29 April 2016

Disappointed

Evelyn Waugh, "Was Oxford Worth While?" Daily Mail (21 June 1930), reprinted in A Little Order, ed. Donat Gallagher (London: Eyre Methuen, 1977), p. 16:
All the misunderstanding of the value of university life seems to me to come from two extreme heresies. On the one hand are those who expect a University to be a kind of insurance company into which so much money is paid and from which so much, eventually, is extracted. They expect a B.A. degree to be a badge which will gain them instant preference over poorer competitors, and in nine cases out of ten they are disappointed.

On the other hand, there are those who expect Oxford to be like an Oxford novel. A place of easy living, subtle conversations, and illuminating friendships. They expect it to be a kind of microcosm of eighteenth-century Whig society, combined with infinitely sophisticated modernism. They, too, are disappointed.
See also: 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School

25 April 2016

The Wretched Poet Coleridge

John Mortimer, Clinging to the Wreckage (London: Penguin Books, 2010), p. 56:
‘How do you get on with those women who live next door. The ones you’re always visiting?’ my father asked.

‘They’re very interesting. They knew Jean Cocteau,’ and I added, in the hope of shocking him at last, ‘Cocteau smoked opium.’

‘Oh, never smoke opium,’ my father warned me. ‘Gives you constipation. Terrible binding effect.’ And he added one of his best lines, ‘Have you ever seen the pictures of the wretched poet Coleridge? He smoked opium. Take a look at Coleridge, he was green about the gills and a stranger to the lavatory.’

Washington Allston, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1814)

21 April 2016

About to Live

Edward Young, Night Thoughts  (London: William Tegg and Co., 1859), p. 19:
Of man's miraculous mistakes, this bears
The palm, "That all men are about to live,"                 400
For ever on the brink of being born.
All pay themselves the compliment to think
They one day shall not drivel; and their pride
On this reversion takes up ready praise,
At least their own; their future selves applauds;      405
How excellent that life they ne'er will lead!

19 April 2016

Other People's Lives

Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012), p. 127:
Most of my married friends now have children, the rewards of which appear to be exclusively intangible and, like the mysteries of some gnostic sect, incommunicable to outsiders. It’s as if these people have joined a cult: they claim to be happier and more fulfilled than ever before, even though they live in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, deprived of the most basic freedoms and dignity, and owe unquestioning obedience to a pampered sociopathic master whose every whim is law... They’re frantic and haggard and constantly exhausted, getting through the days on a sleep deficit of three years, complaining about how busy and circumscribed their lives are, as though they hadn’t freely chosen it all.
Id., p. 130:
One of the hardest things to look at is the life we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled. In stories, those who look back — Lot’s wife, Eurydice — are irrevocably lost. Looking to the side instead, to gauge how our companions are faring, is a way of glancing at a safer reflection of what we cannot directly bear, like Perseus seeing the Gorgon safely mirrored in his shield. It’s the closest we can get to a glimpse of the parallel universe in which we didn’t ruin that relationship years ago, or got that job we applied for, or made that plane at the last minute. So it’s tempting to read other people’s lives as cautionary fables or repudiations of our own, to covet or denigrate them instead of seeing them for what they are: other people’s lives, island universes, unknowable.

18 April 2016

Drab Uniformity

Evelyn Waugh, "I See Nothing But Boredom... Everywhere," Daily Mail (28 December 1959), reprinted in A Little Order, ed. Donat Gallagher (London: Eyre Methuen, 1977), pp. 47-48:
I see nothing ahead but drab uniformity. The motor-car has already destroyed its own usefulness. Suppose, as seems most unlikely, it once more is rendered mobile by making the whole country into a speedway and a car-park, there will be no inducement to go anywhere because all buildings will look the same, all shops sell the same produce, all people say the same things in the same voices. Foreign travel will be scarcely more attractive for the elderly and experienced. One went abroad to observe other ways of living, to eat unfamiliar foods and see strange buildings. In a few years' time the world will be divided into zones of insecurity which one can penetrate only at the risk of murder and tourist routes along which one will fly to chain hotels, hygienic, costly and second-rate.

13 April 2016

A House Furnished with Books

Henry Ward Beecher, "The Duty of Owning Books," Eyes and Ears (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862), p. 155:
Give us a house furnished with books rather than furniture! Both, if you can, but books at any rate! To spend several days in a friend's house, and hunger for something to read, while you are treading on costly carpets, and sitting upon luxurious chairs, and sleeping upon down, is as if one were bribing your body for the sake of cheating your mind.

Is it not pitiable to see a man growing rich, augmenting the comforts of home, and lavishing money on ostentatious upholstery, upon the table, upon every thing but what the soul needs? We know of many and many a rich man's house where it would not be safe to ask for the commonest English classics. A few gairish annuals on the table, a few pictorial monstrosities, together with the stock religious books of his "persuasion," and that is all! No poets, no essayists, no historians, no travels or biographies, no select fictions, or curious legendary lore. But the wall-paper cost three dollars a roll, and the carpets four dollars a yard!

