two principal themes of modernism, mystification and outrage. Piqued at being neglected, he has painted portraits with both eyes on the same side of the nose, or smothered a model with paint and rolled her over a blank canvas. He has designed a dwelling-house to be built underground. He has written poems resembling the kind of pictures typists make with their machine during the coffee break, or a novel in gibberish, or a play in which the characters sit in dustbins. He has made a six-hour film of someone asleep. He has carved human figures with large holes in them. And parallel to this activity ("every idiom has its idiot," as an American novelist has written) there has grown up a kind of critical journalism designed to put it over. The terms and the arguments vary with the circumstances, but basically the message is : Don't trust your eyes, or ears, or understanding. They'll tell you this is ridiculous, or ugly, or meaningless. Don't believe them. You've got to work at this after all, you don't expect to understand anything as important as art straight off, do you? I mean, this is pretty complex stuff: if you want to know how complex, I'm giving a course of ninety-six lectures at the local college, starting next week, and you'd be more than welcome. The whole thing's on the rates, you won't have to pay. After all, think what asses people have made of themselves in the past by not understanding art -- you don't want to be like that, do you? Keep the suckers spending.

22 March 2012

Magnificent Monotony

Friedrich Nietzsche on the role of schools in society, from The Will to Power, Vol. II, translated by Anthony M. Ludovici (Edinburgh: T. N. Foulis, 1910), pp. 321-2:
The object is to make man as useful as possible, and to make him approximate as nearly as one can to an infallible machine: to this end he must be equipped with machine-like virtues (he must learn to value those states in which he works in a most mechanically useful way, as the highest of all: to this end it is necessary to make him as disgusted as possible with the other states, and to represent them as very dangerous and despicable). 
Here is the first stumbling-block: the tediousness and monotony which all mechanical activity brings with it. To learn to endure this -- and not only to endure it, but to see tedium enveloped in a ray of exceeding charm: this hitherto has been the task of all higher schools. To learn something which you don't care a fig about, and to find precisely your "duty" in this "objective" activity: to learn to value happiness and duty as things apart; this is the invaluable task and performance of higher schools. It is on this account that the philologist has, hitherto, been the educator per se: because his activity, in itself, affords the best pattern of magnificent monotony in action; under his banner youths learn to "swat"; the first prerequisite for the thorough fulfilment of mechanical duties in the future (as State officials, husbands, slaves of the desk, newspaper readers, and soldiers).

21 March 2012

The Retrospection of Events

Ely Bates in Rural Philosophy (London: Longman and Rees, 1804), p. 261:
The pleasure we derive from the perusal of ancient history is partly because it is ancient. The mind, being formed for what is infinite, is naturally delighted with an image of unlimited duration as well as of unbounded space. The retrospection of events, which are faintly discerned in the depth of past ages, is not less pleasing than the view of an extensive prospect, where the dusky hills in the extremity of the horizon are scarcely distinguishable from the clouds.

20 March 2012

And suddenly it stands beside you

What follows is my translation of a poem by Joachim Ringelnatz (1883-1934). It's not very good but it may be the best one available, since a search on Google Books turned up no other English version:
And suddenly it stands beside you 
And suddenly you look out and realize:
How much sorrow has come to you,
How much friendship has quietly slipped away,
Taking all laughter from you. 
In the days you ask, bewildered.
But the days echo emptily.
Then you stifle your complaints...
You don't ask anyone anymore. 
Finally you learn to fall in line,
Tamed by worries.
You don't want to deceive yourself,
And you choke down what grieves you. 
Senseless and poor is how life seems,
It has gone on far too long. ---
And suddenly -- it stands beside you,
Leaning on you --
What you had longed for, for so long. 

Und auf einmal steht es neben dir 
Und auf einmal merkst du äußerlich:
Wieviel Kummer zu dir kam,
Wieviel Freundschaft leise von dir wich,
Alles Lachen von dir nahm. 
Fragst verwundert in die Tage.
Doch die Tage hallen leer.
Dann verkümmert Deine Klage...
Du fragst niemanden mehr. 
Lernst es endlich, dich zu fügen,
Von den Sorgen gezähmt.
Willst dich selber nicht belügen
Und erstickst, was dich grämt. 
Sinnlos, arm erscheint das Leben dir,
Längst zu lang ausgedehnt. – – –
Und auf einmal – –: Steht es neben dir,
An dich angelehnt – –
Das, was du so lang ersehnt.
Recited by Fritz Stavenhagen on Youtube

19 March 2012

An Uncomfortable Distinction

Frank Swinnerton, George Gissing; A Critical Study (London: Martin Secker, 1912), p. 85:
The sense of life as a maelstrom, resistless and inexorable, is Gissing's bugbear; failure, grief, inability to struggle against odds, sad handicaps of temperament, endless compromise with the idea of happiness; again and again we find him expressing these things, until his world seems peopled only by satisfied vulgarians and those to whom social intercourse is abhorrent. And while these preoccupations rob his work of resilience and warmth, they do at the same time lend it an uncomfortable distinction. He was a conscious malcontent, not a revolutionary, because he was just as much a social as a religious agnostic; but repelled by the superficial ugliness of active existence. He was all the time trying sincerely to express, in terms of art and morality, his own sedentary notion of life, the notion of an educated and sensitive student (never a mystic), consciously out of place: "There have always been two entities -- myself and the world, and the normal relation between these two has been hostile."

