30 January 2013

A Brief Pause

I'll return next week.

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Mann am Sekretär (1811)

29 January 2013

Some Minor Soiling and Shelf Wear

Jules Janin, L'Amour des livres [The Love of Books] (Paris: J. Miard, 1866), pp. 8-10. My translation:
[Y]ou and I, my young friend, we naturally look with profound horror and contempt on the good folk who say: "Well, it doesn't matter if the book is rich or poor, whole or broken; the important thing is that it belonged to Madame de Sévigné, or Bélise. It may smell like carnations or burnt fat, like the musk of courtesans or the light perfume of an honest woman; it is still a book... And what does it matter, after all, whether it comes from the Louvre or from Pont-Neuf." What an execrable opinion, and a horrifying remark! 
What could be more foolish than to read and act in this way? Does it not bother you, gentlemen readers who lack a sense of smell, to hold a muck-stained book in your unwashed hands? A book that has been indelibly stained by the greasy hair and grubby fingers of some errant girl or scruffy lackey? Do you not mind flipping through a sewer, and smelling the abominable stench of a stable or some other nasty place every time you turn a page? 
These sad men and stupid women, these simpletons call it a book. It is an infectious bit of cloth, a rag that has no name in any language! Bah! I would not read from those soiled pages, not even if they contained the most beautiful passages from all literature. No, I would not even read about Priam at the feet of Achilles, putting his lips to the hands that killed his son; nor of Iphigenia being brought to the altar in Euripides; nor of Anacreon under his vine; nor of the Cyclops in Theocritus contemplating the waves on the Sicilian shore. 
There is nothing beautiful and good, nothing great and heroic in a humiliated, dirty book that is full of disgusting things and filth. Look into any of the gilt-edged books that some idiot has purchased and find an impurity, and someone will answer with that silly refrain: "It doesn't matter to me!" 
That person does not know how to read. He has only read tabloid newspapers, cheap novels, or historical adventure books.  
While you are at it, ask him if he has no qualms about giving his arm to a woman of questionable repute who shuffles through the street in her worn-out shoes, with her nose in the air and mud on her dress. Ask him if it does not matter whether there is a spot on his coat and holes in his boots. It is just as shameful, if not more so, to have a pile of rubbish in the corner of your room, arrogantly masquerading as a library when even the rag-and-bone man would not want it.
Another excerpt: Advice for Bibliophiles

28 January 2013

On the Stock Exchange

From J. Hawker's letter, The Hungry Forties; Descriptive Letters and Other Testimonies from Contemporary Witnesses (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1904), p. 79:
In 1844 it was not safe to go out after dark if you had any money on you. Burglary, highway robbery, fowl stealing because men were starving. Men would steal sheep to get sent away [to Australia]. They had their freedom when they got there. When we have to be sent away as convicts to get liberty, we quietly sit down at home slaves. Shame on working men! But where are the sheep-stealers to-day? The conditions of men is better -- they have disappeared. But the men who made the men steal through Protection [i.e., The Corn Laws], hunger, and misery, and finding we had killed Protection and buried it, he has had to turn thief himself. Where? On the Stock Exchange.

24 January 2013

Strange to Think

H. Rex Freston, "When I Am Dead," The Quest of Truth and Other Poems (Oxford: B. H. Blackwell, 1916), p. 74:
'Tis strange to think when I am dead,
   The sweet earth still will yield her store
Of soft delights; they will not cease
   Though I not see them as before.

Still, still on golden summer eves,
   The skies shall hold a dream divine;
And men shall love and man shall weep
   The joys and woes, that once were mine.

The little birds that softly call
   Among the shadows will not care:
The happy lovers in the lane
   Shall never guess I once walked there.

And all the sorrows and regrets
   That clouded o'er my little day,
And all the wild mistakes of love,
   Shall like a mist have passed away. 
Freston was a 2nd Lieutenant with the Royal Berkshire Regiment, and was killed in action on this day in 1916.

