6 September 2012

The Bones of Dreamers and Visionaries

A. C. Benson, Where No Fear Was (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1914), pp. 234-5:
Men and women do not make pilgrimages to the graves and houses of eminent jurists and bankers, political economists or statisticians: these have done their work, and have had their reward. Even the monuments of statesmen and conquerors have little power to touch the imagination, unless some love for humanity, some desire to uplift and benefit the race, have entered into their schemes and policies. No, it is rather the soil which covers the bones of dreamers and visionaries that is sacred yet, prophets and poets, artists and musicians, those who have seen through life to beauty, and have lived and suffered that they might inspire and tranquillise human hearts. The princes of the earth, popes and emperors, lie in pompous sepulchres, and the thoughts of those who regard them, as they stand in metal or marble, dwell most on the vanity of earthly glory. But at the tombs of men like Virgil and Dante, of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, the human heart still trembles into tears, and hates the death that parts soul from soul.

5 September 2012

A Thing to Cherish

Edward Tyas Cook, The Life of John Ruskin, Vol. I (London, George Allen, 1912), p. 147:
The great books, some one has said, are those which come home with a personal appeal, making the reader feel that they were written expressly for him. Such was the effect which Ruskin's book produced upon [William] Holman Hunt in his early days. A fellow-student, he said, " one Telfer -- with whom wherever he wanders, be everlasting peace! -- spoke to me of Modern Painters; and when he recognised my eagerness to learn of its teachings all he could tell me, he gained permission from Cardinal Wiseman, to whom it belonged, to lend it to me for twenty-four hours. To get through the book I sat up most of the night, and I had to return it ere I made acquaintance with a quota of the good there was in it. But of all its readers none could have felt more strongly than myself that it was written expressly for him. When it had gone, the echo of its words stayed with me, and they gained a further value and meaning whenever my more solemn feelings were touched." It is a thing to cherish in the literary and artistic history of the Victorian era, this picture of the great Pre-Raphaelite painter burning the midnight oil over a borrowed copy of Modern Painters.

3 September 2012

The Crime of Bringing a Being Into the World

George Moore, Confessions of a Young Man (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1904), pp. 270-1:
You say that no ideal illumines the pessimist's life, that if you ask him why he exists, he cannot answer, and that Schopenhauer's arguments against suicide are not even plausible causistry. True, on this point his reasoning is feeble and ineffective. But we may easily confute our sensual opponents. We must say that we do not commit suicide, although we admit it is a certain anodyne to the poison of life -- an absolute erasure of the wrong inflicted on us by our parents -- because we hope by noble example and precept to induce others to refrain from love. We are the saviours of souls. Other crimes are finite; love alone is infinite. We punish a man with death for killing his fellow; but a little reflection should make the dullest understand that the crime of bringing a being into the world exceeds by a thousand, a millionfold that of putting one out of it. 

