18 February 2013

The Ink-Stained World

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft  (London: Archibald Constable, 1912), pp. 45-46:
I dare not think of those I have left behind me, there in the ink-stained world. It would make me miserable, and to what purpose? Yet, having once looked that way, think of them I must. Oh, you heavy-laden, who at this hour sit down to the cursed travail of the pen; writing, not because there is something in your mind, in your heart, which must needs be uttered, but because the pen is the only tool you can handle, your only means of earning bread! Year after year the number of you is multiplied; you crowd the doors of publishers and editors, hustling, grappling, exchanging maledictions. Oh, sorry spectacle, grotesque and heart-breaking!

15 February 2013

Books Have Their Fate

Joseph Conrad, Notes on Life and Letters (London: J. M. Dent, 1921), pp. 5-6:
It has been said a long time ago that books have their fate. They have, and it is very much like the destiny of man. They share with us the great incertitude of ignominy or glory — of severe justice and senseless persecution — of calumny and misunderstanding — the shame of undeserved success. Of all the inanimate objects, of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us, for they contain our very thought, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent leaning towards error. But most of all they resemble us in their precarious hold on life. A bridge constructed according to the rules of the art of bridge-building is certain of a long, honourable and useful career. But a book as good in its way as the bridge may perish obscurely on the very day of its birth. The art of their creators is not sufficient to give them more than a moment of life. Of the books born from the restlessness, the inspiration, and the vanity of human minds, those that the Muses would love best lie more than all others under the menace of an early death. Sometimes their defects will save them. Sometimes a book fair to see may — to use a lofty expression — have no individual soul. Obviously a book of that sort cannot die. It can only crumble into dust. But the best of books drawing sustenance from the sympathy and memory of men have lived on the brink of destruction, for men’s memories are short, and their sympathy is, we must admit, a very fluctuating, unprincipled emotion.
No secret of eternal life for our books can be found amongst the formulas of art, any more than for our bodies in a prescribed combination of drugs. This is not because some books are not worthy of enduring life, but because the formulas of art are dependent on things variable, unstable and untrustworthy; on human sympathies, on prejudices, on likes and dislikes, on the sense of virtue and the sense of propriety, on beliefs and theories that, indestructible in themselves, always change their form — often in the lifetime of one fleeting generation.
A related post: Books Are the Departed Souls of Men

14 February 2013

Equality of Contempt

A few selections from Karl Kraus' Sprüche und Widersprüche (München: Albert Langen, 1909), my translation:
Nothing is more petty than chauvinism or racism. All people are the same to me. There are idiots everywhere and I hold them all in equal contempt. Let there be no mean little prejudices!
The world is a prison in which solitary confinement is preferable.
If I knew for certain that I would have to share eternity with certain people, I would opt for a separate oblivion.
The originals:
Nichts ist engherziger als Chauvinismus oder Rassenhaß. Mir sind alle Menschen gleich, überall gibt's Schafsköpfe und für alle habe ich die gleiche Verachtung. Nur keine kleinlichen Vorurteile!
Die Welt ist ein Gefängnis, in dem Einzelhaft vorzuziehen ist.
Wenn ich sicher wüßte, daß ich mit gewissen Leuten die Unsterblichkeit zu teilen haben werde, so möchte ich eine separierte Vergessenheit vorziehen.
If you enjoy reading Chamfort, Schopenhauer, or Léautaud you will probably enjoy Kraus' aphorisms. I haven't seen a copy, but Jonathan McVity translated them into English for the University of Illinois Press in 2001.

