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. 

25 October 2012

A Pharisaic Rite

Reinhold Niebuhr, from an entry for 1927 in Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1957), pp. 173-4:
I wonder if it is really possible to have an honest Thanksgiving celebration in an industrial civilization. Harvest festivals were natural enough in peasant communities. The agrarian feels himself dependent upon nature's beneficence and anxious about nature's caprices. When the autumnal harvest is finally safe in the barns there arise, with the sigh of relief, natural emotions of gratitude that must express themselves religiously, since the bounty is actually created by the mysterious forces of nature which man may guide but never quite control.
All that is different in an industrial civilization in which so much wealth is piled up by the ingenuity of the machine, and, at least seemingly, by the diligence of man. Thanksgiving becomes increasingly the business of congratulating the Almighty upon his most excellent coworkers, ourselves. I have had that feeling about the Thanksgiving proclamations of our Presidents for some years. An individual, living in an industrial community might still celebrate a Thanksgiving day uncorrupted by pride, because he does benefit from processes and forces which he does not create or even guide. But a national Thanksgiving, particularly if it is meant to express gratitude for material bounty, becomes increasingly a pharisaic rite.

24 October 2012


From an article in the New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1921, p. 41:
"Valutastark" means, literally translated, exchange-strong. It is a word coined in Germany to describe a person sojourning today in lands where the currency is depreciated, whose funds come from a land where the currency is not depreciated at all, or, even if below normal, is, nevertheless, better than that of the country where that person is staying.
The author describes in some detail how comfortably an American could live in Berlin during the Weimar hyperinflation.

23 October 2012

A Melancholy and Disconcerting Business

A. C. Benson, Where No Fear Was (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1914), pp. 94-5:
[A]s a man grows older, as his work stiffens and weakens, he falls out of the race, and he must be content to do so; and he is well advised if he puts his failure down to his own deficiencies, and not to the malice of others. The world is really very much on the look out for anything which amuses, delights, impresses, moves, or helps it; it is quick and generous in recognition of originality and force; and if a writer, as he gets older, finds his books neglected and his opinions disdained, he may be fairly sure that he has said his say, and that men are preoccupied with new ideas and new personalities. Of course this is a melancholy and disconcerting business, especially if one has been more concerned with personal prominence than with the worth and weight of one's ideas; mortified vanity is a sore trial.

20 October 2012

A Beautiful, Strong Tree

Hermann Hesse, "Trees," in Wandering, trans. James Wright (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972), p. 57:
For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.
 The original, from Wanderung (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1920), p. 61:
Bäume sind für mich immer die eindringlichsten Prediger gewesen. Ich verehre sie, wenn sie in Völkern und Familien leben, in Wäldern und Hainen. Und noch mehr verehre ich sie, wenn sie einzeln stehen. Sie sind wie Einsame. Nicht wie Einsiedler, welche aus irgendeiner Schwäche sich davongestohlen haben, sondern wie große, vereinsamte Menschen, wie Beethoven und Nietzsche. In ihren Wipfeln rauscht die Welt, ihre Wurzeln ruhen im Unendlichen; allein sie verlieren sich nicht darin, sondern erstreben mit aller Kraft ihres Lebens nur das Eine: ihr eigenes, in ihnen wohnendes Gesetz zu erfüllen, ihre eigene Gestalt auszubauen, sich selbst darzustellen. Nichts ist heiliger, nichts ist vorbildlicher als ein schöner, starker Baum.
 Insel published a collection of Hesse's tree texts in 1984.

18 October 2012

Simple Pleasures

R. C. Trevelyan, "Simple Pleasures," in Horizon (November 1941), pp. 304-313:
To lie on a sofa looking at the varied decorations of one's bookshelves. But this may easily become a complex emotion of pleasure or regret; the pleasure and pride of a collector and possessor, or regret at having read so few of the books, or the thought that so many are not worth the trouble of reading.
Félix Vallotton, Le Bibliophile (1911)

17 October 2012

Gambler's Luck

Reinhold Niebuhr, from an entry for 1927 in Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1957), p. 159:
I fell in with a gentleman on the Pullman smoker today (Pullman smokers are perfect institutes for plumbing the depths and shallows of the American mind) who had made a killing on the stock exchange. His luck appeared like success from his perspective, and he was full of the confidence with which success endows mortals. He spoke oracularly on any and all subjects. He knew why the farmers were not making any money and why the Europeans were not as prosperous as we. Isn't it strange how gambler's luck gives men the assurance of wisdom for which philosophers search in vain? I pity this man's wife. But she probably regards a new fur coat as adequate compensation for the task of appearing convinced by his obiter dicta.

