In the ideal logotopia, every person would possess his own library and add at least weekly if not daily to it. The walls of each home would seem made of books; wherever one looked one would only see spines; because every real book (as opposed to dictionaries, almanacs, and other compilations) is a mind, an imagination, a consciousness. Together they compose a civilization, or even several. Utopias, however, have the bad habit of hiding in their hearts those schemes for success, those requirements of power, rules concerning conduct, which someone will one day have to carry forward, employ and enforce, in order to achieve them, and afterward, to maintain the continued purity of their Being. Books have taught me what true dominion, what right rule, is: It is like the freely given assent and labor of the reader who will dream the dreams of the deserving page and expect no more fee than the reward of its words.
Not excepting the falling stars—for they are far less sudden—there is nothing in nature that so outstrips our unready eyes as the familiar rain. The rods that thinly stripe our landscape, long shafts from the clouds, if we had but agility to make the arrowy downward journey with them by the glancing of our eyes, would be infinitely separate, units, an innumerable flight of single things, and the simple movement of intricate points.
The long stroke of the raindrop, which is the drop and its path at once, being our impression of a shower, shows us how certainly our impression is the effect of the lagging, and not of the haste, of our senses. What we are apt to call our quick impression is rather our sensibly tardy, unprepared, surprised, outrun, lightly bewildered sense of things that flash and fall, wink, and are overpast and renewed, while the gentle eyes of man hesitate and mingle the beginning with the close. These inexpert eyes, delicately baffled, detain for an instant the image that puzzles them, and so dally with the bright progress of a meteor, and part slowly from the slender course of the already fallen raindrop, whose moments are not theirs. There seems to be such a difference of instants as invests all swift movement with mystery in man’s eyes, and causes the past, a moment old, to be written, vanishing, upon the skies.
The visible world is etched and engraved with the signs and records of our halting apprehension; and the pause between the distant woodman’s stroke with the axe and its sound upon our ears is repeated in the impressions of our clinging sight. The round wheel dazzles it, and the stroke of the bird’s wing shakes it off like a captivity evaded. Everywhere the natural haste is impatient of these timid senses; and their perception, outrun by the shower, shaken by the light, denied by the shadow, eluded by the distance, makes the lingering picture that is all our art. One of the most constant causes of all the mystery and beauty of that art is surely not that we see by flashes, but that nature flashes on our meditative eyes. There is no need for the impressionist to make haste, nor would haste avail him, for mobile nature doubles upon him, and plays with his delays the exquisite game of visibility.
Momently visible in a shower, invisible within the earth, the ministration of water is so manifest in the coming rain-cloud that the husbandman is allowed to see the rain of his own land, yet unclaimed in the arms of the rainy wind. It is an eager lien that he binds the shower withal, and the grasp of his anxiety is on the coming cloud. His sense of property takes aim and reckons distance and speed, and even as he shoots a little ahead of the equally uncertain ground-game, he knows approximately how to hit the cloud of his possession. So much is the rain bound to the earth that, unable to compel it, man has yet found a way, by lying in wait, to put his price upon it. The exhaustible cloud “outweeps its rain,” and only the inexhaustible sun seems to repeat and to enforce his cumulative fires upon every span of ground, innumerable. The rain is wasted upon the sea, but only by a fantasy can the sun’s waste be made a reproach to the ocean, the desert, or the sealed-up street. Rossetti’s “vain virtues” are the virtues of the rain, falling unfruitfully.
Baby of the cloud, rain is carried long enough within that troubled breast to make all the multitude of days unlike each other. Rain, as the end of the cloud, divides light and withholds it; in its flight warning away the sun, and in its final fall dismissing shadow. It is a threat and a reconciliation; it removes mountains compared with which the Alps are hillocks, and makes a childlike peace between opposed heights and battlements of heaven.
“A Seventeenth-Century Story”
A. A. Milne
There is a story in every name in that first column of The Times- -Births, Marriages, and Deaths—down which we glance each morning, but, unless the name is known to us, we do not bother about the stories of other people. They are those not very interesting people, our contemporaries. But in a country churchyard a name on an old tombstone will set us wondering a little. What sort of life came to an end there a hundred years ago?
In the parish register we shall find the whole history of them; when they were born, when they were married, how many children they had, when they died—a skeleton of their lives which we can clothe with our fancies and make living again. Simple lives, we make them, in that pleasant countryside; “Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath”; that is all. Simple work, simple pleasures, and a simple death.
Of course we are wrong. There were passions and pains in those lives; tragedies perhaps. The tombstones and the registers say nothing of them; or, if they say it, it is in a cypher to which we have not the key. Yet sometimes the key is almost in our hands. Here is a story from the register of a village church— four entries only, but they hide a tragedy which with a little imagination we can almost piece together for ourselves. Continue reading
“Smoking as a Fine Art”
A. A. Milne
My first introduction to Lady Nicotine was at the innocent age of eight, when, finding a small piece of somebody else’s tobacco lying unclaimed on the ground, I decided to experiment with it. Numerous desert island stories had told me that the pangs of hunger could be allayed by chewing tobacco; it was thus that the hero staved off death before discovering the bread-fruit tree. Every right-minded boy of eight hopes to be shipwrecked one day, and it was proper that I should find out for myself whether my authorities could be trusted in this matter. So I chewed tobacco. In the sense that I certainly did not desire food for some time afterwards, my experience justified the authorities, but I felt at the time that it was not so much for staving off death as for reconciling oneself to it that tobacco-chewing was to be recommended. I have never practised it since.