13 February 2013

It Would Have Been Better So

Anatole France, The Garden of Epicurus, tr. Alfred Allinson (London: John Lane, 1908), pp. 47-48:
If I had created man and woman, I should have framed them on a type widely different from that which has actually prevailed, that of the higher mammifers. I should have made men and women, not to resemble the great apes as they do, but on the model of the insects which, after a lifetime as caterpillars, change into butterflies and for the brief final term of their existence have no other thought but to love and be lovely. I should have set youth at the end of the human span. Some insects, in their last metamorphosis, have wings and no stomach. They are reborn in this purified form only to love an hour and die. 
If I were a god, or rather a demiurge — for the Alexandrine philosophers teach that these minor works of creation are rather the business of the demiurge or simply of some journeyman demon, — well, if I were demiurge or demon, it is these insects I should have chosen as models whereon to fashion mankind. I should have preferred man to accomplish, like them, in the preliminary larva stage the disgusting functions necessary to nutrition. In this phase, the sexes would not have been distinguished, and hunger would not have degraded love. Then I should have so arranged that, in a final metamorphosis, man and woman, unfurling glittering wings, lived awhile on dew and desire and died in a rapturous kiss. Thus I should have added love as crown and recompense of their mortal existence. Yes, it would have been better so. However, I did not make the world, and the demiurge who undertook the task did not take advice from me. I have my doubts, between you and me, if he ever consulted the philosophers and men of parts at all. 

The original:
Si j'avais créé l'homme et la femme, je les aurais formés sur un type très différent de celui qui a prévalu et qui est celui des mammifères supérieurs. J'aurais fait les hommes et les femmes, non point à la ressemblance des grands singes comme ils sont en effet, mais à l'image des insectes qui, après avoir vécu chenilles, se transforment en papillons et n'ont, au terme de leur vie, d'autre souci que d'aimer et d'être beaux. J'aurais mis la jeunesse à la fin de l'existence humaine. Certains insectes ont, dans leur dernière métamorphose, des ailes et pas d'estomac. Ils ne renaissent sous cette forme épurée que pour aimer une heure et mourir.
Si j'étais un dieu, ou plutôt un démiurge, — car la philosophie alexandrine nous enseigne que ces minimes ouvrages sont plutôt l'affaire du démiurge, ou simplement de quelque démon constructeur, — si donc j'étais démiurge ou démon, ce sont ces insectes que j'aurais pris pour modèles de l'homme. J'aurais voulu que, comme eux, l'homme accomplît d'abord, à l'état de larve, les travaux dégoûtants par lesquels il se nourrit. En cette phase, il n'y aurait point eu de sexes, et la faim n'aurait point avili l'amour. Puis j'aurais fait en sorte que, dans une transformation dernière, l'homme et la femme, déployant des ailes étincelantes, vécussent de rosée et de désir et mourussent dans un baiser. J'aurais de la sorte donné à leur existence mortelle l'amour en récompense et pour couronne. Et cela aurait été mieux ainsi. Mais je n'ai pas créé le monde, et le démiurge qui s'en est chargé n'a pas pris mes avis. Je doute, entre nous, qu'il ait consulté les philosophes et les gens d'esprit.

12 February 2013

Does it Pay?

