28 June 2012

An Unwholesome State of Mind

Margaret Nevinson, Life's Fitful Fever (London: A & C Black, 1926):
Unless a way out can be found, the struggle ends in what psychologists call 'frustration', an unwholesome state of mind, leading to cynicism, envy, hatred, and malice towards the more fortunate, and bitter discontent. The sharpest sting to my mind was the consciousness that the years were passing, that the keen powers of mind and body, the vigour and ambition of youth, do not last forever. Above all, the brightness of the imagination clouds in the thick mists of age and experience, and the night cometh when no man can work.

27 June 2012

How Long It Takes

Paul Léautaud, Journal Littéraire, from the entry for January 9th, 1904, my own translation:
How long it takes to dare to be oneself. It is not that you are yourself very late, no, it really is what I say: you need a great deal of time before you decide to show yourself as you are, freed from worrying about what is admired, about what you once naively tried to imitate, forcing yourself to like it, despite the secret difference you felt within.

26 June 2012

Our Personal Connection to What is Wrong

Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1977), p. 19:
Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.

25 June 2012

The Folio Volumes of Life

Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach (1804-1872), from his collection of aphorisms Abälard und Heloise (Ansbach: Carl Brügel, 1834), p. 8. My own translation:
Books are short excerpts from the wide-ranging folio volumes of life, and the only person who fulfills the writer's high calling is the one who sorts through the many bad things they sometimes contain and only reads out the best parts, separating the useless from the necessary and the common from the noble.

22 June 2012

A Few Crude Needs, Wants, and Desires

Joseph Wood Krutch, Human Nature and the Human Condition (New York: Random House, 1959), pp. 108-10:
[S]ince the mid-nineteenth century, more and more fiction in all its forms has become more and more subservient to scientific, sociological, and psychological theories; the writer seems less anxious to have us recognize ourselves than to make sure that what he writes could be taken to illustrate some scientific or sociological thesis he has accepted. At least from the time of George Eliot onward, many of the most important novelists tended to assume that fiction should illustrate "laws." Zola's endlessly reiterated thesis is that heredity and environment determine the character and the conduct of his characters, who are thus predictable products which circumstance has produced. Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy is another extreme example in which the hero is presented as in no sense a moral agent but again as only what he cannot help but be. Even where the thesis is less explicit, the tendency is very often to stress, not the individuality of the characters, but the extent to which they illustrate the "plight of the worker," the "limitations of the bourgeois mentality" or the "psychology of the postwar generation." 
Thus literature has come to be a less and less effective corrective while the sociology upon which it leans so heavily becomes more and more drab as it more and more insolently disregards the intangibles and reduces human nature to the few crude needs, wants, and desires which it can recognize and measure. 
It cannot, so it seems, give any account of either man or human life which does not leave out nearly everything which makes living interesting, enjoyable or significant. Though the Sociological Man is not quite so simple as that Economic Man who is nothing except producer and consumer, he is less likely to be recognized as a mere abstraction. If he is more than merely producer and consumer he is nevertheless motivated only by "needs," subject only to "pressures," desirous only of such unexalted goods as "security" and "status."

21 June 2012

Writing From One's Own Mind

George Gissing to his friend Eduard Bertz on Dec. 6th 1896, The Collected Letters of George Gissing, Vol. 6 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1995):
I believe that success comes and comes only of writing from one's own mind. Even the foolish books that succeed are strongly marked by the foolish personality of their authors. There is no such thing as getting a public by trying to do so.

20 June 2012

Hopelessly Unremunerative

Andrew Lang, How to Fail in Literature (London: Field & Tuer, 1890), pp. 88-9:
In an unpublished letter of Mr. Thackeray's, written before he was famous, and a novelist, he says how much he likes writing on historical subjects, and how he enjoys historical research. The work is so gentlemanly, he remarks. Often and often, after the daily dreadful lines, the bread and butter winning lines on some contemporary folly or frivolity, does a man take up some piece of work hopelessly unremunerative, foredoomed to failure as far as money or fame go, some dealing with the classics of the world, Homer or Aristotle, Lucian or Molière. It is like a bath after a day's toil, it is tonic and clean; and such studies, if not necessary to success, are, at least, conducive to mental health and self-respect in literature.

