“I do not like books” (Samuel Butler)

I do not like books.  I believe I have the smallest library of any literary man in London, and I have no wish to increase it.  I keep my books at the British Museum and at Mudie’s, and it makes me very angry if anyone gives me one for my private library.  I once heard two ladies disputing in a railway carriage as to whether one of them had or had not been wasting money.  “I spent it in books,” said the accused, “and it’s not wasting money to buy books.”  “Indeed, my dear, I think it is,” was the rejoinder, and in practice I agree with it.  Webster’s Dictionary, Whitaker’s Almanack, and Bradshaw’s Railway Guide should be sufficient for any ordinary library; it will be time enough to go beyond these when the mass of useful and entertaining matter which they provide has been mastered.  Nevertheless, I admit that sometimes, if not particularly busy, I stop at a second-hand bookstall and turn over a book or two from mere force of habit.

I know not what made me pick up a copy of Æschylus—of course in an English version—or rather I know not what made Æschylus take up with me, for he took me rather than I him; but no sooner had he got me than he began puzzling me, as he has done any time this forty years, to know wherein his transcendent merit can be supposed to lie.  To me he is, like the greater number of classics in all ages and countries, a literary Struldbrug, rather than a true ambrosia-fed immortal.  There are true immortals, but they are few and far between; most classics are as great impostors dead as they were when living, and while posing as gods are, five-sevenths of them, only Struldbrugs.  It comforts me to remember that Aristophanes liked Æschylus no better than I do.  True, he praises him by comparison with Sophocles and Euripides, but he only does so that he may run down these last more effectively.  Aristophanes is a safe man to follow, nor do I see why it should not be as correct to laugh with him as to pull a long face with the Greek Professors; but this is neither here nor there, for no one really cares about Æschylus; the more interesting question is how he contrived to make so many people for so many years pretend to care about him.

Perhaps he married somebody’s daughter.  If a man would get hold of the public ear, he must pay, marry, or fight.  I have never understood that Æschylus was a man of means, and the fighters do not write poetry, so I suppose he must have married a theatrical manager’s daughter, and got his plays brought out that way.  The ear of any age or country is like its land, air, and water; it seems limitless but is really limited, and is already in the keeping of those who naturally enough will have no squatting on such valuable property.  It is written and talked up to as closely as the means of subsistence are bred up to by a teeming population.  There is not a square inch of it but is in private hands, and he who would freehold any part of it must do so by purchase, marriage, or fighting, in the usual way—and fighting gives the longest, safest tenure.  The public itself has hardly more voice in the question who shall have its ear, than the land has in choosing its owners.  It is farmed as those who own it think most profitable to themselves, and small blame to them; nevertheless, it has a residuum of mulishness which the land has not, and does sometimes dispossess its tenants.  It is in this residuum that those who fight place their hope and trust.

Or perhaps Æschylus squared the leading critics of his time.  When one comes to think of it, he must have done so, for how is it conceivable that such plays should have had such runs if he had not?  I met a lady one year in Switzerland who had some parrots that always travelled with her and were the idols of her life.  These parrots would not let anyone read aloud in their presence, unless they heard their own names introduced from time to time.  If these were freely interpolated into the text they would remain as still as stones, for they thought the reading was about themselves.  If it was not about them it could not be allowed.  The leaders of literature are like these parrots; they do not look at what a man writes, nor if they did would they understand it much better than the parrots do; but they like the sound of their own names, and if these are freely interpolated in a tone they take as friendly, they may even give ear to an outsider.  Otherwise they will scream him off if they can.

From Samuel Butler’s “Ramblings in Cheapside.”

“Vague longing and boredom are close akin” (Schopenhauer)

* * * * *

Goethe says somewhere that man is not without a vein of veneration. To satisfy this impulse to venerate, even in those who have no sense for what is really worthy, substitutes are provided in the shape of princes and princely families, nobles, titles, orders, and money-bags.

* * * * *

Vague longing and boredom are close akin.

* * * * *

When a man is dead, we envy him no more; and we only half envy him when he is old.

* * * * *

Misanthropy and love of solitude are convertible ideas.

