20 May 2013

What Is Life?

Thomas de Quincey, "The Household Wreck," in The Collected Writings of Thomas de Quincey, ed. David Masson, Vol. XII (London: A & C Black, 1896), p. 158:
What is life? Darkness and formless vacancy for a beginning, or something beyond all beginning; then next a dim lotos of human consciousness, finding itself afloat upon the bosom of waters without a shore; then a few sunny smiles and many tears; a little love and infinite strife; whisperings from paradise and fierce mockeries from the anarchy of chaos; dust and ashes; and once more darkness circling round, as if from the beginning, and in this way rounding or making an island of our fantastic existence; that is human life; that the inevitable amount of man's laughter and his tears — of what he suffers and he does — of his motions this way and that way, to the right or to the left, backwards or forwards — of all his seeming realities and all his absolute negations — his shadowy pomps and his pompous shadows — of whatsoever he thinks, finds, makes or mars, creates or animates, loves, hates, or in dread hope anticipates. So it is, so it has been, so it will be, for ever and ever.
Thomas Carlyle answers the same question in verse.

16 May 2013

Sorrow Lurks Behind All Your Pleasures

Claude Tillier (1801-1844), My Uncle Benjamin, tr. by Adele Szold Seltzer (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1917), pp. 4-5:
[M]y opinion is that a man is a machine made expressly for suffering. He has only five senses through the whole surface of his body. In whatever spot he is pricked, he bleeds; in whatever spot he is burned, he gets a blister. The lungs, the liver, the bowels can give him no pleasure. But the lungs become inflamed and make him cough; the liver becomes obstructed and throws him into a fever; the bowels gripe and give him the colic. There is not a nerve, a muscle, a sinew under your skin that cannot make you howl with pain.
Your machinery is thrown out of gear every moment like a bad pendulum. You raise your eyes to heaven to invoke it, and a swallow's dung falls into them and sears them. You go to a ball, and you sprain your ankle and have to be carried home on a stretcher. To-day you are a great writer, a great philosopher, a great poet; a thread in your brain snaps; they bleed you, put ice on your head – in vain – to-morrow you will be only a poor madman.
Sorrow lurks behind all your pleasures; you are greedy rats whom it attracts with a bit of savory bacon. You are in your shady garden, and cry out, "Oh! what a beautiful rose!" and the rose pricks you; "Oh! what a beautiful pear!" there is a wasp on it, and the pear stings you.
You say, "God has made us to serve and to love him." It is not true. He has made us to suffer. The man who does not suffer is a badly-made machine, a defective creature, a moral cripple, one of nature's abortions. Death is not only the end of life, it is its cure. One is nowhere so well off as in the grave. If you believe me, you will order a coffin instead of a new overcoat. It is the only garment that does not make you feel uncomfortable.
French copy here.

15 May 2013

Dead-Alive, Hackneyed People

Robert Louis Stevenson, "An Apology for Idlers," in Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. William Lyon Phelps (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906), pp. 27-28:
There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you will see how they pine for their desk or their study. They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill. When they do not require to go to the office, when they are not hungry and have no mind to drink, the whole breathing world is a blank to them. If they have to wait an hour or so for a train, they fall into a stupid trance with their eyes open. To see them, you would suppose there was nothing to look at and no one to speak with; you would imagine they were paralysed or alienated; and yet very possibly they are hard workers in their own way, and have good eyesight for a flaw in a deed or a turn of the market. They have been to school and college, but all the time they had their eye on the medal; they have gone about in the world and mixed with clever people, but all the time they were thinking of their own affairs. As if a man's soul were not too small to begin with, they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and not one thought to rub against another, while they wait for the train. Before he was breeched, he might have clambered on the boxes; when he was twenty, he would have stared at the girls; but now the pipe is smoked out, the snuffbox empty, and my gentleman sits bolt upright upon a bench, with lamentable eyes. This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.

14 May 2013

Not Wholesome in the Stomach

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661), "Mixt Contemplations in These Times," in Good Thoughts in Bad Times and Other Papers (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863), pp. 198-199:
Two young gentlemen were comparing their revenues together, vying which of them were the best. My demesnes, saith the one, is worth two; but mine, saith the other, is worth four hundred pounds a year. My farms, saith the one, are worth four; but mine, saith the other, are worth eight hundred pounds a year.
My estate, saith the one, is my own; to which the other returned no answer, as conscious to himself that he kept what lawfully belonged to another.
I care not how small my means be, so they be my means; I mean my own, without any injury to others. What is truly gotten may be comfortably kept. What is otherwise may be possessed, but not enjoyed.
Upon the question, What is the worst bread which is eaten? One answered. In respect of the coarseness thereof, bread made of beans. Another said, Bread made of acorns. But the third hit the truth, who said, Bread taken out of other men's mouths, who are the true proprietaries thereof. Such bread may be sweet in the mouth to taste, but is not wholesome in the stomach to digest.

13 May 2013

Puny Modern Civilised Man

Havelock Ellis, Impressions and Comments (London: Constable, 1914), pp. 248-249:
The vast and complex machines to which our civilisation devotes its best energy are no doubt worthy of all admiration. Yet when one seeks to look broadly at human activity they only seem to be part of the scaffolding and material. They are not the Life itself.
To whatever sphere of human activity one turns one's attention to-day, one is constantly met by the same depressing spectacle of pale, lean, nervous, dyspeptic human creatures, restlessly engaged in building up marvellously complex machines and elaborate social organisations, all of which, they tell us, will make for the improvement of Life. But what do they suppose "Life" to be?
A giant's task demands a giant. When one watches this puny modern civilised Man engaged on tasks which do so much credit to his imagination and invention, one is reminded of the little boy who was employed to fill a large modern vat. He nearly completed the task. One day he disappeared. They found him at last with only his feet visible above the rim of the vat.

9 May 2013

Books for Refuge

H. M. Tomlinson, Old Junk (London: Andrew Melrose, 1918), pp. 223-224:
The best books for refuge in times of stress are of the "notebook" and "table-talk" kind. Poetry I have tried, but could not approach it. It is too distant. Romance, which many found good, would never hold my attention. But I had Samuel Butler's Note Books with me for two years in France [i.e., during the First World War], and found that the right sort of thing. You may begin anywhere. There are no threads to look for. And you may stop for a time, while some strange notion of the author's is in contest for the command of the intelligence with your dark, resurgent thoughts; but Butler always won. His mental activity is too fibrous, masculine, and unexpected for any nonsense. But I had to keep a sharp eye on Butler. His singular merits were discovered by others who had no more than heard of him, but found he was exactly what they wanted. If his volume of Note Books is not the best example of its sort we have, then I should be glad to learn the name of the best.
Charles Dana Gibson, A Widow and Her Friends (1900)

8 May 2013

Agricultural Pursuits

Louise-Victorine Ackermann (1813-1890), Pensées d'une solitaire [Thoughts of a Recluse]  (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1882), pp. 44-45. My translation:
Agricultural pursuits have a particular virtue: they calm, and they mollify. They are especially good after great pains or great disappointments. In those moments, it is as if the earth is offering man a foretaste of the definitive rest that it will give him one day.
The French:
Les occupations agricoles ont une vertu particulière : elles calment, elles émoussent. Elles sont surtout bonnes après de grandes douleurs ou de grands mécomptes. Il semble que la terre communique dès lors à l'homme un avant-goût de ce repos définitif qu'elle lui donnera quelque jour.