16 March 2012

Within the Limits of his Instrument

Sir Cecil Parrott in the introduction to Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1974), p. xxi, on the difficulties of translating the novel into English:
A further complication is the richness of Czech 'bad language' as compared with our own. In common with other Slavic languages and with German, Czech can boast a wide range of words of abuse in all shades of intensity. We cannot match these in Britain, where -- no doubt under the influence of puritanism -- the bulk of our own terms of abuse are too mild and our strong expressions are limited to one or two hackneyed obscenities. Czech words of abuse generally involve domestic animals, excrement or the parts of the body connected with it. The English relate mainly to sexual functions or perversions, although there is in this respect a narrow area of common ground between the two languages. If the reader finds a certain monotony in the words chosen by the translator I hope he will realize that the bandsman has to operate within the limits of his instrument.

15 March 2012

Ruptures and Farewells

Georges Perec, Les choses (Paris: Éditions 10/18, 1965), my translation:
They dreamed of living in the countryside, away from all temptation. Their lives would be frugal and unclouded. They would have a house of white stone, situated at the entrance of a village, warm corduroy pants, sturdy shoes, a heavy coat, a metal-tipped cane, a hat, and every day they would go for long walks in the forests. Then they would return and make themselves tea and toast, like the English. They would put logs on the fire, they would listen to a quartet they never tired of hearing, they would read the great novels they never had time to read, and they would receive their friends.  
These countryside escapes were frequent, but they rarely reached the stage of becoming a real project. It's true that, two or three times, they wondered what kind of work they could find in the countryside: there wasn't any. One day it occurred to them that they might become teachers, but they were instantly disgusted at the thought of overcrowded classrooms and exhausting days. They formed a vague notion of being wandering booksellers, or making pottery in a rustic, abandoned farmhouse in Provence. Then they liked to imagine that they would only live in Paris for three days a week, earning enough money to live comfortably in Yonne or Loiret the rest of the time. But these embryonic beginnings never went very far. They did not consider the real possibilities, or rather, the impossibilities.
They dreamed of abandoning their work, dropping everything, and going off on an adventure. They dreamed of starting all over again, from scratch. They dreamed of ruptures and farewells.

14 March 2012

Into the Greek Mind

Mary Watts describes G. F. Watts' self-education in George Frederick Watts; The Annals of an Artist's Life, Vol. I (New York: George H. Doran, 1913), pp. 14-5:
His health preventing him from attending, with any sort of regularity, any classes or school, he was taught, or taught himself as best he could, at home. He learnt to read fairly early, his father giving a good direction to his boy's choice of books. Later in life he could not hear without something like indignation of boys who were indifferent to and wasteful of advantages which had been withheld from him; perhaps above all that of robust health. But Poverty may also bring her gift of compensation; want of means made the books few, yet, as they were choice, the limitation had this advantage that he read them over and over again till they became a part of his world and of his being. Without the imposition of dreary tasks of grammar, he entered freely and of his own choice into the Greek mind, through such translations as were accessible to him. The Iliad perhaps the first and best beloved of all, he read and re-read until gods and heroes were his friends and acquaintances; he thought of them as such, judged critically of their words and actions, and was deeply moved by all that was noble and beautiful and restrained; he knew this to be a very living school, and every fibre of his being answered to the splendour of the great epic. And so, while ill-health held him back from all pleasures of the more active sort, there was given instead this leisure, in which his imaginative mind could roam the windy plains of Troy, or climb the heights of Olympus. Moving through the dim light of a London atmosphere, in his dull little room he saw "the bright-eyed Athene in the midst bearing the holy aegis, that knoweth neither age nor death," and dreamed that he too might be an aegis-bearer of that which cannot grow old, the utterance of the human mind in the language of an art.
An earlier post on G.F. Watts: Found Drowned

13 March 2012


Ichabod Artichoke writing in The Opal; A Monthly Periodical of the State Lunatic Asylum (Utica, NY: The Asylum, 1858), p. 136. (Google Books link here)
Some bores do not seem to be aware that they are trespassing upon people's time and patience; that they are trespassing upon the good nature of others which they have no right to do, and that they cause insanity. I have for forty-six years been the victim of bores, and have the disease in a chronic form. As sure as my name is Artichoke, my good nature has well nigh been the ruin of me: they should be requested to retire to their rooms till they can control themselves, and only present themselves again till they have put a buckwheat cake, some eye-salve, or a postage stamp over their labial and dental developments.
I cannot tell whether Mr. Artichoke was genuinely disturbed, or some kind of running joke among The Opal's editorial staff. No matter, as his prescription for dealing with bores is sound.

