30 November 2012

Beasts of Prey

Coventry Patmore (1823-1896), The Rod, the Root, and the Flower (London: George Bell & Sons, 1895), p. 174:
Ninety-nine men in a hundred are natural men, that is, beasts of prey; and it is mere insanity, in business matters, to deal with a stranger upon any other assumption than that he is a natural man, though we should veil our knowledge of the actual fact by a courteous recognition in words and manners of his better possibilities. No one ought to be disappointed or angry at finding a man to be what good sense was bound to expect him to be. We should rather wonder and give great thanks to God whenever we come across His greatest miracle, a supernatural, or honest and just man. 

29 November 2012

Souvarine Plays Powerball

Émile Zola, Germinal (Paris: Charpentier, 1885), pp. 124-125, in which the anarchist Souvarine learns that a couple of workers have won the lottery and plan to spend the rest of their lives doing nothing. My translation:
"Yes, that's the way all of you French workers think. Dig up a treasure and then head off into a corner of egotism and idleness to eat it by yourselves. Why bother crying out against the rich when you lack the courage to give the money that fortune sends you to the poor... you will never be worthy of happiness so long as you have something of your own, and when your hatred of the middle class springs solely from your angry desire to be middle class in their place."
Rasseneur broke out laughing. The idea that the two workers from Marseille should hand over their lottery winnings seemed stupid to him. But Souvarine turned pale and his distorted face became terrifying. It was like one of those religious furores in which nations are exterminated. He shouted:
"All of you will be cut down, knocked over, and left to rot. One day a man will be born who will annihilate you race of cowards and hedonists. And look, do you see my hands? If my hands could, they would take the earth like this and shake it until it broke into little pieces, so that all of you would lie beneath the rubble."
The French:
-- Oui, c'est votre idée, à vous tous, les ouvriers français, déterrer un trésor, pour le manger seul ensuite, dans un coin d'égoïsme et de fainéantise. Vous avez beau crier contre les riches, le courage vous manque de rendre aux pauvres l'argent que la fortune vous envoie… Jamais vous ne serez dignes du bonheur, tant que vous aurez quelque chose à vous, et que votre haine des bourgeois viendra uniquement de votre besoin enragé d'être des bourgeois à leur place.

Rasseneur éclata de rire, l'idée que les deux ouvriers de Marseille auraient dû renoncer au gros lot lui semblait stupide. Mais Souvarine blêmissait, son visage décomposé devenait effrayant, dans une de ces colères religieuses qui exterminent les peuples. Il cria:

-- Vous serez tous fauchés, culbutés, jetés à la pourriture. Il naîtra, celui qui anéantira votre race de poltrons et de jouisseurs. Et, tenez! vous voyez mes mains, si mes mains le pouvaient, elles prendraient la terre comme ça, elles la secoueraient jusqu'à la casser en miettes, pour que vous restiez tous sous les décombres.

28 November 2012

This Is Your Brain on Drugs

Wigged out on laughing gas, William James says he has a better understanding of Hegel's philosophy. From the endnote to his essay "On Some Hegelisms" in Mind, No. 26 (1882), pp. 187-208:
The immense emotional sense of reconciliation which characterizes the "maudlin" stage of alcoholic drunkenness -- a stage which seems silly to lookers-on, but the subjective rapture of which probably constitutes a chief part of the temptation to the vice -- is well known. The centre and periphery of things seem to come together. The ego and its objects, the meum and tuum, are one. Now this, only a thousandfold enhanced, was the effect upon me of the [nitrous oxide] gas: and its first result was to make peal through me with unutterable power the conviction that Hegelism was true after all, and that the deepest convictions of my intellect hitherto were wrong.
A related post: Best Observed in the Nude

27 November 2012

Means and Ends

Erich Fromm, Man for Himself  (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 194-195:
One of the most outstanding psychological features of modern life is the fact that activities which are means to ends have more and more usurped the position of ends, while the ends themselves have a shadowy and unreal existence. People work in order to make money; they make money in order to do enjoyable things with it. The work is the means, and the enjoyment is the end. But what happens actually? People work in order to make more money, and the end -- the enjoyment of life -- is lost sight of. People are in a hurry and invent things in order to have more time. Then they use the time saved to rush about again to save more time until they are so exhausted that they can not use the time they saved. We have become enmeshed in a net of means and have lost sight of ends. We have radios which can bring to everybody the best in music and literature. What we hear instead is, to a large extent, trash at the pulp magazine level or advertising which is an insult to intelligence and taste. We have the most wonderful instruments and means man has ever had, but we do not stop and ask what are they for.