At eighteen I went to Cambridge, and bought two pipes in a case. In those days Greek was compulsory, but not more so than two pipes in a case. One of the pipes had an amber stem and the other a vulcanite stem, and both of them had silver belts. That also was compulsory. Having bought them, one was free to smoke cigarettes. However, at the end of my first year I got to work seriously on a shilling briar, and I have smoked that, or something like it, ever since. Continue reading
Today, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an insightful essay by Tim Peters about David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon.”
“Good Old Neon” is (in my estimation) Wallace’s finest piece of sustained prose, and his most tortured exploration of the tension between authenticity and performance.
Peters’s essay also features a number of photographs from Wallace’s high school yearbook, which are interesting, sure, but they actually fit into the essay.
Breaking into the strands and allusions that feed “Good Old Neon” (including Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, and Hemingway), Peters’s essay has a riff-like quality (is that why I like it so much?), but there’s also a thesis here, one that I think actually answers alarmist/reactionary “death of the novel”/”end of literature” “think pieces” (how do you like that last clause for phrases in quotation marks?).
Then check out Peter’s essay. A sample of his analysis:
If you read “Good Old Neon” and then read D. T. Max’s biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (the epigraph of which is a line from “Neon”), you see one example after another of stuff from Wallace’s life that Neal says happened to him. Being raised by people “of high ideals and values, humanists”; making fun of his sister as a kid and pretending like she was obese and jumping out of the way when she passed him in the hallway; having a knack for mathematical logic and logical paradoxes; having “a killer G.P.A.”; playing a varsity sport; being a philanderer with women; being on the professional fast track by the time he was in his 20s; getting into religion and meditation as a way of dealing with his troubles; living in the vicinity of the cornfields of Illinois; committing suicide. At the end of the story, when Neal’s ghost is hovering over Wallace and their high school yearbook, and as the latter is thinking about how impossible it is to try and pass through the exterior image of a person and to enter into the realm of his psyche, you wonder if what’s really going on in this story is something more akin to what happens between Dorian Gray and his picture, or William Wilson and his double, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk, or the two Tyler Durdens in Fight Club, or even between Martin Sheen and his reflection in the mirror in Hearts of Darkness, which is to say, you wonder if what’s going on here is a sort of a spiritual/philosophical death match, a duel between two opposite tendencies that are internal to a psyche but in the world of these stories are teased into two separate but similar-looking characters, into doubles or doppelgängers who both need each other and then perversely also try to destroy each other. And the dialectic that these characters are working out is Apollo v. Dionysus, the superego v. the id, the false self v. the true self, the rational civilized scientific order v. spontaneity and passion and a community of spirit. The drama that makes these stories interesting is that there’s no boring, middling, mediating ego term to calm things down and to make concessions and to prevent the dialectic from exploding. Hence: Dorian Gray stabs himself; William Wilson stabs himself; Mr. Hyde is either going to be executed or to commit suicide; The Hulk goes Smash; Tyler Durden shoots himself; Martin Sheen has a heart attack and has to be flown off the set of Apocalypse Now. And as for “Good Old Neon,” the struggle is between Neal, the golden child, against the “real, more enduring and sentimental” David Wallace who’s looking at their pictures in the high school yearbook. It’s the struggle between a nihilist who’s yet actively making the society function, and a believer who has a desire for solid, non-alienated, human relationships, but who’s quietly, sadly, sitting in a recliner and watching the nihilists run.
“Notes on the Movements of Young Children” — Robert Louis Stevenson
I wish to direct the reader’s attention to a certain quality in the movements of children when young, which is somehow lovable in them, although it would be even unpleasant in any grown person. Their movements are not graceful, but they fall short of grace by something so sweetly humorous that we only admire them the more. The imperfection is so pretty and pathetic, and it gives so great a promise of something different in the future, that it attracts us more than many forms of beauty. They have something of the merit of a rough sketch by a master, in which we pardon what is wanting or excessive for the sake of the very bluntness and directness of the thing. It gives us pleasure to see the beginning of gracious impulses and the springs of harmonious movement laid bare to us with innocent simplicity.