23 January 2013

Spiritual Hygiene

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, tr. R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp, Vol. II (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1909), pp. 357-358:
If we consider closely and seriously the goal of Stoicism, that ἀταραξία [ataraxia], we find in it merely a hardening and insensibility to the blow of fate which a man attains to because he keeps ever present to his mind the shortness of life, the emptiness of pleasure, the instability of happiness, and has also discerned that the difference between happiness and unhappiness is very much less than our anticipation of both is wont to represent. But this is yet no state of happiness; it is only the patient endurance of sufferings which one has foreseen as irremediable. Yet magnanimity and worth consist in this, that one should bear silently and patiently what is irremediable, in melancholy peace, remaining always the same, while others pass from rejoicing to despair and from despair to rejoicing. Accordingly one may also conceive of Stoicism as a spiritual hygiene, in accordance with which, just as one hardens the body against the influences of wind and weather, against fatigue and exertion, one has also to harden one's mind against misfortune, danger, loss, injustice, malice, perfidy, arrogance, and the folly of men.
Thanks to fellow Schopenhauer enthusiast Stephen Pentz, who aroused my interest in Haldane and Kemp's translation. The text is also available on Project Gutenberg: Vol. I, Vol II, Vol. III.

22 January 2013

21 January 2013

What Kind of Bug Was Gregor Samsa?

Via Futility Closet I find Vladimir Nabokov's lecture notes on Franz Kafka's story The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung):
Commentators say [the protagonist Gregor Samsa turned into a] cockroach, which of course does not make sense. A cockroach is an insect that is flat in shape with large legs, and Gregor is anything but flat: he is convex on both sides, belly and back, and his legs are small. He approaches a cockroach in only one respect: his coloration is brown. That is all. Apart from this he has a tremendous convex belly divided into segments and a hard rounded back suggestive of wing cases. In beetles these cases conceal flimsy little wings that can be expanded and then may carry the beetle for miles and miles in a blundering flight. Curiously enough, Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back. (This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.)
STUDENTS: Click here for Harold Bloom's guide to The Metamorphosis.

18 January 2013

A Solemn Duty

A. C. Benson, "Sociabilities," in From a College Window (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1906), pp. 66-68:
I imagine that people are divided into those who, if they see a crowd of human beings in a field, have a desire to join them, and those who, at the same sight, long to fly swiftly to the uttermost ends of the earth. I am of the latter temperament; and I cannot believe that there is any duty which should lead me to resist the impulse as a temptation to evil. But the truth is that sociable people, like liturgical people, require, for the full satisfaction of their instincts, that a certain number of other persons should be present at the ceremonies which they affect, and that all should be occupied in the same way. It is of little moment to the originators of the ceremony whether those present are there willingly or unwillingly; and thus the only resource of their victims is to go out on strike; so far from thinking it a duty to be present at social or religious functions, in order that my sociable or liturgical friends should have a suitable background for their pleasures, I think it a solemn duty to resist to the uttermost this false and vexatious theory of society and religion! 
I suppose, too, that inveterate talkers and discoursers require an audience who should listen meekly and admiringly, and not interrupt. I have friends who are afflicted with this taste to such an extent, who are so determined to hold the talk in their own hands, that I declare they might as well have a company of stuffed seals to sit down to dinner with, as a circle of living and breathing men. But I do not think it right, or at all events necessary, in the interests of human kindliness, that I should victimize myself so for a man's pleasure. Neither do I think it necessary that I should attend a ceremony where I neither get nor give anything of the nature of pleasure, simply in order to conform to a social rule, invented and propagated by those who happen to enjoy such gatherings.

17 January 2013

Drill, Baby, Drill

A non-literary digression for today. While I no longer work in or write about the investment business, I still take a desultory interest in a few areas, and energy is one of them. This revealing comment was posted to The Oil Drum by the user "Rockman" (a petroleum geologist) a couple days ago:
Someone asked why so many companies are chasing the shales if they really weren't all that profitable. If the hype is on and there's investor money being pushed your way you drill whether you have enough viable prospects or not. I started in 1975 just as the boom started. Being a pup then I didn't realize at first just how crappy most prospects were. Probably half those 4,500 rigs were drilling prospects that had almost no chance of working. But I learned quickly. I handled a joint venture for a pipeline company that invested in 18 wildcats with a small operator. And they drilled 18 dry holes in a row. Why did the p/l company hook up with such a poor performer? They were desperate to take advantage of the surge in oil/NG prices and didn't have an exploration staff in place to do it. And why did that operator drill all those bad prospects? Easy answer: because they made a small fortune from their partners in the joint venture. They didn't invest a penny in the drilling effort but got big front end fees for running the JV. The senior guys with the operator retired millionaires.
Later in the same comment, he calls these kinds of ventures "MDWs", short for Money Disposal Wells.

There is another interesting post on The Oil Drum by actuary Gail Tverberg on why Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was wrong.

