8 May 2017

All the Meanings They Have Worn

Walter Raleigh (1861-1922), Style (London: Edward Arnold, 1897), pp. 25-26:
Words are piled on words, and bricks on bricks, but of the two you are invited to think words the more intractable. Truly, it was a man of letters who said it, avenging himself on his profession for the never-ending toil it imposed, by miscalling it, with grim pleasantry, the architecture of the nursery. Finite and quite rigid words are not, in any sense that holds good of bricks. They move and change, they wax and wane, they wither and burgeon; from age to age, from place to place, from mouth to mouth, they are never at a stay. They take on colour, intensity, and vivacity from the infection of neighbourhood; the same word is of several shapes and diverse imports in one and the same sentence; they depend on the building that they compose for the very chemistry of the stuff that composes them. The same epithet is used in the phrases "a fine day" and "fine irony," in "fair trade" and "a fair goddess." Were different symbols to be invented for these sundry meanings the art of literature would perish. For words carry with them all the meanings they have worn, and the writer shall be judged by those that he selects for prominence in the train of his thought. A slight technical implication, a faint tinge of archaism, in the common turn of speech that you employ, and in a moment you have shaken off the mob that scours the rutted highway, and are addressing a select audience of ticket-holders with closed doors. A single natural phrase of peasant speech, a direct physical sense given to a word that genteel parlance authorises readily enough in its metaphorical sense, and at a touch you have blown the roof off the drawing-room of the villa, and have set its obscure inhabitants wriggling in the unaccustomed sun. In choosing a sense for your words you choose also an audience for them.

5 May 2017

He Has Ransacked a Thousand Minds

Sydney Smith (1771-1845), "On the Conduct of the Understanding," Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy (London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1855), p. 95:
There are instances to the contrary; but, generally speaking, the life of all truly great men has been a life of intense and incessant labour. They have commonly passed the first half of life in the gross darkness of indigent humility, — overlooked, mistaken, contemned, by weaker men, — thinking while others slept, reading while others rioted, feeling something within them that told them they should not always be kept down among the dregs of the world; and then, when their time was come, and some little accident has given them their first occasion, they have burst out into the light and glory of public life, rich with the spoils of time, and mighty in all the labours and struggles of the mind. Then do the multitude cry out "a miracle of genius!" Yes, he is a miracle of genius, because he is a miracle of labour; because instead of trusting to the resources of his own single mind, he has ransacked a thousand minds; because he makes use of the accumulated wisdom of ages, and takes as his point of departure the very last line and boundary to which science has advanced; because it has ever been the object of his life to assist every intellectual gift of nature, however munificent, and however splendid, with every resource that art could suggest, and every attention diligence could bestow.
A portion of this quote set out in Henry Lewis Johnson's Historic Design in Printing (Boston: The Graphic Arts Company, 1923), p. 82:

4 May 2017


Sir Thomas Browne, "Christian Morals," Religio Medici and Other Essays  (Manchester: Sherratt and Hughes, 1902), pp. 152-153:
Bring candid eyes unto the perusal of men's works, and let not Zoilism or detraction blast well-intended labours. He that endureth no faults in men's writings must only read his own, wherein, for the most part, all appeareth white. Quotation mistakes, inadvertency, expedition, and human lapses, may make not only moles but warts in learned authors; who, notwithstanding, being judged by the capital matter, admit not of disparagement. I should unwillingly affirm that Cicero was but slightly versed in Homer, because in his work, De Gloria, he ascribed those verses unto Ajax, which were delivered by Hector. What if Plautus, in the acount of Hercules, mistaketh nativity for conception? Who would have mean thoughts of Apollinaris Sidonius, who seems to mistake the river Tigris for Euphrates; and, though a good historian and learned bishop of Auvergne had the misfortune to be out in the story of David, making mention of him when the ark was sent back by the Philistines upon a cart; which was before his time? Though I have no great opinion of Machiavel's learning, yet I shall not presently say that he was but a novice in Roman history, because he was mistaken in placing Commodus after the Emperor Severus. Capital truths are to be narrowly eyed; collateral lapses and circumstantial deliveries not to be too strictly sifted. And if the substantial subject be well forged out, we need not examine the sparks which irregularly fly from it.