6 May 2013

I Do Not Often Weep

Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (London: Taylor & Hessey, 1823), pp. 53-54:
I do not often weep: for not only do my thoughts on subjects connected with the chief interests of man daily, nay hourly, descend a thousand fathoms “too deep for tears;” not only does the sternness of my habits of thought present an antagonism to the feelings which prompt tears — wanting of necessity to those who, being protected usually by their levity from any tendency to meditative sorrow, would by that same levity be made incapable of resisting it on any casual access of such feelings; but also, I believe that all minds which have contemplated such objects as deeply as I have done, must, for their own protection from utter despondency, have early encouraged and cherished some tranquillising belief as to the future balances and the hieroglyphic meanings of human sufferings. On these accounts I am cheerful to this hour, and, as I have said, I do not often weep. 

3 May 2013

A Coveted and Honourable Distinction

Jules Janin, L'Amour des livres [The Love of Books] (Paris: J. Miard, 1866), pp. 23-25. My liberal translation:
Athens and Rome are, in fact, mankind's two great teachers. They have left imperishable masterpieces which have become the most perfect models for modern art and intellect. For three centuries the spirits of Athens and Rome have reigned supreme over France. Their divine spark has animated the poets, orators, philosophers, and historians of our great age. Today it is only the prigs who, in their barbarous language, insist on heaping insults upon these elect men, men without whom this great nation would not exist, and they wanted to have these classical works placed on the index of forbidden books [1]. The public conscience was appalled, and while the Church itself -- the heads of western and eastern Christendom -- pointed out the merits of these great ancients, the most illiterate of men took the side of those who would profane eloquence. A glorious accomplishment! Still, we acknowledge that, in these evil days, the study and admiration of the classics have fallen off terribly. This is due to the invasion of all kinds of sciences, each of which requires its own special language, as well as to the abominable bifurcation of the French educational system (a shame and a dishonour). And then too there is the influence of foreign languages. We have borrowed all kinds of words and adopted the jargon of travelling salesmen.
But for minds that are noble and naturally refined, for those who honestly aspire to the beautiful, this lack of respect for the ancients must be an irresistible encouragement to the serious study and contemplation of these masterpieces. Before long, if the fatal bifurcation remains in effect (you must forgive me for using this barbarous term; it comes from the University itself, the same one that educated that nasty writer Mr. Fortoul) [2], it will soon be rare to find learned men capable of reading the languages of Homer and Virgil -- and this in the nation of Racine and Voltaire, Molière and Bossuet! Alas, in the degenerate days which are not far off you can be sure that, among the men La Bruyère called "honest people", it will be a coveted and honourable distinction to be able to read the Iliad and Aeneid in the original, as the great minds of old once did.
  1. I'm not sure what Janin is talking about here, although I haven't spent much time trying to find out. Presumably some contemporary group wanted to have certain classical works (Plato? Catullus? Who knows.) placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, but I'm not sure which French group was agitating in the mid 1800s, or which works they wanted banned. Perhaps Janin was only speaking in general terms.
  2. The "bifurcation" refers to the French educational reforms of 1850, which required students to choose between two streams of study; classical (arts) and modern (sciences). I believe Mr. Fortoul authored a report recommending the system.
For a time I toyed with translating L'Amour des livres, but much of it is just a discussion of the specific books and editions that Janin believed every learned person should have. It's all sound advice, I'm sure, but if someone is interested in collecting fine copies of French classics, I imagine he or she would be able (and prefer) to read the book in French.

Englishing Janin is good fun, but there's not much point in translating a book that nobody would want or need. So, I've decided to post some of the more amusing bits over the next few weeks and forget the rest. Anyone who'd like to read the original can download a copy from Gallica.

Some previous excerpts:

Update: Mike Gilleland writes with a link to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum for note #1 above, and points out that classical authors sometimes appeared on it, e.g. Lucian in the 1559 index

2 May 2013

A Circle of Books

A. C. Benson, Escape, and Other Essays (London: Smith Elder, 1915), pp. 283-284:
I believe very little in setting the foot on books, as sailors take possession of an unknown isle. One must make experiments, just to see what are the kind of books which nurture and sustain one; and then I believe in arriving at a circle of books, which one really knows through and through, and reads at all times and in all moods, till they get soaked and enriched with all sorts of moods and associations. I have a dozen such, which I read and mark and scribble in, write when and where I read them, and who were my companions. Of course the same books do not always last through one's course. You grow out of books as you grow out of clothes; and I sometimes look at old favourites, and find myself lost in wonder as to how I can ever have cared for them like that! They seem now like little antechambers and corridors, through which I have passed to something far more noble and gracious. But all the time we must be trying to weave the books really into life, not let them stand like ornaments on a shelf. 

1 May 2013

An Education in Words

Arthur Machen, Far Off Things (London: Martin Secker, 1922), p. 88:
And then there was the old-fashioned grammar school education, of which it must be said, by friends and foes, that it is an education in words. One spent one's time, unconsciously, in weighing the values of words in English and Greek and Latin, in rendering one tongue into another, in estimating the exact sense of an English sentence before translating it into one or another of the old tongues. So that a boy who could do decent Latin prose must first have mastered the exact sense and significance of his English original, and then he must also have made himself understand to a certain extent, not only the logic but the polite habit of each language. I remember when I was a very small boy rendering "Put to the sword" literally into "Gladio positi." "Well," said my master, "there is no reason on earth why the Romans shouldn't have said 'gladio positi,' but as a matter of fact they did say 'ferro occisi' — killed with iron." And if one thinks of it, he who has mastered that little lesson has also mastered the larger lesson that literature is above logic, that there are matters in it which transcend plain common sense.