Note: The postnomial E.P. in the byline stands for "Ex-Patient".

12 March 2012

Young Schopenhauer

William Wallace describes Schopenhauer's affection for his dog Butz in The Life of Arthur Schopenhauer (London: Walter Scott, 1890), p. 174:
Of this dog he was very fond, noting its looks and movements with philosophic eye, and so attentive to its wants, that if, for example, a regimental band passed the house, he would get up in the midst of an earnest conversation, to put a seat by the window in a convenient position for his little friend to gaze out. The children of the neighbourhood soon came to know the poodle, and when they came home from their play on the Main-Quai they would, among other experiences, recount to their parents how they had seen "young Schopenhauer" sitting at his window.

9 March 2012


William Penn in Fruits of Solitude; Reflections and Maxims Relating to the Conduct of Human Life (London: Harvey and Darton, 1841), p. 58:
Remember the proverb Bene qui latuit, bene vixit; They are happy that live retiredly. If this be true, princes and their grandees, of all men, are the unhappiest: for they live least alone; and they that must be enjoyed by every body, can never enjoy themselves as they should. It is the advantage little men have upon them; they can be private, and have leisure for family comforts, which are the greatest worldly contents men can enjoy. But they that place pleasure in greatness, seek it there; and, we see, rule is as much the ambition of some natures, as privacy is the choice of others.

8 March 2012

Facebook Is a Kind of Self-Prostitution

Ernst Pöppel, Professor of Medical Psychology at Munich University, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (11.05.2010). My translation:
Multitasking is utter nonsense and, strictly speaking, impossible; in a window of time that lasts a few minutes, it is only possible to do several things in rapid succession. If I do this all day long, I have allowed myself to become an instrument of the information, and I do not really know what I have done. 
That is everyday life for most people. Should they come to terms with it?
No, they must learn to distance themselves from it. The ability to do so has, unfortunately, been lost in recent years. Ten minutes into a 45 minute lecture, many students are no longer receptive and shut down. 
What they can do about it?
It would help if phones in Germany were turned off for one hour a day. Apart from this, we need some ego strength: the ability to not always go to the phone when it rings, to not respond to every e-mail immediately, even though it may be expected. 
But if one holds back one can become isolated on social networking sites.
Sure, there are fears about losing membership in a particular group, of being excluded. However,  on these networks self-dramatization often plays a larger role than communication. 
In what way?
Facebook, for example, is a kind of self-prostitution; intimate disclosure without commitment. One does not really open up, but one wants to display oneself. It is to some extent self-communication -- a public diary that simply appears to be communication. 

7 March 2012

The Finest of all Intellectual Exercises

Cyril Connolly, The Condemned Playground (London: Routledge, 1945), p. 41:
Translating from one language to another is the finest of all intellectual exercises; compared to it, all other puzzles, from the bridge problem to the crossword, seem footling and vulgar.

6 March 2012

Behind an Impenetrable Shrub

Louis Blanc writing about anonymous journalism in Letters on England, Vol. II, translated by James Hutton and L. J. Trotter (London: Samson Low, Son, and Marston, 1867), p. 169:
For it is certainly not the part of a proud spirit to hide itself behind anonymity. To shirk the moral responsability of one's words is a proceeding which cannot be reconcilable with the sentiment of personal dignity. The individual is badly protected where his reputation is exposed to darts hurled by an unknown hand; neither is it comfortable to the rules of fair play that a man should be authorised to conceal himself behind an impenetrable shrub, in order to fire thence, without peril, on his enemy as he passes.

5 March 2012

The Love of Property

James Boswell, entry for February 9th, 1763 in Boswell's London Journal (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950), p. 186:
The love of property is strongly implanted in mankind. Property, to be sure, gives us a power of enjoying many pleasures which it can purchase; and as society is constituted, a man has a high degree of respect from it. Let me, however, beware of allowing this passion to take deep root. It may engross my affections and give me a meanness of spirit and a cold indifference to every manly and spirited pursuit. And when we consider what one gains, it is merely imaginary. To keep the golden mean between stinginess and prodigality is the point I should aim at. If a man is prodigal, he cannot be truly generous. His money is foolishly dissipated without any goodness on his part, and he has nothing to be generous with. On the other hand, a narrow man has a hard, contracted soul. The finer feelings are bound up, and although he has the power, he never can have the will to be generous. The character worthy of imitation is the man of economy, who with prudent attention knows when to save and when to spend, and acts accordingly.

2 March 2012

Misery and Happiness

John Donne, from Meditation XIII in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions:
We say that the world is made of sea and land, as though they were equal; but we know that there is more sea in the Western than in the Eastern hemisphere. We say that the firmament is full of stars, as though it were equally full; but we know that there are more stars under the Northern than under the Southern pole. We say the elements of man are misery and happiness, as though he had an equal proportion of both, and the days of man vicissitudinary, as though he had as many good days as ill, and that he lived under a perpetual equinoctial, night and day equal, good and ill fortune in the same measure. But it is far from that; he drinks misery, and he tastes happiness; he mows misery, and he gleans happiness; he journeys in misery, he does but walk in happiness; and, which is worst, his misery is positive and dogmatical, his happiness is but disputable and problematical: all men call misery misery, but happiness changes the name by the taste of man.

