“A sublime murkiness and original pent fury” | Walt Whitman on Millet’s Paintings

The Diggers, Jean-Francois Millet

April 18.—Went out three or four miles to the house of Quincy Shaw, to see a collection of J. F. Millet’s pictures. Two rapt hours. Never before have I been so penetrated by this kind of expression. I stood long and long before “the Sower.” I believe what the picture-men designate “the first Sower,” as the artist executed a second copy, and a third, and, some think, improved in each. But I doubt it. There is something in this that could hardly be caught again—a sublime murkiness and original pent fury. Besides this masterpiece, there were many others, (I shall never forget the simple evening scene, “Watering the Cow,”) all inimitable, all perfect as pictures, works of mere art; and then it seem’d to me, with that last impalpable ethic purpose from the artist (most likely unconscious to himself) which I am always looking for. To me all of them told the full story of what went before and necessitated the great French revolution—the long precedent crushing of the masses of a heroic people into the earth, in abject poverty, hunger—every right denied, humanity attempted to be put back for generations—yet Nature’s force, titanic here, the stronger and hardier for that repression—waiting terribly to break forth, revengeful—the pressure on the dykes, and the bursting at last—the storming of the Bastile—the execution of the king and queen—the tempest of massacres and blood. Yet who can wonder?

Could we wish humanity different? Could we wish the people made of wood or stone? Or that there be no justice in destiny or time?

The true France, base of all the rest, is certainly in these pictures. I comprehend “Field-People Reposing,” “the Diggers,” and “the Angelus” in this opinion. Some folks always think of the French as a small race, five or five and a half feet high, and ever frivolous and smirking. Nothing of the sort. The bulk of the personnel of France, before the revolution, was large-sized, serious, industrious as now, and simple. The revolution and Napoleon’s wars dwarf’d the standard of human size, but it will come up again. If for nothing else, I should dwell on my brief Boston visit for opening to me the new world of Millet’s pictures. Will America ever have such an artist out of her own gestation, body, soul?

—From Walt Whitman’s journal of 1881

 

Alan Furst Novel (Book Acquired, 5.22.2013)

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Alan Furst’s Mission to Paris is new in trade paperback this month. Publisher Random House’s blurb:

Late summer, 1938. Hollywood film star Fredric Stahl is on his way to Paris to make a movie. The Nazis know he’s coming—a secret bureau within the Reich has been waging political warfare against France, and for their purposes, Fredric Stahl is a perfect agent of influence. What they don’t know is that Stahl, horrified by the Nazi war on Jews and intellectuals, has become part of an informal spy service run out of the American embassy. Mission to Paris is filled with heart-stopping tension, beautifully drawn scenes of romance, and extraordinarily alive characters: foreign assassins; a glamorous Russian actress-turned-spy; and the women in Stahl’s life. At the center of the novel is the city of Paris—its bistros, hotels grand and anonymous, and the Parisians, living every night as though it were their last. Alan Furst brings to life both a dark time in history and the passion of the human hearts that fought to survive it.

 

“The End of the World” — G.K. Chesterton

“The End of the World” by G.K. Chesterton

For some time I had been wandering in quiet streets in the curious town of Besançon, which stands like a sort of peninsula in a horse-shoe of river. You may learn from the guide books that it was the birthplace of Victor Hugo, and that it is a military station with many forts, near the French frontier. But you will not learn from guide books that the very tiles on the roofs seem to be of some quainter and more delicate colour than the tiles of all the other towns of the world; that the tiles look like the little clouds of some strange sunset, or like the lustrous scales of some strange fish. They will not tell you that in this town the eye cannot rest on anything without finding it in some way attractive and even elvish, a carved face at a street corner, a gleam of green fields through a stunted arch, or some unexpected colour for the enamel of a spire or dome.