Arthur Machen, Far Off Things (London: Martin Secker, 1922), pp. 93-96:
For if we start at the beginning of things, or at what seems to us to be the beginning of things, we are met by the question as to why there should be any such thing as poetry in the universe. I need not say how much wider this question is than it seems; how it must be asked about all the arts, about fugues and cathedrals and romances and dances. It is an immense question; immense when one considers that with nine people out of ten the great criterion is, "Does it pay?" That is, will it result in a larger supply of fine champagne, four ale, roast legs of pork, and mousses royales to the population? Will this scheme of things enable Sir John to keep a fifth motor-car, or will it get Bill meat three times a day? That is, at last, the test by which we judge all things. It is an old and approved British test; by it Macaulay condemned the whole of Greek philosophy, because that philosophy did not lead up to the invention of the steam engine. Now, it is quite clear that poetry, speaking generally, pays neither the producer nor the consumer of it; it does not lead to motor-cars, beefsteaks, vintage clarets, or four ale. It is not even moral; not a single man has ever been induced to drink ginger-beer instead of beer by reading Keats.
I must pause for a moment; I fear that it may be thought that I am trying to be funny or — more injurious accusation! — trying to be clever. I am not trying to be either; I am stating the simple facts of the case. Hardly a month passes by without some indignant person pointing out in the Press that Engineering and Commercial Chemistry are infinitely more useful — i.e., lead to more beefsteaks — than Latin and Greek; and that when Oxford and Cambridge find out that obvious truth they may become of some service to the State. Indeed, it is only a few weeks ago since a gentleman wrote to a paper showing that military training was better for a boy — i.e., would make him the better soldier — than "silly old" Greek plays. And let me acknowledge that these contentions are perfectly true; just as it is perfectly true that fur coats are much warmer than Alcaics. So, I say, here is the problem: the common, widely accepted test of the right to existence of everything: does it pay, does it add to the physical comforts of life, is quite clearly opposed to the existence of poetry, and yet poetry exists. Therefore, either the poets and the lovers of poetry are mad, or else the common judgment is ... let us say, mistaken. 
For I firmly hold the doctrine that the natural, the arch-natural expression of man, so far as he is to be distinguished from pigs and dogs and goats, is in the arts, and through the arts and by the arts. It is not by reason, as reason is commonly understood, that man is distinguished from the other animals; but by art. I can quite well conceive the Black Ants sending the message "Hill 27 fell before the Red Ant attack early this afternoon," but I cannot conceive either Red or Black Ants writing odes or building miniature cathedrals. The arts, then, are man's difference, that which makes him to be what he is; and when he speaks through them he is using the utterance which is proper to him, as man. For, if we once set aside the "does it pay" nonsense, which is evidently nonsense and pestilent nonsense at that, we come clearly and freely to the truth that man is concerned with beauty, and with the ecstasy or rapture that proceeds from the creation of beauty and from the contemplation of it.

11 February 2013

The Truest and Most Actual Thing

A. C. Benson, "Optimism," At Large (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1908), pp. 292-293:
If the beauty and the joy of the world gave one assurance in dark hours that all was certainly well, the pilgrimage would be an easy one. But can one be optimistic by resolving to be? One can, of course, control oneself, one can let no murmur of pain escape one, one can even enunciate deep and courageous maxims because one would not trouble the peace of others, waiting patiently till the golden mood returns. But what if the desolate conviction forces itself upon the mind that sorrow is the truer thing? What if one tests one's own experience, and sees that, under the pressure of sorrow, one after another of the world's lights are extinguished, health, and peace, and beauty, and delight, till one asks oneself whether sorrow is not perhaps the truest and most actual thing of all? That is the ghastliest of moments when everything drops from us but fear and horror, when we think that we have indeed found truth at last, and that the answer to Pilate's bitter question is that pain is the nearest thing to truth because it is the strongest. If I felt that, says the reluctant heart, I should abandon myself to despair. No, says sterner reason, you would bear it, because you cannot escape from it. Into whatever depths of despair you fell, you would still be upheld by the law that bids you be. 

7 February 2013

A Special Training

George Gissing in The Art of Authorship, ed. George Bainton (New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1890), pp. 83-84:
I believe there are persons extant who undertake to instruct young men in the art of journalistic composition. Without irony, it would interest me much to be present at such a lesson. Does the teacher select a leading article from, say, The Daily Telegraph, and begin: 'Come now, let us note the artifices of style whereby this writer recommends himself to the attention of the public'? Well, if a man of ripe intelligence could have taken me at the age of twenty, and have read with me suitable portions of Sir Thomas Browne, of Jeremy Taylor, of Milton's prose, of Steele, De Quincey, Landor, Ruskin — to make a rough list of names — that, I think, would have been a special training valuable beyond expression.
You know, of course, the little volume of selections from Landor, in the 'Golden Treasury' series. Could a young man whose thoughts are running on style do better than wear the book out with carrying it in his side pocket, that he might ponder its exquisite passages hour by hour?