2 May 2017

Pull Your Finger Out

Sir Thomas Browne, "Christian Morals," Religio Medici and Other Essays  (Manchester: Sherratt and Hughes, 1902), pp. 147-148:
Since thou hast an alarum in thy breast, which tells thee thou hast a living spirit in thee above two thousand times in an hour; dull not away thy days in slothful supinity and the tediousness of doing nothing. To strenuous minds there is an inquietude in over quietness, and no laboriousness in labour; and to tread a mile after the slow pace of a snail, or the heavy measures of the lazy of Brazilia, were a most tiring penance, and worse than a race of some furlongs at the Olympicks. The rapid courses of the heavenly bodies are rather imitable by our thoughts, than our corporeal motions; yet the solemn motions of our lives amount unto a greater measure than is commonly apprehended. Some few men have surrounded the globe of the earth; yet many in the set locomotions and movements of their days have measured the circuit of it, and twenty thousand miles have been exceeded by them.

26 April 2017

Dirty Hippies

Camille Paglia, "Ninnies, Pedants, Tyrants and Other Academics," The New York Times (May 5, 1991):
The 60's attempted a return to nature that ended in disaster. The gentle nude bathing and playful sliding in the mud at Woodstock were a short-lived Rousseauistic dream. My generation, inspired by the Dionysian titanism of rock, attempted something more radical than anything since the French Revolution. We asked: why should I obey this law? And: why shouldn't I act on every sexual impulse? The result was a descent into barbarism.

25 April 2017

Indirect Strategies

Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower (London: Penguin Books, 2012), p. 28:
Emotional control is uniquely difficult because you generally can’t alter your mood by an act of will. You can change what you think about or how you behave, but you can’t force yourself to be happy. You can treat your in-laws politely, but you can’t make yourself rejoice over their month-long visit. To ward off sadness and anger, people use indirect strategies, like trying to distract themselves with other thoughts, or working out at the gym, or meditating. They lose themselves in TV shows and treat themselves to chocolate binges and shopping sprees. Or they get drunk.

20 April 2017

Childish and Silly

Charles Ritchie, entry for 8 November 1941, The Siren Years: A Canadian Diplomat Abroad 1937-1945  (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001), p. 131:
I have been reading with singularly little pleasure some modern poetry in Horizon magazine. What can you expect of poets who keep on thinking about the “happiness of the common people”, as if happiness could be an “ideal”. They remind me of those thick-headed Babbitts who drew up the American Declaration of Independence and who announced the “pursuit of happiness” as a political aim. The poets’ contemporary left-wing opinions have no real political significance; they have not faced up to the fact that the new world for which they are rooting will be just as immoral and selfish as the old. They still believe in Santa Claus. To me that makes all the they have to hint about the future childish and silly.

18 April 2017

Epitaph for a Career in Journalism

George du Maurier, Trilby (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1901), p. 23:
As some things are too sad and too deep for tears, so some things are too grotesque and too funny for laughter.

12 April 2017

In All Humility

Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Whistler: The Friend (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1930), p. 40:
Whatever their training, whoever their master, they [the Parisian art students of the mid 19th century] were not taught to despise the past. No valiant cry from youth then of "Down with the Louvre! Down with the Old Masters!" Youth went reverently to the Louvre to worship, to copy, to endeavour to learn at least a little of what the old Masters had to teach.... The youth of that earlier generation, in their simplicity, visited the Louvre in all humility and hoped by studying its masterpieces to become masters in their turn.

Winslow Homer, Art-students and Copyists in the Louvre Gallery
(Harper’s Weekly, January 11, 1868)

11 April 2017

Travelling Companions

Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence mentioned a while ago that he collects stories of reading in extremis. This put me in mind of an old post on Le Blog du Bibliophile which transcribed a couple of handwritten notes found inside a 1530 edition of Petrarch.

The first, signed Edmund Parsons, dates from 1913 and reads: "To buy this book I sold a sleeved pullover". The second note is dated 1944 and unsigned: "Bought Verona Autumn 1944 when being deported into Germany".

Hugues' blog post ends (my translation):
A friend said to me recently: "When things are not going well, it does a world of good to immerse oneself in a book." He is right, whether we struggle, make unreasonable sacrifices, or take distant journeys [in order to acquire them], books are travelling companions that bring us moments of happiness and comfort which are often unsurpassed.
You'd need to give up more than your sweater for a copy today: the 1558 edition is selling for $943.50. The 1552 edition has been scanned and is available on Archive.org.