15 October 2012

Some Misty Autumn Morning

John Cowper Powys, Suspended Judgments (New York: G. Arnold Shaw, 1916), pp. 37-39:
I sometimes think that the wisdom of Montaigne, with its essential roots in physiological well-being, is best realised and understood when on some misty autumn morning, full of the smell of leaves, one lies, just newly awakened out of pleasant dreams, and watches the sunshine on wall and window and floor, and listens to the traffic of the town or the noises of the village. It is then, with the sweet languor of awakening, that one seems conscious of some ineffable spiritual secret to be drawn from the material sensations of the nerves of one's body.
Montaigne, with all his gravity, is quite shameless in the assumption that the details of his bodily habits form an important part, not by any means to be neglected, of the picture he sets out to give of himself.
And those who read Montaigne with sympathetic affinity will find themselves growing into the habit of making much of the sensations of their bodies. They will not rush foolishly and stupidly, like dull economic machines, from bedroom to "lunch counter" and from "lunch counter" to office. They will savour every moment which can be called their own and they will endeavour to enlarge such moments by any sort of economic or domestic change.
They will make much of the sensations of waking and bathing and eating and drinking and going to sleep; just as they make much of the sensations of reading admirable books. They will cross the road to the sunny side of the street; they will pause by the toy-shops and the flower-shops. They will go out into the fields, before breakfast, to look for mushrooms.

12 October 2012

Philosophical Melancholy

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part IV, Section VII (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888), p. 269:
Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron'd with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv'd of the use of every member and faculty. 
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

11 October 2012

The Elimination of Concrete Evils

Karl Popper, "Utopia and Violence," in The Hibbert Journal 46 (January 1948), pp. 109-116:
If I were to give a simple formula or recipe for distinguishing between what I consider to be admissible plans for social reform and inadmissible Utopian blueprints, I might say:
Work for the elimination of concrete evils rather than for the realization of abstract goods. Do not aim at establishing happiness by political means. Rather aim at the elimination of concrete miseries. Or, in more practical terms: fight for the elimination of poverty by direct means ‐‐ for example, by making sure that everybody has a minimum income. Or fight against epidemics and disease by erecting hospitals and schools of medicine. Fight illiteracy as you fight criminality. But do all this by direct means. Choose what you consider the most urgent evil of the society in which you live, and try patiently to convince people that we can get rid of it.
But do not try to realize these aims indirectly by designing and working for a distant ideal of a society which is wholly good. However deeply you may feel indebted to its inspiring vision, do not think that you are obliged to work for its realization, or that it is your mission to open the eyes of others to its beauty. Do not allow your dreams of a beautiful world to lure you away from the claims of men who suffer here and now. Our fellow men have a claim to our help; no generation must be sacrificed for the sake of future generations, for the sake of an ideal of happiness that may never be realized. In brief, it is my thesis that human misery is the most urgent problem of a rational public policy and that happiness is not such a problem. The attainment of happiness should be left to our private endeavours.

10 October 2012

A Torrent of Waste-Matter

Denis de Rougemont, quoted by Laurence Durrell in a letter to Henry Miller on October 24th, 1958, from The Durrell-Miller Letters; 1935-1980 (New York: New Directions, 1988), p. 330:
When under the pretence of destroying whatever is artificial -- idealizing rhetoric, the mystical ethics of 'perfection' -- people seek to swamp themselves in the primitive flood of instinct, in whatever is primeval, formless and foul, they may imagine they are recapturing real life but actually they are being swept away by a torrent of waste-matter pouring from the disintegration of the ancient culture and its myths.