1 September 2012

Comfort-Loving Vulgarity

A. C. Benson, Where No Fear Was (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1914), pp. 83-85:
Greedy vanity in the more robust, lack of moral courage and firmness in the more sensitive, with a social organisation that aims at a surface dignity and a cheap showiness, are the ingredients of this devil's cauldron [of plodding, conventional home life]. The worst of it is that it has no fine elements at all. There is a nobility about real tragedy which evokes a quality of passionate and sincere emotion. There is something essentially exalted about a fierce resistance, a desperate failure. But this abject, listless dreariness, which can hardly be altered or expressed, this miserable floating down the muddy current, where there is no sharp repentance or fiery battling, nothing but a mean abandonment to a meaningless and unintelligible destiny, seems to have in it no seed of recovery at all. 
The dark shadow of professional anxiety is that it has no tragic quality; it is like ploughing on day by day through endless mud-flats. One does not feel, in the presence of sharp suffering or bitter loss, that they ought not to exist. They are there, stern, implacable, august; stately enemies, great combatants. There is a significance about their very awfulness. One may fall before them, but they pass like a great express train, roaring, flashing, things deliberately and intently designed; but these dull failures which seem not the outgrowth of anyone's fierce longing or wilful passion, but of everyone's laziness and greediness and stupidity, how is one to face them? It is the helpless death of the quagmire, not the death of the fight or the mountain-top. Is there, we ask ourselves, anything in the mind of God which corresponds to comfort-loving vulgarity, if so strong and yet so stagnant a stream can overflow the world? The bourgeois ideal! One would rather have tyranny or savagery than anything so gross and smug. 
And yet we see high-spirited and ardent husbands drawn into this by obstinate and vulgar-minded wives. We see fine-natured and sensitive women engulfed in it by selfish and ambitious husbands. The tendency is awfully and horribly strong, and it wins, not by open combat, but by secret and dull persistence. And one sees too -- I have seen it many times -- children of delicate and eager natures, who would have flourished and expanded in more generous air, become conventional and commonplace and petty, concerned about knowing the right people and doing the right things, and making the same stupid and paltry show, which deceives no one.

31 August 2012

The Price of Books

George Orwell in Books vs. Cigarettes, an As I Please essay published in the Tribune on February 8, 1946:
It is difficult to establish any relationship between the price of books and the value one gets out of them. "Books" includes novels, poetry, text books, works of reference, sociological treatises and much else, and length and price do not correspond to one another, especially if one habitually buys books second-hand. You may spend ten shillings on a poem of 500 lines, and you may spend sixpence on a dictionary which you consult at odd moments over a period of twenty years. There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one's mind and alter one's whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads through, books that one reads at a single sitting and forgets a week later: and the cost, in terms of money, may be the same in each case.

30 August 2012

How Many Idiots?

Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Oeuvres complètes de Chamfort, Vol. II (Paris: Chaumerot Jeune, 1824), p. 5. My translation:
People were refuting some opinion or other that Mr. M. had of a work, telling him the public judged it differently: "The public! The public!" he said. "How many idiots does it take to make a public?"

29 August 2012

A Repudiated Conservative

Morley Roberts on George Gissing's politics in The Private Life of Henry Maitland (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1912), p. 174:
He had once, as he owned, been touched by Socialism, probably of a purely academic kind; and yet, when he was afterwards withdrawn from such stimuli as had influenced him to think for once in terms of sociology, he went back to his more natural despairing conservative frame of mind. He lived in the past, and was conscious every day that something in the past that he loved was dying and must vanish. No form of future civilisation, whatever it might be, which was gained by means implying the destruction of what he chiefly loved, could ever appeal to him. He was not even able to believe that the gross and partial education of the populace was better than no education at all, in that it must some day inevitably lead to better education and a finer type of society. It was for that reason that he was a Conservative. But he was the kind of Conservative who would now be repudiated by those who call themselves such, except perhaps in some belated and befogged country house.

27 August 2012

The Silent Retreat of the Mind

Johann Georg Zimmermann, Solitude (London: Thomas Tegg, 1827), pp. 129-30:
The wise man, in the midst of the most tumultuous pleasures, frequently retires within himself, and silently compares what he might do with what he is doing. Surrounded by, and even when accidentally engaged in, the excesses of intoxication, he associates only with those warm and generous souls whose highly elevated minds are drawn towards each other by the most virtuous inclinations and sublime sentiments. The silent retreat of the mind within itself has more than once given birth to enterprises of the greatest importance and utility; and it is not difficult to imagine that some of the most celebrated actions of mankind were first inspired among the sounds of music, or conceived amidst the mazes of the dance. Sensible and elevated minds never commune more closely with themselves than in those places of public resort in which the low and vulgar, surrendering themselves to illusion and caprice, become incapable of reflection, and blindly suffer themselves to be overwhelmed by the surrounding torrent of folly and distraction.
A search for a digital version of the original Über die Einsamkeit turns up a mess of jumbled editions and misnumbered volumes in both Archive.org and Google Books. There is a complete scanned edition (Troppau: s.n., 1785) in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

24 August 2012

Maugham on Posterity

W. Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1930), p. 137:
The elect sneer at popularity; they are inclined even to assert that it is a proof of mediocrity; but they forget that posterity makes its choice not from among the unknown writers of a period, but from among the known. It may be that some great masterpiece which deserves immortality has fallen still-born from the press, but posterity will never hear of it; it may be that posterity will scrap all the best sellers of our day, but it is among them it must choose.

