23 February 2021

Why Do I Sigh?

Franz Grillparzer, “Aesthetische Studien,” in Sämtliche Werke, Vol. 9 (Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta’sche Buchhandlung, 1872), pp. 70-71 (my translation):

The imitation of Nature has been set up as the supreme law of art. But I ask: Can one imitate Nature? Sculpture gives it form, but the highest charm, movement, and colour are lacking. Painting gives us landscapes, and the most it can accomplish is to render the outward appearance of the trees, grasses, and clouds as cleverly as possible. But can it also reproduce the rustling of these trees, the swaying of these grasses, the drifting of these clouds, which is precisely what constitutes the primary appeal of the actual scene? Where is the singing of the birds, the murmuring of the brook, the ringing of the bells? A landscape can be depicted in such a way as to express movement, albeit flatly, but in terms of vividness there can be no comparison with the real thing.

And yet monochrome, motionless Nature as it is painted and described in landscape art is able to move people who are left cold by reality. How is it, then, that a dull copy appeals more strongly than the living original? Technically perfect imitation cannot call forth any emotion — at most it may create astonishment, the sort of feeling that is aroused by the feats of so-called strong men, or at the sight of the countless tiny faces that one sees carved into cherry stones in our museums. What's more, does Nature (apart from being a way for us to satisfy our needs) truly have a direct effect on us? Why does it not also have an effect on animals? Why does it not move all human beings in the same way?

What is there in the redness of the clouds, in the fading of the light, in the falling shadows at sunset that is so touching that it brings tears to my eyes? Why do I pass the fresh, green trees and stop in front of the one struck by lightning to contemplate it, stand there absorbed, and finally turn away with a sigh? What am I sighing at? The tree? It does not feel its injury. Or do I sigh, half unconsciously, at the fall of all that is great, at the withering of all that blooms, at “the lot of the beautiful on earth”? 1 Do I transfer my feelings to the tree, and is it only a representation of what I am thinking? If this is so, and it is, then it can be understood why Nature only moves those who think and feel more deeply, while other people who are distracted by random, incidental things are not at all conscious of the forces that are really at work. 

But if someone who is capable of grasping and reproducing the natural things that appeal to the mind sits down to represent his sensations permanently — recording them from natural observations and leaving aside whatever is immaterial or disturbing — he portrays the effect that it had upon him. In this way the attention of the more shallow observer will also be stimulated and, since the extraneous, secondary elements have been cut away, he will be drawn to the actual point — the connection that previously escaped him will become clear. Standing before the work of art, he will feel something he never would never have felt in Nature — nor would have ever noticed without the artist, since it was not so much the object that communicated it to the observer as it was the observer who communicated it to the object. He will recognize the artist's idea and the imitation of the object will only have been the means by which he came to understand it. 

The “lot of the beautiful on earth” (das Los des Schönen auf der Erde) comes from a line in Schiller's Wallenstein, where he says that beauty is bound to be trampled under the hooves of fate.

Grillparzer has been in his grave for a century and a half but, as far as I can tell, his Aesthetische Studien remain untranslated. The harvest is plentious, but the labourers are few...

Caspar David Friedrich, Eiche im Schnee (1827)

15 February 2021

The Stupidity of Demos

Henri-Frédéric Amiel, Journal Intime, tr. Mrs. Humphry Ward (New York: A. L. Burt, c. 1895), p. 237:

Wisdom, which means balance and harmony, is only met with in individuals. Democracy, which means the rule of the masses, gives preponderance to instinct, to nature, to the passions — that is to say, to blind impulse, to elemental gravitation, to generic fatality. Perpetual vacillation between contraries becomes its only mode of progress, because it represents that childish form of prejudice which falls in love and cools, adores, and curses, with the same haste and unreason. A succession of opposing follies gives an impression of change which the people readily identify with improvement, as though Enceladus was more at ease on his left side than on his right, the weight of the volcano remaining the same. The stupidity of Demos is only equaled by its presumption. It is like a youth with all his animal and none of his reasoning powers developed.

