31 March 2016

The Good People of Ontario

Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman's Diary in Canada, ed. William Sloane Kennedy (Boston : Small, Maynard & Co., 1904), pp. 43-44:
If the most significant trait of modern civilization is benevolence (as a leading statesman has said), it is doubtful whether this is anywhere illustrated to a fuller degree than in the province of Ontario. All the maimed, insane, idiotic, blind, deaf and dumb, needy, sick and old, minor criminals, fallen women, foundlings, have advanced and ample provision of house and care and oversight, at least fully equal to anything of the kind in any of the United States probably indeed superior to them. In Ontario for its eighty-eight electoral ridings, each one returning a member of parliament, there are four Insane Asylums, an Idiot Asylum, one Institution for the Blind, one for the Deaf and Dumb, one for Foundlings, a Reformatory for Girls, one for Women, and no end of homes for the old and infirm, for waifs, and for the sick.... Some of the good people of Ontario have complained in my hearing of faults and fraudulencies, commissive or emissive, on the part of the government, but I guess said people have reason to bless their stars for the general fairness, economy, wisdom, and liberality of their officers and administration.
Clearly Walt never had to pay income tax in Ontario.

29 March 2016

Mushroom Celebrity

Richard Whately, Thoughts and Apophthegms (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1856), p. 309:
Mushroom-celebrity is the result of puzzle-headedness. A man hardly can rise to very sudden popularity without being (along with some cleverness), somewhat puzzle-headed. For the way to rise to rapid celebrity is to be a plausible advocate of prevailing doctrines; and especially to defend, with some eloquence and novelty, something which men like to believe, but have no good reason for believing. And this a skillful dissembler will never do so well as one who is himself the dupe of his own fallacies, and brings them forward, therefore, with an air of simple earnestness which implies his being, with whatever ingenuity and eloquence, puzzle-headed. A very clear-headed man must always perceive some of the truths which are generally overlooked, and must have detected some of the popular fallacies; in short, he must be somewhat in advance of the οἱ πολλοί of his contemporaries: and if he has the courage to speak his mind fairly, he must wait till the next generation, at least, for his popularity.

23 March 2016

Philosophical Works in a Foreign Language

Richard Whately, Thoughts and Apophthegms (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1856), p. 195:
One great advantage in studying philosophical works in a foreign language, is that an idea which one has to comprehend, or express, in a foreign language, is more distinctly understood by the mind, and the errors arising from the ambiguity, and other defects of language, more easily detected. — Many a voluminous treatise, the Author would throw into the fire, if he could but be persuaded to translate it into Greek. Besides this prevention of the errors arising from the ambiguity of language, the very difficulty excites the attention so as to fix the thoughts better in the memory; meat that requires a good deal of chewing, is sometimes more digestible and nutritive, than spoon-meat that is swallowed whole.
A related post: A Test of Lucidity

Another edition: Selections From the Writings of Dr. Whately  (London: Richard Bentley, 1856)

21 March 2016

Disturbing the Ashes of the Dead

Charles Robert Maturin, Sermons (London: Archibald Constable, 1819), pp. 10-11:
Life is full of death; the steps of the living cannot press the earth without disturbing the ashes of the dead — we walk upon our ancestors — the globe itself is one vast churchyard. Cities are built on the ruins of those that have mouldered away, and now serve as the foundation for the pride of modern improvement. Animal life, like vegetable, seems destined to decay, that it may become the bed from which human vegetation is to spring again, fresh, presumptuous, and triumphant, to be cut down, and afford place for a new successor. The ocean is full of the dead and of their spoils — we are surrounded on every side by those who have passed away, by their remains, or by their recollections. Oh! how populous is futurity, how alive is the grave ! —

"This is the desert, this the solitude."1

Millions, countless millions more than are now alive, are gone before us, and the generations that are yet to be born will be born to people the tomb. Reflection teaches these awful lessons to a few, and well for those who are taught by her — if we refuse her, we shall have a sterner teacher, even experience, whose trembling pupils we must all become, whether we will hear, or whether we will forbear.
1. A line from Edward Young's Night Thoughts

I read somewhere (I no longer remember where and can't be bothered to look it up) that Charles Baudelaire wanted to translate Maturin's novel Melmoth the Wanderer  but was passed over in favour of someone else.