23 August 2012

Bathroom Ruminations

Edmund Wilson, A Piece of My Mind (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956):
I have had a good many more uplifting thoughts, creative and expansive visions — while soaking in comfortable baths or drying myself after bracing showers — in well-equipped American bathrooms than I have ever had in any cathedral. Here the body purges itself, and along with the body, the spirit. Here the mind becomes free to ruminate, to plan ambitious projects. The cathedrals, with their distant domes, their long aisles and their high groinings, do add stature to human strivings; their chapels do give privacy for prayer. But the bathroom, too, shelters the spirit, it tranquillizes and reassures, in surroundings of a celestial whiteness, where the pipes and faucets gleam and the mirror makes another liquid surface, which will render you, shaved, rubbed and brushed, a nobler and more winning appearance. Here, too, you may sing, recite, refresh yourself with brief readings, just as you do in church; and the fact that you do it without a priest and not as a member of a congregation is, from my point of view, an advantage. It encourages self-dependence and prepares one to face the world, fortified, firm on one’s feet, serene and with a mind like a diamond.

22 August 2012

Like Leaves Scattered and Blown

Hugh Blair, Sermons, Vol. II (Dublin: William Colles, 1784), p. 26:
[S]tudy to acquire the habit of attention to thought. No study is more important; for in proportion to the degree in which this habit is possessed, such commonly is the degree of intellectual improvement. It is this power of attention which in a great measure distinguishes the wise and the great from the vulgar and trifling herd of men. The latter are accustomed to think, or rather to dream, without knowing the subject of their thoughts. In their unconnected rovings, they pursue no end; they follow no track. Everything floats loose and disjointed on the surface of their mind; like leaves scattered and blown about on the face of the waters.

21 August 2012

Petrarch on Posterity

Petrarch in a letter to Tommaso di Messina in 1326, quoted in James Harvey Robinson's Petrarch (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1914), p. 406:
Let us look for a moment at those whose writings have become famous. Where are the writers themselves? They have turned to dust and ashes these many years. And you long for praise? Then you, too, must die. The favour of humanity begins with the author's decease; the end of life is the beginning of glory. If it begins earlier, it is abnormal and untimely. Moreover, so long as any of your contemporaries still live, although you may begin to get possession of what you desire, you may not have its full enjoyment. Only when the ashes of a whole generation have been consigned to the funeral urn do men begin to pass an unbiased judgment, free from personal jealousy. Let the present age harbour any opinion it will of us. If it be just, let us receive it with equanimity; if unjust, we must appeal to unprejudiced judges, -- to posterity, seeing that a fair-minded verdict can be obtained nowhere else. 

20 August 2012

How About This?

A. Y. Jackson, A Painter's Country (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Co, 1967), p. 65:
On a sketching trip, when one is working with oil colours on card or wood panels a great problem is how to carry around wet sketches. Boxes can be made with slots to put the sketches in, but they are clumsy things to carry about. Dr. [Frederick] Banting found a solution to this difficulty. He broke a wooden match into five little pieces, and before the sketch was too dry he put the pieces of match right in the paint (in the direction of the brush strokes), one near each corner and one in the centre; in this way they left no mark. When he was ready to leave the place where he had been sketching, he made a bundle of the sketches and tied them tight with a cord. I have adopted this method and had no trouble with wet sketches since. Banting once said, "People who don't like me say that after insulin I will never make another discovery. Well, how about this?"
A. Y. Jackson, Northern Lake (1928)