…..Evening was coming on and in the light of it all these colours so simple and yet so subtle seemed more and more to fit together and make a fairy tale. I sat down for a little outside a café with a row of little toy trees in front of it, and presently the driver of a fly (as we should call it) came to the same place. He was one of those very large and dark Frenchmen, a type not common but yet typical of France; the Rabelaisian Frenchman, huge, swarthy, purple-faced, a walking wine-barrel; he was a sort of Southern Falstaff, if one can imagine Falstaff anything but English. And, indeed, there was a vital difference, typical of two nations. For while Falstaff would have been shaking with hilarity like a huge jelly, full of the broad farce of the London streets, this Frenchman was rather solemn and dignified than otherwise—as if pleasure were a kind of pagan religion. After some talk which was full of the admirable civility and equality of French civilisation, he suggested without either eagerness or embarrassment that he should take me in his fly for an hour’s ride in the hills beyond the town. And though it was growing late I consented; for there was one long white road under an archway and round a hill that dragged me like a long white cord. We drove through the strong, squat gateway that was made by Romans, and I remember the coincidence like a sort of omen that as we passed out of the city I heard simultaneously the three sounds which are the trinity of France. They make what some poet calls “a tangled trinity,” and I am not going to disentangle it. Whatever those three things mean, how or why they co-exist; whether they can be reconciled or perhaps are reconciled already; the three sounds I heard then by an accident all at once make up the French mystery. For the brass band in the Casino gardens behind me was playing with a sort of passionate levity some ramping tune from a Parisian comic opera, and while this was going on I heard also the bugles on the hills above, that told of terrible loyalties and men always arming in the gate of France; and I heard also, fainter than these sounds and through them all, the Angelus. Continue reading

“Two Friends” — Guy de Maupassant

“Two Friends” — Guy de Maupassant

Besieged Paris was in the throes of famine. Even the sparrows on the roofs and the rats in the sewers were growing scarce. People were eating anything they could get.

As Monsieur Morissot, watchmaker by profession and idler for the nonce, was strolling along the boulevard one bright January morning, his hands in his trousers pockets and stomach empty, he suddenly came face to face with an acquaintance—Monsieur Sauvage, a fishing chum.

Before the war broke out Morissot had been in the habit, every Sunday morning, of setting forth with a bamboo rod in his hand and a tin box on his back. He took the Argenteuil train, got out at Colombes, and walked thence to the Ile Marante. The moment he arrived at this place of his dreams he began fishing, and fished till nightfall.

Every Sunday he met in this very spot Monsieur Sauvage, a stout, jolly, little man, a draper in the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette, and also an ardent fisherman. They often spent half the day side by side, rod in hand and feet dangling over the water, and a warm friendship had sprung up between the two.

Some days they did not speak; at other times they chatted; but they understood each other perfectly without the aid of words, having similar tastes and feelings.

In the spring, about ten o’clock in the morning, when the early sun caused a light mist to float on the water and gently warmed the backs of the two enthusiastic anglers, Morissot would occasionally remark to his neighbor:

“My, but it’s pleasant here.”

To which the other would reply:

“I can’t imagine anything better!”

And these few words sufficed to make them understand and appreciate each other.

In the autumn, toward the close of day, when the setting sun shed a blood-red glow over the western sky, and the reflection of the crimson clouds tinged the whole river with red, brought a glow to the faces of the two friends, and gilded the trees, whose leaves were already turning at the first chill touch of winter, Monsieur Sauvage would sometimes smile at Morissot, and say:

“What a glorious spectacle!”

And Morissot would answer, without taking his eyes from his float:

“This is much better than the boulevard, isn’t it?”

As soon as they recognized each other they shook hands cordially, affected at the thought of meeting under such changed circumstances.

Monsieur Sauvage, with a sigh, murmured:

“These are sad times!”

Morissot shook his head mournfully.

“And such weather! This is the first fine day of the year.”

The sky was, in fact, of a bright, cloudless blue.

They walked along, side by side, reflective and sad.

“And to think of the fishing!” said Morissot. “What good times we used to have!”

“When shall we be able to fish again?” asked Monsieur Sauvage.

They entered a small cafe and took an absinthe together, then resumed their walk along the pavement.

Morissot stopped suddenly.

“Shall we have another absinthe?” he said.

“If you like,” agreed Monsieur Sauvage.