Adriaen van de Venne, A Fight Between Beggars (c. 1635)

9 February 2021

The Man Whom I Would Most Envy

Charles Hare Plunkett, pseudonym of A. C. Benson, "The Landscape Painter," The Letters of One; A Study in Limitations (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1907), pp. 133-135:

He showed me a lot of charming sketches and pictures, and told me frankly that he could not sell them. “But my tastes are very simple, and I can get along.” I can’t tell you what a refreshment it was to talk to a man who lives so joyfully and serenely in his art. I tried to penetrate his secret, but he did not seem to have any. I have always thought that the landscape-painter is on the whole the man whom I would most envy, even more than the musician. He lives face to face with nature in all its moods. He is much in the open air; his mind is free to meditate. I said to him, when he was describing the sort of life he led, “But what is your aim, your object, in all this?” “I don’t know that I ever asked myself the question,” he said, with his great quiet smile; “I like the sight of beautiful things; I like trying to render them. I suppose one ought to have a sense of artistic vocation, but I have never had any doubt as to what I wanted to do. I try not to get mannerised; I vary my subjects. I try to see what is there, and to paint it.” “But,” I said, “there is a great deal more than that in your pictures; there is sense of the place, the scene, the hour, the spirit of the thing, selected from a thousand effects, and given permanence; and then there is the feeling of something great and tender and hopeful behind it all, the secret of the sunset and the wind, the moorland and the lake.” He mused a little, and then he said, “Well, if you see that in my pictures — and I am glad you do — it is not because I put it there, but because it is there, and because I have seen it and rendered it; it is like music to me, the motif of the scene, moving through harmonies of colour and line. Of course it is very baffling sometimes, because the sun will come and transpose the key, so to speak, of your picture; and then one has to wait. But I am no good,” he said, “at explaining all this; it is very vague to me. I seem only content to look and record.” 


Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878), Le soir

3 February 2021

Let Us Talk of Something Else

Lord Chesterfield, Letters to His Son (October 16, 1747), number XVII in this elegant edition published in Washington by M. Walter Dunne in 1901 (at p. 27):

Never maintain an argument with heat and clamour, though you think or know yourself to be in the right; but give your opinion modestly and coolly, which is the only way to convince; and if that does not do, try to change the conversation, by saying, with good humour, “We shall hardly convince one another, nor is it necessary that we should, so let us talk of something else.”

Rembrandt, Two Scholars Disputing (1628)

28 January 2021

Albin Egger-Lienz (1868 – 1926)

Der Sämann (1903)

Bergmäher (1907)

Mittagessen (1910)

Mann und Weib (1910)

Den Namenlosen (1916)

Lorli im Garten (1919)

Die Quelle (1924)

I've put Josef Soyka's book about Egger-Lienz on my list of monographs to translate.

27 January 2021

Live Each Day as If It Were the Last

William Drummond  (1585–1649), “Death’s Last Will,” The Poems of William Drummond of HawthorndenVol. 2 (London: Lawrence and Bullen, 1894), p. 31:

More oft than once Death whisper’d in mine ear,
Grave what thou hears in diamond and gold,
I am that monarch whom all monarchs fear,
Who hath in dust their far-stretch’d pride uproll’d;
All, all is mine beneath moon's silver sphere,
And nought, save virtue, can my power withhold:
This, not believ’d, experience true thee told,
By danger late when I to thee came near.
As bugbear then my visage I did show,
That of my horrors thou right use might'st make,
And a more sacred path of living take:
Now still walk armed for my ruthless blow,
    Trust flattering life no more, redeem time past,
    And live each day as if it were the last.


Albert Besnard, Dans la foule (1900)

24 January 2021

A Good Teaching

Ajahn Jayasaro, Stillness Flowing; The Life and Teachings of Ajahn Chah (Pakchong: Panyaprateep Foundation, 2017), pp. 189-190:

As the human body does not vary from one culture to another, humour derived from it is more universal. Ajahn Sumedho recalls the time that Luang Por [Chah] took him to visit some of the great masters of the Luang Pu Mun tradition. In Udon Province, they paid their respects to one elderly master, believed to be an arahant, who was confined to a wheelchair and rarely spoke. Luang Por had recently been offered a cassette recorder and was using it to record Dhamma teachings. It was placed in front of the venerable old monk who sat there quietly smiling at them. After a suitable time had elapsed and it was clear that the he was not going to speak, they prepared to bow to him and leave. At that moment, the great master farted. Back in the car, Luang Por replayed the tape. The sound of the fart was clearly audible. Luang Por looked at Ajahn Sumedho and said:

That was a good teaching.