17 August 2012

Books Are Real Friends

Sir John Lubbock, The Pleasures of Life (New York: D. Appleton, 1887), pp. 49-50:
This feeling that books are real friends is constantly present to all who love reading. "I have friends," said Petrarch, "whose society is extremely agreeable to me; they are of all ages and of every country. They have distinguished themselves both in the cabinet and in the field, and obtained high honors for their knowledge of the sciences. It is easy to gain access to them, for they are always at my service, and I admit them to my company, and dismiss them from it, whenever I please. They are never troublesome, but immediately answer every question I ask them. Some relate to me the events of past ages, while others reveal to me the secrets of Nature. Some teach me how to live, and others how to die. Some by their vivacity, drive away my cares and exhilarate my spirits; while others give fortitude to my mind, and teach me the important lesson how to restrain my desires, and to depend wholly on myself. They open to me, in short, the various avenues of all the arts and sciences, and upon their information I may safely rely in all emergencies. In return for all their services, they only ask me to accommodate them with a convenient chamber in some comer of my humble habitation, where they may repose in peace; for these friends are more delighted by the tranquility of retirement than with the tumults of society."
I have not had time to find the original passage in Petrarch. I do, however, have the time to curse the vandal who ripped several pages from the University of Toronto's copy of Conrad Rawski's translation of Petrarch's De remediis utriusque fortunae: May some hitherto unknown insect lay its eggs upon his eyes, causing him excruciating pain as the larvae devour first his sight and then his entire head from within.

A related post: Books Are the Departed Souls of Men

16 August 2012

Miserable Egotism

W. Hale White, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford (London: T. F. Unwin, 1881), p. 133:
"With regard to immortality," he said, "I never know what men mean by it. What self is it which is to be immortal? Is it really desired by anybody that he should continue to exist for ever with his present limitations and failings? Yet if these are not continued, the man does not continue, but something else, a totally different person. I believe in the survival of life and thought. People think it is not enough. They say they want the survival of their personality. It is very difficult to express any conjecture upon the matter, especially now when I am weak, and I have no system -- nothing but surmises. One thing I am sure of -- that a man ought to rid himself as much as possible of the miserable egotism which is so anxious about self, and should be more and more anxious about the Universal."

15 August 2012


Anthony Powell, A Buyer's Market (London: Heinemann, 1952):
The illusion that egoists will be pleased, or flattered, by interest taken in their habits persists throughout life; whereas, in fact, persons like Widmerpool, in complete subjection to the ego, are, by the nature of that infirmity, prevented from supposing that the minds of others could possibly be occupied by any subject far distant from the egoist’s own affairs.

14 August 2012

Dull and Meaningless Toil

Stephen Leacock, The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice (Toronto: S. B. Gundy, 1920), pp. 22-4:
The record of the age of machinery is known to all. But the strange mystery, the secret that lies concealed within its organization, is realized by but few. It offers, to those who see it aright, the most perplexing industrial paradox ever presented in the history of mankind. With all our wealth, we are still poor. After a century and a half of labor-saving machinery, we work about as hard as ever. With a power over nature multiplied a hundred fold, nature still conquers us. And more than this. There are many senses in which the machine age seems to leave the great bulk of civilized humanity, the working part of it, worse off instead of better. The nature of our work has changed. No man now makes anything. He makes only a part of something, feeding and tending a machine that moves with relentless monotony in the routine of which both the machine and its tender are only a fractional part. 
For the great majority of the workers, the interest of work as such is gone. It is a task done consciously for a wage, one eye upon the clock. The brave independence of the keeper of the little shop contrasts favorably with the mock dignity of a floor walker in an "establishment." The varied craftsmanship of the artisan had in it something of the creative element that was the parent motive of sustained industry. The dull routine of the factory hand in a cotton mill has gone. The life of a pioneer settler in America two hundred years ago, penurious and dangerous as it was, stands out brightly beside the dull and meaningless toil of his descendant.