16 January 2013

Execrated by Learned Men

Jules Janin, L'Amour des livres [The Love of Books] (Paris: J. Miard, 1866), pp. 11-12. My translation:
These new editions of our masterpieces are full of faults, or rather let us say, full of crimes. And yet there are people who buy them, and who have them covered in sheepskin by bookbinders who should have been shoemakers. Thus constructed, the books stink of glue and rotten eggs; they will be devoured by worms and the paper will turn yellow because it was made from straw and rotten wood instead of cloth. These shabby octavos are execrated by learned men. But there are fifty imbeciles, fifty ignoramuses, fifty money-lenders, as well as several idiots, twenty convicts, and some serious, semi-literate prostitutes  not to mention a dozen newly-minted marquises  who will carefully lock them away in a richly-carved bookcase.

They will lock up their library, and tightly, as if someone would want to steal their eighty volume edition of Voltaire, their Touquet edition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, their Buffon, their D'Alembert, their ignominious biography, and the heap of twenty novels illustrated by the same people who did The Wandering Jew or Credit is Dead! "Books are decoration, and they suit nicely." Saying this only serves to disgrace yourself and demonstrate what kind of imbecile, dunce, and poor reader you are!

15 January 2013

A Clumsy Experiment

Arthur Schopenhauer, "On Suicide," Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer, tr. T. Bailey Saunders (New York: A. L. Burt, 1892), p. 404:
Suicide may also be regarded as an experiment — a question which man puts to Nature, trying to force her to an answer. The question is this: What change will death produce in a man’s existence and in his insight into the nature of things? It is a clumsy experiment to make; for it involves the destruction of the very consciousness which puts the question and awaits the answer.
Alfred Tennyson, The Two Voices, lines 229-240:
I said, “I toil beneath the curse,
But, knowing not the universe,
I fear to slide from bad to worse.

“And that, in seeking to undo
One riddle, and to find the true,
I knit a hundred others new:

“Or that this anguish fleeting hence,
Unmanacled from bonds of sense,
Be fix’d and froz’n to permanence:

“For I go, weak from suffering here:
Naked I go, and void of cheer:
What is it that I may not fear?”

14 January 2013


Jacques Bonnet, Phantoms on the Bookshelves, tr. Siân Reynolds (New York: The Overlook Press, 2012), p. 53:
Every time you open a book for the first time, there is something akin to safe-breaking about it. Yes, that's exactly it: the frantic reader is like a burglar who has spent hours and hours digging a tunnel to enter the strongroom of a bank. He emerges face to face with hundreds of strongboxes, all identical, and opens them one by one. And each time the box is opened, it loses its anonymity and becomes unique: one is filled with paintings, another with bundles of banknotes, a third with jewels or letters tied in ribbon, engravings, objects of no value at all, silverware, photos, gold sovereigns, dried flowers, files of paper, crystal glasses, or children's toys — and so on. There is something intoxicating about opening a new one, finding its contents and feeling overjoyed that in a trice one is no longer in front of a set of boxes, but in the presence of the riches and the wretched banalities that make up human existence.

11 January 2013

Now Barabbas Was a Publisher

Henry Curwen, A History of Booksellers (London: Chatto and Windus, 1873), pp. 184-185:
At the time when Byron was most calumniated, when there were cruel stories afloat about the life he led and the opinions he held (though none so cruel as have since been promulgated by a well-known American authoress), [John] Murray's soul was comforted by the present of a Bible — a gift from the illustrious poet. "Could this man," he asked, "be a deist, an atheist, or worse, when he sent Bibles about to his publishers?" Turning it over in wonderment, however, some inquisitive member of his four o'clock clique found a marginal correction — "Now Barabbas was a robber," altered into "Now Barabbas was a publisher."
John Murray's biographer and grandson Samuel Smiles disputes the anecdote in A Publisher and His Friends: Memoir and Correspondence of John Murray, Vol. I (London: John Murray, 1891), p. 336:
It was [the Scottish poet] Thomas Campbell who wrote "Now Barabbas was a publisher," whether in a Bible or otherwise is not authentically recorded, and forwarded it to a friend; but Mr. Murray was not the publisher to whom it referred, nor was Lord Byron, as has been so frequently stated, the author of the joke.