* * * * *

In chess, the object of the game, namely, to checkmate one’s opponent, is of arbitrary adoption; of the possible means of attaining it, there is a great number; and according as we make a prudent use of them, we arrive at our goal. We enter on the game of our own choice.

Nor is it otherwise with human life, only that here the entrance is not of our choosing, but is forced on us; and the object, which is to live and exist, seems, indeed, at times as though it were of arbitrary adoption, and that we could, if necessary, relinquish it. Nevertheless it is, in the strict sense of the word, a natural object; that is to say, we cannot relinquish it without giving up existence itself. If we regard our existence as the work of some arbitrary power outside us, we must, indeed, admire the cunning by which that creative mind has succeeded in making us place so much value on an object which is only momentary and must of necessity be laid aside very soon, and which we see, moreover, on reflection, to be altogether vanity—in making, I say, this object so dear to us that we eagerly exert all our strength in working at it; although we knew that as soon as the game is over, the object will exist for us no longer, and that, on the whole, we cannot say what it is that makes it so attractive. Nay, it seems to be an object as arbitrarily adopted as that of checkmating our opponent’s king; and, nevertheless, we are always intent on the means of attaining it, and think and brood over nothing else. It is clear that the reason of it is that our intellect is only capable of looking outside, and has no power at all of looking within; and, since this is so, we have come to the conclusion that we must make the best of it.

Notes from “Psychological Observations.”

Anecdote on W.H. Auden’s Hygiene, Via David Markson


“Suicide and wife arrive in Cuba” and Other Wise Cracks from F. Scott Fitzgerald

From the “Epigrams, Wise Cracks and Jokes” section ofd  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Noteboooks:

Suicide and wife arrive in Cuba.

Let’s all live together.

Debut—the first time a young girl is seen drunk in public.

He repeated to himself an old French proverb he had made up that morning.

A sleeping porch is a back room with no pictures on the walls. It should contain at least one window.

Kill the scrub sire is our slogan.

Why can’t you be square? Well, when I was young I used to play with old automobile tires.

Forgotten is forgiven.

If all your clothes are worn to the same state it means you go out too much.

American actresses now use European convents as a sort of female Muldoon’s.

You must stoop a little in order to jump.

For a car—Excuse my lust.

Andre Gide lifted himself by his own jockstrap so to speak—and one would like to see him hoisted on his own pedarasty.

Creditors’ jokes


“Words” — A Page from James Joyce’s Notebooks

This page is from the same notebook where Joyce headed a page he titled “Rhetoric”; the notes in the books seem to suggest the notebook is part of the preparatory material for Ulysses. From the National Library of Ireland, which probably doesn’t want me posting their material like this.

Typed Notes for Train Dreams — Denis Johnson


“Rhetoric” — A Page from James Joyce’s Notebooks

This page is from a notebook that contains some of Joyce’s preparatory notes for Ulysses—there are notes for characters (“Stephen,” “Simon,” “Leopold,” etc.) as well as lists (“Books,” “Recipes”) and general ideas (“Theosophy”). This particular page, “Rhetoric,” seems to be part of the material that went into the “Aeolus” chapter of Ulysses, which plays with the windiness of rhetorical figures. From the National Library of Ireland, via UbuWeb.

Denis Johnson’s Notes for The Name of the World, as Recorded on a Paper Plate

Reborn — Susan Sontag


New in trade paperback next week from Picador, Reborn collects the early private writings of Susan Sontag, beginning in 1947 when she was just fourteen. The book begins with the following salvo from 1947: “I believe: (a) That there is no personal god or life after death.” If the phrase seems awfully definitive for such a young person to write, its terse tone is repeatedly undercut in other places in Sontag’s early journals, like when she asks “What does the expression ‘in his cups’ mean?” (he’s drunk, sweetheart). There’s also something almost cute about her entry from 12/19/48: “There are so many books and plays and stories I have to read–Here are just a few.” I feel the same way myself. She goes on to list over 20 authors and titles, including Faulkner’s Sanctuary and Dostoyevsky’s Diary of a Writer. Sontag’s immediate, visceral, and sometimes raw reactions to whatever she’s reading, hearing, and watching, make up a good bulk of Reborn, and there’s something fun, if inessential, to know that she read Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza and James’s Portrait of a Lady in January of 1950.