One night some ladies formed a sort of impromptu dancing-school in the drawing-room of an hotel in France. One of the ladies led the ring, and I can recall her as a model of accomplished, cultured movement. Two little girls, about eight years old, were the pupils; that is an age of great interest in girls, when natural grace comes to its consummation of justice and purity, with little admixture of that other grace of forethought and discipline that will shortly supersede it altogether. In these two, particularly, the rhythm was sometimes broken by an excess of energy, as though the pleasure of the music in their light bodies could endure no longer the restraint of regulated dance. So that, between these and the lady, there was not only some beginning of the very contrast I wish to insist upon, but matter enough to set one thinking a long while on the beauty of motion. I do not know that, here in England, we have any good opportunity of seeing what that is; the generation of British dancing men and women are certainly more remarkable for other qualities than for grace: they are, many of them, very conscientious artists, and give quite a serious regard to the technical parts of their performance; but the spectacle, somehow, is not often beautiful, and strikes no note of pleasure. If I had seen no more, therefore, this evening might have remained in my memory as a rare experience. But the best part of it was yet to come. For after the others had desisted, the musician still continued to play, and a little button between two and three years old came out into the cleared space and began to figure before us as the music prompted. I had an opportunity of seeing her, not on this night only, but on many subsequent nights; and the wonder and comical admiration she inspired was only deepened as time went on. She had an admirable musical ear; and each new melody, as it struck in her a new humour, suggested wonderful combinations and variations of movement. Now it would be a dance with which she would suit the music, now rather an appropriate pantomime, and now a mere string of disconnected attitudes. But whatever she did, she did it with the same verve and gusto. The spirit of the air seemed to have entered into her, and to possess her like a passion; and you could see her struggling to find expression for the beauty that was in her against the inefficacy of the dull, half-informed body. Though her footing was uneven, and her gestures often ludicrously helpless, still the spectacle was not merely amusing; and though subtle inspirations of movement miscarried in tottering travesty, you could still see that they had been inspirations; you could still see that she had set her heart on realising something just and beautiful, and that, by the discipline of these abortive efforts, she was making for herself in the future a quick, supple, and obedient body. It was grace in the making. She was not to be daunted by any merriment of people looking on critically; the music said something to her, and her whole spirit was intent on what the music said: she must carry out its suggestions, she must do her best to translate its language into that other dialect of the modulated body into which it can be translated most easily and fully. Continue reading
The most general survey shows us that the two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom. We may go further, and say that in the degree in which we are fortunate enough to get away from the one, we approach the other. Life presents, in fact, a more or less violent oscillation between the two. The reason of this is that each of these two poles stands in a double antagonism to the other, external or objective, and inner or subjective. Needy surroundings and poverty produce pain; while, if a man is more than well off, he is bored. Accordingly, while the lower classes are engaged in a ceaseless struggle with need, in other words, with pain, the upper carry on a constant and often desperate battle with boredom. The inner or subjective antagonism arises from the fact that, in the individual, susceptibility to pain varies inversely with susceptibility to boredom, because susceptibility is directly proportionate to mental power. Let me explain. A dull mind is, as a rule, associated with dull sensibilities, nerves which no stimulus can affect, a temperament, in short, which does not feel pain or anxiety very much, however great or terrible it may be. Now, intellectual dullness is at the bottom of that vacuity of soul which is stamped on so many faces, a state of mind which betrays itself by a constant and lively attention to all the trivial circumstances in the external world. This is the true source of boredom—a continual panting after excitement, in order to have a pretext for giving the mind and spirits something to occupy them. The kind of things people choose for this purpose shows that they are not very particular, as witness the miserable pastimes they have recourse to, and their ideas of social pleasure and conversation: or again, the number of people who gossip on the doorstep or gape out of the window. It is mainly because of this inner vacuity of soul that people go in quest of society, diversion, amusement, luxury of every sort, which lead many to extravagance and misery. Nothing is so good a protection against such misery as inward wealth, the wealth of the mind, because the greater it grows, the less room it leaves for boredom. The inexhaustible activity of thought! Finding ever new material to work upon in the multifarious phenomena of self and nature, and able and ready to form new combinations of them,—there you have something that invigorates the mind, and apart from moments of relaxation, sets it far above the reach of boredom.
From Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Wisdom of Life (trans. T. Bailey Saunders).
“A Christmas Number” — A.A. Milne
The common joke against the Christmas number is that it is planned in July and made up in September. This enables it to be published in the middle of November and circulated in New Zealand by Christmas. If it were published in England at Christmas, New Zealand wouldn’t get it till February. Apparently it is more important that the colonies should have it punctually than that we should.
Anyway, whenever it is made up, all journalists hate the Christmas number. But they only hate it for one reason—this being that the ordinary weekly number has to be made up at the same time. As a journalist I should like to devote the autumn exclusively to the Christmas number, and as a member of the public I should adore it when it came out. Not having been asked to produce such a number on my own I can amuse myself here by sketching out a plan for it. I follow the fine old tradition. First let us get the stories settled. Story No. 1 deals with the escaped convict. The heroine is driving back from the country- house ball, where she has had two or three proposals, when suddenly, in the most lonely part of the snow-swept moor, a figure springs out of the ditch and covers the coachman with a pistol. Alarms and confusions. “Oh, sir,” says the heroine, “spare my aunt and I will give you all my jewels.” The convict, for such it is, staggers back. “Lucy!” he cries. “Harold!” she gasps. The aunt says nothing, for she has swooned. At this point the story stops to explain how Harold came to be in knickerbockers. He had either been falsely accused or else he had been a solicitor. Anyhow, he had by this time more than paid for his folly, and Lucy still loved him. “Get in,” she says, and drives him home. Next day he leaves for New Zealand in an ordinary lounge suit. Need I say that Lucy joins him later? No; that shall be left for your imagination. The End.
So much for the first story. The second is an “i’-faith-and-stap- me” story of the good old days. It is not seasonable, for most of the action takes place in my lord’s garden amid the scent of roses; but it brings back to us the old romantic days when fighting and swearing were more picturesque than they are now, and when women loved and worked samplers. This sort of story can be read best in front of the Christmas log; it is of the past, and comes naturally into a Christmas number. I shall not describe its plot, for that is unimportant; it is the “stap me’s” and the “la, sirs,” which matter. But I may say that she marries him all right in the end, and he goes off happily to the wars.
We want another story. What shall this one be about? It might be about the amateur burglar, or the little child who reconciled old Sir John to his daughter’s marriage, or the ghost at Enderby Grange, or the millionaire’s Christmas dinner, or the accident to the Scotch express. Personally, I do not care for any of these; my vote goes for the desert-island story. Proud Lady Julia has fallen off the deck of the liner, and Ronald, refused by her that morning, dives off the hurricane deck—or the bowsprit or wherever he happens to be—and seizes her as she is sinking for the third time. It is a foggy night and their absence is unnoticed. Dawn finds them together on a little coral reef. They are in no danger, for several liners are due to pass in a day or two and Ronald’s pockets are full of biscuits and chocolate, but it is awkward for Lady Julia, who had hoped that they would never meet again. So they sit on the beach back to back (drawn by Dana Gibson) and throw sarcastic remarks over their shoulders at each other. In the end he tames her proud spirit—I think by hiding the turtles’ eggs from her—and the next liner but one takes the happy couple back to civilization.