And they entered another wine shop. Continue reading

“Of Revenge” — Francis Bacon

“Of Revenge” by Francis Bacon

REVENGE is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office. Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon. And Solomon, I am sure, saith, It is the glory of a man, to pass by an offence. That which is past is gone, and irrevocable; and wise men have enough to do, with things present and to come; therefore they do but trifle with themselves, that labor in past matters. There is no man doth a wrong, for the wrong’s sake; but thereby to purchase himself profit, or pleasure, or honor, or the like. Therefore why should I be angry with a man, for loving himself better than me? And if any man should do wrong, merely out of ill-nature, why, yet it is but like the thorn or briar, which prick and scratch, because they can do no other. The most tolerable sort of revenge, is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy; but then let a man take heed, the revenge be such as there is no law to punish; else a man’s enemy is still before hand, and it is two for one. Some, when they take revenge, are desirous, the party should know, whence it cometh. This is the more generous. For the delight seemeth to be, not so much in doing the hurt, as in making the party repent. But base and crafty cowards, are like the arrow that flieth in the dark. Cosmus, duke of Florence, had a desperate saying against perfidious or neglecting friends, as if those wrongs were unpardonable; You shall read (saith he) that we are commanded to forgive our enemies; but you never read, that we are commanded to forgive our friends. But yet the spirit of Job was in a better tune: Shall we (saith he) take good at God’s hands, and not be content to take evil also? And so of friends in a proportion. This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well. Public revenges are for the most part fortunate; as that for the death of Caesar; for the death of Pertinax; for the death of Henry the Third of France; and many more. But in private revenges, it is not so. Nay rather, vindictive persons live the life of witches; who, as they are mischievous, so end they infortunate.

 

André Maurois’s Climates (Book Acquired, 12.11.2012)

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This one looks pretty cool—André Maurois’s 1928 novel Climates. Here’s publisher Other Press’s blurb:

Written in 1928 by French biographer and novelist Andre Maurois, Climates became a best seller in France and all over Europe. The first 100,000 copies printed of its Russian translation sold out the day they appeared in Moscow bookstores. This magnificently written novel about a double conjugal failure is imbued with subtle yet profound psychological insights of a caliber that arguably rivals Tolstoy’s. Here Phillipe Marcenat, an erudite yet conventional industrialist from central France, falls madly in love with and marries the beautiful but unreliable Odile despite his family’s disapproval. Soon, Phillipe’s possessiveness and jealousy drive her away. Brokenhearted, Phillipe then marries the devoted and sincere Isabelle and promptly inflicts on his new wife the very same woes he endured at the hands of Odile. But Isabelle’s integrity and determination to save her marriage adds yet another dimension to this extraordinary work on the dynamics and vicissitudes of love.

I haven’t had time to dip into Climates yet, but it got a compelling write-up in The New Yorker last month. Excerpt:

At first sight, “Climates” is a simple fable. It tells of Philippe Marcenat, the heir to a provincial paper-mill business, who falls in love with the woman of his dreams, Odile Malet. He loses her, but is later loved in turn by Isabelle de Cheverny, a woman not of his dreams at all, although he tries (“Vertigo”-ishly) to make her so. We follow first Philippe and then Isabelle as they reflect on their love. There is a happy ending of sorts, though not for Philippe. Maurois has summarized his first vision of the story, in its bare-bones form, as:

Part 1. I love, and am not loved.

Part 2. I am loved, and do not love.

Put that way, it sounds like a perfectly balanced diptych. In fact, it is neither balanced nor anywhere near simple. Each of these four “love” and “non-love” elements conceals some complication, something moving at cross-purposes to it. Beneath what seems to be love, there lurks tyranny or submission, or a mixture of both. Beneath what seems to be non-love, there is… it’s hard to say what, but something indefinable that looks very much like love.

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/11/the-two-loves-of-andre-maurois.html#ixzz2FKDinsNq

 

“Were he my brother, why then I’d have murdered poor Werther” (Goethe)

Ask whomever you will but you’ll never find out where I’m lodging,

High society’s lords, ladies so groomed and refined.

“Tell me, was Werther authentic? Did all of that happen in real life?”

“Lotte, oh where did she live, Werther’s only true love?”

How many times have I cursed those frivolous pages that broadcast

Out among all mankind passions I felt in my youth!

Were he my brother, why then I’d have murdered poor Werther.

Yet his despondent ghost couldn’t have sought worse revenge.

That’s the way “Marlborough,” the ditty, follows the Englishman’s travels

Down to Livorno from France, thence from Livorno to Rome,

All of the way into Naples and then, should he flee on to Madras,

“Marlborough” will surely be there, “Marlborough” sung in the port.

Happily now I’ve escaped, and my mistress knows Werther and Lotte

Not a whit better than who might be this man in her bed:

That he’s a foreigner, footloose and lusty, is all she could tell you,

Who beyond mountains and snow, dwelt in a house made of wood.

From Section I of Goethe’s Erotica Romana.