Odilon Redon, Le Buddha (1895)

17 January 2021

Sounds Like a Nice Place

Ajahn Jayasaro describes the people of Isan (northeastern Thailand) in Stillness Flowing; The Life and Teachings of Ajahn Chah (Pakchong: Panyaprateep Foundation, 2017), p. 19:

The idea of persecuting others for holding beliefs different from their own has always been incomprehensible to them. They are not particularly cerebral – abstract theories and philosophies rarely excite them – but they are skilful pragmatists with a considerable talent for compromise; the bamboo bending in strong winds has always been one of their favourite images. They avoid open confrontation wherever possible and consider the unfiltered expression of strong feeling to be uncouth and immature. They admire the ability to remain calm and unruffled under stress, and they aspire to ‘a cool heart’.


Buddhist monk in Phu Kradung National Park (image from Wikipedia)

14 January 2021

Half Rations

Sir William Slim, Defeat into Victory (London: Cassell and Company, 1957), p. 195:

When any of the forward formations had to go on half rations, as throughout the campaign they often did, I used to put my headquarters on half rations too. It had little practical effect, but as a gesture it was rather valuable, and it did remind the young staff officers with healthy appetites that it was urgent to get the forward formations back to full rations as soon as possible.

Slim as commander of the Fourteenth Army, c. 1945
Slim as commander of the Fourteenth Army, c. 1945

12 January 2021

Blend in With the Rest of the Chimps

James Clear, Atomic Habits (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), p. 120:

The normal behavior of the tribe often overpowers the desired behavior of the individual. For example, one study found that when a chimpanzee learns an effective way to crack nuts open as a member of one group and then switches to a new group that uses a less effective strategy, it will avoid using the superior nut cracking method just to blend in with the rest of the chimps.

Humans are similar. There is tremendous internal pressure to comply with the norms of the group. The reward of being accepted is often greater than the reward of winning an argument, looking smart, or finding truth. Most days, we’d rather be wrong with the crowd than be right by ourselves.

The human mind knows how to get along with others. It wants to get along with others. This is our natural mode. You can override it — you can choose to ignore the group or to stop caring what other people think — but it takes work. Running against the grain of your culture requires extra effort.


David Teniers the Younger, A Monkey Encampment (1633)

11 January 2021

Peevish, Petulant, Personal Comment

Richard Burton on critics and reviewers, quoted in Isabel Burton, The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, Vol. 2 (London: Chapman & Hall, 1893), p. 262:

They no longer review books; when they are incompetent they review the author, and if the author's politics and religion do not happen to agree with the office of that paper, it admits scurrilous and personal paragraphs on the authors themselves, bringing up a sort of dossier of the author, which would be considered even disgraceful in a trial in a criminal court. Thirty years ago this would never have been allowed. This may amuse the writer, it may excite the reader, but I protest against it. Nothing can be less profitable to an author or a reader than a long tirade of peevish, petulant, personal comment, and unanswerable sneer. This is only used by people who can shelter themselves under an anonymous signature, or a Critique manqué, and is quite the mark of a pretender in literature and critical art, and which seldom disfigures the style of a true or able critic.

Photo of Richard Burton from the Crewe Collection
pasted to the front flyleaf of First Footsteps (1856)

Related posts:

7 January 2021

Gentle Drops of Forgetfulness

Thomas More, Epigram 121 (On Sleep, Which Makes the Poor Man the Rich Man's Equal), The Latin Epigrams of Thomas More, tr. Leicester Bradner and Charles Arthur Lynch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 180 (note omitted):

O sleep, restful part of life, hope and comfort of the poor, whom by night you make equal to the rich, you comfort sad hearts with gentle drops of forgetfulness and drive away all recollection of woe. Generously in happy dreams you confer wealth upon the poor man. Why do you, rich man, scorn the poor man’s fancied wealth? Real wealth brings to the rich worry, pain, and grief; imagined wealth brings the poor real joy.