30 April 2013

The Gift of Reading

Robert Louis Stevenson, "Books Which Have Influenced Me," in Essays in the Art of Writing (London: Chatto & Windus, 1905), pp. 87-89:
The gift of reading, as I have called it, is not very common, nor very generally understood. It consists, first of all, in a vast intellectual endowment — a free grace, I find I must call it — by which a man rises to understand that he is not punctually right, nor those from whom he differs absolutely wrong. He may hold dogmas; he may hold them passionately; and he may know that others hold them but coldly, or hold them differently, or hold them not at all. Well, if he has the gift of reading, these others will be full of meat for him. They will see the other side of propositions and the other side of virtues. He need not change his dogma for that, but he may change his reading of that dogma, and he must supplement and correct his deductions from it. A human truth, which is always very much a lie, hides as much of life as it displays. It is men who hold another truth, or, as it seems to us, perhaps, a dangerous lie, who can extend our restricted field of knowledge, and rouse our drowsy consciences. Something that seems quite new, or that seems insolently false or very dangerous, is the test of a reader. If he tries to see what it means, what truth excuses it, he has the gift, and let him read. If he is merely hurt, or offended, or exclaims upon his author’s folly, he had better take to the daily papers; he will never be a reader.

29 April 2013

Too Much Concerned About a Little Poverty

Robert Louis Stevenson, "The Morality of the Profession of Letters," in Essays in the Art of Writing (London: Chatto & Windus, 1905), pp. 50-51:
Literature, like any other art, is singularly interesting to the artist; and, in a degree peculiar to itself among the arts, it is useful to mankind. These are the sufficient justifications for any young man or woman who adopts it as the business of his life. I shall not say much about the wages. A writer can live by his writing. If not so luxuriously as by other trades, then less luxuriously. The nature of the work he does all day will more affect his happiness than the quality of his dinner at night. Whatever be your calling, and however much it brings you in the year, you could still, you know, get more by cheating. We all suffer ourselves to be too much concerned about a little poverty; but such considerations should not move us in the choice of that which is to be the business and justification of so great a portion of our lives; and like the missionary, the patriot, or the philosopher, we should all choose that poor and brave career in which we can do the most and best for mankind.
Some related posts:
Afraid to Be Poor
The Sons of Joy
The Surest Foundation 

24 April 2013

An Exquisite Mistress

George Moore, Memoirs of My Dead Life (London: Heinemann, 1906), p. 45:
[By] acquiring a fatherland more ideal than the one birth had arrogantly imposed, because deliberately chosen, I have doubled my span of life. Do I not exist in two countries? Have I not furnished myself with two sets of thoughts and sensations? Ah! the delicate delight of owning un pays ami — a country where you may go when you are weary to madness of the routine of life, sure of finding there all the sensations of home, plus those of irresponsible caprice. The pleasure of a literature that is yours without being wholly your own, a literature that is like an exquisite mistress, in whom you find consolation for all the commonplaces of life!
Illustration from the Gazette du bon ton (April 1914)

22 April 2013

Not a Reasonable Life

Henry George (1839-1897), The Crime of Poverty; An Address Delivered in the Opera House, Burlington, Iowa, April 1, 1885 (Cincinnati: The Joseph Fels Fund, 1910), pp. 12-13:
Here is a man working hour after hour, day after day, week after week, in doing one thing over and over again, and for what? Just to live. He is working ten hours a day in order that he may sleep eight, and may have two or three hours for himself when he is tired out and all his faculties are exhausted. That is not a reasonable life; that is not a life for a being possessed of the powers that are in man, and I think every man must have felt it for himself. I know that when I first went to my trade I thought to myself that it was incredible that a man was created to work all day long just to live. I used to read the Scientific American, and as invention after invention was heralded in that paper, I used to think to myself that when I became a man it would not be necessary to work so hard. But, on the contrary, the struggle for existence has become more and more intense. People who want to prove the contrary get up masses of statistics to show that the condition of the working classes is improving. Improvement that you have to take a statistical microscope to discover does not amount to anything.

19 April 2013

Oh, for a Place in the Country!

Martial, Epigram 2.38:
Quid mihi reddat ager quaeris, Line, Nomentanus?
Hoc mihi reddit ager: te, Line, non video.
Translated by James Michie:
You ask me what I get
Out of my country place.
The profit, gross or net,
Is never seeing your face.

18 April 2013

Monkey Business

Guy de Maupassant visits Algernon Charles Swinburne and his friend George Powell in Dieppe and describes the life they lived there in the late 1860s, from Julian Barnes' article "An Unlikely Lunch," in The Public Domain Review:
Yes, they lived there together, satisfying themselves with monkeys or with young servant lads of fourteen or fifteen, sent out to Powell from England every three months or so: little servant boys of exquisite cleanness and freshness. The monkey that slept in Powell’s bed and shat in it every night was hanged by the servant boy, partly out of jealousy but also out of annoyance at having to change the sheets all the time. The house was full of strange noises and the shadows of sadism; one night, Powell was seen and heard firing a revolver in the garden at a black man. Those two were real Sadeian heroes, who wouldn’t have held back even from crime. Then this house, so full of living mystery, was suddenly silent, suddenly empty. Powell just disappeared, and no one knew how he had got away. No carriage was ever called for him, and no one had met him on the roads.
As for the lunch menu:
Maupassant’s later versions also elaborate on the suspicious protein the Englishmen served. In his 1882 account, he strongly suspects that it might have been monkey, not least because it was said to be common knowledge in Etretat that “this Englishman [Powell] ate only monkey – boiled, roasted, sautéed, or in a confit”. By the time of the 1891 account, Maupassant claims he had knowingly eaten spit-roasted monkey – indeed, the joint had been ordered in his honour from a purveyor of exotic meats in Le Havre. However, “The mere smell of the dish as I entered the house made me feel queasy, and the dreadful taste of the animal permanently removed all subsequent desire ever again to repeat such a meal.” 
This gastronomic queasiness did not imply any broader moral or social revulsion; quite the contrary. Maupassant, doubtless hoping to provoke readers of Le Gaulois, concluded his 1882 account thus: “The world would be a lot jollier if one came across ménages like that one a little more often.”

16 April 2013

Cheese After Six Courses

William Johnson Cory (1823-1892) in a letter to Rev. E. D. Stone (Oct. 4, 1882), from Extracts from Letters and Journals, ed. Francis Warre Cornish (Oxford: Privately Printed, 1895), p. 486:
Our enjoyment of German music is unforced; our enjoyment of German poetry is a sort of cheese after six courses; our enjoyment of German prose is mere ἐθελοδουλεία [voluntary slavery].
I scout and hiss the notion of German being equivalent to Greek because of its copiousness, or because of its making the student use every muscle of the mind by compelling him to deal with varieties of style. Greek is not commensurate with German, because it contains about twenty several kinds of style or method, whilst in German there is only the difference between childishly simple verse structure and monstrously clumsy prose structure...