Books are the windows through which the soul looks out. A house without books is like a room without windows.

12 April 2016

Poorly-Paid Musicians

Henry Ward Beecher, "Are Birds Worth Their Keeping?" Eyes and Ears (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862), p. 132:
Although birds undertake to furnish you with the most admirable amusement, and with music such as no orchestra could be hired to give, they do not charge you a penny for their services. You never have to wake them. You have no care of their toilet. You are asked to provide nothing for their breakfast, nothing for dinner, nothing for supper. They draw on you for no linen for their beds, and no space for tenement room. They come to you early in spring; they stay with you till the red leaves grow brown, and even then they leave a rear-guard to watch the winter, and every bright day till after January is sentinelled with some faithful, simple bird on duty.

7 April 2016

A Continuous but Thin Thread

Richard Church, Plato's Mistake (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1941), pp. 24-25:
The fact is that the great majority of people at any one time and any one place or sphere of life are content with an extremely low standard of taste in the arts and literature. The best books, the immortal books, are always being bought and read, but by only a few people at a time. For example, the cheap editions of Turgeniev's novels sell about fifty copies each a year. I think that if the sales of such books as Dante's Divine Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost, Wordsworth's Prelude, Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici, or Gilbert Murray's Religio Grammatici were examined it would be found that their annual sales were not more than a few hundred copies each per year. The immortality of the best is a continuous, but thin thread.

6 April 2016

Don't Skip the Preface

Henry Peacham, The Compleat Gentleman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906), p. 54:
And ere you begin a booke, forget not to reade the Epistle; for commonly they are the best laboured and penned. For as in a garment, whatsoever the stuffe be, the owner (for the most part) affecteth a costly and extraordinary facing; and in the house of a countrey Gentleman, the porch, of a Citizen, the carved gate and painted postes carry away the Glory from the rest; so is it with our common Authors, if they have any wit at all, they set it like Velvet before, though the backe, like (a bankerupts doublet) be but of poldavy or buckram.

4 April 2016

The Blessing of a Lettered Recess

Edward Young, "Conjectures on Original Composition," English Critical Essays, ed. Edmund D. Jones (London: Oxford University Press, 1922), pp. 271-272:
To men of letters, and leisure, it [the act of reading and composition] is not only a noble amusement, but a sweet refuge; it improves their parts, and promotes their peace: it opens a back-door out of the bustle of this busy and idle world into a delicious garden of moral and intellectual fruits and flowers; the key of which is denied to the rest of mankind. When stung with idle anxieties, or teased with fruitless impertinence, or yawning over insipid diversions, then we perceive the blessing of a lettered recess. With what a gust do we retire to our disinterested and immortal friends in our closet, and find our minds, when applied to some favourite theme, as naturally, and as easily quieted and refreshed, as a peevish child (and peevish children are we all till we fall asleep) when laid to the breast? Our happiness no longer lives on charity; nor bids fair for a fall, by leaning on that most precarious and thorny pillow, another's pleasure, for our repose. How independent of the world is he who can daily find new acquaintance, that at once entertain, and improve him, in the little world, the minute but fruitful creation, of his own mind?
Spare a (night) thought for Edward Young, who died on April 5, 1765.

1 April 2016

A Portrait of John Nash

Ronald Blythe remembers the artist John Northcote Nash (1893-1977) in his Jan. 15 column for The Church Times, via the Wormingford blog:
Perched on a three-legged stool, muffled to the ears, he would shape the water in the fields, fag in mouth, his big grey eyes not only drawing everything in sight, but bringing it into this vision, and returning to the farmhouse with a full sketchbook. This would be carried to the studio and turned into watercolours and oils.

He liked bits of agricultural toil: a hurdle, the tumbling shed, the byre, and particularly his mighty thatched barn — although all that was in it, during the abandonment of farming here, would have been his Ford Herald car, so packed with fishing rods and old military uniforms that the lad — myself — had to squeeze beside him.

He was devoted to plants, but John was none too caring where the farm itself was concerned; and, taking him morning tea, I once saw snow on his face.

Both he and his wife, Christine, also an artist, possessed beautiful voices, which came from the long ago, possibly the late 1890s. These they left behind when they went, plus an avalanche of books with their names on the flyleaves. Their Proust contained instructions on how to read it.

After tea, they would sit side by side on the hefty piano stool, and thump out Schubert, humming bits and laughing. The piano was a 1920s Steinway. Now and then there was a muffled sound, until the cats were evicted.

John Nash and Christine Kühlenthal, c. 1920
Blythe donated this picture to the National Portrait Gallery

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".