6 February 2013

The Proper Occupation of Man

Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist," in Intentions (New York: Brentano's, 1905), pp. 169-170:
Society, which is the beginning and basis of morals, exists simply for the concentration of human energy, and in order to ensure its own continuance and healthy stability it demands, and no doubt rightly demands, of each of its citizens that he should contribute some form of productive labour to the common weal, and toil and travail that the day’s work may be done. Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer. The beautiful sterile emotions that art excites in us are hateful in its eyes, and so completely are people dominated by the tyranny of this dreadful social ideal that they are always coming shamelessly up to one at Private Views and other places that are open to the general public, and saying in a loud stentorian voice, ‘What are you doing?’ whereas ‘What are you thinking?’ is the only question that any single civilised being should ever be allowed to whisper to another. They mean well, no doubt, these honest beaming folk. Perhaps that is the reason why they are so excessively tedious. But some one should teach them that while, in the opinion of society, Contemplation is the gravest sin of which any citizen can be guilty, in the opinion of the highest culture it is the proper occupation of man.

5 February 2013

This Incredulous Century

Aloysius Bertrand, "To a Bibliophile," Gaspard de la nuit (Paris: Mercure de France, 1920), pp. 142-143. My translation:
Children, there are no more knights, except in books.
A Grandmother's Tales [George Sand]
Why restore worm-eaten and dusty histories from the Middle Ages when chivalry is gone for ever, along with the songs of its wandering minstrels, its fairy enchantments, and the glory of its knights?
What do our marvellous legends matter to this incredulous century: St. George breaking a lance against Charles VII in a tournament in Luçon, the Holy Spirit descending in full view at the Council of Trent, and the Wandering Jew approaching Bishop Gotzelin near the city of Langres to tell him of the Passion of Our Lord.
The three knightly sciences are held in contempt today. No one cares to know the age of the gyrfalcon you are training, how the bastard pieces together his coat of arms, nor at what time of night Mars is conjoined with Venus.
All tradition of war and love is being forgotten, and my fables will not even share the fate of Genevieve of Brabant's lament, the beginning of which the picture seller can no longer remember, and the end of which he never knew.

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.

24 December 2012

Forget, Don't Forgive

P. E. Digeser, Political Forgiveness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 15:
Friedrich Nietzsche found the whole idea of forgiveness objectionable. From his perspective, forgiving is a matter of the weak making a virtue out of necessity. Because they cannot avenge themselves, they call their weakness "forgiveness". In contrast, more noble types have no need to forgive. They see the resentment that is connected to forgiveness as a poison that they must purge as quickly as possible through an instantaneous, perhaps violent reaction. Nietzsche recommends forgetting instead of forgiving. As an example, he presents Mirabeau, "who lacked all memory for insults and meanness done him, and who was unable to forgive because he had forgotten". Forgiveness that is linked to resentment is either a form of weakness or is unnecessary. Far from trying to recover an alternative vision of forgiveness, Nietzsche calls for its abandonment.

21 December 2012

A Sad Parody

Orison Swett Marden, The Young Man Entering Business (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1907), pp. 31-32:
It is a sad parody on life to see a man earning his living by a vocation which has never received his approval. It is pitiable to see a youth, with the image of power and destiny stamped upon him, trying to support himself in a mean, contemptible occupation, which dwarfs his nature and makes him despise himself; an occupation which is constantly condemning him, ostracizing him from all that is best and truest in life. Dig trenches, shovel coal, carry a hod; do anything rather than sacrifice your self-respect, blunt your sense of right and wrong, and shut yourself off forever from the true joy of living, which comes only from the consciousness of doing one's best.

19 December 2012

God Be Thanked for Books

William Channing (1780-1842), "Self Culture," in The Works of William Ellery Channing (Glasgow: Richard Griffin & Co., 1840), pp. 252-253:
It is chiefly through books that we enjoy intercourse with superior minds, and these invaluable means of communication are in the reach of all. In the best books, great men talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their souls into ours. God be thanked for books. They are the voices of the distant and the dead, and make us heirs of the spiritual life of past ages. Books are the true levellers. They give to all, who will faithfully use them, the society, the spiritual presence, of the best and greatest of our race. No matter how poor I am. No matter though the prosperous of my own time will not enter my obscure dwelling. If the Sacred Writers will enter and take up their abode under my roof, if Milton will cross my threshold to sing to me of Paradise, and Shakspeare to open to me the worlds of imagination and the workings of the human heart, and Franklin to enrich me with his practical wisdom, I shall not pine for want of intellectual companionship, and I may become a cultivated man though excluded from what is called the best society in the place where I live.