But it is time we had some poetry. I propose to give you one serious poem about robins, and one double-page humorous piece, well illustrated in colours. I think the humorous verses must deal with hunting. Hunting does not lend itself to humour, for there are only two hunting jokes —the joke of the horse which came down at the brook and the joke of the Cockney who overrode hounds; but there are traditions to keep up, and the artist always loves it. So far we have not considered the artist sufficiently. Let us give him four full pages. One of pretty girls hanging up mistletoe, one of the squire and his family going to church in the snow, one of a brokendown coach with highwaymen coming over the hill, and one of the postman bringing loads and loads of parcels. You have all Christmas in those four pictures. But there is room for another page—let it be a coloured page, of half a dozen sketches, the period and the lettering very early English. “Ye Baron de Marchebankes calleth for hys varlet.” “Ye varlet cometh righte hastilie—-” You know the delightful kind of thing.
I confess that this is the sort of Christmas number which I love. You may say that you have seen it all before; I say that that is why I love it. The best of Christmas is that it reminds us of other Christmases; it should be the boast of Christmas numbers that they remind us of other Christmas numbers.
But though I doubt if I shall get quite what I want from any one number this year, yet there will surely be enough in all the numbers to bring Christmas very pleasantly before the eyes. In a dull November one likes to be reminded that Christmas is coming. It is perhaps as well that the demands of the colonies give us our Christmas numbers so early. At the same time it is difficult to see why New Zealand wants a Christmas number at all. As I glance above at the plan of my model paper I feel more than ever how adorable it would be—but not, oh not with the thermometer at a hundred in the shade.
“Of Studies” by Francis Bacon
STUDIES serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores. Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.
“On Visiting Bookshops” by Christopher Morley
It is a curious thing that so many people only go into a bookshop when they happen to need some particular book. Do they never drop in for a little innocent carouse and refreshment? There are some knightly souls who even go so far as to make their visits to bookshops a kind of chivalrous errantry at large. They go in not because they need any certain volume, but because they feel that there may be some book that needs them. Some wistful, little forgotten sheaf of loveliness, long pining away on an upper shelf—why not ride up, fling her across your charger (or your charge account), and gallop away. Be a little knightly, you book-lovers!
The lack of intelligence with which people use bookshops is, one supposes, no more flagrant than the lack of intelligence with which we use all the rest of the machinery of civilization. In this age, and particularly in this city, we haven’t time to be intelligent.
A queer thing about books, if you open your heart to them, is the instant and irresistible way they follow you with their appeal. You know at once, if you are clairvoyant in these matters (libre-voyant, one might say), when you have met your book. You may dally and evade, you may go on about your affairs, but the paragraph of prose your eye fell upon, or the snatch of verses, or perhaps only the spirit and flavour of the volume, more divined than reasonably noted, will follow you. A few lines glimpsed on a page may alter your whole trend of thought for the day, reverse the currents of the mind, change the profile of the city. The other evening, on a subway car, we were reading Walter de la Mare’s interesting little essay about Rupert Brooke. His discussion of children, their dreaming ways, their exalted simplicity and absorption, changed the whole tenor of our voyage by some magical chemistry of thought. It was no longer a wild, barbaric struggle with our fellowmen, but a venture of faith and recompense, taking us home to the bedtime of a child.
The moment when one meets a book and knows, beyond shadow of doubt, that that book must be his—not necessarily now, but some time—is among the happiest excitements of the spirit. An indescribable virtue effuses from some books. One can feel the radiations of an honest book long before one sees it, if one has a sensitive pulse for such affairs. Its honour and truth will speak through the advertising. Its mind and heart will cry out even underneath the extravagance of jacket-blurbings. Some shrewd soul, who understands books, remarked some time ago on the editorial page of the Sun’s book review that no superlative on a jacket had ever done the book an atom of good. He was right, as far as the true bookster is concerned. We choose our dinner not by the wrappers, but by the veining and gristle of the meat within. The other day, prowling about a bookshop, we came upon two paper-bound copies of a little book of poems by Alice Meynell. They had been there for at least two years. We had seen them before, a year or more ago, but had not looked into them fearing to be tempted. This time we ventured. We came upon two poems—“To O, Of Her Dark Eyes,” and “A Wind of Clear Weather in England.” The book was ours—or rather, we were its, though we did not yield at once. We came back the next day and got it. We are still wondering how a book like that could stay in the shop so long. Once we had it, the day was different. The sky was sluiced with a clearer blue, air and sunlight blended for a keener intake of the lungs, faces seen along the street moved us with a livelier shock of interest and surprise. The wind that moved over Sussex and blew Mrs. Meynell’s heart into her lines was still flowing across the ribs and ledges of our distant scene.
There is no mistaking a real book when one meets it. It is like falling in love, and like that colossal adventure it is an experience of great social import. Even as the tranced swain, the book-lover yearns to tell others of his bliss. He writes letters about it, adds it to the postscript of all manner of communications, intrudes it into telephone messages, and insists on his friends writing down the title of the find. Like the simple-hearted betrothed, once certain of his conquest, “I want you to love her, too!” It is a jealous passion also. He feels a little indignant if he finds that any one else has discovered the book, too. He sees an enthusiastic review—very likely in The New Republic—and says, with great scorn, “I read the book three months ago.” There are even some perversions of passion by which a book-lover loses much of his affection for his pet if he sees it too highly commended by some rival critic.