1 March 2012


For St. David's Day, here is a hymn in Welsh -- sung by Cerys Matthews:

The Varied Experiences of Life

The recently deceased philosopher and theologian John Hick, in Death and Eternal Life (London: Collins, 1976), p. 408:
Generally the varied experiences of life bring some growth in understanding of oneself, in acceptance of others, in willingness for sacrifice, and some expansion of the capacity to love and be loved. Very often, in these ways men and women take in the course of their lives a smaller or larger step towards their full humanization. But too often people are so treated by life that they never have the opportunity, or sufficient opportunity, to develop their properly human potential, and end their lives as hard, selfish, embittered personalities who have turned their backs upon the possibilities of human fellowship. Or worse, men become possessed by evil and perhaps live and die as enemies of mankind. Thus in this life a few men and women advance a great deal and may come to be recognized as saints; most perhaps advance a certain amount; whilst yet others fail to advance at all, or even degenerate towards a sub-human condition.

29 February 2012

Weimar Wednesday: No. 8

I am translating Hans Ostwald's Sittengeschichte der Inflation (Berlin: Neufeld & Henius, 1931). The book is frequently cited in works dealing with the Weimar hyperinflation (where it is usually referred to as A Moral History of the Inflation, or Tales of the Inflation), but up until now it has not been published in English. In these times of quantitative ease, I thought it might be amusing to post something from it each week.

This will be the last installment -- at least for a while. Two months of Weimar Wednesdays is sufficient; my Google ranking has improved, and anyone searching for an English translation of the book will discover that one is in the works. A little joke to finish things off...
In the spring of 1919 a joke was making the rounds:
A man hurries down a dark street.
“Psst! Robert! Where are you going?” asks another man.
“To the gambling club, to break the bank!”
“Do you have a system?”
“No, I have a hand grenade!”

28 February 2012


W. N. P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man (London: Chatto & Windus, 1919), pp. 40-41:
Youth is an intoxication without wine, some one says. Life is an intoxication. The only sober man is the melancholiac, who, disenchanted, looks at life, sees it as it really is, and cuts his throat. If this be so, I want to be very drunk. The great thing is to live, to clutch at our existence and race away with it in some great and enthralling pursuit. Above all, I must beware of all ultimate questions -- they are too maddeningly unanswerable -- let me eschew philosophy and burn Omar.

27 February 2012

Quiet Hostility

George Gissing to his friend Eduard Bertz, from The Collected Letters of George Gissing: 1863 - 1880, Vol. 2 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1990), p. 84:
The so-called civilized world is of course full of rampant barbarians -- most of them reckless of everything in the furious chase of after wealth and power. More likely than not, they will bring about terrible things in the immediate future. Be it our part to live in quiet hostility to all such baseness.

25 February 2012

Shagged to Buggery

Philip Larkin in a letter to his friend Jim Sutton, quoted in Andrew Motion's Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), p. 186:
My great trouble, as usual, is that I lack desires. Life is to know what you want, and to get it. But I don't feel I desire anything. I am unconvinced of the worth of literature. I don't want money or position. I find it easier to abstain from women than sustain the trouble of them and the creakings of my own monastic personality. In fact I feel as if the growing shoots of my character -- though they must be more than shoots by now -- had turned in on each other and were mutually neutralizing each other. Or that I had been 'doctored' in some way and my central core dripped on with acid. Shagged to buggery, that's what I be.

24 February 2012


Al Purdy on leaving his job at the mattress factory, in his autobiography Reaching for the Beaufort Sea (Madiera Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 1993), p. 144:
There was the feeling that things had gotten away on me somehow; I was no longer in control of my life. I'd quit that crummy job at which I made the top wages of $1.65 an hour, and was terrified to be leaving it! That job had been a large part of my world, at least had made the other more important parts financially possible. My feelings before leaving Vancouver Bedding must have been exactly the same as those of millions of other people stuck in boring poorly paid jobs and who keep working at them all their lives. Now I was making a discovery, the same one other quitters make; it's terrifying, but also exhilerating. Quitting is a word with disgrace attached, but it frequently makes good sense.
Ibid, p. 227
[S]omething irrational had stirred in my brain. It said: stop wasting your life conventionally, waste it yourself, unconventionally. And I said: who are you to tell me what to do with my life? (You hafta treat these inner voice know-it-alls as if you have some rights too.) So I went. 