Don’t expect, of course, to get a definitive sense of who Sontag was, let alone a narrative account of her life here. Subtitled Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, Reborn veers closer to the “notebook” side of things. The book certainly doesn’t feel like its 320 pages, mostly because it’s comprised of lists, notes, half-poems, and half-ideas–with the occasional major insight or life-changing moment thrown in in an almost alarmingly casual tone. Check the following consecutive entries:


Excellently staged performance of Don Giovanni last night (City Center). Today, a wonderful opportunity was offered me–to do some research work for a soc[iology] instructor named Philip Rieff, who is working on, among other things, a reader in the sociology of politics + religion. At last the chance to really involve myself in one area with competent guidance.


Last night, or was it early this (Sat.) morning?–I am engaged to Philip Rieff.

If there’s more to this episode in Sontag’s journal, her son David Rieff, the book’s editor, has chosen to elide it (although he has included that, as early as 12/19/56, if his mother is to be believed, he knew “the difference between a sarcophagus and an esophagus”). In an introduction loaded with much hemming and hawing, Rieff acknowledges the rawness of his mother’s private diaries, noting that they were written only for Sontag herself, who had no intention of publishing them. (Rieff’s decision to publish them is an issue of control: Sontag had sold her all of her writing and papers to UCLA and Rieff felt that assuming an editorial role might protect his mother to some extent). And, as one would expect of the notes of a young college student, nothing here is even remotely polished: like the adolescent who so easily denies an afterlife, many of Sontag’s notes and thoughts come across as callow, or at least not on par with the intellectual who gave us On Photography and Notes on ‘Camp.'” A note from 1/2/58 comes across as painfully emo: “How to make my sadness more than a lament for feeling? How to feel? How to burn? How to make anguish metaphysical?” Not that these are unserious questions, but methinks someone’s been hitting the Kierkegaard a bit too hard. When Sontag the diarist steps in–that is to say, the diarist who reflects honestly, as opposed to the academic pulling philosophical poses–we get brusque honesty full of pathos. In a note from 1960, after briefly discussing how her mother’s conflict-aversion led to “the idea that honesty equaled cruelty,” Sontag drops this shocker: “No matter what I have said, my life, my actions say that I have not loved the truth, that I have not wanted the truth.” While I don’t particularly demand self-reflection, this kind of honesty is both rare and affecting coming from an academic.

But why should we expect Sontag’s private journals to be more than they are? It’s more fun to read Reborn elliptically, picking it up and putting it down, browsing through Sontag’s lists of movies, quotes from Rilke and Blake, and various thought-experiments. From 11/4/57:

“Try whiskey. To find a voice. To speak.

Instead of talking.

[ . . . ]

Are the Jews played out? I am proud of being Jewish. Of what?

[ . . . ]

Orc–imaginary mailed beast, dragon, ogre, named after a sea-monster killed by Orlando, in Ariosto’s Orlando Furious

Whiskey, Jews, Orcs–great stuff.

We’ll conclude with one of our favorite moments in the book, which is simply a list of words. In one of the few contextual notes Rieff concedes, he notes that all her life, “SS made lists of words into which she occasionally inserted a person’s name or a brief observation.” The list is from the fall of 1949:






so alluring, so cerebral



corrupt dignity


Continue reading “Reborn — Susan Sontag”

Know He Is Made

Found this on the ground today:



“Dearest Friend,

Have you heard the gossip? Apparently, this past Friday, a certain young lady engaged in, as the French say (forgive me for being indelicate here) a ménage à trois. My ex-boyfriend was one of the participants, and, after the escapade, she reported that his sexual appendage was, well, smaller than average (he had a very small dick). Well, of course such spiteful calumny greatly agitated the young man, and, as for me, well, I must admit some measure of apathy (and perhaps distaste) for the whole matter. The young lady involved in the threesome had a boyfriend, and this young man has now turned his romantic–perhaps amorous–attentions in my direction; however, I declined his advances.”