9 October 2012

Art as Raiser of the Dead

Friedrich Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human, trans. Helen Zimmern, from The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vol. VI (New York: Macmillan, 1915), pp. 154-5:
Art also fulfils the task of preservation and even of brightening up extinguished and faded memories; when it accomplishes this task it weaves a rope round the ages and causes their spirits to return. It is, certainly, only a phantom-life that results therefrom, as out of graves, or like the return in dreams of our beloved dead, but for some moments, at least, the old sensation lives again and the heart beats to an almost forgotten time. Hence, for the sake of the general usefulness of art, the artist himself must be excused if he does not stand in the front rank of the enlightenment and progressive civilisation of humanity; all his life long he has remained a child or a youth, and has stood still at the point where he was overcome by his artistic impulse; the feelings of the first years of life, however, are acknowledged to be nearer to those of earlier times than to those of the present century.

8 October 2012

Not More Stuffed Chairs

William Morris, "The Beauty of Life," Hopes and Fears for Art (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1908), pp. 106-7:
When you hear of the luxuries of the ancients, you must remember that they were not like our luxuries, they were rather indulgence in pieces of extravagant folly than what we to-day call luxury; which perhaps you would rather call comfort: well, I accept the word, and say that a Greek or Roman of the luxurious time would stare astonished could he be brought back again, and shown the comforts of a well-to-do middle-class house. 
But some, I know, think that the attainment of these very comforts is what makes the difference between civilization and uncivilization, that they are the essence of civilization. Is it so indeed? Farewell my hope then! -- I had thought that civilization meant the attainment of peace and order and freedom, of goodwill between man and man, of the love of truth, and the hatred of injustice, and by consequence the attainment of the good life which these things breed, a life free from craven fear, but full of incident: that was what I thought it meant, not more stuffed chairs and more cushions, and more carpets and gas, and more dainty meat and drink -- and therewithal more and sharper differences between class and class. 
If that be what it is, I for my part wish I were well out of it, and living in a tent in the Persian desert, or a turf hut on the Iceland hill-side.

4 October 2012

Something Very Repugnant

A. C. Benson, Where No Fear Was (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1914), pp. 96-7:
There is something very repugnant in an elderly person who is bent on proving his importance and dignity, in laying claim to force and influence, in affecting to play a large part in the world. But there is something even more afflicting in the people who drop all decent pretence of dignity, and pour the product of an acrid and disappointed spirit into all conversations.

3 October 2012

You Must Have Rules

George Moore, Confessions of a Young Man (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1904), p. 128:
You must have rules in poetry, if it is only for the pleasure of breaking them, just as you must have women dressed, if it is only for the pleasure of undressing them. 

2 October 2012

More or Less Ennuyé

From Byron's diary entry for January 6, 1821 in Life of Lord Byron, ed. Thomas Moore, Vol. V (London: John Murray, 1854), pp. 60-1:
What is the reason that I have been, all my lifetime, more or less ennuyé? and that, if any thing, I am rather less so now than I was at twenty, as far as my recollection serves? I do not know how to answer this, but presume that it is constitutional, -- as well as the waking in low spirits, which I have invariably done for many years. Temperance and exercise, which I have practised at times, and for a long time together vigorously and violently, made little or no difference. Violent passions did; -- when under their immediate influence -- it is odd, but -- I was in agitated, but not in depressed, spirits.
A dose of salts has the effect of a temporary inebriation, like light champagne, upon me. But wine and spirits make me sullen and savage to ferocity -- silent, however, and retiring, and not quarrelsome, if not spoken to. Swimming also raises my spirits, -- but in general they are low, and get daily lower. That is hopeless; for I do not think I am so much ennuyé as I was at nineteen. The proof is, that then I must game, or drink, or be in motion of some kind, or I was miserable. At present, I can mope in quietness; and like being alone better than any company -- except the lady's whom I serve. But I feel a something, which makes me think that, if I ever reach near to old age, like Swift, 'I shall die at top' first. Only I do not dread idiotism or madness so much as he did. On the contrary, I think some quieter stages of both must be preferable to much of what men think the possession of their senses.