26 November 2012

The Opposite of Happiness

Erich Fromm, Man for Himself (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 189-90:
Happiness is often considered the logical opposite of grief or pain. Physical or mental suffering is part of human existence and to experience them is unavoidable. To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness. The opposite of happiness thus is not grief or pain but depression which results from inner sterility and unproductiveness.

20 November 2012

Posted on Ahead

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, Letter 99, Sections 7-8, tr. Richard M. Gummere, Vol. 3 (London: William Heinemann, 1917), pp. 133-5:
Note the rapidity of Time -- that swiftest of things; consider the shortness of the course along which we hasten at top speed; mark this throng of humanity, all straining toward the same point with briefest intervals between them -- even when they seem longest; he whom you count as passed away has simply posted on ahead. And what is more irrational than to bewail your predecessor, when you yourself must travel on the same journey? Does a man bewail an event which he knew would take place? Or, if he did not think of death as man's lot, he has but cheated himself. Does a man bewail an event which he has been admitting to be unavoidable? Whoever complains about the death of anyone, is complaining that he was a man.
The Latin:
Respice celeritatem rapidissimi temporis, cogita brevitatem huius spatii per quod citatissimi currimus, observa hunc comitatum generis humani eodem tendentis, minimis intervallis distinctum etiam ubi maxima videntur: quem putas perisse praemissus est. Quid autem dementius quam, cum idem tibi iter emetiendum sit, flere eum qui antecessit? Flet aliquis factum quod non ignoravit futurum? Aut si mortem in homine non cogitavit, sibi inposuit. Flet aliquis factum quod aiebat non posse non fieri? quisquis aliquem queritur mortuum esse, queritur hominem fuisse.
I will not be posting for the next few days. I hope to resume next week.

19 November 2012

Gruß vom Krampus

The Toronto Santa Claus parade took place on Saturday. I'd rather have a Krampuslauf, where hairy Krampus beasts threaten children with ruten (bundles of birch sticks) and remind them that they will be taken away and eaten if they misbehave during the year.

It used to be fairly common for people in lower Bavaria and upper Austria to send Krampus cards like the one below, but I'm not sure how popular the custom is today.


16 November 2012

Live Dangerously

Philip Larkin to his friend Jim Sutton on October 3rd, 1949, from the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (London: Faber and Faber, 1992):
Little happens: life seems to have pushed a steamroller up against the door and nailed the windows and stuffed something down the chimney. It is now dancing up and down outside the glass shouting 'Live dangerously!' I turn round and show it my bum.

14 November 2012

It Is Wrong

Irvin Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 262:
It is wrong to bear children out of need, wrong to use a child to alleviate loneliness, wrong to provide purpose in life by reproducing another copy of oneself. It is wrong also to seek immortality by spewing one's germ into the future as though sperm contains your consciousness!

13 November 2012

Afraid to Be Poor

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green & Co, 1902), pp. 368-9:
Among us English-speaking peoples especially do the praises of poverty need once more to be boldly sung. We have grown literally afraid to be poor. We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. If he does not join the general scramble and pant with the money-making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in ambition. We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul, the manlier indifference, the paying our way by what we are or do and not by what we have, the right to fling away our life at any moment irresponsibly -- the more athletic trim, in short, the moral fighting shape. When we of the so-called better classes are scared as men were never scared in history at material ugliness and hardship; when we put off marriage until our house can be artistic, and quake at the thought of having a child without a bank-account and doomed to manual labor, it is time for thinking men to protest against so unmanly and irreligious a state of opinion.
It is true that so far as wealth gives time for ideal ends and exercise to ideal energies, wealth is better than poverty and ought to be chosen. But wealth does this in only a portion of the actual cases. Elsewhere the desire to gain wealth and the fear to lose it are our chief breeders of cowardice and propagators of corruption. There are thousands of conjunctures in which a wealth-bound man must be a slave, whilst a man for whom poverty has no terrors becomes a freeman. Think of the strength which personal indifference to poverty would give us if we were devoted to unpopular causes. We need no longer hold our tongues or fear to vote the revolutionary or reformatory ticket. Our stocks might fall, our hopes of promotion vanish, our salaries stop, our club doors close in our faces; yet, while we lived, we would imperturbably bear witness to the spirit, and our example would help to set free our generation. The cause would need its funds, but we its servants would be potent in proportion as we personally were contented with our poverty.
I recommend this matter to your serious pondering, for it is certain that the prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.