15 April 2013

The Defeat of Despair

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973), p. 199:
The defeat of despair is not mainly an intellectual problem for an active organism, but a problem of self-stimulation via movement. Beyond a given point man is not helped more by "knowing," but by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection, and we are brutes.
The quote from Goethe is found in the Prelude to Faust, tr. Bayard Taylor:
Grasp the exhaustless life that all men live!
Each shares therein, though few may comprehend:
Where'er you touch, there 's interest without end. 
The original:
Greift nur hinein ins volle Menschenleben!
Ein jeder lebt's, nicht vielen ist's bekannt,
Und wo Ihr's packt, da ist's interessant.

11 April 2013

Unprofitable Conversation

Joachimus Fortius Ringelbergius (c.1499 - c.1536), De Ratione Studii, tr. G. B. Earp (London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1830), pp. 64-65:
Should any one court your society, who is more desirous to embrace the follies and vanities of youth than to excel in literary pursuits, avoid his company and fly immediately to your studies; for it is better that such an one stigmatize you with a want of politeness, than that you should waste your time. Regard not what indolent or unthinking men may say of you; but always keep in view the opinion of posterity. How many useful volumes might we not write during those hours which are too often devoted to idle and unprofitable conversation! If we were to keep an account of the time so wasted but for a year, we should find it to amount to a very considerable portion of the whole. There is no portion of time so brief that we might not make some advancement towards excellence. The space of life remaining even to young men is but short, perhaps ten, twenty, or thirty years at most; and yet, they almost invariably live as though they were certain of surviving a thousand.
Thomas De Quincey did not think highly of Ringelberg's work. From a footnote to "Letters to a Young Man Whose Education Has Been Neglected," in The Art of Conversation and Other Papers (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1863), p. 29:
It is one of those books which have been written most evidently not merely by a madman (as many thousands have), but by a madman under a high paroxysm of his malady; and, omitting a few instances of affectation and puerilty, it is highly affecting. It appears that the author, though not thirty years of age at the date of his book, was afflicted with the gravel — according to his belief, incurably; and much of the book was actually written in darkness (on waxen tablets, or on wooden tablets, with a stylus formed of charred bones), during the sleepless nights of pain consequent upon his disease.
Gravel: kidney stones

9 April 2013

The Religion of Smug Ease

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom (§ 338), in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, tr. Thomas Common (New York: Macmillan, 1911), pp. 265-267:
That from which we suffer most profoundly and personally is almost incomprehensible and inaccessible to every one else: in this matter we are hidden from our neighbour even when he eats at the same table with us. Everywhere, however, where we are noticed as sufferers, our suffering is interpreted in a shallow way; it belongs to the nature of the emotion of pity to divest unfamiliar suffering of its properly personal character: — our "benefactors" lower our value and volition more than our enemies. In most benefits which are conferred on the unfortunate there is something shocking in the intellectual levity with which the compassionate person plays the role of fate: he knows nothing of all the inner consequences and complications which are called misfortune for me or for you! The entire economy of my soul and its adjustment by "misfortune," the uprising of new sources and needs, the closing up of old wounds, the repudiation of whole periods of the past — none of these things which may be connected with misfortune preoccupy the dear sympathiser. He wishes to succour and does not reflect that there is a personal necessity for misfortune; that terror, want, impoverishment, midnight watches, adventures, hazards and mistakes are as necessary to me and to you as their opposites, yea, that, to speak mystically, the path to one's own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one's own hell. No, he knows nothing thereof. The "religion of compassion" (or "the heart") bids him help, and he thinks he has helped best when he has helped most speedily! If you adherents of this religion actually have the same sentiments towards yourselves which you have towards your fellows, if you are unwilling to endure your own suffering even for an hour, and continually forestall all possible misfortune, if you regard suffering and pain generally as evil, as detestable, as deserving of annihilation, and as blots on existence, well, you have then, besides your religion of compassion, yet another religion in your heart (and this is perhaps the mother of the former) — the religion of smug ease. Ah, how little you know of the happiness of man, you comfortable and good-natured ones! — for happiness and misfortune are brother and sister, and twins, who grow tall together, or, as with you, remain small together!
The original:
Das, woran wir am tiefsten und persönlichsten leiden, ist fast allen anderen unverständlich und unzugänglich: darin sind wir dem Nächsten verborgen, und wenn er mit uns aus einem Topfe ißt. Überall aber, wo wir als Leidende bemerkt werden, wird unser Leiden flach ausgelegt; es gehört zum Wesen der mitleidigen Affektion, daß sie das fremde Leid des eigentlich Persönlichen entkleidet – unsre »Wohltäter« sind mehr als unsre Feinde die Verkleinerer unsres Wertes und Willens. Bei den meisten Wohltaten, die Unglücklichen erwiesen werden, liegt etwas Empörendes in der intellektuellen Leichtfertigkeit, mit der da der Mitleidige das Schicksal spielt: er weiß nichts von der ganzen inneren Folge und Verflechtung, welche Unglück für mich oder für dich heißt! Die gesamte Ökonomie meiner Seele und deren Ausgleichung durch das »Unglück«, das Aufbrechen neuer Quellen und Bedürfnisse, das Zuwachsen alter Wunden, das Abstoßen ganzer Vergangenheiten – das alles, was mit dem Unglück verbunden sein kann, kümmert den lieben Mitleidigen nicht: er will helfen und denkt nicht daran, daß es eine persönliche Notwendigkeit des Unglücks gibt, daß mir und dir Schrecken, Entbehrungen, Verarmungen, Mitternächte, Abenteuer, Wagnisse, Fehlgriffe so nötig sind wie ihr Gegenteil, ja daß, um mich mystisch auszudrücken, der Pfad zum eigenen Himmel immer durch die Wollust der eigenen Hölle geht. Nein, davon weiß er nichts: die »Religion des Mitleidens« (oder »das Herz«) gebietet zu helfen, und man glaubt am besten geholfen zu haben, wenn man am schnellsten geholfen hat! Wenn ihr Anhänger dieser Religion dieselbe Gesinnung, die ihr gegen die Mitmenschen habt, auch wirklich gegen euch selber habt, wenn ihr euer eigenes Leiden nicht eine Stunde auf euch liegen lassen wollt und immerfort allem möglichen Unglücke von ferne her schon vorbeugt, wenn ihr Leid und Unlust überhaupt als böse, hassenswert, vernichtungswürdig, als Makel am Dasein empfindet: nun, dann habt ihr, außer eurer Religion des Mitleidens, auch noch eine andere Religion im Herzen, und diese ist vielleicht die Mutter von jener – die Religion der Behaglichkeit. Ach, wie wenig wißt ihr vom Glücke des Menschen, ihr Behaglichen und Gutmütigen! denn das Glück und das Unglück sind zwei Geschwister und Zwillinge, die miteinander großwachsen oder, wie bei euch, miteinander – klein bleiben
A related post: Comfort-Loving Vulgarity