19 June 2012

In Praise of Scribes

P. S. Allen, The Age of Erasmus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1914), pp. 261-2:
But the new invention [of books made with moveable type] was not universally acclaimed. Trithemius with his conservative mind quickly detected some weaknesses; and in 1492 he composed a treatise 'In praise of scribes', in vain attempt to arrest the flowing tide. 'Let no one say, "Why should I trouble to write books, when they are appearing continually in such numbers? for a moderate sum one can acquire a large library." What a difference between the results achieved! A manuscript written on parchment will last a thousand years: books printed on paper will scarcely live two hundred. Besides, there will always be something to copy: not everything can be printed. Even if it could, a true scribe ought not to give up. His pen can perpetuate good works which otherwise would soon perish. He must not be amazed by the present abundance that he sees, but should look forward to the needs of the future. Though we had thousands of volumes, we must not cease writing; for printed books are never so good. Indeed they usually pay little heed to ornament and orthography.' It is noticeable that only in this last point does Trithemius claim for manuscripts superior accuracy. In the matter of permanence we may wonder what he would have thought of modern paper.

18 June 2012

The Mediocre Man

Joseph Wood Krutch, Human Nature and the Human Condition (New York: Random House, 1959), pp. 92-3:
The words we choose to define or suggest what we believe to be important facts exert a very powerful influence upon civilization. A mere name can persuade us to approve or disapprove, as it does, for example, when we describe certain attitudes as "cynical" on the one hand or "realistic" on the other. No one wants to be "unrealistic" and no one wants to be "snarling". Therefore his attitude toward the thing described may very well depend upon which designation is current among his contemporaries; and the less critical his mind, the more influential the most commonly used vocabulary will be. 
It is for this reason that, even as a mere verbal confusion, the use of "normal" to designate what ought to be called "average" is of tremendous importance and serves not only to indicate but actually to reinforce the belief that average ability, refinement, intellectuality, or even virtue is an ideal to be aimed at. Since we cannot do anything to the purpose until we think straight and since we cannot think straight without properly defined words it may be that the very first step toward an emancipation from the tyranny of "conformity" should be the attempt to substitute for "normal", as commonly used, a genuine synonym for "average". 
Fortunately, such a genuine and familiar synonym does exist. That which is "average" is also properly described as "mediocre". And if we were accustomed to call the average man, not "the common man" or still less "the normal man", but "the mediocre man" we should not be so easily hypnotized into believing that mediocrity is an ideal to be aimed at.

15 June 2012

Absolute Rot

Since tomorrow is Bloomsday, here is Evelyn Waugh on James Joyce:

14 June 2012

Engaged Isolation

Marilynne Robinson in Writing Life (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006):
If one were looking for things to compare, for their engaged isolation, with the reading of a novel, they would be dreaming, meditation, and prayer.

13 June 2012

What Should One Think of Humanity?

Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Oeuvres complètes de Chamfort, Vol. I (Paris: Chaumerot Jeune, 1824), p. 435. My own translation:
When one considers that, after thirty or forty centuries of work and genius, the end result is that three hundred million men spread all over the globe have been delivered up to thirty despots, most of them ignorant imbeciles, each of whom is managed by three or four villains (sometimes stupid ones), what should one think of humanity, and what can one expect of it in future?

12 June 2012


W. Hale White, Autobiography of Mark Rutherford (London: T. F. Unwin, 1881):
For my own part I cannot be enthusiastic about politics, except on rare occasions when the issue is a very narrow one. There is so much that requires profound examination, and it disgusts me to get upon a platform and dispute with ardent Radicals or Conservatives who know nothing about even the rudiments of history, political economy, or political philosophy, without which it is as absurd to have an opinion upon what are called politics as it would be to have an opinion upon an astronomical problem without having learned Euclid.

11 June 2012

The Depth of My Ambition

C. H. Middleton, Village Memories (London: Cassell and Company, 1941), pp. 162-4:
There is surely something wrong with a system which drives every intelligent youth away from the country village, because there is no longer a living there for him. But isn't there also something wrong with a philosophy that teaches us to measure success by monetary values only, rather than by the happiness attained? I have never despised money, I have never known enough about it to do that, but surely it is but the means to an end; and if the end can be attained without the means, why worry? I never could see the sense of spending three-quarters of a lifetime in a feverish struggle to get money to spend in the last quarter, which, as often as not, never arrives. I want to enjoy life now, not wait until I'm seventy. I have known several village lads who have left home and got on in the world, and have been successful, but I am not convinced that they finished up any happier than their rosy-cheeked brothers who stayed at home. 
Perhaps if I had swotted and worked hard years ago, I, too, might have been successful. I might have invented a new form of high explosive or poison gas and become famous. I might have made so much money that by this time perhaps I should have been undergoing a cure for something or other at a foreign spa; and perhaps I should have earned this little epitaph, which would surely be appropriate on many a marble tombstone:
He squandered health in search of wealth
To gold became a slave
Then spent his wealth in search of health
But found only a grave.
As it is, I suppose I must be counted one of life's -- I won't say failures, but mediocrities; but a very contented one. I am one of those lucky people who are satisfied with their lot, and know when they are well off. I enjoy a good breakfast every morning, and I've got a pleasant job which suits me very nicely, and I wouldn't change it for the directorship of a soap factory at ten thousand a year. I suppose I ought to be ashamed to say it, but the height, or shall I say depth, of my ambition is a pension of two or three hundred a year, and the time and opportunity to enjoy my garden, where I can grow roses and sweet peas and live close to Nature, and perhaps help a few others to appreciate the real good things in life, and to make the most of this brief stay on earth.
To put Mr. Middleton's aspirations in context: £250 in 1941 would be about £10,500 today, or $16,700 Canadian.