9 November 2012

The Infantile Society

Edo Reents, "Die infantile Gesellschaft," Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (November 3, 2012). My translation:
These devices [i.e., cell phones and other techno-gewgaws] are turning us into disjointed and often rude people. Even conservative people who receive calls on their mobile phones during a meal no longer consider it necessary to leave the table while speaking: everyone should quietly listen in on the whole conversation. That toys should be put away while one is eating, that there is an appropriate time and place for every task, these ideas no longer seem to apply. There are, literally, no more discrete areas of life.
The German:
Diese Geräte machen uns zu sprunghaften und oft auch unhöflichen Menschen. Selbst konservative Menschen, die bei Tische am Mobiltelefon angerufen werden, halten es oft nicht mehr für nötig, sich für die Dauer des Gesprächs zurück zu ziehen, jeder soll ruhig alles mithören. Dass Spielzeug beim Essen nichts verloren, dass jede Verrichtung ihre Zeit und ihren Ort hat, scheint nicht mehr zu gelten. Es gibt keine, im Wortsinne, diskreten Lebensbereiche mehr. 
A related post: Facebook Is a Kind of Self-Prostitution

8 November 2012

Nothing More Secure

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, Letter 99, Sections 4-5, tr. Richard M. Gummere, Vol. 3 (London: William Heinemann, 1917), pp. 131-132:
The past is ours, and there is nothing more secure for us than that which has been. We are ungrateful for past gains, because we hope for the future, as if the future -- if so be that any future is ours -- will not be quickly blended with the past. People set a narrow limit to their enjoyments if they take pleasure only in the present; both the future and the past serve for our delight -- the one with anticipation, and the other with memories but the one is contingent and may not come to pass, while the other must have been.
What madness it is, therefore, to lose our grip on that which is the surest thing of all? Let us rest content with the pleasures we have quaffed in past days, if only, while we quaffed them, the soul was not pierced like a sieve, only to lose again whatever it had received.
The Latin:
Nostrum est, quod praeteriit, tempus nec quicquam est loco tutiore quam quod fuit. Ingrati adversus percepta spe futuri sumus, quasi non quod futurum est, si modo successerit nobis, cito in praeterita transiturum sit. Anguste fructus rerum determinat, qui tantum praesentibus laetus est; et futura et praeterita delectant, haec exspectatione, illa memoria, sed alterum pendet et non fieri potest, alterum non potest non fuisse.
Quis ergo furor est certissimo excidere? Adquiescamus iis, quae iam hausimus, si modo non perforate animo hauriebamus et transmittente quicquid acceperat.

7 November 2012

A Merciful Provision in Nature

Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia (London: Chiswick Press, 1893), pp. 78-9:
Darknesse and light divide the course of time, and oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest strokes of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables. Afflictions induce callosities; miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days, and, our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.
In her review of the Golden Cockerel edition of Browne's Works, Virginia Woolf described this book as "a temple which we can only enter by leaving our muddy boots on the threshold."

6 November 2012

Tolle, Lege

Lev Grossman, "From Scroll to Screen," The New York Times (September 2, 2011):
In his "Confessions," which dates from the end of the fourth century, St. Augustine famously hears a voice telling him to "pick up and read." He interprets this as a command from God to pick up the Bible, open it at random and read the first passage he sees. He does so, the scales fall from his eyes and he becomes a Christian. Then he bookmarks the page. You could never do that with a scroll.
[...]
But so far the great e-book debate has barely touched on the most important feature that the codex introduced: the nonlinear reading that so impressed St. Augustine. If the fable of the scroll and codex has a moral, this is it. We usually associate digital technology with nonlinearity, the forking paths that Web surfers beat through the Internet's underbrush as they click from link to link. But e-books and nonlinearity don't turn out to be very compatible. Trying to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel is painfully awkward on an e-reader, like trying to play the piano with numb fingers. You either creep through the book incrementally, page by page, or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term. It's no wonder that the rise of e-reading has revived two words for classical-era reading technologies: scroll and tablet. That's the kind of reading you do in an e-book.