5 April 2013

Darüber muß man schweigen

Christina Rossetti, "Life," from New Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1896), p. 169:
Oh intolerable life which all life long
   Abidest haunted by one dread of death —
   Is such life life? When one considereth,
Then black seems almost white, and discord song.
Alas this solitude where swarms a throng!
   Life slowly grows, and dwindles breath by breath —
   Slowly grows on us, and no word it saith,
Its cords made long and all its pillars strong.
Life wanes apace — a life that but deceives,
   And works and reigns like life, and yet is dead:
Where is the life that dies not but that lives?
The sweet long life immortal, ever young,
The life that wooes us with a silver tongue,
   Whither? Much said, and much more left unsaid.
Update: In an email to me, Stephen Pentz of First Known When Lost points out that the authoritative text of this poem can be found in Time Flies; A Reading Diary (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1897), pp. 214-215:
Scarce tolerable life, which all life long
   Is dominated by one dread of death, —
   Is such life, life?  if so, who pondereth
May call salt sweetness or call discord song.
Ah me, this solitude where swarms a throng!
   Life slowly grows and dwindles breath by breath:
   Death slowly grows on us; no word it saith,
Its cords all lengthened and its pillars strong.
Life dies apace, a life that but deceives:
   Death reigns as tho' it lived, and yet is dead:
Where is the life that dies not but that lives?
   The sweet long life, immortal, ever young,
   True life that wooes us with a silver tongue
Of hope, much said and much more left unsaid.
"Note her brother's omission of 'Death' at the beginning of line 7," he writes. "That makes quite a difference, doesn't it?"

4 April 2013

Having Reached the Age of Forty

Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Oeuvres complètes de Chamfort, Vol. I (Paris: Chaumerot Jeune, 1824), pp. 406-407. My translation:
When I was young I was driven by passions, and they drew me into the world. I was forced to look, in society and in pleasures, for a little respite from painful aches. People used to preach to me about the joys of leading a retired life, of work, and they bored me to tears with pedantic sermons on the subject. Having reached the age of forty and having lost the passions that made society bearable, I now see only misery and futility in it. I do not need people to escape from aches that no longer exist. I have developed a very strong taste for solitude and work, and it has replaced all the rest; I have ceased to go out into the world. Now people will not cease tormenting me and saying that I should return; I have been accused of being a misanthrope and so on. What to make of this strange difference? Men have a need to find fault with everything.
The original:
Quand j'étais jeune, ayant les besoins des passions, et attiré par elles dans le monde, forcé de chercher, dans la société et dans les plaisirs, quelques distractions à des peines cruelles, on me prêchait l'amour de la retraite, du travail, et on m'assommait de sermons pédantesques sur ce sujet. Arrivé à quarante ans, ayant perdu les passions qui rendent la société supportable, n'en voyant plus que la misère et la futilité, n'ayant plus besoin du monde pour échapper à des peines qui n'existaient plus, le goût de la retraite et du travail est devenu très vif chez moi, et a remplacé tout le reste; j'ai cessé d'aller dans le monde: alors, on n'a cessé de me tourmenter pour que j'y revinsse; j'ai été accusé d'être misantrope, etc. Que conclure de cette bizarre différence? Le besoin que les hommes ont de tout blâmer. 

3 April 2013

Some Strictly Determined Law

A. C. Benson, The Silent Isle (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1910), pp. 104-105:
Who does not remember friends of college days, graceful and winning creatures, lost in the sense of their own significance, who had nothing, it may be, particular to say, no great intellectual grip, no suggestiveness, yet moving about in a mysterious paradise of their own, full of dumb emotion, undefined longing, and with a deep sense of the romantic possibilities of life. Alas, as the days move on and the crisis delays, as life brings the need of labour, the necessity of earning money, as love and friendship lose their rosy glow and settle down into comfortable relations, the disillusionment spreads and widens. I do not say that the nearer view of life is not more just, more wholesome, more manly. It is but the working of some strictly determined law. The dreams fade, become unreal and unsubstantial; though not rarely, in some glimpse of retrospect, the pilgrim turns, ascends a hillock by the road, and sees the far-off lines, the quiet folds, of the blue heights from which he descended in the blithe air of the morning, and knows that they were desirable. Perhaps the happiest of all are those who, as the weary day advances, can catch a sight of some no less beautiful hills ahead of him, their hollows full of misty gold, where the long journey may end; and then, however wearily the sun falls on the dusty road and the hedged fields to left and right, he knows that the secrets of the earlier day are beautiful secrets still, and that the fine wonder of youth has yet to be satisfied. 

1 April 2013

The Only Safe Rule

Arthur Schopenhauer, The Art of Controversy, tr. T. Bailey Saunders:
The only safe rule, therefore, is that which Aristotle mentions in the last chapter of his Topica: not to dispute with the first person you meet, but only with those of your acquaintance of whom you know that they possess sufficient intelligence and self-respect not to advance absurdities; to appeal to reason and not to authority, and to listen to reason and yield to it; and, finally, to cherish truth, to be willing to accept reason even from an opponent, and to be just enough to bear being proved to be in the wrong, should truth lie with him. From this it follows that scarcely one man in a hundred is worth your disputing with him. You may let the remainder say what they please, for every one is at liberty to be a fool — desipere est jus gentium. Remember what Voltaire says: La paix vaut encore mieux que la vérité. Remember also an Arabian proverb which tells us that on the tree of silence there hangs its fruit, which is peace.

28 March 2013

How Little Knows the Translator

Erik Schwimmer, "Causerie On Translation," in the The Spike (The Victoria University College Review), Vol. XLIII, No. 72 (1944), p. 13:
[Translation] is a curious activity, as it seems rather like changing something, a living phenomenon, into the complete nothingness that is one's own being. The French or Latin or Greek is a burning reality, the translation — some piece of that void — our self — and just as trivial. We started with the uncompromising desire to say just what our model had said in his own tongue and ended with a dead fragment of self. 
Or is there perhaps something eternal that stuck in our translation? Has our urge and our ingenuity resulted in something that quite miraculously succeeded in reflecting the beauty perceived? How little knows the translator, when he fights the inassailable brilliance of the original, line after line with his little skill, anxious to let neither the breath nor the lovely vestment be lost. 
If one studies translations of verse one watches the scene of countless adventures searching to catch and preserve something of the eternal which is their model. They use all the postures which adventurers use in real life. Some are only Pharisees, some are like Pilate, but others are like Icarus. A few even like Perseus bring the head of their Medusa safely home.