 The original, from pp. 56-57: 


Somne quies uitae, spes et solamen egenis,
   Diuitibus noctu quos facis esse pares.
Tristia demulces lethaco pectora rore,
   Excutis et sensum totius inde mali.
Laeta benignus opes inopi per somnia mittis.
   Quid falsas rides, diues, opes inopis?
Diuitibus uerae curas, tormenta, dolores
   Pauperibus falsae gaudia uera ferunt.

Related posts:

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Le Rêve (1883)
"Love, Glory, and Wealth appear to him in his sleep."

5 January 2021

On the Backs of the Creatives

Christopher Schwarz, one of the founders of the Lost Art Press, at the 7:05 mark in the December 28 episode of Jonathan Pritchard’s Mind Reader University podcast:

When I got thrown into the corporate world and corporate publishing, what I found out is that you can really print money. It is a licence to print money. The profit margins in corporate publishing are astonishing by most manufacturing standards, and they do that by just screwing people. It’s horrible to see. It’s on the backs of the creatives that they make their money, and creatives see very little of that money. So when I set out to make a publishing company with my partner John Hoffman, the idea was… From a quality point of view I love nicely made things, I grew up with nicely made things. It wasn’t that we were rich and were surrounded by Chippendale stuff, it was that my dad made this, my grandfather made this, it will last, and I still have these things. So whatever we’re going to make, it’s going to be nice. The second thing was that, however we run our business, it was going to be the exact opposite of the way I was trained to do it. I always thought that would be a successful model.


Image from my copy of Schwarz's Campaign Furniture
(Fort Mitchell: Lost Art Press, 2014), pp. 214-215

3 January 2021

French Critics and Dutch Painters

Vincent Van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard (undated), The Letters of a Post-Impressionist; Being the Familiar Correspondence of Vincent van Gogh (London: Constable, 1912), p. 63:
Of course the Dutch painters are too widely distributed over the Museums and collections of the world for us to be able to form any adequate idea of their work, and this is still more difficult when one knows only the Louvre. And yet it is precisely the Frenchmen, Ch. Blanc, Thoré and Fromentin, who have written the best things about them.

Eugène Fromentin, Canal Della Misericordia (1871)

2 January 2021

New Year, Old Blog

I've been reluctant to clutter up Charon's Barque with anything that is unrelated to the work at hand, and have missed having somewhere to keep my arbitrary notes, so I'm dusting off this old commonplace book. 

I still think the Blogspot platform is unwieldy, but if I am going to maintain a second web site, well, I might as well resurrect the one I already have.

From now on I'll house quotes gleaned from my personal reading here, and only use the other place to share information about The Obolus Press.

Welcome back.

Lovis Corinth, Baccants Returning Home (1898)
Lovis Corinth, Baccants Returning Home (1898)

31 July 2020

Goodbye, Google

I am transferring my admiral's flag to a more seaworthy vessel.

I've been meaning to switch platforms for a while, but the cack-handed “improvements” that Google is making to Blogspot (which powers this site) have spurred me into action. I am abandoning this place and moving my online notebook to a new home:


You will see that it is set up as a subdirectory of the Obolus Press, which is the publishing company I established some time ago.

Everything will remain here, dormant, but all future posts will be on the other blog.

I hope you'll follow me there.

Aubrey Beardsley, Ave Atque Vale (1896)

24 July 2020

Really Worth a Life

Stephen MacKenna, entry for January 15, 1908 (his 36th birthday),  Journal and Letters , ed. E. R. Dodds (London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1936), pp. 117-118:
I feel that my life is one long series of beginnings: I am always planning for next year, always working towards something, never at something. The one clear reason — whether 'tis an excuse or not, I don't know — is that nothing that is within my power interests me or seems worth doing. I am interested in Plotinus: to translate him into beautiful English and then to interpret him and press him into the use of this century seems to me, has always seemed to me, really worth a life — but I have not been able to give the work all my time and thought: I must write bosh and run about the world on stupid people's tracks.... I utterly lack the power many or most men have of working indifferently well at some one trade for livelihood while keeping two or three passionate efforts always marching quietly but surely on towards the great ends that are the real meaning and use of life. And, deep down, I cannot find in myself, in power or vision, any reason for believing that I can really add anything to the world, do any service: and anything less than such an effective service as will reach far beyond myself seems to me utterly unworthy. I have no interest in trifles, in trifling things or trifling people, and, being below or outside of the serious, I become trifling myself. The others I quietly scorn; myself I scorn bitterly, angrily.
MacKenna did manage to escape from journalism: He endured poverty, but completed his translation of Plotinus in 1930. He died four years later. May the earth rest lightly upon him!