9 April 2017

The Old Lie

Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est," Poems of Wilfred Owen (London: Chatto and Windus, 1933), p. 66:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Related posts:

4 April 2017

Birthday Thoughts

Blaise Pascal, Pensées 205 (tr. W. F. Trotter)
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been alloted to me? Memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis.
Quand je considère la petite durée de ma vie absorbée dans l’éternité précédente et suivante, memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis, le petit espace que je remplis et même que je vois abîmé dans l’infinie immensité des espaces que j’ignore et qui m’ignorent, je m’effraie et m’étonne de me voir ici plutôt que là, car il n’y a point de raison pourquoi ici plutôt que là, pourquoi à présent plutôt que lors. Qui m’y a mis? Par l’ordre et la conduite de qui ce lieu et ce temps a‑t‑il été destiné à moi?

31 March 2017

Literature Exists to Please

Augustine Birrell, "The Office of Literature," The Collected Essays & Addresses of the Rt. Hon. Augustine Birrell, Vol. 3 (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1922), pp. 55-56:
Cooks, warriors, and authors must be judged by  the effects they produce: toothsome dishes, glorious victories, pleasant books — these are our demands. We have nothing to do with ingredients, tactics, or methods. We have no desire to be admitted into the kitchen, the council, or the study. The cook may clean her saucepans how she pleases — the warrior place his men as he likes — the author handle his material or weave his plot as best he can — when the dish is served we only ask, Is it good? when the battle has been fought, Who won? when the book comes out. Does it read?

Authors ought not to be above being reminded that it is their first duty to write agreeably — some very disagreeable men have succeeded in doing so, and there is therefore no need for anyone to despair. Every author, be he grave or gay, should try to make his book as ingratiating as possible. Reading is not a duty, and has consequently no business to be made disagreeable. Nobody is under any obligation to read any other man's book.

Literature exists to please — to lighten the burden of men's lives; to make them for a short while forget their sorrows and their sins, their silenced hearths, their disappointed hopes, their grim futures — and those men of letters are the best loved who have best performed literature's truest office.

27 March 2017


Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 363:
Individuals whose life is without meaning hate themselves, for their weakness, and hate life, for making them weak. This hatred manifests itself in absolute identification with destructive power, in its mythological, historical and biological manifestations; manifests itself in the desire for the absolute extinction of existence. Such identification leads man to poison whatever he touches, to generate unnecessary misery in the face of inevitable suffering, to turn his fellows against themselves, to intermingle earth with hell – merely to attain vengeance upon God and his creation.
Cf. Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, "J.-K. Huysmans," Le Roman contemporain (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1902), pp. 281-282:
«Après les Fleurs du mal, — dis-je à Baudelaire, — il ne vous reste plus, logiquement, que la bouche d'un pistolet ou les pieds de la croix.» Baudelaire choisit les pieds de la croix. Mais l'auteur d'À Rebours les choisira-t-il?
       My translation:
I told Baudelaire that, after Les Fleurs du mal, the only logical choice left to him was between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the cross. Baudelaire chose the foot of the cross. But will the author of À Rebours make the same choice?

Décadence: It's not all beer and skittles

24 March 2017

Everything He Touches Turns to Ashes

Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 263:
Denial of the heroic promotes decadence, equally – absolute rejection of the order of tradition; absolute rejection of order itself. This pattern of apprehension and behavior seems far removed from that of the fascist – but the decadent is just as arrogant as his evidently more rigid peer. He has merely identified himself absolutely with no thing, rather than with one thing. He is rigidly convinced of the belief that nothing matters – convinced that nothing is of value, despite the opinions of (clearly-deluded, weak and despicable) others; convinced that nothing is worth the effort. The decadent functions in this manner like an anti-Midas – everything he touches turns to ashes.
Id., p. 268:
The decadent says, “there is no such thing as to know” – and never attempts to accomplish anything. Like his authoritarian counterpart, he makes himself “immune from error,” since mistakes are always made with regards to some valued, fixed and desired end. The decadent says “look, here is something new, something inexplicable; that is evidence, is it not, that everything that I have been told is wrong. History is unreliable; rules are arbitrary; accomplishment is illusory. Why do anything, under such circumstances?” But he is living on borrowed time – feeding, like a parasite, on the uncomprehended body of the past. If he works sufficiently hard, and saws off the branch on which he is sitting, then he will fall, too, into the jaws of the thing he ignored.
A related post: Decadence

20 March 2017

The Sad Fact That They Are Slaves

William Morris in The Art of Authorship, ed. George Bainton (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1890), p. 61:
If I may venture to advise you as to what to advise [young people who are interested in becoming authors], it would be that you should warn them off art and literature as professions, as bread-winning work, most emphatically. If I were advising them, I should advise them to learn as soon as possible the sad fact that they are slaves, whatever their position may be, so that they might turn the whole of their energies towards winning freedom, if not for themselves, yet for the children they will beget. Under such conditions art and literature are not worth consideration.
Edward Burne-Jones, illustration for A Dream of John Ball (1888) 