This sharp ecstasy of discovering books for one’s self is not always widespread. There are many who, for one reason or another, prefer to have their books found out for them. But for the complete zealot nothing transcends the zest of pioneering for himself. And therefore working for a publisher is, to a certain type of mind, a never-failing fascination. As H. M. Tomlinson says in “Old Junk,” that fascinating collection of sensitive and beautifully poised sketches which came to us recently with a shock of thrilling delight:
To come upon a craft rigged so, though at her moorings and with sails furled, her slender poles upspringing from the bright plane of a brimming harbour, is to me as rare and sensational a delight as the rediscovery, when idling with a book, of a favourite lyric.
To read just that passage, and the phrase the bright plane of a brimming harbour, is one of those “rare and sensational delights” that set the mind moving on lovely journeys of its own, and mark off visits to a bookshop not as casual errands of reason, but as necessary acts of devotion. We visit bookshops not so often to buy any one special book, but rather to rediscover, in the happier and more expressive words of others, our own encumbered soul.
“Thoreau” — Charles Ives
Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear “the Symphony.” The rhythm of his prose, were there nothing else, would determine his value as a composer. He was divinely conscious of the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude. In this consciousness he sang of the submission to Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of simplicity—a philosophy distinguishing between the complexity of Nature which teaches freedom, and the complexity of materialism which teaches slavery. In music, in poetry, in all art, the truth as one sees it must be given in terms which bear some proportion to the inspiration. In their greatest moments the inspiration of both Beethoven and Thoreau express profound truths and deep sentiment, but the intimate passion of it, the storm and stress of it, affected Beethoven in such a way that he could not but be ever showing it and Thoreau that he could not easily expose it. They were equally imbued with it, but with different results. A difference in temperament had something to do with this, together with a difference in the quality of expression between the two arts. “Who that has heard a strain of music feared lest he would speak extravagantly forever,” says Thoreau. Perhaps music is the art of speaking extravagantly. Herbert Spencer says that some men, as for instance Mozart, are so peculiarly sensitive to emotion … that music is to them but a continuation not only of the expression but of the actual emotion, though the theory of some more modern thinkers in the philosophy of art doesn’t always bear this out. However, there is no doubt that in its nature music is predominantly subjective and tends to subjective expression, and poetry more objective tending to objective expression. Hence the poet when his muse calls for a deeper feeling must invert this order, and he may be reluctant to do so as these depths often call for an intimate expression which the physical looks of the words may repel. They tend to reveal the nakedness of his soul rather than its warmth. It is not a matter of the relative value of the aspiration, or a difference between subconsciousness and consciousness but a difference in the arts themselves; for example, a composer may not shrink from having the public hear his “love letter in tones,” while a poet may feel sensitive about having everyone read his “letter in words.” When the object of the love is mankind the sensitiveness is changed only in degree.
But the message of Thoreau, though his fervency may be inconstant and his human appeal not always direct, is, both in thought and spirit, as universal as that of any man who ever wrote or sang—as universal as it is nontemporaneous—as universal as it is free from the measure of history, as “solitude is free from the measure of the miles of space that intervene between man and his fellows.” In spite of the fact that Henry James (who knows almost everything) says that “Thoreau is more than provincial—that he is parochial,” let us repeat that Henry Thoreau, in respect to thought, sentiment, imagination, and soul, in respect to every element except that of place of physical being—a thing that means so much to some—is as universal as any personality in literature. That he said upon being shown a specimen grass from Iceland that the same species could be found in Concord is evidence of his universality, not of his parochialism. He was so universal that he did not need to travel around the world to PROVE it. “I have more of God, they more of the road.” “It is not worth while to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” With Marcus Aurelius, if he had seen the present he had seen all, from eternity and all time forever. Continue reading
“The Alcotts” by Charles Ives
If the dictagraph had been perfected in Bronson Alcott’s time, he might now be a great writer. As it is, he goes down as Concord’s greatest talker. “Great expecter,” says Thoreau; “great feller,” says Sam Staples, “for talkin’ big … but his daughters is the gals though—always DOIN’ somethin’.” Old Man Alcott, however, was usually “doin’ somethin'” within. An internal grandiloquence made him melodious without; an exuberant, irrepressible, visionary absorbed with philosophy AS such; to him it was a kind of transcendental business, the profits of which supported his inner man rather than his family. Apparently his deep interest in spiritual physics, rather than metaphysics, gave a kind of hypnotic mellifluous effect to his voice when he sang his oracles; a manner something of a cross between an inside pompous self-assertion and an outside serious benevolence. But he was sincere and kindly intentioned in his eagerness to extend what he could of the better influence of the philosophic world as he saw it. In fact, there is a strong didactic streak in both father and daughter. Louisa May seldom misses a chance to bring out the moral of a homely virtue. The power of repetition was to them a natural means of illustration. It is said that the elder Alcott, while teaching school, would frequently whip himself when the scholars misbehaved, to show that the Divine Teacher-God-was pained when his children of the earth were bad. Quite often the boy next to the bad boy was punished, to show how sin involved the guiltless. And Miss Alcott is fond of working her story around, so that she can better rub in a moral precept—and the moral sometimes browbeats the story. But with all the elder Alcott’s vehement, impracticable, visionary qualities, there was a sturdiness and a courage—at least, we like to think so. A Yankee boy who would cheerfully travel in those days, when distances were long and unmotored, as far from Connecticut as the Carolinas, earning his way by peddling, laying down his pack to teach school when opportunity offered, must possess a basic sturdiness. This was apparently not very evident when he got to preaching his idealism. An incident in Alcott’s life helps confirm a theory—not a popular one—that men accustomed to wander around in the visionary unknown are the quickest and strongest when occasion requires ready action of the lower virtues. It often appears that a contemplative mind is more capable of action than an actively objective one. Dr. Emerson says: “It is good to know that it has been recorded of Alcott, the benign idealist, that when the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, heading the rush on the U.S. Court House in Boston, to rescue a fugitive slave, looked back for his following at the court-room door, only the apostolic philosopher was there cane in hand.” So it seems that his idealism had some substantial virtues, even if he couldn’t make a living.