10 January 2013

The Only Happiness Worth Seeking

A. C. Benson, "Books," From a College Window (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1906), pp. 52-53:
As I make my slow pilgrimage through the world, a certain sense of beautiful mystery seems to gather and grow. I see that many people find the world dreary — and, indeed, there must be spaces of dreariness in it for us all — some find it interesting; some surprising; some find it entirely satisfactory. But those who find it satisfactory seem to me, as a rule, to be tough, coarse, healthy natures, who find success attractive and food digestible: who do not trouble their heads very much about other people, but go cheerfully and optimistically on their way, closing their eyes as far as possible to things painful and sorrowful, and getting all the pleasure they can out of material enjoyments.
Well, to speak very sincerely and humbly, such a life seems to me the worst kind of failure. It is the life that men were living in the days of Noah, and out of such lives comes nothing that is wise or useful or good. Such men leave the world as they found it, except for the fact that they have eaten a little way into it, like a mite into a cheese, and leave a track of decomposition behind them.
I do not know why so much that is hard and painful and sad is interwoven with our life here; but I see, or seem to see, that it is meant to be so interwoven. All the best and most beautiful flowers of character and thought seem to me to spring up in the track of suffering; and what is the most sorrowful of all mysteries, the mystery of death, the ceasing to be, the relinquishing of our hopes and dreams, the breaking of our dearest ties, becomes more solemn and awe-inspiring the nearer we advance to it.
I do not mean that we are to go and search for unhappiness; but, on the other hand, the only happiness worth seeking for is a happiness which takes all these dark things into account, looks them in the face, reads the secret of their dim eyes and set lips, dwells with them, and learns to be tranquil in their presence.
More A.C. Benson:
Comfort-Loving Vulgarity
Sic tu recoli merearis!

9 January 2013

Mumbo Jumbo

Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (§173), in Nietzsches Werke, Vol. V (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner, 1921), p. 186. My translation:
To be profound and to appear profound — He who knows himself to be profound, strives to be clear; he who would like to appear profound to the multitude, strives to be obscure. For the multitude thinks everything is deep if it cannot see to the bottom of it: they are so timid and so reluctant to enter the water!
The original:
Tief sein und tief scheinen. — Wer sich tief weiß, bemüht sich um Klarheit; wer der Menge tief scheinen möchte, bemüht sich um Dunkelheit. Denn die Menge hält Alles für tief, dessen Grund sie nicht sehen kann: sie ist so furchtsam und geht so ungern in's Wasser!

8 January 2013

A Happy New Year?

Giacomo Leopardi, "Dialogue Between an Almanac Seller and a Passer-By," Essays and Dialogues, tr. Charles Edwardes (London: Trübner & Co., 1882), pp. 179-181:
Almanac Seller. Almanacs! New Almanacs! New Calendars! Who wants new Almanacs?
Passer-by. Almanacs for the New Year?
Alm. Seller. Yes, Sir.
Passer. Do you think this New Year will be a happy one?
Alm. Seller. Yes, to be sure, Sir.
Passer. As happy as last year?
Alm. Seller. Much more so.
Passer. As the year before?
Alm. Seller. Still more, Sir.
Passer. Why? Should you not like the New Year to resemble one of the past years?
Alm. Seller. No, Sir, I should not.
Passer. How many years have gone by since you began to sell almanacs?
Alm. Seller. About twenty years, Sir.
Passer. Which of the twenty should you wish the New Year to be like?
Alm. Seller. I do not know.
Passer. Do you not remember any particular year which you thought a happy one?
Alm. Seller. Indeed I do not, Sir.
Passer. And yet life is a fine thing, is it not?
Alm. Seller. So they say.
Passer. Would you not like to live these twenty years, and even all your past life from your birth, over again?
Alm. Seller. Ah, dear Sir, would to God I could!
Passer. But if you had to live over again the life you have already lived, with all its pleasures and sufferings?
Alm. Seller. I should not like that.
Passer. Then what other life would you like to live? Mine, or that of the Prince, or whose? Do you not think that I, or the Prince, or any one else, would reply exactly as you have done; and that no one would wish to repeat the same life over again?
Alm. Seller. I do believe that.
Passer. Then would you recommence it on this condition, if none other were offered you?
Alm. Seller. No, Sir, indeed I would not.
Passer. Then what life would you like?
Alm. Seller. Such an one as God would give me without any conditions.
Passer. A life at hap-hazard, and of which you would know nothing beforehand, as you know nothing about the New Year?
Alm. Seller. Exactly.
Passer. It is what I should wish, had I to live my life over again, and so would every one. But this proves that Fate has treated us all badly. And it is clear that each person is of opinion that the evil he has experienced exceeds the good, if no one would wish to be re-born on condition of living his own life over again from the beginning, with just its same proportion of good and evil. This life, which is such a fine thing, is not the life we are acquainted with, but that of which we know nothing; it is not the past life, but the future. With the New Year Fate will commence treating you, and me, and every one well, and the happy life will begin. Am I not right?
Alm. Seller. Let us hope so.
Passer. Show me the best almanac you have.
Alm. Seller. Here it is, Sir. This is worth thirty soldi.
Passer. Here are thirty soldi.
Alm. Seller. Thank you, Sir. Good day, Sir. -- Almanacs! New Almanacs! New Calendars!