1 October 2012

One of the Essential Endowments

Mary Watts, George Frederick Watts; The Annals of an Artist's Life, Vol. I (New York: George H. Doran, 1913), pp. 14-5:
Endowed by nature with a fine ear, and answering as he must to everything that was great in any art, [George Frederick Watts] would sometimes speak so enthusiastically of music as to express regret that he had not in early life turned his whole attention to it, rather than to the sister art [of painting]. Lord Holland liked to tell a story of some one much the senior of Watts, a man of the world, and one who very much believed in himself, who, standing among a group of listeners one day at Casa Feroni, and rather boasting of his contempt for music, turned to those about him -- Lord Holland being of their number -- and said, "It has not the slightest effect upon me, pleasurable or otherwise -- what does that mean, I ask you ?" "It means a defective organisation," answered the young painter hotly, obliged, in defence of the divine art, to drop his habit of never putting himself forward. Lord Holland was as much delighted as the boaster was furious.
Though half a lifetime lies between the two utterances, the conviction that brought the quick rebuke to his lips was clearly explained when he wrote the following passage: "'All beauty,' said the devout mystic, 'is the face of God'; therefore to make acquaintance with beauty, in and through every form, is the cultivation of religious feeling. This while it is the noblest aspect of art, it is also the most primitive. Nothing can be more important to remember than that in the cultivation of the artistic perceptions we are developing one of the essential endowments of the human creature -- one in which that difference between him and the lower creation is most distinctly marked. It seems to me to be the duty of every one to answer to every such call."

G. F. Watts, Petraia

29 September 2012

Books and Buttered Muffins

Charles Lamb to S. T. Coleridge on 11 October 1802, quoted in Holbrook Jackson's Bookman's Holiday (London: Faber & Faber, 1945), p. 192:
A book reads the better, which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog's-ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins, or over a pipe, which I think is the maximum.

27 September 2012

A Mere Article of the World's Furniture

Henri Frédéric Amiel, Journal Intime, trans. Mrs. Humphry Ward (New York: A. L. Burt, c. 1895), pp. 144-5:
The man who has no refuge in himself, who lives, so to speak, in his front rooms, in the outer whirlwind of things and opinions, is not properly a personality at all; he is not distinct, free, original, a cause -- in a word, some one. He is one of a crowd, a taxpayer, an elector, an anonymity, but not a man. He helps to make up the mass -- to fill up the number of human consumers or producers; but he interests nobody but the economist and the statistician, who take the heap of sand as a whole into consideration, without troubling themselves about the uninteresting uniformity of the individual grains. The crowd counts only as a massive elementary force -- why? because its constituent parts are individually insignificant: they are all like each other, and we add them up like the molecules of water in a river, gauging them by the fathom instead of appreciating them as individuals. Such men are reckoned and weighed merely as so many bodies: they have never been individualized by conscience, after the manner of souls.
He who floats with the current, who does not guide himself according to higher principles, who has no ideal, no convictions -- such a man is a mere article of the world's furniture -- a thing moved, instead of a living and moving being -- an echo, not a voice. The man who has no inner life is the slave of his surroundings, as the barometer is the obedient servant of the air at rest, and the weathercock the humble servant of the air in motion. 

26 September 2012

The Sons of Joy

Robert Louis Stevenson, "A Letter to a Young Gentleman Who Proposes to Embrace the Career of Art," Scribner's Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 3, September 1888, p. 379:
The first duty in this world is for a man to pay his way; when that is quite accomplished, he may plunge into what eccentricity he likes; but emphatically not till then. Till then, he must pay assiduous court to the bourgeois who carries the purse. And if in the course of these capitulations he shall falsify his talent, it can never have been a strong one, and he will have preserved a better thing than talent -- character. Or if he be of a mind so independent that he cannot stoop to this necessity, one course is yet open: he can desist from art, and follow some more manly way of life.
I speak of a more manly way of life, it is a point on which I must be frank. To live by a pleasure is not a high calling; it involves patronage, however veiled; it numbers the artist, however ambitious, along with dancing girls and billiard markers. The French have a romantic evasion for one employment, and call its practitioners the Daughters of Joy. The artist is of the same family, he is of the Sons of Joy, chose his trade to please himself, gains his livelihood by pleasing others, and has parted with something of the sterner dignity of man.
Id., p. 380:
If you adopt an art to be your trade, weed your mind at the outset of all desire of money. What you may decently expect, if you have some talent and much industry, is such an income as a clerk will earn with a tenth or perhaps a twentieth of your nervous output. Nor have you the right to look for more; in the wages of the life, not in the wages of the trade, lies your reward; the work is here the wages. It will be seen I have little sympathy with the common lamentations of the artist class. Perhaps they do not remember the hire of the field labourer; or do they think no parallel will lie? Perhaps they have never observed what is the retiring allowance of a field officer; or do they suppose their contributions to the arts of pleasing more important than the services of a colonel? Perhaps they forget on how little [Jean-François] Millet was content to live; or do they think, because they have less genius, they stand excused from the display of equal virtues?