23 February 2012

Heroic Service

In the appendix to Arthur Schopenhauer's Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 94-5, professor Bryan Magee pays homage to Schopenhauer's main English translator, Eric F. J. Payne (1895-1983), who learned German in order to be able to read the philosopher in the original:
Payne was continuing to work on the translation of Schopenhauer's other writings. But publishers were even less enthusiastic about investing in the secondary works than they had been about investing in the primary one, and the rejections and disappointments piled up as Payne went on producing more and more translations. He did have one or two early successes, but there was a long period in his life when he had completed the translation of many volumes without any perceptible hope of their publication; and yet he was still working full-time at producing new ones, obscurely confident that somehow it would come right in the end. And somehow it did. [...]
By making Schopenhauer's entire output available to English speakers with no German, and doing so in the teeth of literally decades of discouragement, Payne has performed a more heroic service for philosophy in the English-speaking world than anything he accomplished as a professional soldier. People nowadays are coming more and more to regard Schopenhauer as one of the truly great philosophers; and, this being so, more and more of them are finding themselves in Eric Payne's debt as the years go by. For this he deserves to be remembered. A short, stocky man with a squarish head and merry eyes, he surprisingly resembled certain portraits of Schopenhauer. Anyone who believes in reincarnation, as presumably all of Eric's Buddhist readers do, might be tempted to wonder... Those of us who do not noted the resemblance merely, and teased him about it. But, physical resemblance or no, there can be few individuals since Schopenhauer who have done so much for his philosophy.

22 February 2012

Weimar Wednesday: No. 7

I am translating Hans Ostwald's Sittengeschichte der Inflation (Berlin: Neufeld & Henius, 1931). The book is frequently cited in works dealing with the Weimar hyperinflation (where it is usually referred to as A Moral History of the Inflation, or Tales of the Inflation), but up until now it has not been published in English. In these times of quantitative ease, I thought it might be amusing to post something from it each week.

The subject of this installment is Max Klante, who ran a Ponzi scheme offering 600% returns and conveniently accepted after-hours deposits at the cafés he owned:
Yes, he knew how to bind his followers to him, holding assemblies in the Circus Busch where they crowned him with laurels and hoisted him on their shoulders. He raised their hopes with new ideas and plans, and they remained faithful to him -- he wanted to take over a major liquor company and start a whole line of cocktail bars. Cocktail and juice bars were all the rage back then, and they were like gold mines. And so the Klante system hit paydirt ... 
But after a few weeks it became obvious that this seam of ore was really fool's gold. Klante could no longer meet the demands of his creditors and fled to a sanatorium, pleading chronic illness. But this could not protect him from the investigation launched by the public prosecutor. 
His overly credulous creditors filed 90 million marks' worth of claims. His racehorses, his mansion, and his cars covered only a tiny fraction of that sum. The money had been offered up by people who had once considered him a saviour, and now they wanted to crucify him.
According to the Wikipedia article on Klante (only available in German), his scheme was so popular that there were branches in most major cities.

21 February 2012

A Perfectly Suitable Smile

Guy Vanderhaeghe, Man Descending (Toronto: Macmillan, 1982), p. 189:
A last cursory inspection of the bathroom and I spring open the door and present my wife with my best I'm-a-harmless-idiot-don't-hit-me-smile. Since I've been unemployed I practice my smiles in the mirror whenever time hangs heavy on my hands. I have one for every occasion. This particular one is a faithful reproduction. Art imitating Life. The other day, while out for a walk, I saw a large black Labrador taking a crap on somebody's doorstep. We established instant rapport. He grinned hugely at me while his body trembled with exertion. His smile was a perfect blend of physical relief, mischievousness, and apology for his indiscretion. A perfectly suitable smile for my present situation.

20 February 2012

The Sickest of All Sick Things

Since today is Family Day in the province of Ontario, here is a clip of Charles Bukowski talking about starvation, art, and family life:

18 February 2012

Non amo te, Sabidi

W. N. P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man (London: Chatto & Windus, 1919), p. 101:
For any one who is not simply a Sheep or Cow or whose nervous organisation is a degree more sensitive than the village blacksmith's, it is a besetting peril to his peace of mind to be constantly moving about an independent being, with loves and hates, and a separate identity among other separate identities, who prowl and prowl around like the hosts of Midian -- ready to snarl, fight, seize you, bore you, exasperate you, to arouse all your passions, call up all the worst from the depths where they have lain hidden... A day spent among my fellows goads me to a frenzy by the evening. I am no longer fit for human companionship. People string me up to concert pitch. I develop suspicions of one that he is prying, of another that he patronises. Others make me horribly anxious to stand well in their eyes and horribly curious to know what they think of me. Others I hate and loathe -- for no particular reason. There is a man I am acquainted with concerning whom I know nothing at all. He may be Jew, Gentile, Socinian, Pre-adamite, Anabaptist, Rosicrucian -- I don't know, and I don't care, for I hate him. I should like to smash his face in. I don't know why... In the whole course of our tenuous acquaintance we have spoken scarce a dozen words to each other. Yet I should like to blow up his face with dynamite.