7 January 2013

Dear Brother of the Pen and Heart

Erwin F. Smith, For Her Friends and Mine; A Book of Aspirations, Dreams and Memories (Washington: Printed Privately by Gibson Brothers, 1915), p. 226:

George Gissing

(In memory of The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft)

Dear brother of the pen and of the heart,
  For meager bread toiling in London ways,
  Thou did'st deserve more comradeship and praise,
More gold, than men did grant — a life apart
From bitter want that stung thee like a dart
  And all life's petty needs in thronging maze,
  Where thou could'st give, unvexed, thy nights and days
And thy whole soul devoutly to thine art.

Set free, thy swan-song shows to what divine
  Clear wells of thought thou let'st thy buckets down,
But all too late the meed of praise is thine —
  The cold dead brow receives the victor's crown.
    Yet could'st thou come again we should know how,
    Sad one, to laurel-crown thy living brow.

A related post: An Uncomfortable Distinction

3 January 2013

Fashion in Academe

Vera Brittain's diary entry for February 22nd, 1939, Chronicle of Friendship (London: Victor Gollancz, 1986), p. 339:
Of the four English women [dining at the club], I was the only one who painted my lips, varnished my nails & wore clothes that didn't look like they'd been put on after hanging in a cupboard for 5 years. Why, why must social reform & political intelligence in the women of this country be associated with shiny noses & unwaved hair? Is it hubris -- the feeling that you're so important that it doesn't matter how distasteful your appearance may be -- or simply that most English women have no taste and don't even know it. Oh! that University Women's Club -- full of grim-looking desiccated spinsters in appalling tweeds. Heaven preserve Shirley [Brittain's daughter] from an academic career!

2 January 2013

A Winter Hoard

George Moore, Memoirs of My Dead Life (London: Heinemann, 1906), p. 178:
We must think not only of the day that we live, but of the days in front of us; we must store our memories as the squirrel stores nuts, we must have a winter hoard.
Id, pp. 184-185:
The delights of the moment are perhaps behind me, but why should I feel sad for that? Life is always beautiful, in age as well as in youth; the old have a joy that the youths do not know -- recollection. It is through memory we know ourselves; without memory it might be said we have hardly lived at all, or only like animals. 
This is a point on which I would speak seriously to every reader, especially to my young readers; for it is of the utmost importance that every one should select adventures that not only please them at the moment, but can be looked back upon with admiration, and for which one can offer up a mute thanksgiving.
A related post: Nothing More Secure

28 December 2012

In the Affirmative

Robin Maugham, Somerset and All the Maughams (New York: New American Library, 1966), pp. 40-41:
There was a large party up at the big house on New Year's Eve, and Willie [i.e., W. Somerset Maugham] and I were invited. A minute or so before midnight someone gaily suggested that we should all sing Auld Lang Syne. Immediately Willie's face froze with dismay -- not because he was afraid that the hackneyed tune would remind him of Gerald [Haxton, recently deceased]: by now he could cope with the misery. I could see from his hectic glances to right and to left that the reason for his consternation was more superficial and immediate. From childhood Willie had had a morbid dread of physical contact with strangers, and he was now suddenly confronted with the prospect of his hands being crossed and then clasped in the sticky palms of two unknown females who had come in late and who were now standing on either side of him. Into his eyes came the frantic look of a hunted animal. I was wondering how Willie would get out of his predicament when he spoke. 
"When on New Year's Eve," Willie said, "I hear people singing that song in which they ask themselves the question 'should old acquaintance be forgot,' I can only tell you that my own answer is in the affirmative." 
That did the trick. Hands that had been crossed and outstretched to clasp Willie's fell down in limp despondency. Mouths that had been opened to chant merrily closed with a snap. And Willie had saved himself.