25 September 2012

Don't Make Your House in My Mind

Percy Lubbock in the introduction to A. C. Benson's Diary (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1926), p. 18:
"Don't make your house in my mind" -- that was a phrase [Benson] used to quote from Aristophanes, and one could see how instinctively he put out his hands and warded off the danger of encroachment. Nobody must invade his mind, force his inclination, "hustle" him -- it was a frequent word of his, he ruffled and bristled at the suggestion. He clutched his liberty; he never surrendered a jot of it -- and not only that, but if ever on any pretext it was threatened, in love or strife, he lost all scruple in protecting himself, he thought of nothing but to rout and disable the intruder. Why should people desire to press in upon him, when he was always so ready to meet them in the doorway and talk agreeably on the threshold? It was not as though he was stiff with them out there, or distant in his greeting; far from it indeed -- he talked with the utmost freedom, he would frankly answer any question they liked to ask. Less than anybody was he disposed to make a secret of his privacy; it was for all who cared to hear him tell about it. But that must suffice -- and why should it not? He thought it might suffice, as in the lives of others it was all he dreamed ot demanding for himself. Anyhow he could not admit the kind of interference which asks for more than can be told upon the threshold; and if more was insisted on, if a place and a lodging was required in the seclusion of his mind -- then there was likely to be trouble. 

24 September 2012

Honest Diversion

Michel de Montaigne, "On Books," Essays, trans. Charles Cotton, Vol. II (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1913), p. 87:
I seek, in the reading of books, only to please myself by an honest diversion; or, if I study, 'tis for no other science than what treats of the knowledge of myself, and instructs me how to die and how to live well.  
The original:
Je ne cherche aux livres qu'à m'y donner du plaisir par un honnête amusement : ou si j'étudie, je n'y cherche que la science qui traite de la connaissance de moi-même, et qui m'instruise à bien mourir et à bien vivre.

20 September 2012

Cui Bono

Thomas Carlyle, Critical and Miscellaneous EssaysVol. I (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1881), p. 471:
What is Hope? A smiling rainbow
Children follow through the wet;
’Tis not here, still yonder, yonder:
Never urchin found it yet.

What is Life? A thawing iceboard
On a sea with sunny shore; --
Gay we sail; it melts beneath us;
We are sunk, and seen no more.

What is Man? A foolish baby,
Vainly strives, and fights, and frets;
Demanding all, deserving nothing; --
One small grave is what he gets.

19 September 2012

Peculiarly Attractive to a Half-Baked Mind

E. M. Forster, Howards End (New York: Vintage Books, 1921), pp. 50-51:
And the voice [of John Ruskin] rolled on, piping melodiously of Effort and Self-Sacrifice, full of high purpose, full of beauty, full even of sympathy and the love of men, yet somehow eluding all that was actual and insistent in Leonard's life. For it was the voice of one who had never been dirty or hungry, and had not guessed successfully what dirt and hunger are.
Leonard listened to it with reverence. He felt that he was being done good to, and that if he kept on with Ruskin, and the Queen's Hall Concerts, and some pictures by Watts, he would one day push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe. He believed in sudden conversion, a belief which may be right, but which is peculiarly attractive to a half-baked mind. It is the bias of much popular religion: in the domain of business it dominates the Stock Exchange, and becomes that "bit of luck" by which all successes and failures are explained. "If only I had a bit of luck, the whole thing would come straight. . . . He's got a most magnificent place down at Streatham and a 20 h.p. Fiat, but then, mind you, he's had luck. . . . I'm sorry the wife's so late, but she never has any luck over catching trains." Leonard was superior to these people; he did believe in effort and in a steady preparation for the change that he desired. But of a heritage that may expand gradually, he had no conception: he hoped to come to Culture suddenly, much as the Revivalist hopes to come to Jesus.