17 February 2012

Misery and Futility

Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Oeuvres complètes de Chamfort, Vol. I (Paris: Chaumerot Jeune, 1824), p. 407. My own translation:
When I was young I was driven by passions, and they drew me into the world. I was forced to look, in society and in pleasures, for a little respite from painful aches. People used to preach to me about the joys of solitude, of work, and they bored me to tears with pedantic sermons on the subject. Having arrived at the age of forty and having lost the passions that made society bearable, I now see only misery and futility in it. I do not need people to escape from aches that no longer exist. I have developed a very strong taste for solitude and work, and it has replaced all the rest; I have ceased to go out into the world. Now people will not stop tormenting me and saying that I should return; they accuse me of being a misanthrope and so on. What to make of this strange difference? The need that men have to find fault with everything.

16 February 2012

To a Blocked Writer

From Ten Spurts of Venom, by Joseph S. Salemi (via Anecdotal Evidence):
You claim you're blocked, and can't squeeze out the words?
You're constipated, so we're spared your turds.

Something Finer

The appeal of Pre-Raphaelite art, from E. P. Thompson's biography of William Morris (New York: Pantheon Books, 1955), p. 57:
"Why is it," asked Thomas Dixon, a working man from Sunderland, writing to William Michael Rossetti about The Germ, "these pictures and essays being so realistic, yet produce on the mind such a vague and dreamy sensation, approaching as it were the Mystic Land of a Bygone Age? ... There is in them the life which I long for, and which to me never seems realizable in this life." 
So it seemed to many other men and women, dissatisfied with the poverty of their lives, and finding their sense of loss reflected in these canvasses, their yearning for something finer, more "ideal". It was as if the human spirit was being driven to more and more remote regions, but was still struggling to keep alive. As Burne-Jones once declared: "The more materialistic Science becomes, the more angels shall I paint."

15 February 2012

Weimar Wednesday: No. 6

For the last few Wednesdays I have been posting excerpts from the book I am translating, Hans Ostwald's Sittengeschichte der Inflation (Berlin: Neufeld & Henius, 1931). This week, I offer a change of pace -- some music from Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester, who will be on tour in North America starting next week.

While studying to become an opera singer at the Universität der Künste Berlin, Raabe met several other students who shared his enthusiasm for music from the 1920s and 1930s. They formed the Palast Orchester in 1986 and have become quite a success.

Here is Gib mir den letzten Abschiedskuss (Give Me the Last Goodbye Kiss):

For those who speak German, here is a clip of Raabe discussing the Übers Meer album, which is made up entirely of songs from the Weimar period.

14 February 2012

The Academic Nature

Philip Larkin in a letter to Monica Jones on 15th September 1959, from Letters to Monica (London: Faber & Faber, 2010):
[T]he break up of the library meant that a good deal of wooden shelving could be had cheap, and strange sights were seen -- Wood in on Sunday, gaping speculatively round, people who never set foot in the library between end of term and beginning of term (and not often otherwise) were running in as easily as rats. The intoxicating spicy Trade Winds of Something for Nothing bring our jolly mariners out of the hold as limber as weasels -- my God! I've never known a safer bet than that academic people will be round you like wasps round a jar if you so much as whisper 'no charge'. They will carry off anything no matter how useless. There were people bearing away mouldy spars on the grounds that it would be 'cheap even as fire wood', like some crazed medieval yokels. Don't you think that in the academic nature filthy meanness reaches a pitch when it is a streak of pure romanticism -- as if the famished search of the sandalled swine for the Lost Teat of the World were some Grail Quest instilled in childhood?
The "Wood in on Sunday" is Arthur Wood, Larkin's deputy at Hull University library.

13 February 2012

Yellow Pebbles

John Ruskin, The Veins of Wealth (New York: John B. Alden, 1885), p. 32-33:
[A]n accumulation of real property is of little use to its owner, unless, together with it, he has commercial power over labour. Thus, suppose any person to be put in possession of a large estate of fruitful land, with rich beds of gold in its gravel, countless herds of cattle in its pastures: houses, and gardens, and storehouses full of useful stores; but suppose, after all, that he could get no servants? In order that he may be able to have servants, some one in his neighbourhood must be poor; and in want of his gold -- or his corn. Assume that no one is in want of either, and that no servants are to be had. He must, therefore, bake his own bread, make his own clothes, plough his own ground, and shepherd his own flocks. His gold will be as useful to him as any other yellow pebbles on his estate. His stores must rot, for he cannot consume them. He can eat no more than another man could eat, and wear no more than another man could wear. He must lead a life of severe and common labour to procure even ordinary comforts; he will be ultimately unable to keep either houses in repair, or fields in cultivation; and forced to content himself with a poor man's portion of cottage and garden, in the midst of a desert of waste land, trampled by wild cattle, and encumbered by ruins of palaces, which he will hardly mock at himself by calling "his own". 
The most covetous of mankind would, with small exultation, I presume, accept riches of this kind on these terms. What is really desired, under the name of riches, is, essentially, power over men; in its simplest sense, the power of obtaining for our own advantage the labour of servant, tradesman, and artist; in wider sense, authority of directing large masses of the nation to various ends (good, trivial, or hurtful, according to the mind of the rich person). And this power of wealth of course is greater or less in direct proportion to the poverty of the men over whom it is exercised, and in inverse proportion to the number of persons who are as rich as ourselves, and who are ready to give the same price for an article of which the supply is limited.