A related post: Three Hours of Leisure

15 March 2017

Exceptionally Dear to the Heart of the Recluse

Thomas Seccombe, "The Work of George Gissing; An Introductory Survey," The House of Cobwebs (London: Constable, 1906), p. ix:
Upon the larger external rings of the book-reading multitude it is not probable that Gissing will ever succeed in impressing himself. There is an absence of transcendental quality about his work, a failure in humour, a remoteness from actual life, a deficiency in awe and mystery, a shortcoming in emotional power, finally, a lack of the dramatic faculty, not indeed indispensable to a novelist, but almost indispensable as an ingredient in great novels of this particular genre. In temperament and vitality he is palpably inferior to the masters (Dickens, Thackeray, Hugo, Balzac) whom he reverenced with such a cordial admiration and envy. A 'low vitality' may account for what has been referred to as the 'nervous exhaustion' of his style. It were useless to pretend that Gissing belongs of right to the 'first series' of English Men of Letters. But if debarred by his limitations from a resounding or popular success, he will remain exceptionally dear to the heart of the recluse, who thinks that the scholar does well to cherish a grievance against the vulgar world beyond the cloister.

9 March 2017

I've Always Liked Beans on Toast

Seneca, "Letter XVIII," Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, tr. Richard M. Gummere, Vol. I (Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1917), pp. 119-121:
I shall give you also a lesson: Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: "Is this the condition that I feared?" It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes. Such is the course which those men have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

You need not suppose that I mean meals like Timon's, or "paupers' huts," or any other device which luxurious millionaires use to beguile the tedium of their lives. Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man's peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.

There is no reason, however, why you should think that you are doing anything great; for you will merely be doing what many thousands of slaves and many thousands of poor men are doing every day. But you may credit yourself with this item, – that you will not be doing it under compulsion, and that it will be as easy for you to endure it permanently as to make the experiment from time to time. Let us practise our strokes on the "dummy"; let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard. We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden.
Related posts:

7 March 2017

Misanthropy Is the Result

Arthur Schopenhauer, "Antimoral Incentives," The Basis of Morality, tr. Arthur Brodrik Bullock (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1903), pp. 155-156:
Ill-will, in its lower degrees, is very frequent, indeed, almost a common thing; and it easily rises in the scale. Goethe is assuredly right when he says that in this world indifference and aversion are quite at home. — (Wahlverwandtschaften, Part I., chap. 3.) It is very fortunate for us that the cloak, which prudence and politeness throw over this vice, prevents us from seeing how general it is, and how the bellum omnium contra omnes is constantly waged, at least in thought. Yet ever and anon there is some appearance of it: for instance, in the relentless backbiting so frequently observed; while its clearest manifestation is found in all outbreaks of anger, which, for the most part, are quite disproportional to their cause, and which could hardly be so violent, had they not been compressed — like gunpowder — into the explosive compound formed of long cherished brooding hatred. Ill-will usually arises from the unavoidable collisions of Egoism which occur at every step. It is, moreover, objectively excited by the view of the weakness, the folly, the vices, failings, shortcomings, and imperfections of all kinds, which every one more or less, at least occasionally, affords to others. Indeed, the spectacle is such, that many a man, especially in moments of melancholy and depression, may be tempted to regard the world, from the aesthetic standpoint, as a cabinet of caricatures; from the intellectual, as a madhouse; and from the moral, as a nest of sharpers. If such a mental attitude be indulged, misanthropy is the result.
The original can be found in the third section of Schopenhauer's Preisschrift über die Grundlage der Moral, specifically on p. 199 of Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1891).

Related posts:

3 March 2017

More Books and Fewer Clothes

A. Edward Newton, The Amenities of Book Collecting and Kindred Affections (London: John Lane at The Bodley Head, 1920), p. 123:
There is a joy in mere ownership [of books]. It may be silly, or it may be selfish; but it is a joy, akin to that of possessing land, which seems to need no defense. We do not walk over our property every day; we frequently do not see it; but when the fancy takes us, we love to forget our cares and responsibilities in a ramble over our fields. In like manner, and for the same reason, we browse with delight in a corner of our library in which we have placed our most precious books. We should buy our books as we buy our clothes, not only to cover our nakedness, but to embellish us; and we should buy more books and fewer clothes.