All five volumes of his translation of the Enneads are on Archive.org:

They are lovely books. There's a full set available on Abe for $255.

Left: Title Page from Vol. 1                Right: Portrait of Plotinus from the Museo Ostiense, Inv. 68 (c. 205–270 AD)

23 July 2020

Friendship Before Politics

Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Hamilton (22 April 1800):
I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend. During the whole of the last war, which was trying enough, I never deserted a friend because he had taken an opposite side; and those of my own state who joined the British government can attest my unremitting zeal in saving their property, and can point out the laws in our statute books which I drew, and carried through in their favor. However I have seen during the late political paroxysm here [the XYZ affair], numbers whom I had highly esteemed draw off from me, insomuch as to cross the street to avoid meeting me. The fever is abating, & doubtless some of them will correct the momentary wanderings of their heart, & return again. If they do, they will meet the constancy of my esteem, & the same oblivion of this as of any other delirium which might happen to them.

Cf. Roger Scruton, quoted in "Roger Scruton: The Patron Saint of Lost Causes," The Independent (3 July 2005):
One of the great distinctions between the left and the right in the intellectual world is that left-wing people find it very hard to get on with right-wing people, because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with left-wing people, because I simply believe that they are mistaken. After a while, if I can persuade them that I'm not evil, I find it a very useful thing. I know that my views on many things are open to correction. But if you can't discuss with your opponents, how can you correct your views?

Jacopo Pontormo, Portrait of Two Friends (c. 1522)
(The text they are holding comes from Cicero's Amictia.)

22 July 2020

Be What Nature Intended

Sydney Smith, "On the Conduct of the Understanding," Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy (London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1855), p. 265:
There is one circumstance I would preach up, morning, noon, and night, to young persons, for the management of their understanding. Whatever you are from nature, keep to it: never desert your own line of talent. If Providence only intended you to write posies for rings, or mottoes for twelfth-cakes, keep to posies and mottoes: a good motto for a twelfth-cake is more respectable than a villainous epic poem in twelve books. Be what nature intended you for, and you will succeed; be any thing else, and you will be ten thousand times worse than nothing.
Related posts:

Benjamin West, Know Thyself  (1768)

20 July 2020

A Process of Discovery and Disentanglement

T. E. Hulme, "Bergson's Theory of Art," Speculations (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1936), pp. 149-150:
The process of artistic creation would be better described as a process of discovery and disentanglement. To use the metaphor which one is by now so familiar with — the stream of the inner life, and the definite crystallised shapes on the surface — the big artist, the creative artist, the innovator, leaves the level where things are crystallised out into these definite shapes, and, diving down into the inner flux, comes back with a new shape which he endeavours to fix. He cannot be said to have created it, but to have discovered it, because when he has definitely expressed it we recognise it as true. Great painters are men in whom has originated a certain vision of things which has become or will become the vision of everybody. Once the painter has seen it, it becomes easy for all of us to see it. A mould has been made. But the creative activity came in the effort which was necessary to disentangle this particular type of vision from the general haze the effort, that is, which is necessary to break moulds and to make new ones. For instance, the effect produced by Constable on the English and French Schools of landscape painting. Nobody before Constable saw things, or at any rate painted them, in that particular way. This makes it easier to see clearly what one means by an individual way of looking at things. It does not mean something which is peculiar to an individual, for in that case it would be quite valueless. It means that a certain individual artist was able to break through the conventional ways of looking at things which veil reality from us at a certain point, was able to pick out one element which is really in all of us, but which before he had disentangled it, we were unable to perceive. It is as if the surface of our mind was a sea in a continual state of motion, that there were so many waves on it, their existence was so transient, and they interfered so much with each other, that one was unable to perceive them. The artist by making a fixed model of one of these transient waves enables you to isolate it out and to perceive it in yourself. In that sense art merely reveals, it never creates.
John Constable, The Wheat Field (1816)