The daughter does not accept the father as a prototype—she seems to have but few of her father’s qualities “in female.” She supported the family and at the same time enriched the lives of a large part of young America, starting off many little minds with wholesome thoughts and many little hearts with wholesome emotions. She leaves memory-word-pictures of healthy, New England childhood days,—pictures which are turned to with affection by middle-aged children,—pictures, that bear a sentiment, a leaven, that middle-aged America needs nowadays more than we care to admit.
Concord village, itself, reminds one of that common virtue lying at the height and root of all the Concord divinities. As one walks down the broad-arched street, passing the white house of Emerson—ascetic guard of a former prophetic beauty—he comes presently beneath the old elms overspreading the Alcott house. It seems to stand as a kind of homely but beautiful witness of Concord’s common virtue—it seems to bear a consciousness that its past is LIVING, that the “mosses of the Old Manse” and the hickories of Walden are not far away. Here is the home of the “Marches”—all pervaded with the trials and happiness of the family and telling, in a simple way, the story of “the richness of not having.” Within the house, on every side, lie remembrances of what imagination can do for the better amusement of fortunate children who have to do for themselves-much-needed lessons in these days of automatic, ready-made, easy entertainment which deaden rather than stimulate the creative faculty. And there sits the little old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony.
There is a commonplace beauty about “Orchard House”—a kind of spiritual sturdiness underlying its quaint picturesqueness—a kind of common triad of the New England homestead, whose overtones tell us that there must have been something aesthetic fibered in the Puritan severity—the self-sacrificing part of the ideal—a value that seems to stir a deeper feeling, a stronger sense of being nearer some perfect truth than a Gothic cathedral or an Etruscan villa. All around you, under the Concord sky, there still floats the influence of that human faith melody, transcendent and sentimental enough for the enthusiast or the cynic respectively, reflecting an innate hope—a common interest in common things and common men—a tune the Concord bards are ever playing, while they pound away at the immensities with a Beethovenlike sublimity, and with, may we say, a vehemence and perseverance—for that part of greatness is not so difficult to emulate.
We dare not attempt to follow the philosophic raptures of Bronson Alcott—unless you will assume that his apotheosis will show how “practical” his vision in this world would be in the next. And so we won’t try to reconcile the music sketch of the Alcotts with much besides the memory of that home under the elms—the Scotch songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each day—though there may be an attempt to catch something of that common sentiment (which we have tried to suggest above)-a strength of hope that never gives way to despair—a conviction in the power of the common soul which, when all is said and done, may be as typical as any theme of Concord and its transcendentalists.
“Genius and Virtue” by Arthur Schopenhauer
When I think, it is the spirit of the world which is striving to express its thought; it is nature which is trying to know and fathom itself. It is not the thoughts of some other mind, which I am endeavouring to trace; but it is I who transform that which exists into something which is known and thought, and would otherwise neither come into being nor continue in it.
In the realm of physics it was held for thousands of years to be a fact beyond question that water was a simple and consequently an original element. In the same way in the realm of metaphysics it was held for a still longer period that the ego was a simple and consequently an indestructible entity. I have shown, however, that it is composed of two heterogeneous parts, namely, the Will, which is metaphysical in its character, a thing in itself, and the knowing subject, which is physical and a mere phenomenon.
Let me illustrate what I mean. Take any large, massive, heavy building: this hard, ponderous body that fills so much space exists, I tell you, only in the soft pulp of the brain. There alone, in the human brain, has it any being. Unless you understand this, you can go no further.
Truly it is the world itself that is a miracle; the world of material bodies. I looked at two of them. Both were heavy, symmetrical, and beautiful. One was a jasper vase with golden rim and golden handles; the other was an organism, an animal, a man. When I had sufficiently admired their exterior, I asked my attendant genius to allow me to examine the inside of them; and I did so. In the vase I found nothing but the force of gravity and a certain obscure desire, which took the form of chemical affinity. But when I entered into the other—how shall I express my astonishment at what I saw? It is more incredible than all the fairy tales and fables that were ever conceived. Nevertheless, I shall try to describe it, even at the risk of finding no credence for my tale.
In this second thing, or rather in the upper end of it, called the head, which on its exterior side looks like anything else—a body in space, heavy, and so on—I found no less an object than the whole world itself, together with the whole of the space in which all of it exists, and the whole of the time in which all of it moves, and finally everything that fills both time and space in all its variegated and infinite character; nay, strangest sight of all, I found myself walking about in it! It was no picture that I saw; it was no peep-show, but reality itself. This it is that is really and truly to be found in a thing which is no bigger than a cabbage, and which, on occasion, an executioner might strike off at a blow, and suddenly smother that world in darkness and night. The world, I say, would vanish, did not heads grow like mushrooms, and were there not always plenty of them ready to snatch it up as it is sinking down into nothing, and keep it going like a ball. This world is an idea which they all have in common, and they express the community of their thought by the word “objectivity.”