18 September 2012

Washing Vegetables

Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, tr. Robert Drew Hicks, Vol. I (London: Heinemann, 1925):
Diogenes, washing the dirt from his vegetables, saw [Aristippus] passing and jeered at him in these terms, "If you had learnt to make these your diet, you would not have paid court to kings," to which his rejoinder was, "And if you knew how to associate with men, you would not be washing vegetables."

17 September 2012

The Kingdom of Chance and Error

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, tr. E. F. J. Payne, Vol. I (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), p. 324:
Anyone who has awakened from the first dreams of youth; who has considered his own and others' experience; who has looked at life in the history of the past and of his own time, and finally in the works of the great poets, will certainly acknowledge the result, if his judgement is not paralysed by some indelibly imprinted prejudice, that this world of humanity is the kingdom of chance and error. These rule in it without mercy in great things as in small; and along with them folly and wickedness also wield the scourge. Hence arises the fact that everything better struggles through only with difficulty; what is noble and wise very rarely makes its appearance, becomes effective, or meets with a hearing, but the absurd and perverse in the realm of thought, the dull and tasteless in the sphere of art, and the wicked and fraudulent in the sphere of action, really assert a supremacy that is disturbed only by brief interruptions. On the other hand, everything excellent or admirable is always only an exception, one case in millions; therefore, if it has shown itself in a lasting work, this subsequently exists in isolation, after it has outlived the rancour of its contemporaries. It is preserved like a meteorite, sprung from an order of things different from that which prevails here. But as regards the life of the individual, every life-history is a history of suffering, for, as a rule, every life is a continual series of mishaps great and small, concealed as much as possible by everyone, because he knows that others are almost always bound to feel satisfaction at the spectacle of annoyances from which they are for the moment exempt; rarely will they feel sympathy or compassion. But perhaps at the end of his life, no man, if he be sincere and at the same time in possession of his faculties, will ever wish to go through it again. Rather than this, he will much prefer to choose complete non-existence.

14 September 2012

Sic tu recoli merearis!

by A. C. Benson

O soul, my soul, before thou comst to die,
  Set one deep mark upon the face of time,
  Let one absorbing laughter, one grave rhyme
Ring in the heedless wind that hurries by.

Yon smooth-limbed beech, that hangs upon the slope
  With branching spray, with firm and shapely arm,
  Hath, could'st thou write it, a bewildering charm
Would gild thy name beyond thy utmost hope!

O soul, my soul, be true, laborious, just, --
  And some chance word, some penetrating smile,
    Flashed with no purpose, no impulsive aim,
Shall live, and breed strong thoughts, when thou art dust;
    And mount, and gather strength, and roll in flame
  Beyond the utmost Orient's utmost isle!

From The Yellow Book, VII (January, 1895), p.191.

13 September 2012

Everything Was Different

Eileen Power, Medieval People (London: Methuen, 1924), pp. 15-6:
The fact is that the Romans were blinded to what was happening to them [i.e., that the empire was collapsing] by the very perfection of the material culture which they had created. All around them was solidity and comfort, a material existence which was the very antithesis of barbarism. How could they foresee the day when the Norman chronicler would marvel over the broken hypocausts of Caerleon? How could they imagine that anything so solid might conceivably disappear? Their roads grew better as their statesmanship grew worse and central heating triumphed as civilization fell.
But still more responsible for their unawareness was the educational system in which they were reared. Ausonius and Sidonius and their friends were highly educated men and Gaul was famous for its schools and universities. The education which these gave consisted in the study of grammar and rhetoric, which was necessary alike for the civil service and for polite society; and it would be difficult to imagine an education more entirely out of touch with contemporary life, or less suited to inculcate the qualities which might have enabled men to deal with it. The fatal study of rhetoric, its links with reality long since severed, concentrated the whole attention of men of intellect on form rather than on matter. The things they learned in their schools had no relation to the things that were going on in the world outside and bred in them the fatal illusion that tomorrow would be as yesterday, that everything was the same, whereas everything was different.