27 March 2013

The Drunken Consciousness

Arthur Symons (1865-1945), "The Absinthe Drinker," from Songs of the Vine with a Medley for Maltworms, selected and edited by William G. Hutchison (London: A.H. Bullen, 1904), p. 240:
Gently I wave the visible world away.
  Far off, I hear a roar, afar yet near.
  Far off and strange, a voice is in my ear,
And is the voice my own? The words I say
Fall strangely, like a dream, across the day:
  And the dim sunshine is a dream. How clear,
  New as the world to lover's eyes, appear
The men and women passing on their way!

The world is very fair. The hours are all
  Linked in a dance of mere forgetfulness.
    I am at peace with God and man. O glide,
Sands of the hour-glass that I count not, fall
  Serenely: scarce I feel your soft caress,
    Rocked on this dreamy and indifferent tide.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green & Co, 1902), p. 378:
The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth. Not through mere perversity do men run after it. To the poor and the unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and of literature; and it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning. The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness, and our total opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of that larger whole.

26 March 2013


With the imminent demise of the Google Reader service, I take it that most people are fleeing to Feedly, and a few others to places like NewsBlur and The Old Reader. For my part, I've decided to install RSSOwl and use it to keep up with the various blogs I read.

On the off chance that any of my few Google Reader subscribers are looking for a replacement, I can tell you that RSSOwl is working nicely on my eight-year-old laptop (which is running Bodhi Linux 2.1.0).

RSSOwl is also available for Windows and Mac OS. It is free, and open source.

Raoul Dufy, "Le Hibou,"
from Guillaume Apollinaire's Le Bestiaire
(Paris: Deplanche, Éditeur d'Art, 1911)

25 March 2013

A Freak of Nature

Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope (New York: Lantern Books, 2011), p. 69:
Man is born as a freak of nature, being within nature and yet transcending it. He has to find principles of action and decision making which replace the principles of instincts. He has to have a frame of orientation which permits him to organize a consistent picture of the world as a condition for consistent actions. He has to fight not only against the dangers of dying, starving, and being hurt, but also against another danger which is specifically human: that of becoming insane. In other words, he has to protect himself not only against the danger of losing his life but also against the danger of losing his mind.

22 March 2013

To Forget the Idle or Venomous Chatter

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft  (London: Archibald Constable, 1912), p. 132:
Not long ago, I awoke one morning and suddenly thought of the Correspondence between Goethe and Schiller; and so impatient did I become to open the book that I got up an hour earlier than usual. A book worth rising for; much better worth than old Burton, who pulled Johnson out of bed. A book which helps one to forget the idle or venomous chatter going on everywhere about us, and bids us cherish hope for a world “which has such people in’t.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died on this day in 1832.

The Briefwechsel zwischen Schiller und Goethe (published by the Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft) is available on Archive.org:
Volume 1
Volume 2

L. Dora Schmitz's translation, Correspondence Between Schiller and Goethe (published by George Bell & Sons), is available on Google Books:
Volume 1
Volume 2

20 March 2013

The Wisdom of the Wise

Ernest Dowson, "Wisdom," from The Poems of Ernest Dowson (London: John Lane, 1909), p. 164:
Love wine and beauty and the spring,
  While wine is red and spring is here,
And through the almond blossoms ring
  The dove-like voices of thy Dear.

Love wine and spring and beauty while
  The wine hath flavour and spring masks
Her treachery in so soft a smile
  That none may think of toil and tasks.

But when spring goes on hurrying feet,
  Look not thy sorrow in the eyes,
And bless thy freedom from thy sweet:
  This is the wisdom of the wise.

19 March 2013

Cretinism and Bad Drains

H. M. Tomlinson (1873-1958), "The Marne," from Waiting for Daylight (London: Cassell, 1922), p. 54:
I can give, as a rule, but a slack attention to military history, and my interest in war itself is, fundamentally, the same as for cretinism and bad drains. I merely wonder why it is, and wish it were not.

18 March 2013

Common Newspaper Style

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from the entry for April 21, 1832 in The Table Talk and Omniana of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (London: Oxford University Press, 1917), p. 176:
Common phrases are, as it were, so stereotyped now by conventional use, that it is really much easier to write on the ordinary politics of the day in the common newspaper style, than it is to make a good pair of shoes. An apprentice has as much to learn now to be a shoemaker as ever he had; but an ignorant coxcomb, with a competent want of honesty, may very effectively wield a pen in a newspaper office, with infinitely less pains and preparation than were necessary formerly.

15 March 2013

The Mutability of Things

George Moore, Memoirs of My Dead Life (London: Heinemann, 1906), pp. 321-322:
As soon as we reach the age of reflection the thought of death is never long out of our minds. It is a subject on which we are always thinking. We go to bed thinking that another day has gone, that we are another day nearer our graves. Any incident suffices to remind us of death. That very morning I had seen two old blue-bottles huddled together in the corner of a pane, and at once remembered that a term of life is set out for all things — a few months for the blue-bottle, a few years for me. One forgets how one thought twenty years ago, but I am prone to think that even the young meditate very often upon death; it must be so, for all their books contain verses on the mutability of things, and as we advance in years it would seem that we think more and more on this one subject, for what is all modern literature but a reek of regret that we are but bubbles on a stream?

13 March 2013

Palm Trees in Whitechapel

H. M. Tomlinson (1873-1958), "Magazines," from Waiting for Daylight (London: Cassell, 1922), pp. 49-50:
With several exceptions, the mass of English magazines and reviews may be dismissed in a few seconds. The exceptions usually are not out yet, or one has seen them. It used not to be so, and that is what makes me think it is the producers, and not the readers, who require skilled attention. It is startling to turn to the magazines of twenty or thirty years ago, and to compare them with what is thought good enough for us. I was looking through such a magazine recently, and found a poem by Swinburne, a prose-romance by William Morris, and much more work of a quality you would no more expect to find in a current magazine than you would palm trees in Whitechapel.

12 March 2013

Pain Is a Great Angel

A. C. Benson, "Epilogue," At Large (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1908), p. 338:
Pain is a great angel, but we must wrestle with him, until he bless us! and the blessings he can bring us are first a wholesome shame at our old selfish ingratitude in the untroubled days, when we took care and pleasure greedily; and next, if we meet him faithfully, he can make our heart go out to all our brothers and sisters who suffer in this brief and troubled life of ours. For we are here to learn something, if we can but spell it out; and thus it is morbid to indulge regrets and remorse too much over our failures and mistakes; for it is through them that we learn. We must be as brave as we can, and dare to grudge no pang that brings us nearer to the reality of things.
 Alexander Louis Leloir, Lutte de Jacob avec l'ange (1865)

11 March 2013

Indignities of All Kinds

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, tr. Anthony Ludovici (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1910), p. 333:
The type of my disciples. — To such men as concern me in any way I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities of all kinds. I wish them to be acquainted with profound self-contempt, with the martyrdom of self-distrust, with the misery of the defeated: I have no pity for them; because I wish them to have the only thing which to-day proves whether a man has any value or not, namely, the capacity of sticking to his guns.