17 March 2016

Mind Unfettered

Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, Prison Life: Six Years in Six English Prisons (New York : P. J. Kenedy, 1874), pp. 211-212:
As I was doing my share of the "orderly" work next morning I noticed hanging on the wall a card, on which was my name. Opposite was written: "This prisoner to be well watched, and the gas to be left lighting in his cell all night." When I went to my cell I began thinking, and thought I must be a desperate character. Friends ask me, now that I am in the world, "Had I any thought at all of release when I was in prison?" It is said, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast," but the springs of my hope were nearly always dried up by continually witnessing these signs of special anxiety regarding me.

I don't know what my masters must have taken me for. If they were not fond of me, they were particularly careful of me. Hoping anything from these people, and acting so as not to have that hope frustrated, would make me their slave — would wear me off my feet. No. I kept myself a free man in prison; while they had my body bound in chains, I felt that I owed them no allegiance, that I held my mind unfettered — that I was not their slave.
A related post: Must I Whine as Well?

15 March 2016

Three Stages

Charles Buxton, Notes of Thought  (London: John Murray, 1883), p. 12:
Most intellectual labour (say of the author, speaker, artist) carries the labourer through three stages of feeling: the first, of exultation while creating; the second, of anxiety gilded with hope in bringing his creation before the world; the third, of flat mortification in looking back on it, and finding that it is very bad, and that the world does not care a bean about it.

10 March 2016

The Phone is a Tool, Not an Extension of Self

Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, tr. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund, (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 53-54:
For all of us, the arrangements, devices, and machinery of technology are to a greater or lesser extent indispensable. It would be foolish to attack technology blindly. It would be shortsighted to condemn it as the work of the devil. We depend on technical devices; they even challenge us to ever greater advances. But suddenly and unaware we find ourselves so firmly shackled to these technical devices that we fall into bondage to them.

Still we can act otherwise. We can use technical devices, and yet with proper use also keep ourselves so free of them, that we may let go of them any time. We can use technical devices as they ought to be used, and also let them alone as something which does not affect our inner and real core. We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature.
Related posts:

9 March 2016

A Hard-Working Journalist

James Huneker, "Gautier the Journalist," The Pathos of Distance (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1921), p. 265:
[Théophile] Gautier played the role of an easy-going boulevardier; in private he bitterly complained of his slavery to the Grub street of his beloved Paris. Nevertheless this same journalism was his salvation, otherwise he might have found himself in the wretched condition of his friends Charles Baudelaire, Petrus Borel, Gerard de Nerval, and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. What distinguished him from these bohemians of genius was his capacity for work. He possessed a giant's physique and his nerves were seemingly of steel. He once wrote:
"There is this much good in journalism, that it mixes you up with the crowd, humanises you by perpetually giving you your own measure, and preserves you from the infatuations of solitary pride."1
Id., pp. 266-277:
The truth about him is that he was a hard-working journalist, a good husband and loving father; solicitous of the welfare of his family and unrelaxing in his labours. Over his desk hung this grim reminder: "A daily newspaper appears daily." He never forgot it, and from his atelier at Neuilly he sent his daily stint of columns, poorly remunerated as he was for them. He never went into debt like his friend Balzac. If you haven't read his books you may well imagine him an unromantic and honest business man instead of a composer of most fantastic, delightful dreams and romances.
My footnote:

1. I have not found the source for this quote, but I didn't spend much time looking.

7 March 2016

They Are Scum

W. Somerset Maugham, "Books of the Year," Sunday Times (25 December, 1955), reprinted in A Traveller in Romance, ed. John Whitehead (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1984), p. 122:
They do not go to university to acquire culture, but to get a job, and when they have got one, scamp it. They have no manners, and are woefully unable to deal with any social predicament. Their idea of a celebration is to go to a pubic house and drink six beers. They are mean, malicious, and envious. They will write anonymous letters to harass a fellow undergraduate and listen in to a telephone conversation that is no business of theirs. Charity, kindliness, generosity, are qualities which they hold in contempt. They are scum. They will in due course leave the university. Some will doubtless sink back, perhaps with relief, into the modest class from which they emerged; some will take to drink, some to crime and go to prison. Others will become schoolmasters and form the young, or journalists and mould public opinion. A few will go into Parliament, become Cabinet Ministers and rule the country. I look upon myself as fortunate that I shall not live to see it.
This is supposed to be a review of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, but apart from the quote above Maugham uses most of the article to discuss the merits of Félicien Marceau's Bergère légère and The Letters of Pliny the Younger. He describes the latter as "a most enjoyable bedtime book".