18 December 2012

The Miserable Banality of Old Age

C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), Collected Poems, tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992):
An Old Man 
At the noisy end of the café, head bent
over the table, an old man sits alone,
a newspaper in front of him. 
And in the miserable banality of old age
he thinks how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strength, eloquence, and looks. 
He knows he's aged a lot: he sees it, feels it.
Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.
So brief an interval, so very brief. 
And he thinks of Prudence, how it fooled him,
how he always believed -- what madness --
that cheat who said: "Tomorrow. You have plenty of time." 
He remembers impulses bridled, the joy
he sacrificed. Every chance he lost
now mocks his senseless caution. 
But so much thinking, so much remembering
makes the old man dizzy. He falls asleep,
his head resting on the café table.

17 December 2012

Three Copies

From Richard Heber's obituary in The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. 155 (January 1834), p. 107:
He has been known seriously to say to his friends, on their remarking on his many duplicates, "Why, you see, Sir, no man can comfortably do without three copies of a book. One he must have for his show copy, and he will probably keep it at his country house. Another he will require for his own use and reference; and unless he is inclined to part with this, which is very inconvenient, or risk the injury of his best copy, he must needs have a third at the service of his friends.
The same obituary quotes from Sir Walter Scott's Christmas-themed introduction to Canto 6 in Marmion:
How just that, at this time of glee,
My thoughts should, Heber, turn to thee!
For many a merry hour we've known,                      
And heard the chimes of midnight's tone.
Cease, then, my friend! a moment cease,
And leave these classic tomes in peace!
Of Roman and of Grecian lore,
Sure mortal brain can hold no more.

14 December 2012

The Necessity of Solitude

Johann Georg Zimmermann, Solitude (London: Thomas Tegg, 1827), pp. 148-149:
Solitude is not merely desirable, but absolutely necessary, to those characters who possess sensibilities too quick, and imaginations too ardent, to live quietly in the world; and who are incessantly inveighing against men and things. Those who suffer their minds to be subdued by circumstances which would scarcely produce an emotion in other bosoms, who complain of the severity of their misfortunes on occasions which others would not feel, who are dispirited by every occurrence which does not produce immediate satisfaction and pleasure, who are incessantly tormented by the illusions of fancy, who are unhinged and dejected the moment prosperity is out of their view, repine at what they possess from an ignorance of what they really want; whose minds are for ever veering from one vain wish to another; who are alarmed at every thing and enjoy nothing; are not formed for society, and, if solitude have no power to heal their wounded spirits, are certainly incurable.
Men who in other respects possess rational minds and pious dispositions frequently fall into low spirits and despair; but it is in general, almost entirely, their own fault. If it proceed, as is generally the case, from unfounded fears; if they love to torment themselves and others on every trivial disappointment or slight indisposition; if they constantly resort to medicine for that relief which reason alone can bestow; if they fondly indulge instead of repressing these idle fancies; if, after having endured the most excruciating pains with patience, and supported the greatest misfortunes with fortitude, they neither can nor will learn to bear the puncture of the smallest pin, or those trifling adversities to which human life is unavoidably subject, they can only attribute their unhappy condition to their own misconduct; and, although they might, by no very irksome effort of their understandings, look with an eye of composure and tranquillity on the multiplied and fatal fires issuing from the dreadful cannon's mouth, will continue shamefully subdued by the idle apprehensions of being fired at by popguns.
All these qualities of the soul, fortitude, firmness, and stoic inflexibility, are much sooner acquired by silent meditation than amidst the noisy intercourses of mankind, where innumerable difficulties continually oppose us; where ceremony, servility, flattery, and fear, contaminate our dispositions; where every occurrence opposes our endeavours; and where, for this reason, men of the weakest minds and most contracted notions become more active and popular, gain more attention, and are better received, than men of feeling hearts and liberal understandings.
As I've mentioned in earlier posts from this book, 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.