The original, from Nietzsches Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 19 (München, Musarion Verlag, 1920), p. 289:
Typus meiner Jünger. – Solchen Menschen, welche mich etwas angehn, wünsche ich Leiden, Verlassenheit, Krankheit, Mißhandlung, Entwürdigung – ich wünsche, daß ihnen die tiefe Selbstverachtung, die Marter des Mißtrauens gegen sich, das Elend des Überwundenen nicht unbekannt bleibt: ich habe kein Mitleid mit ihnen, weil ich ihnen das einzige wünsche, was heute beweisen kann, ob einer Werth hat oder nicht – daß er Stand hält.

8 March 2013

That Is Translation

Hilaire Belloc in the second part of his essay "On Translation," from The Bookman, October 1931, pp. 179-185:
Transmute boldly: render the sense by the corresponding sense without troubling over the verbal difficulties in your way. Where such rendering of sense by corresponding sense involves considerable amplification, do not hesitate to amplify for fear of being verbose. For instance, if you come across the French word "constater", which in point of fact you do in nearly all official documents with which you may have to deal, you must always replace it by a full English sentence, even so ample as, "We note without further comment", or "We note for purposes of future reference", or in another connection, "We desire to put on record". In the same way there are whole French phrases which should justly be put into a shorter form in English. Take such a sentence as this: "Il-y-avait dans cet homme je ne sais quoi de suffisance". The right translation of this would not be: "There was in this man I know not what of self-sufficiency"; the right translation is rather, more briefly, "There was a touch of complacency about him". Sometimes, even often, a whole passage must be thus transmuted, a whole paragraph thrown into a new form, if we would justly render the sense of the original; and the general rule should stand that, after having grasped as exactly as possible all that the original stands for, with the proportion between its various parts, the distinction between what is emphasized and what is left on a lower plane, we should say to ourselves, not "How shall I make this foreigner talk English?", but "What would an Englishman have said to express this same?" That is translation. That is the very essence of the art: the resurrection of an alien thing in a native body; not the dressing of it up in native clothes but the giving to it of native flesh and blood.
The first part of the essay can be found here.

6 March 2013

Get Off My Lawn

W. E. Henley, "Heine," in Views and Reviews, Vol. I (London: David Nutt, 1892), pp. 79-80:
We hate to see [the original work] tampered with; we are on thorns as the translator approaches, and we resent his operations as an individual hurt, a personal affront. What business has he to be trampling among our borders and crushing our flowers with his stupid hobnails? Why cannot he carry his zeal for topsy-turvy horticulture elsewhere? He comes and lays a brutal hand on our pet growths, snips off their graces, shapes them anew according to his own ridiculous ideal, paints and varnishes them with a villainous compound of his contrivance, and then bids us admire the effect and thank him for its production! Is any name too hard for such a creature? and could any vengeance be too deadly? If he walked into your garden and amused himself so with your cabbages, you could put him in prison. But into your poets he can stump his way at will, and upon them he can do his pleasure. And he does it. How many men have brutalised the elegance, the grace, the winning urbanity of Horace! By how many coarse and stupid fingers has Catullus been smudged and fumbled and mauled! To turn Faust into English (in the original metres) is a fashionable occupation; there are more perversions of the Commedia than one cares to recall; there is scarce a great or even a good work of the human mind but has been thus bedevilled and deformed.
The fact is, the translator too often forgets the difference between his subject and himself; he is too often a common graveyard mason that would play the sculptor. And it is not nearly enough for him to be a decent craftsman. To give an adequate idea of an artist’s work a man must be himself an artist of equal force and versatility with his original. The typical translator makes clever enough verses, but Heine’s accomplishment is remote from him as Heine’s genius. He perverts his author as rhyme and rhythm will. No charge of verbal inaccuracy need therefore be made, for we do not expect a literal fidelity in our workman. Let him convey the spirit of his original, and that, so far as meaning goes, is enough. But we do expect of him a something that shall recall his author’s form, his author’s personality, his author’s charm of diction and of style.
A related post: Like Dishes of Meat Twice Drest

5 March 2013

Night(soil) Thoughts

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1973), p. 31:
Nature's values are bodily values, human values are mental values, and though they take the loftiest flights they are built upon excrement, impossible without it, always brought back to it. As Montaigne puts it, on the highest throne in the world man sits on his arse. Usually the epigram makes people laugh because it seems to reclaim the world from artificial pride and snobbery and to bring things back to egalitarian values. But if we push the observation even further and say men sit not only on their arse, but over a warm and fuming pile of their own excrement — the joke is no longer funny. The tragedy of man's dualism, his ludicrous situation, becomes too real. The anus and its incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.
Id, pp. 33-34:
Excreting is the curse that threatens madness because it shows man his abject finitude, his physicalness, the likely unreality of his hopes and dreams. But even more immediately, it represents man's utter bafflement at the sheer non-sense of creation: to fashion the sublime miracle of the human face, the mysterium tremendum of radiant feminine beauty, the veritable goddesses that beautiful women are; to bring this all out of nothing, out of the void, and make it shine in noonday; to take such a miracle and put miracles again within it, deep in the mystery of eyes that peer out — the eye that gave even the dry Darwin a chill; to do all this, and to combine it with an anus that shits! It is too much. Nature mocks us, and poets live in torture.

4 March 2013

Holiday Reading

H. M. Tomlinson (1873-1958), "Holiday Reading," from Waiting for Daylight (London: Cassell, 1922), p. 63:
I make the same mistake whenever the chance of a holiday broadens and brightens. A small library, reduced by a process of natural selection, helps to make weighty the bag. But I do not at once close the bag; a doubt keeps it open; I take out the books again and consider them. When the problem of carrying those volumes about faces me, it is a relief to discover how many of them lose their vital importance. Yet a depraved sense of duty, perhaps the residue of what such writers as Marcus Aurelius have done for me, refuses to allow every volume to be jettisoned. It imposes, as a hair shirt, several new and serious books which there has been no time to examine. They are books that require a close focus, a long and steady concentration, a silent immobility hardly distinguishable from sleep. This year for instance I notice Jung’s Analytical Psychology confidently expecting to go for a holiday with me. I feel I ought to take some such stern reminder of mortality, and, in addition, out of a sentimental regard for the past, a few old books, for my faith is not dead that they may put a new light on the wonderful strangeness of these latter days. I take these, too.
A related post: A Travelling Library

1 March 2013

An Incentive to Debauchery

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), "The Spirit Of Wine," in Songs of the Vine with a Medley for Maltworms, selected and edited by William G. Hutchison (London: A.H. Bullen, 1904), p. 257:
The Spirit of Wine
Sang in my glass, and I listened
With love to his odorous music,
His flushed and magnificent song.