In the face of this vision I felt as if I were Ardschuna when Krishna appeared to him in his true majesty, with his hundred thousand arms and eyes and mouths. Continue reading
Barry Hannah visits a Louisiana leper colony in “Old Terror, New Hearts,” republished this week in Oxford Americans; the piece originally ran in the October/November 1995 issue of the magazine. Opening paragraphs:
It was a massive Federalist plantation, lazy and handsome among two-century oaks and palm trees. You could imagine FDR had just visited to cut a ribbon last week. I had heard throughout my life the curious rumor of a leper “colony” down in south Louisiana. This news reached me when I was a boy in Clinton, Mississippi, and one did not know quite what to do with it. Colony evoked folks lost in an exotic fastness. Leper of course was as bad as it got, poor devils. I had a sense of these creatures execrated and driven onto some isle in a vicious swamp. In that, my young imagination was not far wrong. Louisiana was alarming and peculiar anyway. There were plenty of Catholics, many seemed touched by at least mild cases of voodoo, and adults went public with their gaudiest dreams.
Nothing at the time was more peculiar to me than the armored mammal of Louisiana, the armadillo, which I had seen dead on the road as I traveled to relatives in Baton Rouge. It was a thing aggressively obsolete in animal history but still mucking its way along, its stupid ranks torn to flat bits by modern autos on pavement laid down through the bogs. I could not know how closely related these creatures were to the poor lepers themselves. Among animals, only armadillos have leprosy. Among mankind, nobody has suffered opprobrium for six thousand years like the leper. At Carville, where I finally got over forty years of mildly curious ignorance, I saw the doubloons from last year’s Mardi Gras at Carville were imprinted on one side with an armadillo. On the other was the Federalist infirmary building: Gillis W.Long Hansen’s Disease Center1921. Hansen was the Norwegian doctor who first isolated the leprosy bacillus in the late nineteenth century. In 1921 the state leprosarium was taken over by the Public Health Service.
Now it is the Service’s last remaining hospital. In that state of advanced idiocy that has made me a living so far and may be the birthright of a Mississippi writer, I asked a therapist working with two Asian-American patients after their hand surgery if he was a flight surgeon, his uniform so naval and all. He explained, as further did Captain Jim Birke, most formidable pedorthist, that the Public Health Service originated after the Revolutionary War as a naval medical branch. Thus the costume of the Surgeon General, which has baffled others too tactful to ask.
“On a Notebook” by Hilaire Belloc
A dear friend of mine (John Abdullah Capricorn, to give him his full name) was commandeered by a publisher last year to write a book for £10. The work was far advanced when an editor offered him £15 and his expenses to visit the more desperate parts of the Sahara Desert, to which spots he at once proceeded upon a roving commission. Whether he will return or no is now doubtful, though in March we had the best hopes. With the month of May life becomes hard for Europeans south of the Atlas, and when my poor dear friend was last heard of he was chancing his popularity with a tribe of Touaregs about two hundred miles south of Touggourt.
Under these circumstances I was asked to look through his notebook and see what could be done; and I confess to a pleased surprise…. It would have been a very entertaining book had it been published. It will be a very entertaining book if it is published.
Capricorn seems to have prepared a hotchpotch of information of human follies, of contrasts, and of blunt stupidities of which he intended to make a very entertaining series of pages. I have not his talent for bringing such things together, but it may amuse the reader if I merely put in their order one or two of the notes which most struck me.
I find first, cut out of a newspaper and pasted into the book (many of his notes are in this form), the following really jovial paragraph:
“Archdeacon Blunderbuss (Blunderbuss is not the real name; I suppress that lest Capricorn’s widow should lose her two or three pounds, in case the poor fellow has really been eaten). Archdeacon Blunderbuss was more distinguished as a scholar than as a Divine. He was a very poor preacher and never managed to identify himself with any party. Nevertheless, in 1895 the Prime Minister appointed him to a stall in Shoreham Cathedral as a recognition of his great learning and good work at Durham. Two years later the rectory of St. Vacuums becoming vacant and it being within the gift of Archdeacon Blunderbuss, he excited general amazement and much scandal by presenting himself to the living.”
There the paragraph ends. It came in an ordinary society paper. It bore no marks of ill-will. It came in the midst of a column of the usual silly adulation of everybody and everything; how it got there is of no importance. There it stood and the keen eye of Capricorn noted it and treasured it for years.
I will make no comment upon this paragraph. It may be read slowly or quickly, according to the taste of the reader; it is equally delicious either way.
The next excerpt I find in the notebook is as follows:
“More than 15,000,000 visits are paid annually to London pawnbrokers.
“Jupiter is 1387 times as big as the earth, but only 300 times as heavy.
“The world’s coal mines yield 400,000,000 tons of coal a year.
“The value of the pictures in the National Gallery is about £1,250,000.” Continue reading
“The study of life not to be neglected for the sake of books” by Samuel Johnson
On life, on morals, be thy thoughts employ’d;
Leave to the schools their atoms and their void.
IT is somewhere related by Le Clerc, that a wealthy trader of good understanding, having the common ambition to breed his son a scholar, carried him to an university, resolving to use his own judgment in the choice of a tutor. He had been taught, by whatever intelligence, the nearest way to the heart of an academick, and at his arrival entertained all who came about him with such profusion, that the professors were lured by the smell of his table from their books, and flocked round him with all the cringes of awkward complaisance. This eagerness answered the merchant’s purpose: he glutted them with delicacies, and softened them with caresses, till he prevailed upon one after another to open his bosom, and make a discovery of his competitions, jealousies, and resentments. Having thus learned each man’s character, partly from himself, and partly from his acquaintances, he resolved to find some other education for his son, and went away convinced, that a scholastick life has no other tendency than to vitiate the morals and contract the understanding: nor would he afterwards hear with patience the praises of the ancient authors, being persuaded that scholars of all ages must have been the same, and that Xenophon and Cicero were professors of some former university, and therefore mean and selfish, ignorant and servile, like those whom he had lately visited and forsaken.