13 December 2012

The Thunder Tome

Via Bibliophilie I discover this 18th century portable (emergency?) toilet hidden inside of a book. Presumably one slips a chamber pot underneath. Or perhaps not, depending on the circumstances.

According to the description the book measures 47 x 33 x 8 centimetres (18.5 x 13 x 3 inches) and consists of two hinged folding shelves; one of wood which functions as a support, while the hemstiched seat is covered with marbled sheepskin. The title of the book is Voyage aux Pays Bas [Journey to the Netherlands] -- I'd have that changed to something more appropriate, say Modern Literary Theory.

It will be sold by auction on December 19th, and the estimated value is 200 to 400 euros. See the Pierre Bergé & Associés web site for more information.

12 December 2012

Anywhere Out of the World

Charles Baudelaire, "Anywhere Out of the World," translated by Arthur Symons, Baudelaire: His Prose and Poetry (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919), pp. 51-53:
Life is a hospital, in which every patient is possessed by the desire of changing his bed. One would prefer to suffer near the fire, and another is certain that he would get well if he were by the window. It seems to me that I should always be happy if I were somewhere else, and this question of moving house is one that I am continually talking over with my soul.
"Tell me, my soul, poor chilly soul, what do you say to living in Lisbon? It must be very warm there, and you would bask merrily, like a lizard. It is by the sea; they say that it is built of marble, and that the people have such a horror of vegetation that they tear up all the trees. There is a country after your own soul; a country made up of light and mineral, and with liquid to reflect them."
My soul makes no answer.
"Since you love rest, and to see moving things, will you come and live in that heavenly land, Holland? Perhaps you would be happy in a country which you have so often admired in pictures. What do you say to Rotterdam, you who love forests of masts, and ships anchored at the doors of houses?"
My soul remains silent.
"Or perhaps Java seems to you more attractive? Well, there we shall find the mind of Europe married to tropical beauty."
Not a word. Can my soul be dead?
"Have you sunk then into so deep a stupor that only your own pain gives you pleasure? If that be so, let us go to the lands that are made in the likeness of Death. I know exactly the place for us, poor soul! We will book our passage to Torneo. We will go still further, to the last limits of the Baltic; and, if it be possible, further still from life; we will make our abode at the Pole. There the sun only grazes the earth, and the slow alternations of light and night put out variety and bring in the half of nothingness, monotony. There we can take great baths of darkness, while, from time to time, for our pleasure, the Aurora Borealis shall scatter its rosy sheaves before us, like reflections of fireworks in hell!" 
At last my soul bursts into speech, and wisely she cries to me: "Anywhere, anywhere, out of the world!" 

11 December 2012

A Disease Everyone Would Like to Catch

George Moore, Memoirs of My Dead Life (London: Heinemann, 1906), p. 140:
You ask me why I like the landscape? Because it carries me back into past times when men believed in nymphs and in satyrs. I have always thought it must be a wonderful thing to believe in the dryad. Do you know that men wandering in the woods sometimes used to catch sight of a white breast between the leaves, and henceforth they could love no mortal woman? The beautiful name of their malady was nympholepsy. A disease that every one would like to catch.