8 June 2012

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (London: Victor Gollancz, 1933):
We went several days on dry bread, and then I was two and a half days with nothing to eat whatever. This was an ugly experience. There are people who do fasting cures of three weeks or more, and they say that fasting is quite pleasant after the fourth day; I do not know, never having gone beyond the third day. Probably it seems different when one is doing it voluntarily and is not underfed at the start. 
The first day, too inert to look for work, I borrowed a rod and went fishing in the Seine, baiting with bluebottles. I hoped to catch enough for a meal, but of course I did not. The Seine is full of dace, but they grew cunning during the siege of Paris, and none of them has been caught since, except in nets. On the second day I thought of pawning my overcoat, but it seemed too far to walk to the pawnshop, and I spent the day in bed, reading The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. It was all that I felt equal to, without food. Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and luke-warm water substituted. 

6 June 2012

Not Well Employed

Joseph Wood Krutch, Human Nature and the Human Condition (New York: Random House, 1959), p. 57:
Referring to a depression in his own day, Thoreau once wrote to a friend: "If thousands are thrown out of employment, it suggests that they were not well employed." To most readers who come upon that casual remark for the first time it seems merely heartless: "If there is no useful work for these thousands of people to do, then just let them starve." But there is another way of looking at it. If you are thinking not only of their plight but of how they came to be plunged into it, then Thoreau's remark goes straight to the heart of the matter. A major fraction of the population is engaged in making things which nobody needs. All the arts of publicity are proving insufficient to persuade a sufficient number of people that they even "want" them. Is there nothing better that that the now unemployed could have been working at? Must they boondoggle on a gigantic scale? Must boondoggling be accepted as the foundation of our economy? Or are there tasks upon which all might be "well employed"? Is our definition of what constitutes the good life the real reason they are not?

5 June 2012

Only in Looking Back

George Gissing, Born in Exile (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1896), pp. 248-9:
It belongs to the pathos of human nature that only in looking back can one appreciate the true value of those long tracts of monotonous ease which, when we are living through them, seem of no account save in relation to past or future; only at a distance do we perceive that the exemption from painful shock was in itself a happiness, to be rated highly in comparison with most of those disturbances known as moments of joy. 

4 June 2012

The Desire for Useless Things

Joseph Wood Krutch, Human Nature and the Human Condition (New York: Random House, 1959), pp. 35-6:
[P]resent-day human nature does not spontaneously desire all the material things which our economic health demands that it should have. It may once have been necessary to restrain man's lust to own, to consume, and to waste; but this lust is no longer adequate to the needs of present-day industry. We cannot be trusted to buy enough things. In the public interest a vast co-ordinated effort must be made to sell them to us. Neither is it enough to satisfy mere "needs", even though it be recognized that such "needs" grow as they are fed. They still do not grow fast enough. They must be created; and it must also be recognized that many of them are not only created but are also in themselves "psychological". As the head of one large New York advertising agency jubilantly pointed out, a study revealed that "of some 500 classified wants, only 96 were necessary." But what, in plain language, are "created psychological needs" except the desire for useless things which people have been persuaded that they want?

1 June 2012

Push an Acorn Into the Ground

George Orwell in A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray, an As I Please essay that appeared in the Tribune on 26 April 1946:
A thing which I regret, and which I will try to remedy some time, is that I have never in my life planted a walnut. Nobody does plant them nowadays -- when you see a walnut it is almost invariably an old tree. If you plant a walnut you are planting it for your grandchildren, and who cares a damn for his grandchildren? Nor does anybody plant a quince, a mulberry or a medlar. But these are garden trees which you can only be expected to plant if you have a patch of ground of your own. On the other hand, in any hedge or in any piece of waste ground you happen to be walking through, you can do something to remedy the appalling massacre of trees, especially oaks, ashes, elms and beeches, which has happened during the war years.  
Even an apple tree is liable to live for about 100 years, so that the Cox I planted in 1936 may still be bearing fruit well into the twenty-first century. An oak or a beech may live for hundreds of years and be a pleasure to thousands or tens of thousands of people before it is finally sawn up into timber. I am not suggesting that one can discharge all one's obligations towards society by means of a private re-afforestation scheme. Still, it might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground. 

31 May 2012

Instinctive Horror

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