29 May 2012

In the Sweat of Their Own Brows

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

28 May 2012

One of Those True Book-Lovers

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

25 May 2012

Disenchantment and Melancholy

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

24 May 2012

Literature as a Profession

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

23 May 2012

Dismal Hacks

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

21 May 2012

Prosperity and Happiness

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

18 May 2012

Hic Jacet

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

As for last words, I look to Paul Léautaud.

So Great Are the Defects

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

17 May 2012

How to Fail in Literature

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

16 May 2012

The High Value of Books

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

15 May 2012

Caelum Non Animum Mutant

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

14 May 2012

Let the Abyss Alone

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

11 May 2012

The Good Life

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

10 May 2012

The Contents of a Mouldy Nut

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

9 May 2012

Keep the Machines Running

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

8 May 2012

The Fortunate People

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

7 May 2012

The Jungle of Free Will and Necessity

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

4 May 2012

Rhetoric and Composition

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

3 May 2012

Learning Without a Title

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

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

2 May 2012

Learning Made Easy

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

1 May 2012

Peter Lick-Lard

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

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.