5 November 2012

What a Poor Ape

Hermann Hesse, "Rainy Weather," in Wandering, trans. James Wright (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972), p. 67:
There is no escape. You can't be a vagabond and an artist and still be a solid citizen, a wholesome, upstanding man. You want to get drunk, so you have to accept the hangover. You say yes to the sunlight and your pure fantasies, so you have to say yes to the filth and the nausea. Everything is within you, gold and mud, happiness and pain, the laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death. Say yes to everything, shirk nothing, don't try to lie to yourself. You are not a solid citizen, you are not a Greek, you are not harmonious, or the master of yourself, you are a bird in the storm. Let it storm! Let it drive you! How much you have lied! A thousand times, even in your poems and books, you have played the harmonious man, the wise man, the happy, the enlightened man. In the same way, men attacking in war have played heroes, while their bowels twitched. My God, what a poor ape, what a fencer in the mirror, man is -- particularly the artist -- particularly the poet -- particularly myself!

2 November 2012

The Right Reaction

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, Longmans, Green & Co, 1902), pp. 163-4:
The normal process of life contains moments as bad as any of those which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn. The lunatic's visions of horror are all drawn from the material of daily fact. Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. If you protest, my friend, wait till you arrive there yourself! To believe in the carnivorous reptiles of geologic times is hard for our imagination -- they seem too much like mere museum specimens. Yet there is no tooth in any one of those museum-skulls that did not daily through long years of the foretime hold fast to the body struggling in despair of some fated living victim. Forms of horror just as dreadful to the victims, if on a smaller spatial scale, fill the world about us to-day. Here on our very hearths and in our gardens the infernal cat plays with the panting mouse, or holds the hot bird fluttering in her jaws. Crocodiles and rattlesnakes and pythons are at this moment vessels of life as real as we are; their loathsome existence fills every minute of every day that drags its length along; and whenever they or other wild beasts clutch their living prey, the deadly horror which an agitated melancholiac feels is the literally right reaction on the situation.

1 November 2012

An Extraordinary Thing

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft  (London: Archibald Constable, 1912), p. 180:
Blackberries hanging thick upon the hedge bring to my memory something of long ago. I had somehow escaped into the country, and on a long walk began to feel mid-day hunger. The wayside brambles were fruiting; I picked and ate, and ate on, until I had come within sight of an inn where I might have made a meal. But my hunger was satisfied; I had no need of anything more, and, as I thought of it, a strange feeling of surprise, a sort of bewilderment, came upon me. What! Could it be that I had eaten, and eaten sufficiently, without paying? It struck me as an extraordinary thing. At that time, my ceaseless preoccupation was how to obtain money to keep myself alive. Many a day I had suffered hunger because I durst not spend the few coins I possessed; the food I could buy was in any case unsatisfactory, unvaried. But here Nature had given me a feast, which seemed delicious, and I had eaten all I wanted. The wonder held me for a long time, and to this day I can recall it, understand it.

30 October 2012

The Deepest Degradation of Man

Richard Wagner, "Art and Revolution," in Richard Wagner's Prose Works, trans. William Ashton Ellis, Vol. I (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd., 1895), pp. 48-49:
The true artist finds delight not only in the aim of his creation, but also in the very process of creation, in the handling and moulding of his material. The very act of production is to him a gladsome, satisfying activity: no toil. The journeyman reckons only the goal of his labour, the profit which his toil shall bring him; the energy which he expends, gives him no pleasure; it is but a fatigue, an inevitable task, a burden which he would gladly give over to a machine; his toil is but a fettering chain. For this reason he is never present with his work in spirit, but always looking beyond it to its goal, which he fain would reach as quickly as he may. Yet, if the immediate aim of the journeyman is the satisfaction of an impulse of his own, such as the preparing of his own dwelling, his chattels, his raiment, etc.: then, together with his prospective pleasure in the hasting value of these objects, there also enters by degrees a bent to such a fashioning of the material as shall agree with his individual tastes. After he has fulfilled the demands of bare necessity, the creation of that which answers to less pressing needs will elevate itself to the rank of artistic production. But if he bargains away the product of his toil, all that remains to him is its mere money-worth; and thus his energy can never rise above the character of the busy strokes of a machine; in his eyes it is but weariness, and bitter, sorrowful toil. The latter is the lot of the Slave of Industry; and our modern factories afford us the sad picture of the deepest degradation of man, -- constant labour, killing both body and soul, without joy or love, often almost without aim.