12 September 2012

Perfectly Contented

Johann Georg Zimmermann, Solitude (London: Thomas Tegg, 1827), p. 37:
Solitude, indeed, affords a pleasure to an author of which no one can deprive him, and which far exceeds all the honours of the world. He not only anticipates the effect his work will produce, but while it advances towards completion, feels the delicious enjoyment of those hours of serenity and composure which his labours procure. What continued and tranquil delight flows from successive composition! Sorrows fly from this elegant occupation. Oh! I would not exchange one single hour of such private tranquility and content for all those flattering illusions of public fame with which the mind of Tully was so incessantly intoxicated. A difficulty surmounted, a happy moment seized, a proposition elucidated, a sentence neatly and elegantly turned, or a thought happily expressed, are salutary and healing balms, counter-poisons to melancholy, and belong exclusively to a wise and well formed Solitude.
To enjoy himself without being dependent on the aid of others ; to devote to employments, not perhaps entirely useless, those hours which sorrow and chagrin would otherwise steal from the sum of life, is the great advantage of an author: and with this advantage alone I am perfectly contented.

11 September 2012

The Course of Obvious Wisdom

William Wallace, Epicureanism (New York: Pott, Young & Co., 1880), pp. 163-4:
The Epicurean accepts the existence of an orderly society as a condition of a satisfactory life, but he does not admit that it has a right to demand his services. "When safety on the side of man has been tolerably secured, it is by quiet and by withdrawing from the multitude that the most complete tranquillity is to be found." "A wise man will not enter upon political life unless something extraordinary should occur." "The free man," says Metrodorus, "will laugh his free laugh over those who are fain to be reckoned in the list with Lycurgus and Solon." A man ought not to make it his aim to save his country, or to win a crown from them for his abilities. Political life, which in all ages has been impossible for those who had not wealth, and who were unwilling to mix themselves with vile and impure associates, was not to the mind of Epicurus. If he be condemned for this, there are many nobler and deeper natures in the records of humanity who must be condemned on the same account. But it is hard to see why he should be charged with that as a fault which is the common practice of mankind, and which in a period of despotism, of absolute monarchy, is the course of obvious wisdom. And, above all, it is not the duty of a philosopher to become a political partisan, and spend his life in the atmosphere of avaricious and malignant passions.

10 September 2012

The Winds of Folly and Desolation

George Moore, Celibates (London: Walter Scott, 1895), pp. 364-5:
His happiness and ambitions appeared to him less than the scattering of a little sand on the sea-shore. Joy is passion, passion is suffering; we cannot desire what we possess; therefore desire is rebellion prolonged indefinitely against the realities of existence; when we attain the object of our desire, we must perforce neglect it in favour of something still unknown, and so we progress from illusion to illusion. The winds of folly and desolation howl about us; the sorrows of happiness are the worst to bear, and the wise soon learn that there is nothing to dream of but the end of desire.

7 September 2012

Dreadfully Vulnerable

Joseph Wood Krutch, Human Nature and the Human Condition (New York: Random House, 1959), p. 145:
Within a generation, our way of life was revolutionized so completely that we can hardly imagine how existence was possible before the automobile and the telephone. What is more ominous is the fact that, by now, we actually could not do without them. Technology made large populations possible; large populations now make technology indispensable. A really drastic breakdown anywhere in the chain of mutually dependent machines would soon bring the whole complex to a halt. And by comparison with the consequences of cities deprived of power and unable either to bring in the goods they consume to get rid of rubbish they discard, the Black Death would be merely an unfortunate incident. Our very power, or rather our dependence upon it, has made us dreadfully vulnerable.

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.

8 August 2012

A Twiddle of the Pen

Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) on the ampersand in A Defence of the Revival of Printing (London: Hacon and Ricketts, 1899), p. 15:

Paul van Capelleveen has been blogging about Ricketts for more than a year.