— 'I am health, I am heart, I am life!
For I give for the asking
The fire of my father, the Sun,
And the strength of my mother, the Earth.
Inspiration in essence,
I am wisdom and wit to the wise,
His visible muse to the poet,
The soul of desire to the lover,
The genius of laughter to all.

'Come, lean on me, ye that are weary!
Rise, ye faint-hearted and doubting!
Haste, ye that lag by the way!
I am Pride, the consoler;
Valour and Hope are my henchmen;
I am the Angel of Rest.

'I am life, I am wealth, I am fame:
For I captain an army
Of shining and generous dreams;
And mine, too, all mine, are the keys
Of that secret spiritual shrine,
Where, his work-a-day soul put by,
Shut in with his saint of saints -
With his radiant and conquering self -
Man worships, and talks, and is glad.

'Come, sit with me, ye that are lovely,
Ye that are paid with disdain,
Ye that are chained and would soar!
I am beauty and love;
I am friendship, the comforter;
I am that which forgives and forgets.' —

The Spirit of Wine
Sang in my heart, and I triumphed
In the savour and scent of his music,
His magnetic and mastering song.
Henley's poem is based on Charles Baudelaire's L'Âme du vin, which came into renewed notoriety a few years ago when the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives prevented a French wine merchant from exporting to the country because he had included several lines from the poem on the label of his Château Haut Gay. The American authorities banned the product on the grounds that Baudelaire's verse was "an incentive to debauchery".

28 February 2013

The Beginning of Wisdom

Nicolas de Chamfort (1741-1794), The Cynic's Breviary, tr. William G. Hutchison (London: Elkin Mathews, 1902), p. 21:
I cannot conceive of a wisdom that lacks distrust: according to the Scriptures the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God — I believe it is rather the fear of men.
Some of my translations from Chamfort's maxims:
The Instinct or Pride of the Elephant
What Should One Think of Humanity?
Misery and Futility
Not Quite So Foolish

27 February 2013

A Glorious Golden Thing

Roland Leighton in a letter to Vera Brittain, quoted in the entry for Sept. 14th, 1915 in Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary (London: Gollancz, 1981):
The dug-outs have been nearly all blown in, the wire entanglements are a wreck, and in among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country's Glory or another's Lust of Power. Let him who thinks that War is a glorious golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country with as thoughtless and fervid a faith as inspired the priests of Baal to call on their slumbering deity, let him look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been it's ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, supported on one arm, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence.
Leighton was shot by a sniper outside of Hébuterne, France and died of his wounds two days before Christmas, 1915.

26 February 2013

Full to the Brim

A. C. Benson, From a College Window (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1906), pp. 46-47
I think that as one grows older one may take out a licence, so to speak, to read less. One may go back to the old restful books, where one knows the characters well, hear the old remarks, survey the same scenes. One may meditate more upon one's stores, stroll about more, just looking at life, seeing the quiet things that are happening, and beaming through one's spectacles. One ought to have amassed, as life goes on and the shadows lengthen, a good deal of material for reflection. And, after all, reading is not in itself a virtue; it is only one way of passing the time; talking is another way, watching things another. Bacon says that reading makes a full man; well, I cannot help thinking that many people are full to the brim when they reach the age of forty, and that much which they afterwards put into the overcharged vase merely drips and slobbers uncomfortably down the side and foot.
I should name my blog "Drips and Slobbers"; I turn forty in April, and won't read any less.

22 February 2013

They Will Find Me

Mrs. Rudolf Dircks in the introduction to her translation of the Essays of Schopenhauer (London: Walter Scott, 1890), p. vii:
When Schopenhauer was asked where he wished to be buried, he answered, “Anywhere; they will find me;” and the stone that marks his grave at Frankfurt bears merely the inscription “Arthur Schopenhauer,” without even the date of his birth or death. Schopenhauer, the pessimist, had a sufficiently optimistic conviction that his message to the world would ultimately be listened to — a conviction that never failed him during a lifetime of disappointments, of neglect in quarters where perhaps he would have most cherished appreciation; a conviction that only showed some signs of being justified a few years before his death. Schopenhauer was no opportunist; he was not even conciliatory; he never hesitated to declare his own faith in himself, in his principles, in his philosophy; he did not ask to be listened to as a matter of courtesy but as a right — a right for which he would struggle, for which he fought, and which has in the course of time, it may be admitted, been conceded to him.
Arthur Schopenhauer was born on this day in 1788.

Arthur Schopenhauer, from a daguerreotype taken in 1842
Source: The Goethe University Frankfurt Archives

Dr. Wilhelm Gwinner was Schopenhauer's friend, lawyer, and executor. His biography Arthur Schopenhauer aus persönlichem Umgange dargestellt (Arthur Schopenhauer Depicted from Personal Acquaintance) is an important primary source but, as far as I can tell, it has remained untranslated for more than 150 years. Why is this so? Rather than launch into a diatribe about all that is wrong with the publishing business, I'll just stake my claim — I am translating the book and intend to publish it myself. I would like to set aside everything else and focus on it exclusively, but that may be unreasonable.

21 February 2013

The Only Substitute for Happiness

Arthur Symons, in the introduction to The Poems of Ernest Dowson (London: John Lane, 1909), pp. xvii-xviii:
To unhappy men, thought, if it can be set at work on abstract questions, is the only substitute for happiness; if it has not strength to overleap the barrier which shuts one in upon oneself, it is the one unwearying torture.

20 February 2013

The Sight of the Full Moon

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, tr. R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp, Vol. III (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1909), p. 136:
Why has the sight of the full moon such a beneficent, quieting, and exalting effect? Because the moon is an object of perception, but never of desire:
“The stars we yearn not after
Delight us with their glory.” — G.
Further, it is sublime, i.e., it induces a lofty mood in us, because, without any relation to us, it moves along for ever strange to earthly doings, and sees all while it takes part in nothing. Therefore, at the sight of it the Will, with its constant neediness, vanishes from consciousness, and leaves a purely knowing consciousness behind. Perhaps there is also mingled here a feeling that we share this sight with millions, whose individual differences are therein extinguished, so that in this perception they are one, which certainly increases the impression of the sublime.
The quote marked "— G." comes from Goethe's poem Trost in Tränen (Comfort in Tears),
Die Sterne, die begehrt man nicht,
Man freut sich ihrer Pracht,
Und mit Entzücken blickt man auf
In jeder heitern Nacht.
Translated by E. A. Bowring:
The stars we never long to clasp,
We revel in their light,
And with enchantment upward gaze,
Each clear and radiant night.
A related post: Absolutely Safe

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.