26 October 2012

Must I Whine as Well?

Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (New York: Basic Books, 1980), pp. 271-2:
But even immersed to the neck, a human being has freedom: he or she chooses how to feel about the situation, what attitudes to adopt, whether to be courageous, stoic, fatalistic, cunning, or panicked. There is no limit to the range of psychological options available. Almost two thousand years ago Epictetus said:
I must die. I must be imprisoned. I must suffer exile. But must I die groaning? Must I whine as well? Can anyone hinder me from going into exile with a smile? The master threatens to chain me: what say you? Chain me? My leg you will chain -- yes, but not my will -- no, not even Zeus can conquer that.
This is no minor quibble. Even though the image of a drowning man's possessing freedom may appear ludicrous, the principle behind the image is of great significance. One's attitude toward one's situation is the very crux of being human, and conclusions about human nature based solely on measurable behavior are distortions of that nature. It cannot be denied that environment, genetics, or chance plays a role in one's life. The limiting circumstances are obvious: Sartre speaks of a "coefficient of adversity." All of us face natural adversities that influence our lives. For example, contingencies may hinder any one of us from finding a job or a mate -- physical handicaps, inadequate education, poor health, and so forth -- but that does not mean that we have no responsibility (or choice) in the situation. We are responsible still for what we make out of our handicaps; for our attitudes toward them; for the bitterness, anger, or depression that act synergistically with the original "coefficient of adversity" to ensure that a handicap will defeat the individual.
In Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (available here for free), James Stockdale refers to the same passage from Epictetus, and says the Enchiridion helped him endure the seven and a half years he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. From page 7:
On September 9, 1965, I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap, at tree-top level, in a little A-4 airplane -- the cockpit walls not even three feet apart -- which I couldn't steer after it was on fire, its control system shot out. After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: "Five years down there, at least. I'm leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus."

Like Dishes of Meat Twice Drest

Samuel Butler (1613-1680), Characters and Passages from Note Books, ed. A. R. Waller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1908), pp. 170-1:
A Translator
Dyes an Author, like an old Stuff, into a new Colour, but can never give it the Beauty and Lustre of the first Tincture; as Silks that are twice died lose their Glosses, and never receive a fair Colour. He is a small Factor, that imports Books of the Growth of one Language into another, but it seldom turns to Accompt; for the Commodity is perishable, and the finer it is the worse it endures Transportation; as the most delicate of Indian Fruits are by no Art to be brought over. Nevertheless he seldom fails of his Purpose, which is to please himself, and give the World notice that he understands one Language more than it was aware of; and that done he makes a saving Return. He is a Truch-Man that interprets between learned Writers and gentle Readers, and uses both how he pleases; for he commonly mistakes the one, and misinforms the other. If he does not perfectly understand the full Meaning of his Author as well as he did himself, he is but a Copier, and therefore never comes near the Mastery of the Original; and his Labours are like Dishes of Meat twice drest, that become insipid, and lose the pleasant Taste they had at first. He differs from an Author as a Fidler does from a Musician, that plays other Men's Compositions, but is not able to make any of his own. All his Studies tend to the Ruin of the Interests of Linguists; for by making those Books common, that were understood but by few in the Original, he endeavours to make the Rabble as wise as himself without taking Pains, and prevents others from studying Languages, to understand that which they may know as well without them. The Ancients, who never writ any Thing but what they stole and borrowed from others (and who was the first Inventor nobody knows) never used this Way; but what they found for their Purposes in other Authors they disguised, so that it past for their own: but to take whole Books and render them, as our Translators do, they always forbore, out of more or less Ingenuity is a Question; for they shewed more in making what they liked their own, and less in not acknowledging from whence they had it. And though the Romans by the Laws of War laid claim to all Things, both sacred and profane, of those Nations whom they conquered; yet they never extended that Privilege to their Wit, but made that their own by another Title of the same Kind, and over-came their Wit with Wit.