1 March 2016

A Restless and Swarming Anthill

Carl Hilty, Happiness, tr. Francis Greenwood Peabody (New York: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 73-74:
If one could observe the modern world as a bird might look down upon it, and at the same time could distinguish the details of its life, he would see beneath him a picture like that of a restless and swarming anthill, where even the railway trains, as they cross and recross each other by night and day, would be enough to bewilder his brain. Something of this bewilderment is, in fact, felt by almost every one who is involved in the movement of the time. There are a great many people who have not the least idea why they are thus all day long in a hurry. People whose circumstances permit complete leisure are to be seen rushing through the streets, or whirling away in a train, or crowding out of the theatre, as if there were awaiting them at home the most serious tasks. The fact is that they simply yield to the general movement. One might be led to fancy that the most precious and most unusual possession on earth was the possession of time. We say that time is money, yet people who have plenty of money seem to have no time; and even the people who despise money are constantly admonishing us, and our over-worked children, to remember the Apostle's saying, and "to redeem the time." Thus the modern world seems pitiless in its exhortation to work. Human beings are driven like horses until they drop. Many lives are ruined by the pace, but there are always more lives ready like horses to be driven. 

Much happiness can be found
in an attractive title page.

Related posts:

28 February 2016

Use This Time as an Aristocrat Would

Cal Newport, Deep Work (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), p. 99:
[Arnold] Bennett suggests [in How to Live on 24 Hours a Day] that his typical man see his sixteen free hours as a “day within a day,” explaining, “during those sixteen hours he is free; he is not a wage-earner; he is not preoccupied with monetary cares; he is just as good as a man with a private income.” Accordingly, the typical man should instead use this time as an aristocrat1 would: to perform rigorous self-improvement — a task that, according to Bennett, involves, primarily, reading great literature and poetry.

Bennett wrote about these issues more than a century ago. You might expect that in the intervening decades, a period in which this middle class exploded in size worldwide, our thinking about leisure time would have evolved. But it has not. If anything, with the rise of the Internet and the low-brow attention economy it supports, the average forty-hour-a-week employee — especially those in my tech-savvy Millennial generation — has seen the quality of his or her leisure time remain degraded, consisting primarily of a blur of distracted clicks on least-common-denominator digital entertainment. If Bennett were brought back to life today, he’d likely fall into despair at the lack of progress in this area of human development.

To be clear, I’m indifferent to the moral underpinnings behind Bennett’s suggestions. His vision of elevating the souls and minds of the middle class by reading poetry and great books feels somewhat antiquated and classist2. But the logical foundation of his proposal, that you both should and can make deliberate use of your time outside work, remains relevant today...

My notes:
1.  Presumably this refers to aristocrats such as the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury or the 1st Viscount Bolingbroke and not inbred halfwits who only view the world from between a horse's ears.
2. Insert the sound of Andrew groaning and breaking wind simultaneously.

Related Posts:

25 February 2016

Professorial E-mail Sorting

Cal Newport, Deep Work (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), p. 118:
As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with famous academics. In doing so, I noticed that many shared a fascinating and somewhat rare approach to e-mail: Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond.

Over time, I learned the philosophy driving this behavior: When it comes to e-mail, they believed, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile. If you didn’t make a convincing case and sufficiently minimize the effort required by the professor to respond, you didn’t get a response.
Id., p. 119:
Professorial E-mail Sorting: Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies:
  • It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
  • It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
  • Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.

24 February 2016

Here the Struggle Ends

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit  (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1923):
There are men who, at the bottom of the ladder, battle to rise; they study, struggle, keep their wits alive and eventually get up to a place where they are received as an equal among respectable intellectuals. Here they find warmth and comfort for their pride, and here the struggle ends, and a death of many years commences. They could have gone on living.

22 February 2016

Wir schaffen das

Ambrose Bierce, A Cynic Looks at Life (Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius Co. 1912), pp. 11-12:
The tree is known by its fruit. Ours is bearing crab-apples. If the body politic is constitutionally diseased, as I verily believe; if the disorder inheres in the system; there is no remedy. The fever must burn itself out, and then Nature will do the rest. One does not prescribe what time alone can administer. We have put our criminals and dunces into power; do we suppose they will efface themselves? Will they restore to us the power of governing them? They must have their way and go their length. The natural and immemorial sequence is: tyranny, insurrection, combat. In combat everything that wears a sword has a chance — even the right. History does not forbid us to hope. But it forbids us to rely upon numbers; they will be against us.