11 February 2012

Manipulated by the Marketers

Clive Hamilton, The Freedom Paradox (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin,  2009), pp. 56-7:
Deception is essential to modern marketing. It is not true that a particular brand of margarine will impart a happy family life or that a sports car will deliver sexual allure. Yet the purpose of advertising is to convince us that these things are true. Supporters of the market who might suggest that this is just harmless fun and that consumers know how to apply a degree of scepticism need to explain why year after year billions of dollars are committed to such a futile activity and why such a large proportion of the world's creative talent is employed by marketing agencies. 
For [Friedrich] Hayek, a person's freedom hinged on 'whether he can expect to shape his course of action in accordance with his present intentions, or whether somebody else can so manipulate the conditions so as to make him act according to that person's will rather than his own'. Is this not the point we have reached, where in every decision the 'essential data' of our lives have been created or manipulated by the marketers, so that our will is bent to another's purpose?

10 February 2012

The Last Kick

W. N. P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man (London: Chatto & Windus, 1919), p. 42:
My body is chained to me -- a dead weight. It is my warder. I can do nothing without first consulting it and seeking its permission. I jeer at its grotesqueness. I chafe at the thongs it binds on me. On this bully I am dependent for everything the world can give me. How can I preserve my amour propre when I must needs be for ever wheedling and cajoling a despot with delicate meats and soft couches? -- I who am proud, ambitious, and full of energy! In the end, too, I know it intends to carry me off... I should like though to have the last kick and, copying De Quincey, arrange to hand it over for dissection to the medical men -- out of revenge. 'Hope thou not much: fear thou not at all' -- my motto of late. 

9 February 2012

The Absolute Hopelessness of Everything

In Tropic of Cancer (New York: Grove Press, 1961), Henry Miller writes about taking one of Gandhi’s disciples to a brothel in Paris. Unfamiliar with Continental plumbing, the young Indian causes a stir when he relieves himself in the bidet. The incident puts Henry into a philosophical frame of mind:
And so I think what a miracle it would be if this miracle which man attends eternally should turn out to be nothing more than these two enormous turds which the faithful disciple dropped in the bidet. What if at the last moment, when the banquet table is set and the cymbals clash, there should appear suddenly, and wholly without warning, a silver platter on which even the blind could see that there is nothing more, and nothing less, than two enormous lumps of shit. That, I believe, would be more miraculous than anything which man has looked forward to. It would be miraculous because it would be undreamed of. It would be more miraculous than even the wildest dream because anybody could imagine the possibility but nobody ever has, and probably nobody ever again will. 
Somehow the realization that nothing was to be hoped for had a salutary effect upon me. For weeks and months, for years, in fact, all my life I had been looking forward to something happening, some extrinsic event that would alter my life, and now suddenly, inspired by the absolute hopelessness of everything, I felt relieved, as though a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders. At dawn I parted company with the young Hindu, after touching him for a few francs, enough for a room. 
Walking toward Montparnasse I decided to let myself drift with the tide, to make not the least resistance to fate, no matter in what form it presented itself. Nothing that had happened to me thus far had been sufficient to destroy me; nothing had been destroyed except my illusions. I myself was intact. The world was intact. Tomorrow there might be a revolution, a plague, an earthquake; tomorrow there might not be left a single soul to whom one could turn for sympathy, for aid, for faith. It seemed to me that the great calamity had already manifested itself, that I could be no more truly alone than at this very moment. I made up my mind that I would hold on to nothing, that I would expect nothing, that henceforth I would live as an animal, a beast of prey, a rover, a plunderer.

8 February 2012

Weimar Wednesday: No. 5

I am translating Hans Ostwald's Sittengeschichte der Inflation (Berlin: Neufeld & Henius, 1931). The book is frequently cited in works dealing with the Weimar hyperinflation (where it is usually referred to as A Moral History of the Inflation, or Tales of the Inflation), but up until now it has not been published in English. In these times of quantitative ease, I thought it might be amusing to post something from it each week.

In this installment, Ostwald describes the gambling craze:

An irresistible urge to gamble had taken hold of every segment of society. After the pressure of the war, there was a rash of gaming and dancing. A lot of people needed a way to relieve their overwrought nerves. There was also the ongoing economic squeeze, the secret and subtle inflation sickness. Everybody felt as if the floor was pitching and rolling beneath their feet. Many wanted to lose this sense of uncertainty in gaming, or numb themselves, while others were attracted by the money and the dazzling bustle.   
This was not simply the case in Berlin, but also in Chemnitz, Dresden, Breslau, Hamburg, Essen, Krefeld, and all over Germany. In the spa town of Nauheim the casino had to be closed. For a while at the beginning of 1919, gambling had been permitted throughout the night, since restricting opening hours only encouraged underground gaming dens. If the legitimate casinos closed at midnight, the gambling fiends would simply change locations; everything had been prepared earlier and was waiting in a hidden room nearby, so that only the bank had to be opened. By removing restrictions on gaming hours, the police hoped to put an end to the underground clubs. In fact, the casinos grew at such a rapid pace that by the middle of September they were all shut down. But not much was improved as a result. The registered clubs were soon allowed to reopen for card playing and other games. Only those places accused of rigged gaming were closed, such as the Schlesische Hof in Salzbrunn in July of 1919, and the casino in Bad Harzburg in July of 1921.