7 August 2012

The Future of Germany

Heinrich Heine travels through time and reports on the Euro crisis... from Section 25 of "Germany: A Winter's Tale", The Complete Poems of Heinrich Heine, trans. Hal Draper, (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982), p. 532:
"Do you see? It's in the corner there --
Old, torn and weather-beaten,
The leather's ripped from off the back
And the cushion is all moth-eaten. 
"But go and lift that cushion up,
That cushion so soiled and spotty:
Behold, you'll see a circular hole,
And under it -- a potty. 
"It is an enchanted pot in which
There are magical forces brewing,
And stick your head into the hole
It's the future you'll be viewing -- 
"The future of Germany before your eyes
Like a billowing phantasm;
But do not shudder if from the mess
Exhales a foul miasm!" -- 
She spoke, and laughed a peculiar laugh,
But I wasn't afraid for a minute,
I eagerly went to the fearsome hole
And stuck my head right in it. 
The things I saw there I can't reveal --
My oath makes it unlawful;
But I can tell you this much now:
My God, the smell was awful! 

The original:
Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen 
Siehst Du, dort in dem Winkel steht
Ein alter Sessel, zerrissen
Das Leder der Lehne, von Mottenfraß
Zernagt das Polsterkissen. 
Doch gehe hin und hebe auf
Das Kissen von dem Sessel,
Du schaust eine runde Öffnung dann,
Darunter ein Kessel --
Das ist ein Zauberkessel, worin
Die magischen Kräfte brauen,
Und steckst du in die Ründung den Kopf,
So wirst du die Zukunft schauen -- 
Die Zukunft Deutschlands erblickst du hier,
Gleich wogenden Phantasmen,
Doch schaudre nicht, wenn aus dem Wust
Aufsteigen die Miasmen! 
Sie sprachs und lachte sonderbar,
Ich aber ließ mich nicht schrecken,
Neugierig eilte ich den Kopf
In die furchtbare Ründung zu stecken. 
Was ich gesehen, verrate ich nicht,
Ich habe zu schweigen versprochen,
Erlaubt ist mir zu sagen kaum,
O Gott! was ich gerochen!

6 August 2012

The Agathopèdes

Via Eric Poindron, I discover Arthur Dinaux's Les sociétés badines, bachiques, littéraires et chantantes (Paris: Bachelin-Deflorenne, 1867) -- a history of jesting, drinking, literary, and singing clubs. On page 8 of the first volume there is an entry for the Agathopèdes. My translation:
This jesting club was founded in Brussels around 1850 by several writers and wits who amused themselves by publishing a very small number of works of eccentric buffoonery. The society held burlesque contests, imitated Rabelais' joyous inventiveness in their derisive foolishness, and was fairly notorious.  
At the Agathopèdes, or Pig Fanciers, members assumed or were given nicknames that corresponded to their qualities or even their faults. Initially these names were taken from the Roman de Renart; there was Mr. Fox etc.  
A certain amount of laughter, more merry than significant, accompanied this kind of baptism. The society also proposed questions for resolution, and awarded prizes and medals.
The description of the club runs to several pages and covers ceremonial garb, the motto (amis comme cochons -- "thick as pigs", as in "thick as thieves"), the submission of papers ("must be written legibly in Latin, French, or Dutch"), and so on.

There is also an article about the society on the French version of Wikipedia, where it says members founded the club in order to spend their evenings "sheltered from finks, noise, music, and other inconveniences."

3 August 2012

The Great and Reasonable Revolution

George Moore, Confessions of a Young Man (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1904), p. 134:
The world is dying of machinery; that is the great disease, that is the plague that will sweep away and destroy civilisation; man will have to rise against it sooner or later... Capital, unpaid labour, wage-slaves, and all the rest -- stuff ... Look at these plates; they were painted by machinery; they are abominable. Look at them. In old times plates were painted by hand, and the supply was necessarily limited to the demand, and a china in which there was always something more or less pretty was turned out; but now thousands, millions of plates are made more than we want, and there is a commercial crisis; the thing is inevitable. I say the great and the reasonable revolution will be when mankind rises in revolt, and smashes the machinery and restores the handicrafts.

2 August 2012

Empty and Bored

Alfred de Musset, La confession d'un enfant du siècle (Paris: Larousse, 1900), p. 15. My translation:
So young people found a use for their latent energy by affecting despair. To rail against glory, religion, love, and everything in the world is a great consolation for those who do not know what do; they mock themselves, and prove themselves right by doing so. And then it is pleasant to believe onself wretched when one is simply empty and bored.