13 August 2012

Deserving Oblivion

Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist," Oscar Wilde: The Oxford Authors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 256:
To know the vintage and quality of a wine one need not drink the whole cask. It must be perfectly easy in half an hour to say whether a book is worth anything or worth nothing. Ten minutes are really sufficient, if one has the instinct for form. Who wants to wade through a dull volume? One tastes it, and that is quite enough -- more than enough, I should imagine. I am aware that there are many honest workers in painting as well as in literature who object to criticism entirely. They are quite right. Their work stands in no intellectual relation to their age. It brings us no new element of pleasure. It suggests no fresh departure of thought, or passion, or beauty. It should not be spoken of. It should be left to the oblivion that it deserves.

10 August 2012

The Iniquity of Oblivion

Kenneth Grahame, "The Iniquity of Oblivion," The Yellow Book, VII (January, 1895), 197-9:
[I]t is impossible not to realise, in sad seriousness, that of all our recollection has once held, by far the larger part must be by this time in the realm of the forgot; and that every day some fresh delightful little entity pales, sickens, and passes over to the majority. Sir Thomas Browne has quaintly written concerning the first days of the young world, "when the living might exceed the dead, and to depart this world could not be properly said, to go unto the greater number"; but in these days of crowded thought, of the mind cultured and sensitised to receive such a swarm of impressions, no memory that sighs its life out but joins a host far exceeding what it leaves behind. 'Tis but a scanty wallet that each of us carries at his back. Few, indeed, and of a sorry mintage, the thin coins that jingle therein. Our gold, lightly won, has been as lightly scattered, along waysides left far behind. Oblivion, slowly but surely stalking us, gathers it with a full arm, and on the floor of his vast treasure-house stacks it in shining piles.  
And if it is the larger part that has passed from us, why not also the better part? Indeed, logic almost requires it; for to select and eliminate, to hold fast and let go at will, is not given to us. As we jog along life's highroad, the knowledge of this inability dogs each conscious enjoyment, till with every pleasant experience comes also the annoying reflection, that it is a sheer toss-up whether this is going to be a gain, a solid profit to carry along with us, or fairy gold that shall turn to dust and nothingness in a few short mornings at best. As we realise our helplessness in the matter, we are almost ready to stamp and to swear. Will no one discover the chemical which shall fix the fleeting hue? That other recollection, now -- that humiliating, that disgusting experience of ten years ago -- that is safe enough, permanent, indestructible, warranted not to fade. If in this rag-fair we were only allowed to exchange and barter, to pick and choose! Oblivion, looking on, smiles grimly. It is he that shall select, not we; our part is but to look on helplessly, while -- though he may condescend to leave us a pearl or two -- the bulk of our jewels is swept into his pocket. 

9 August 2012

Everything That Once Made Life Sweet

Philip Larkin, All What Jazz (London: St. Martin's Press, 1970), p. 18:
Sometimes I imagine them [my readers]; sullen fleshy inarticulate men, stockbrokers, sellers of goods, living in thirty-year-old detached houses among the golf courses of Outer London, husbands of ageing and bitter wives they first seduced to Artie Shaw's 'Begin the Beguine' or the Squadronaires' 'The Nearness of You'; fathers of cold-eyed lascivious daughters on the pill, to whom Ramsay MacDonald is coeval with Rameses II, and cannabis-smoking jeans-and-bearded Stuart-haired sons whose oriental contempt for 'bread' is equalled only by their insatiable demand for it; men to whom a pile of scratched coverless 78s in the attic can awaken memories of vomiting blindly from small Tudor windows to Muggsy Spanier's 'Sister Kate', or winding up a gramophone in a punt to play Armstrong's 'Body and Soul'; men whose first coronary is coming like Christmas; who drift, loaded helplessly with commitments and obligations and necessary observances, into the darkening avenues of age and incapacity, deserted by everything that once made life sweet.
Larkin was born on this day in 1922.