10 December 2012

O Grab, du bist das Paradies

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), The Complete Poems of Heinrich Heine, tr. Hal Draper, (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982), p. 699:
Longing for Rest
Oh, let your wounds bleed on unchecked,
And let your tears flow wild or calm --
In pain there burns a secret joy,
And weeping is a kindly balm.
Had others' hands not wounded you,
Yourself would have to deal the hurt;
So give your gracious thanks to God
When down your cheeks the teardrops spurt.
The noise of day is hushed; the night
Falls veiled with crape upon her breast;
And in her lap no knave or fool
Will come by to disturb your rest.
You're safe from music's bluster there,
From torment by pianos clanging,
From operatic tinsel pomp
And din of dread bravura banging.
You won't be dogged or plagued there by
The peacock virtuoso pack,
By Giacomo's great genius and
His worldwide advertising claque.
O grave, you're paradise for ears
That shun the rabble's brawl with scorn --
Death's good, but it were better still
If we had never yet been born.
The German:
Laß bluten deine Wunden, laß
Die Tränen fließen unaufhaltsam -
Geheime Wollust schwelgt im Schmerz,
Und Weinen ist ein süßer Balsam. 
Verwundet dich nicht fremde Hand,
So mußt du selber dich verletzen;
Auch danke hübsch dem lieben Gott,
Wenn Zähren deine Wangen netzen.
Des Tages Lärm verhallt, es steigt
Die Nacht herab mit langen Flören.
In ihrem Schoße wird kein Schelm,
Kein Tölpel deine Ruhe stören.
Hier bist du sicher vor Musik,
Vor des Piano-Fortes Folter,
Und vor der großen Oper Pracht
Und schrecklichem Bravourgepolter.
Hier wirst du nicht verfolgt, geplagt
Vom eitlen Virtuosenpacke
Und vom Genie Giacomos
Und seiner Weltberühmtheitsclaque.
O Grab, du bist das Paradies
Für pöbelscheue, zarte Ohren -
Der Tod ist gut, doch besser wärs,
Die Mutter hätt uns nie geboren.
A related post: The Kingdom of Chance and Error

6 December 2012

The Courage of Their Convictions

Coventry Patmore (1823-1896), The Rod, the Root, and the Flower (London: George Bell & Sons, 1895), p. 38:
Fortunately for themselves and the world, nearly all men are cowards and dare not act on what they believe. Nearly all our disasters come of a few fools having the "courage of their convictions."

5 December 2012

Tomate de merde

The Collectif des 451 is made up of people who work in, and are concerned about the future of, the book trade in France. The following is from the footnotes to their call to action. My translation:
A country friend told us: "In the beginning there was the tomato. Then they created the shitty tomato. And instead of calling it the 'shitty tomato', they called it a 'tomato', while the tomato that tasted like one and was cultivated like one became the 'organic tomato'. From that moment on, we were screwed."
Likewise, we reject the term "digital book" out of hand: a computer data file downloaded onto a tablet will never be a book.
The French:
Un ami paysan nous racontait : « Avant, il y avait la tomate. Puis, ils ont fabriqué la tomate de merde. Et au lieu d’appeler la tomate de merde “tomate de merde”, ils l’ont appelée “tomate”, tandis que la tomate, celle qui avait un goût de tomate et qui était cultivée en tant que telle, est devenue “tomate bio”. À partir de là, c’était foutu. »
Aussi nous refusons d’emblée le terme de « livre numérique » : un fichier de données informatiques téléchargées sur une tablette ne sera jamais un livre.