7 February 2012

Cheated and Angry

Philip Larkin in a letter to his friend Jim Sutton, quoted in Andrew Motion's Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), p. 133:
What do I believe would comfort me? Not much, as I grow increasingly pessimistic. I believe that the world is composed for the most part of people so unlike me that we think each other mad and wicked. I know I can't save it or it save me, and I doubt whether it can save itself or I save myself. I believe that human beings can do nothing for one another except provide amusement, which is pleasant but does not last. By amusement I include everything from an evening at the cinema to a love affair. I believe when I am old I shall bitterly regret having wasted my life, which I may have done. This is because I shall never attain the absolute -- in other words the continued ecstasy -- because it doesn't exist. Therefore in addition to being afraid of death I shall feel cheated and angry.

6 February 2012

Not Quite So Foolish

Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Oeuvres complètes de Chamfort, Vol. I (Paris: Chaumerot Jeune, 1824), p. 405. My own translation from the French:
In seeing or suffering the pain associated with extreme emotions, in love or in friendship, whether it results from the death of someone you love or from accidents in life, one is tempted to believe that dissipation and frivolity are not quite so foolish, and that life is hardly worth more than what regular people make of it.

4 February 2012

An Enormous Power of Enjoyment

Gabrielle Fleury reports on George Gissing's final days, from The Collected Letters of George Gissing: 1901-1903, Vol. 9 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1990), p. 281:
In one of the dreadful nights of the last week, after dolorous moaning, he said: "Oh, but I must not give way to these feelings, it is unworthy of me, unmanly, and besides unphilosophical. If I am to die, well, it is by law of Nature; I must not rebel against it. And I have to remember that there are some things in my life for which I must be thankful. I have had an enormous power of enjoyment, so that, in spite of all my poverty and miseries, I have enjoyed life more than more fortunate people. And I have done work which, I think, will not be forgotten tomomorrow. Then I have known you, my girlie..."
In her recollections (Id., p. 314) Fleury records one of Gissing's frequent sayings:
When something troubles or worries you, only think of the importance it will have in some fifty years hence, and you will feel how futile these things in fact are.

3 February 2012

Happier Alone

Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Oeuvres complètes de Chamfort, Vol. I (Paris: Chaumerot Jeune, 1824), p. 396. My own translation from the French:
One is happier alone than amongst others. Does this not stem from the fact that, in solitude, one thinks about things, while in society one is forced to think about people?

2 February 2012

Unutterably Bloody

The second Lord Redesdale's xenophobia, described by his daughter Jessica Mitford and quoted in Virginia Nicholson's Among the Bohemians (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), p. 224:
According to my father, outsiders included not only Huns, Frogs, Americans, blacks and all other foreigners, but also other people's children, the majority of my older sister's acquaintances, almost all young men -- in fact, the whole teeming population of the earth's surface, except for some, though not all, of our relations and a very few tweeded, red-faced country neighbours to whom my father for some reason had taken a liking.
Nicholson goes on to discuss the contemporary distain for travel:
'Abroad' was 'unutterably bloody', a place fit only for perverts and pinkos; if you didn't fall foul of the bad drains you were liable to be shot by anarchists or buggered by dagos. It was a place where people spat in railway carriages, where the food was full of nasty garlic and grease, and where you were lucky if you just got away with flatulence and rancid indigestion.

1 February 2012

Weimar Wednesday: No. 4

I am in the midst of translating Hans Ostwald's Sittengeschichte der Inflation (Berlin: Neufeld & Henius, 1931). The book is frequently cited in works dealing with the Weimar hyperinflation (where it is usually referred to as A Moral History of the Inflation, or Tales of the Inflation), but up until now it has not been published in English. In these times of quantitative ease, I thought it might be amusing to post something from it each week.

Today's lesson: Should your country experience hyperinflation, think twice before ordering the roast beef...
When gourmets tucked into pot roasts in the hotels and small restaurants where "everything was on offer", their consciences were not troubled by the fact it all came from the black market. 
Mind you, what they took for roast beef was often a piece of some old cart horse. If they were lucky, it was a race horse. In 1923, when the sale of horse flesh was permitted but there was still a lack of meat, many thoroughbred horses were stolen and sold off to slaughter. Animals that were worth several thousand marks in peace time were sold for just a few marks and delivered to the horse butcher.