Envy, curiosity, and a sense of the imperfection of our present state, incline us to estimate the advantages which are in the possession of others above their real value. Every one must have remarked, what powers and prerogatives the vulgar imagine to be conferred by learning. A man of science is expected to excel the unlettered and unenlightened even on occasions where literature is of no use, and among weak minds, loses part of his reverence, by discovering no superiority in those parts of life, in which all are unavoidably equal; as when a monarch makes a progress to the remoter provinces, the rustics are said sometimes to wonder that they find him of the same size with themselves. Continue reading
“On Cats and Dogs” by Jerome K. Jerome
What I’ve suffered from them this morning no tongue can tell. It began with Gustavus Adolphus. Gustavus Adolphus (they call him “Gusty” down-stairs for short) is a very good sort of dog when he is in the middle of a large field or on a fairly extensive common, but I won’t have him indoors. He means well, but this house is not his size. He stretches himself, and over go two chairs and a what-not. He wags his tail, and the room looks as if a devastating army had marched through it. He breathes, and it puts the fire out.
At dinner-time he creeps in under the table, lies there for awhile, and then gets up suddenly; the first intimation we have of his movements being given by the table, which appears animated by a desire to turn somersaults. We all clutch at it frantically and endeavor to maintain it in a horizontal position; whereupon his struggles, he being under the impression that some wicked conspiracy is being hatched against him, become fearful, and the final picture presented is generally that of an overturned table and a smashed-up dinner sandwiched between two sprawling layers of infuriated men and women.
He came in this morning in his usual style, which he appears to have founded on that of an American cyclone, and the first thing he did was to sweep my coffee-cup off the table with his tail, sending the contents full into the middle of my waistcoat.
I rose from my chair hurriedly and remarking “——,” approached him at a rapid rate. He preceded me in the direction of the door. At the door he met Eliza coming in with eggs. Eliza observed “Ugh!” and sat down on the floor, the eggs took up different positions about the carpet, where they spread themselves out, and Gustavus Adolphus left the room. I called after him, strongly advising him to go straight downstairs and not let me see him again for the next hour or so; and he seeming to agree with me, dodged the coal-scoop and went, while I returned, dried myself and finished breakfast. I made sure that he had gone in to the yard, but when I looked into the passage ten minutes later he was sitting at the top of the stairs. I ordered him down at once, but he only barked and jumped about, so I went to see what was the matter. Continue reading
“Of Anger” by Francis Bacon
TO SEEK to extinguish anger utterly, is but a bravery of the Stoics. We have better oracles: Be angry, but sin not. Let not the sun go down upon your anger. Anger must be limited and confined, both in race and in time. We will first speak how the natural inclination and habit to be angry, may be attempted and calmed. Secondly, how the particular motions of anger may be repressed, or at least refrained from doing mischief. Thirdly, how to raise anger, or appease anger in another.
For the first; there is no other way but to meditate, and ruminate well upon the effects of anger, how it troubles man’s life. And the best time to do this, is to look back upon anger, when the fit is thoroughly over. Seneca saith well, That anger is like ruin, which breaks itself upon that it falls. The Scripture exhorteth us to possess our souls in patience. Whosoever is out of patience, is out of possession of his soul. Men must not turn bees;
… animasque in vulnere ponunt.
Anger is certainly a kind of baseness; as it appears well in the weakness of those subjects in whom it reigns; children, women, old folks, sick folks. Only men must beware, that they carry their anger rather with scorn, than with fear; so that they may seem rather to be above the injury, than below it; which is a thing easily done, if a man will give law to himself in it.
For the second point; the causes and motives of anger, are chiefly three. First, to be too sensible of hurt; for no man is angry, that feels not himself hurt; and therefore tender and delicate persons must needs be oft angry; they have so many things to trouble them, which more robust natures have little sense of. The next is, the apprehension and construction of the injury offered, to be, in the circumstances thereof, full of contempt: for contempt is that, which putteth an edge upon anger, as much or more than the hurt itself. And therefore, when men are ingenious in picking out circumstances of contempt, they do kindle their anger much. Lastly, opinion of the touch of a man’s reputation, doth multiply and sharpen anger. Wherein the remedy is, that a man should have, as Consalvo was wont to say, telam honoris crassiorem. But in all refrainings of anger, it is the best remedy to win time; and to make a man’s self believe, that the opportunity of his revenge is not yet come, but that he foresees a time for it; and so to still himself in the meantime, and reserve it.
To contain anger from mischief, though it take hold of a man, there be two things, whereof you must have special caution. The one, of extreme bitterness of words, especially if they be aculeate and proper; for cummunia maledicta are nothing so much; and again, that in anger a man reveal no secrets; for that, makes him not fit for society. The other, that you do not peremptorily break off, in any business, in a fit of anger; but howsoever you show bitterness, do not act anything, that is not revocable.
For raising and appeasing anger in another; it is done chiefly by choosing of times, when men are frowardest and worst disposed, to incense them. Again, by gathering (as was touched before) all that you can find out, to aggravate the contempt. And the two remedies are by the contraries. The former to take good times, when first to relate to a man an angry business; for the first impression is much; and the other is, to sever, as much as may be, the construction of the injury from the point of contempt; imputing it to misunderstanding, fear, passion, or what you will.