4 December 2012

Advice for Bibliophiles

Jules Janin, L'Amour des livres [The Love of Books] (Paris: J. Miard, 1866), pp. 14-15. My translation:
Do not buy a book today unless you have read the one you bought two months ago, or six weeks ago, from cover to cover. One day [Antoine] Furetière asked his father to lend him money to buy a book. "Now then," replied the old man, "do you really know everything contained in the one you bought last week?" That was a good response. A gourmet is not a glutton... Read well, read little. In your reading become attached to this philosopher, to that poet; grow fond of both of them, and when you place them triumphantly on your bookshelf, bound in fragrant Russian leather, make sure that you can say: "Until next time. I know you well now, and I share the opinion of those great souls to whom you were a role model and a source of counsel!"
If someone is obliged to read everything he has bought in its entirety, he thinks twice before making a purchase; he is a little more wary of things that are rare and strange and sticks to the masterpieces mankind holds in esteem. And so you will begin by acquiring -- not haggling for -- good and beautiful copies of those few, essential books that one reads and rereads again and again.
The French:
N'achetez aujourd'hui, que si vous avez lu, d'un bout à l'autre, le livre acheté il y a deux mois, il y a six semaines. Furetière demandait un jour à son père de l'argent pour acheter un livre. «Or ça, répondait le bonhomme , il est donc vrai que tu sais tout ce qu'il y avait dans l'autre, acheté la semaine passée?» C'était bien répondre. Un gourmet n'est pas un glouton... Lisez bien, lisez peu: attachez-vous, par la lecture, à ce philosophe, à ce poëte ; aimez-vous l'un et l'autre, et quand vous le placerez triomphalement sur vos tablettes garnies d'un cuir de Russie odorant, faites que vous puissiez lui dire : Au revoir, je te connais bien, à cette heure, et me voilà tout à fait de l'avis des grands esprits dont tu fus l'exemple et le conseil! 
Avec cette nécessité de lire entièrement ce qu'on achète, on y regarde à deux fois, avant d'acheter; on se méfie un peu plus de ce qui est rare et curieux, pour se tenir aux chefs-d'oeuvre honorés de l'assentiment du humain. Vous commencerez donc par vous procurer, sans marchander, de beaux et bons exemplaires de ces quelques livres nécessaires qu'on lit et qu'on relit toujours. 
This is an amusing little book. It was republished by Les Bibliolâtres de France in 1937 but has never appeared in English. I am tempted to translate it myself.

3 December 2012

A Quiet Mind

Edward Dyer (1543-1607), "My Mind a Kingdom," from The Book of Elizabethan Verse (London: Chatto & Windus, 1908), pp. 511-513:
My mind to me a kingdom is;
   Such present joys therein I find,
That it excels all other bliss
   That earth affords or grows by kind:
Though much I want that most would have,
Yet still my mind forbids to crave.  
No princely pomp, no wealthy store,
   No force to win the victory,
No wily wit to salve a sore,
   No shape to feed a loving eye;
To none of these I yield as thrall;
For why? my mind doth serve for all. 
I see how plenty surfeits oft,
   And hasty climbers soon do fall;
I see that those which are aloft
   Mishap doth threaten most of all:
They get with toil, they keep with fear;
Such cares my mind could never bear. 
Content I live, this is my stay;
   I seek no more than may suffice;
I press to bear no haughty sway;
   Look, what I lack my mind supplies.
Lo, thus I triumph like a king,
Content with that my mind doth bring.
Some have too much, yet still do crave;
   I little have, and seek no more.
They are but poor, though much they have,
   And I am rich with little store;
They poor, I rich; they beg, I give;
They lack, I leave; they pine, I live. 
I laugh not at another's loss,
   I grudge not at another's gain;
No worldly waves my mind can toss;
   My state at one doth still remain:
I fear no foe, I fawn no friend;
I loathe not life, nor dread my end. 
Some weigh their pleasure by their lust,
   Their wisdom by their rage of will;
Their treasure is their only trust,
   A cloaked craft their store of skill
But all the pleasure that I find
Is to maintain a quiet mind. 
My wealth is health and perfect ease,
   My conscience clear my chief defence;
I neither seek by bribes to please,
   Nor by deceit to breed offence:
Thus do I live; thus will I die;
Would all did so as well as I! 

30 November 2012

Beasts of Prey

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

29 November 2012

Souvarine Plays Powerball

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

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

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

28 November 2012

This Is Your Brain on Drugs

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

27 November 2012

Means and Ends

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

26 November 2012

The Opposite of Happiness

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

20 November 2012

Posted on Ahead

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

19 November 2012

Gruß vom Krampus

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

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

16 November 2012

Live Dangerously

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

14 November 2012

It Is Wrong

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

13 November 2012

Afraid to Be Poor

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

9 November 2012

The Infantile Society

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

8 November 2012

Nothing More Secure

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

7 November 2012

A Merciful Provision in Nature

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

6 November 2012

Tolle, Lege

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

5 November 2012

What a Poor Ape

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

2 November 2012

The Right Reaction

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

1 November 2012

An Extraordinary Thing

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