17 February 2016

A Fool's Trick

David Christie Murray in The Art of Authorship, ed. George Bainton (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1890), p. 217:
There are some things which cannot be made comprehensible to the common mind; but the affectation of obscurity, the wrapping a mere farthing's-worth of meaning in a whole bale of verbiage, is a fool's trick and no more.
Related posts:

16 February 2016

Life Is Short and Hard

W. Somerset Maugham on Still Life with Bottle, Glass, and Loaf, quoting a passage from his novel Christmas Holiday  in "Paintings I Have Liked," A Traveller in Romance, ed. John Whitehead (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1984), p. 51:
It’s so humble, so natural, so friendly; it’s the bread and wine of the poor who ask no more than that they should be left in peace, allowed to work and eat their simple food in freedom. It’s the cry of the despised and rejected. It tells you that whatever their sins men at heart are good. That loaf of bread and that flagon of wine are symbols of the joys and sorrows of the meek and lowly. They ask for your mercy and your affection; they tell you that they’re of the same flesh and blood as you. They tell you that life is short and hard and the grave is cold and lonely. It’s not only a loaf of bread and a flagon of wine; it’s the mystery of man’s lot on earth, his craving for a little friendship and a little love and the humility of his resignation when he sees that even they must be denied him.
 Imitator of Jean-Siméon Chardin, Still Life with Bottle, Glass, and Loaf 

See Laudator Temporis Acti for more on this painting.

15 February 2016

Manure

Charles Buxton, Notes of Thought  (London: John Murray, 1883), p. 95:
Reading spreads facts, like manure, over the surface of the mind; but it is thought that ploughs them in.

11 February 2016

Noble Bohemianism

Philip G. Hamerton, "The Noble Bohemianism," Human Intercourse (London: Macmillan, 1884), pp. 297-298:
A true Bohemian, of the best kind, knows the value of mere shelter, of food enough to satisfy hunger, of plain clothes that will keep him sufficiently warm, and in the things of the mind he values the liberty to use his own faculties as a kind of happiness in itself. His philosophy leads him to take an interest in talking with human beings of all sorts and conditions, and in different countries. He does not despise the poor, for, whether poor or rich in his own person, he understands simplicity of life, and if the poor man lives in a small cottage, he too has probably been lodged less spaciously still in some small hut or tent. He has lived often, in rough travel, as the poor live every day. I maintain that such tastes and experiences are valuable both in prosperity and in adversity. If we are prosperous, they enhance our appreciation of the things around us, and yet at the same time make us really know that they are not indispensable, as so many believe them to be; if we fall into adversity, they prepare us to accept lightly and cheerfully what would be depressing privations to others. I know a painter who in consequence of some change in the public taste fell into adversity at a time when he had every reason to hope for increased success. Very fortunately for him, he had been a Bohemian in early life, a respectable Bohemian be it understood, and a great traveller, so that he could easily dispense with luxuries. "To be still permitted to follow art is enough," he said, so he reduced his expenses to the very lowest scale consistent with that pursuit, and lived as he had done before in the old Bohemian times. He made his old clothes last on, he slung a hammock in a very simple painting-room, and cooked his own dinner on the stove. With the canvas on his easel and a few books on a shelf he found that if existence was no longer luxurious it had not yet ceased to be interesting. 
Related posts:

9 February 2016

The Good Writer Never Applies to a Foundation

William Faulkner in an interview with The Paris Review in 1956:
The writer doesn’t need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper. I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money. The good writer never applies to a foundation. He’s too busy writing something. If he isn’t first rate he fools himself by saying he hasn’t got time or economic freedom. Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes. People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are. Nothing can destroy the good writer. The only thing that can alter the good writer is death. Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich.
Related posts:

8 February 2016

Soaked in History

George Macaulay Trevelyan, The Recreations of an Historian (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1919), p. 32:
History and literature cannot be fully comprehended, still less fully enjoyed, except in connection with one another. I confess I have little love either for "Histories of Literature," or for chapters on "the literature of the period," hanging at the end of history books like the tail from a cow. I mean, rather, that those who write or read the history of a period should be soaked in its literature, and that those who read or expound literature should be soaked in history. The "scientific" view of history that discouraged such interchange and desired the strictest specialisation by political historians, has done much harm to our latter-day culture. The mid Victorians at any rate knew better than that.